It is Wednesday and we’re reading the narratives of Paul’s imprisonments and his eventual journey to Rome. The Scripture reading for today is Acts 25:1-22. Read the passage first and we’ll look at the passage together after.
We ended chapter 24 with Luke’s comment: “When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.” Felix’s decision to try to please the Jewish leaders was a political one. According to the first-century historian, Josephus, Felix was being recalled to Rome to answer for a botched decision of a dispute that led to a savage suppression in Caesarea. Rome did not tolerate bad Governors or Procurators. The peace of Rome, Pax Romana, depended on capable diplomats to keep the peace in local areas. Perhaps to smooth the way before Rome, Felix, who had visited with Paul several times over several months of time, decided to seek the favor of the Jewish leaders - i.e. gain a good word from them - and keep Paul imprisoned. We do not know all that Paul did during these two years, but it’s generally assumed that Luke gained much of his accounts of Paul’s journeys during the preceding years and may have begun the writing of this book we are studying.
We don’t know a lot about his successor, Porcious Festus, who only lived two more years, except that he also decided - probably from handed down advice - that he needed the Jewish leaders on his side. Thus shortly after arriving in Caesarea, he made the 65-mile journey to Jerusalem to become acquainted with the Jewish leaders. In terms of politics, nothing has really changed over the centuries as politicians seek the favor of the powerful, but also work behind the scenes to advance their own agendas. The Jewish leaders' disdain for Paul had not diminished and they quickly brought his name back up to Festus. They had one desire - to have Paul face trial in Jerusalem. Whether Festus knew it or not, Luke understood that their purpose was to again plot to kill Paul while he traveled there. Festus refused but offered them the opportunity to once again bring their accusations against Paul before him in Caesarea.
When Festus returned to Caesarea, Paul discovered that the Jewish leaders had sent a contingent of newly appointed leaders to once again make a case against him. Luke does not record what they charged him with, but we can assume they came up with no new charges but stuck with the old ones of sedition and desecration of the Temple (24:5-6). Luke says “they brought many serious charges, but they could not prove them.” Was Paul exasperated by it all? At least 2+ years have passed. It is now 59-60 a.d. and even though Jesus had stood before him to encourage him, he was now, once again, needing to defend himself against false charges. Paul’s defense was simple and straightforward - “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense” (vs8). Adding the words “against Caesar” probably meant that they now were proclaiming that Paul’s sedition was to cause uprisings in Roman territories in order to overthrow Caesar. Palestine had a history of Zealot groups that sought to overthrow Rome, and the Romans had little appetite for another insurrectionist.
It was a serious charge and one that would have created a great deal of angst in Paul. He knew it was a lie, and when Festus offered him the opportunity to stand in Jerusalem to answer for the charges, Paul stood his ground. He was a Roman citizen and knew Roman law. Six hundred years before Rome had established the principle that if a citizen were charged with an offense that would lead to death, he had the right as a citizen to appeal to the Roman leaders to defend himself against the charges. Paul said to Festus, “If I’m guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges by these Jews is not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” (Vs 11).
Festus needed help in determining what to do. He discussed it with his council of officials steeped in Roman law, his legal experts, and announced to Paul and the Jewish leaders - Paul would be going to Rome to stand before Caesar - “to Caesar you will go!” (Vs 12). The Jewish leaders were - in all likelihood - devastated. They had lost their last chance to get Paul on their own turf, yet Paul had prevailed. I’m not sure how Paul felt at that moment. Relieved that he would not go back to Jerusalem, wherein all likelihood an attempt to kill him would occur? Aware that Jesus had stood before him two years previously and told him he would be going to Rome? Paul had certainly the desire to visit Rome, but as a disciple of Jesus proclaiming the Gospel, not as a prisoner of Rome. Did he feel relieved, or aware that this was just another step in the fulfillment of the journey Jesus had him on - a journey he would not know how it would end?
For the Governor, Festus, the appeal took a difficult case out of his hands. He didn’t have to keep listening to Jewish appeals to turn Paul over to them for trial, and he didn’t have to be concerned about the rights of a Roman citizen. I should make a note here: the Caesar at this time was Nero. Nero had come to the throne in 54 a.d. after his Uncle, Claudius died. His mother had married Claudius and she became the power behind Nero’s early years. He was only 16 years old when he took the title of Caesar. He ruled until 68 a.d. and his rule was marked by two different periods. The early period was of a leader who sought to expand Rome’s influence through culture. He was tutored by the famous Roman philosopher, Seneca, and Nero learned from him to be a wise, cultured leader. He built buildings, expanded the arts, but with the subsequent effect of high taxes - something that created opposition to him. Several attempts were made on his life, and for some unknown reason (he suspected a plot) he executed his mother in 59 a.d., the time period in which Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea. After this, Nero became more and more fearful and power-hungry. He executed - at a whim - anyone he perceived to be an enemy. His notoriety increased and he was described as the “Mad-Caesar” in his later years - a testimony that his paranoia turned into insanity. When Paul appealed to go to Caesar, he was still known as a progressive, young, cultured leader.
Luke records the visit of Agrippa and his sister, Bernice, to Festus in Caesarea as the basis for the final trial of Paul in his home country. Agrippa was the great-grandson of Herod the Great - the one who killed all the babies in Bethlehem, and the son of Herod Agrippa who had killed the Apostle James (12:1). The Romans had given him rule over the northern territories of Galilee - keeping the southern territories surrounding Jerusalem in their control. Then Rome extended Agrippa’s rule to include the Temple - presumably because as one who had a Jewish background, he could more fully represent both Rome and the Jewish leaders. His sister, Bernice was reputed to be in an incestuous relationship with him. They traveled to Caesarea to pay their respects to the newly established governor and while visiting, Festus uses their expertise in Jewish culture and religion to get help for what to write Rome concerning Paul and the charges against him. Agrippa asks to hear Paul for himself...and we will...tomorrow.
Chuck Swindoll wrote: “Uncertainty has a way of wearing down even the strongest personalities. Paul had endured more than two years of ambiguity. Humanly speaking, his future lay in the hands of people who played by no set of rules except their own, who viewed him as no more valuable than a pawn to push around in the interests of self. With the trial in Caesarea over, Paul waited to be transferred to Rome, just as Jesus had promised (23:11).”
That’s a fit description of where Paul is at. He is in a state of uncertainty - humanly speaking. He sits in prison with one known thing - Jesus promised he would stand before Caesar. This series of events - we would probably describe - was a mess. Ananias and the other Jewish authorities were blinded by their desire to kill Paul. Felix was a procrastinator, looking for a bride, a leader without morals or conscience. Festus was expedient, a man who disliked uncomfortability and one who had no moral compass, just his own agenda to create alliances and get rid of problems.
Paul had to decide how to look each day at what was going on. He chose to keep his eyes, his thoughts in his mind, and his spirit clearly focused on Jesus. It was Jesus he was serving, and it was Jesus who he believed had everything under his control. Paul did not believe in circumstances, nor chance or fate. He believed in a Sovereign God who “works all things together for his good.”