1 After five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and an attorney named Tertullus, and they brought formal charges against Paul to the governor. 2 When Paul had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying,
“We have experienced a lengthy time of peace through your rule, and reforms are being made in this nation through your foresight. 3 Most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this everywhere and in every way with all gratitude. 4 But so that I may not delay you any further, I beg you to hear us briefly with your customary graciousness. 5 For we have found this man to be a troublemaker, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 He even tried to desecrate the temple, so we arrested him. 8 When you examine him yourself, you will be able to learn from him about all these things we are accusing him of doing.”
9 The Jews also joined in the verbal attack, claiming that these things were true.
10 When the governor gestured for him to speak, Paul replied,
“Because I know that you have been a judge over this nation for many years, I confidently make my defense. 11 As you can verify for yourself, not more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 12 They did not find me arguing with anyone or stirring up a crowd in the temple courts or in the synagogues or throughout the city, 13 nor can they prove to you the things they are accusing me of doing. 14 But I confess this to you, that I worship the God of our ancestors according to the Way (which they call a sect), believing everything that is according to the law and that is written in the prophets. 15 I have a hope in God (a hope that these men themselves accept too) that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. 16 This is the reason I do my best to always have a clear conscience toward God and toward people. 17 After several years I came to bring to my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings, 18 which I was doing when they found me in the temple, ritually purified, without a crowd or a disturbance. 19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia who should be here before you and bring charges, if they have anything against me. 20 Or these men here should tell what crime they found me guilty of when I stood before the council, 21 other than this one thing I shouted out while I stood before them: ‘I am on trial before you today concerning the resurrection of the dead.’”
22 Then Felix, who understood the facts concerning the Way more accurately, adjourned their hearing, saying, “When Lysias the commanding officer comes down, I will decide your case.” 23 He ordered the centurion to guard Paul, but to let him have some freedom, and not to prevent any of his friends from meeting his needs.
24 Some days later, when Felix arrived with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 While Paul was discussing righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for now, and when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.” 26 At the same time he was also hoping that Paul would give him money, and for this reason he sent for Paul as often as possible and talked with him. 27 After two years had passed, Porcius Festus succeeded Felix, and because he wanted to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.1
Once Paul set his heart to go to Jerusalem, there was to be no turning back, even when his best friends urged him to do so. The Spirit had frequently revealed to Paul and others that affliction and confinement awaited him there, but Paul would not be turned back from what he believed to be his calling (Acts 20:22-24; 21:4, 8-14). After meeting with James and the elders of the church in Jerusalem, Paul acted on their advice, taking four Jewish men with him to undergo the rites of purification in the temple (Acts 21:20-26).
Amazing as it seems to the reader, some of the Hellenistic Jews leaped to the false conclusion that these four men were Gentiles and that Paul had thereby defiled the temple by bringing these men with him. This resulted in a riot, one in which Paul was nearly torn limb-from-limb. The Jews would have succeeded in killing Paul had Claudius Lysias (the Roman commander in Jerusalem) not taken custody of Paul and brought the crowd under control (Acts 21:27-32). Gaining permission to speak to this angry throng, Paul shared his testimony, speaking to them in Aramaic rather than in Greek (Acts 21:37—22:21). The crowd was amazingly silent and attentive until Paul shared the substance of a vision he had received years earlier in Jerusalem. The essence of his vision was that he was to quickly leave Jerusalem because the Jews would not receive the gospel, but instead they would seek to kill him. Because of this Jewish unbelief, he was instructed to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:17-21).
When Paul reported the message he received in this vision, the crowd went wild, and the commander was forced to suppress a second riot, saving Paul’s life a second time. Claudius Lysias, the commander, was now frustrated to the point where he was preparing to “examine” (aka, “torture”) Paul to find out what he had done to create such a violent uproar. When Paul claimed his rights as a Roman citizen, this ended any thought of this form of interrogation (Acts 22:23-29). The commander then summoned the Sanhedrin to assemble, so that they could formally press charges against Paul (Acts 22:30). This way the commander would finally know what offenses Paul had committed, at least in the minds of his Jewish adversaries.
This hearing likewise ended in a riot. Paul got off to a bad start by claiming that he had lived his life “with a clear conscience before God to that [very] day” (Acts 23:1). Ananias, the high priest, was so incensed by this statement that he ordered those standing nearby to strike him on the mouth. That led to what appears to be an angry retort from Paul:
“God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit there judging me according to the law, and in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3)
When it was called to his attention that Ananias was the high priest, Paul quickly acknowledged his wrongdoing. At the moment he spoke those inflammatory words, he had been unaware that Ananias was the high priest; to speak against a ruler of the people was sin. Knowing full well that now there was no chance of getting a fair and impartial hearing, Paul shouted out that he was a Pharisee, and that he believed in the resurrection of the dead. This split the Sanhedrin into two fighting factions: (1) the Pharisees, who sided with Paul and declared him to be innocent; and, (2) the Sadducees, who condemned him as guilty and wanted to kill him.
After breaking up this smaller-scale riot, Claudius Lysias took Paul back into custody. The following night Paul had a most encouraging visit:
The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Have courage, for just as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).
Who would have ever imagined that God would make arrangements for Paul’s journey to Rome as He did? While Paul was in custody, a band of more than 40 assassins vowed not to eat or drink until they had killed him. They knew just how they intended to do this, but it required the full knowledge and cooperation of the Sanhedrin. The members of the Sanhedrin were instructed to ask the commander to return Paul to the Council, so that they could obtain further testimony from him. On his way from his confinement to the Council, these assassins would see to it that Paul would be killed. The plot is providentially overheard by Paul’s nephew, who first reports it to Paul, and then to the Roman commander. The commander assembles a large force to escort Paul safely out of Jerusalem, and then on to Caesarea, where he will stand trial before Felix, the governor of Judea.3 This is where we take up the story in chapter 24.
As I have studied our text in Acts 24, I could not help but compare it to the (mis)trial of Paul before the Sanhedrin in chapter 23. I was reminded of the two battles that took place between the northern kingdom of Israel (led by King Ahab) and Syria (whose king was Ben Hadad), as recorded in 1 Kings 20. This is a most fascinating account, and I would encourage you to read it for yourself. But for now let me give you the short version. Ben Hadad and his allies waged war on Israel. Their combined army greatly outnumbered Israel’s warriors, but God promised to give Israel the victory – and He did! Many of Ben Hadad’s forces were killed, but he and some of his men escaped. The prophet of God warned Ahab that Ben Hadad would return the following year and instructed him to prepare for another attack.
Ben Hadad wanted to stage a rematch in order to prove to himself and to others that he should have won the first battle. Only two changes were made in his strategy. This time the battle would be fought on the plains, rather than in the mountains. The other change was to replace the kings who led their armies into battle in the first conflict with professional military commanders. These two things, they assumed, would give them the advantage, and thus assure them of victory. Needless to say, they lost again, thanks to divine intervention.
The Sanhedrin suffered a disastrous defeat when (on orders from the Roman commander) they had attempted to pass judgment on Paul. After offending the high priest, Paul realized that he had no chance of getting a fair and impartial trial before this group. He shouted out that he was a Pharisee, and that he believed in the resurrection of the dead. This statement split the Sanhedrin into two factions, who fought among themselves and nearly tore Paul to pieces. The commander had to intervene with force, again.
Like the battle that Ben-Hadad restaged between his armies and the forces of Israel, there was a “change of venue.” The second battle between Ahab and Ben Hadad was fought on the plains. The retrial of Paul was not in Jerusalem, but in Caesarea. And it was not before the Sanhedrin, a religious body; it was before Felix, the Roman governor over Judea. (This was not because the Jews desired these changes, but because the Roman commander had taken matters out of their hands.)
In the first battle between Syria and Israel, it was the 32 kings who led their armies in battle. In the second battle, the armies were led by “professional” soldiers. In the first trial before the Sanhedrin, it was hard to tell who was in charge. This may be why Paul did not recognize Ananias as the high priest. When the Jewish leaders were summoned to Caesarea, they came with a professional lawyer to prosecute Paul. They did not intend to make the same mistakes twice.
And so it is that we come to our text, ready to observe Paul on trial again, in a different court, and with somewhat different players. How will the Jews prosecute Paul? And how will Paul do this time? Will he make his case? In order to better grasp the drama of this event, try not to think ahead of the story, but to think of this trial as a rematch, and we shall then consider the outcome and the lessons God has for us in this text.
1 After five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and an attorney named Tertullus,4 and they brought formal charges against Paul to the governor. 2 When Paul had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying,
“We have experienced a lengthy time of peace through your rule, and reforms are being made in this nation through your foresight. 3 Most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this everywhere and in every way with all gratitude. 4 But so that I may not delay you any further, I beg you to hear us briefly with your customary graciousness. 5 For we have found this man to be a troublemaker, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 He even tried to desecrate the temple, so we arrested him.5 8 When you examine him yourself, you will be able to learn from him about all these things we are accusing him of doing.”
9 The Jews also joined in the verbal attack, claiming that these things were true (Acts 24:1-9).
Ananias (the high priest), along with some of the Jewish elders,6 arrived in Caesarea to make their case before Felix, the governor of Judea. These Jewish leaders were determined not to look bad when they presented their case against Paul. This time they were represented by a high-powered lawyer named Tertullus. They were confident that he would present their case in the best possible light. We know very little about this man, but he must have been familiar with the procedures required when prosecuting a case before a Roman governor. Likewise, Tertullus would have to be familiar with Judaism, in order to represent their point of view. His task was a daunting one. Think of the challenges that faced him.
Tertullus was hired to prosecute Paul on the basis of false charges. Paul had not taken Gentiles into the temple. He was there with four Jewish men. Paul had not incited a riot in Jerusalem; his Jewish adversaries had done this. Furthermore, the “witnesses” who bore false testimony against Paul were absent. How do you conduct a trial without witnesses? To make matters even worse for Tertullus, Paul’s previous trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem had ended in a kind of mistrial (or the equivalent of a hung jury), with the Pharisees declaring Paul innocent of all charges.
You have to give him credit; Tertullus did as well as anyone could, given all these limitations. He attempted to win the favor of Felix by his introduction, in which he complimented him on his leadership. He credited Felix for a lengthy period of peace and for reforms he initiated. Both Felix and all those present should have known that Tertullus’ praise was empty. When I read of Felix, I am reminded of this proverb:
21 Under three things the earth trembles,
and under four things it cannot bear up:
22 under a servant who becomes king,
under a fool who is stuffed with food,
23 under an unloved woman who is married,
and under a female servant who dispossesses her mistress (Proverbs 30:21-23, emphasis mine).
Felix was a slave who had become a king, and he illustrated the truth of this proverb as well as any slave-king could do. F. F. Bruce paints a very different picture of Felix than what we would conclude from the words of Tertullus:
“Marcus Antonius Felix (as his full name is usually taken to have been) was a man of servile birth, who owed his unprecedented advancement to a post of honor usually reserved for the equestrian order to the influence which his brother Pallas exercised at the imperial court under Claudius. Pallas was a freedman of Claudius’s mother Antonia, and was for a number of years head of the imperial civil service. Felix succeeded Ventidius Cumanus as procurator of Judaea in A.D. 52, but before that he may have occupied a subordinate post in Samaria under Cumanus. His term of office as procurator was marked by increasing insurgency throughout the province, and by the emergence of the sicarii. The ruthlessness with which he put down these risings alienated many of the more moderate Jews, and led to further risings. Tacitus sums up his character and career in one of his biting epigrams: “he exercised the power of a king with the mind of a slave.” Despite his lowly origins, he was remarkably successful in marriage (from a social point of view, that is); his three successive wives were all of royal birth, according to Suetonius. The first of the three was a grand-daughter of Antony and Cleopatra; the third was Drusilla, youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa I, who figures in the following narrative.”7
It was indeed a real challenge for Tertullus to find a way to praise this man, so generally hated by the Jews for his cruel use of power. But then he was a professional, and he was very good at what he did. He was worth everything the Jewish leaders paid him.
Finished with his flattery, Tertullus moves on with his prosecution of the case against Paul. He attempts a three-fold indictment of Paul.
First, he charges that Paul is a troublemaker,8 who has a history of stirring up riots among the Jews wherever he traveled. Tertullus has just praised Felix for a lengthy period of peace in Judea during his rule (verse 2). If he accepted praise as a peacekeeper, then surely Felix would want to deal decisively and severely (as his habit was) with Paul, who was “a real troublemaker.” Note, however, that there is absolutely no evidence offered, no testimony given, which would validate this charge against Paul. There were riots in Jerusalem because of Paul, but it was the Jews who instigated these.
Second, Tertullus alleged that Paul was a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. Tertullus claimed that Paul was the leader of a cult, not a member of mainstream Judaism. If this were the case, Paul would not enjoy the protection the Roman government provided for the Jews. These Jewish leaders were seeking to divorce Paul from Judaism and distance him from their Jewish religion. Felix would almost certainly have understood that these Jews identified Paul with Jesus,9 a Jew who had been executed for crimes against Rome (or so they hoped he would recall it).
Third, Tertullus accused Paul of desecrating the temple. This is a particularly interesting charge. Similar to the way the Jewish religious leaders prosecuted their case against Jesus, these Jewish leaders are making a two-pronged attack against Paul. In truth, they would prefer to prosecute this case themselves, to find Paul guilty of crimes against Judaism, and then execute him (similar to the way the Sanhedrin had dealt with Stephen). Defiling the temple would be viewed as a Jewish crime, punishable by Jewish law. If they could win on this point, they could try Paul under Jewish law, or so they hoped. But, if they could not make their case on this point, they have already charged Paul with two crimes against Rome. At least they could let Rome execute Paul, as Rome had conducted the execution of Jesus.
Fourth, in some manuscripts there is an additional charge made against Claudius Lysias, the Roman commander, accusing him of wrongfully and violently interfering with Jewish justice:
“. . . and we wanted to judge him according to our law. 7 But Lysias the commanding officer came and took him out of our hands with a great deal of violence, 8 ordering those who accused him to come before you” (Acts 24:6b-8a).10
This would add further emphasis to the charge that Paul defiled the temple. If this was a Jewish matter, one that Rome normally allowed the Jewish authorities to handle, then Claudius Lysias erred seriously by interfering, if indeed he had done so as they claimed. The inference was that Felix should turn the matter back over to the Jews, and let them deal with it. The fact that Felix refused to pronounce any verdict until Claudius Lysias appeared (verse 22) would seem to add weight to the claim that these words were a part of the original text (and thus the commander was accused of wrongdoing).
Fifth, Tertullus invited Felix to question Paul himself, confident that he would indict himself by his own testimony.11 There was more than one way that this might happen. Paul might offend Felix, as he had the high priest. Or, in his uncompromising declaration of the gospel in which he dogmatically proclaimed his testimony and preached Christ, he might provoke Felix to find him guilty.
In addition to the skillful wordsmithing of Tertullus, there was the Jewish “amen corner.” Luke tells us that as Tertullus was pressing his prosecution of Paul, the Jews joined in the verbal attack, affirming that these charges were true (Acts 24:9).
10 When the governor gestured for him to speak, Paul replied,
“Because I know that you have been a judge over this nation for many years, I confidently make my defense. 11 As you can verify for yourself, not more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 12 They did not find me arguing with anyone or stirring up a crowd in the temple courts or in the synagogues or throughout the city, 13 nor can they prove to you the things they are accusing me of doing. 14 But I confess this to you, that I worship the God of our ancestors according to the Way (which they call a sect), believing everything that is according to the law and that is written in the prophets. 15 I have a hope in God (a hope that these men themselves accept too) that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. 16 This is the reason I do my best to always have a clear conscience toward God and toward people. 17 After several years I came to bring to my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings, 18 which I was doing when they found me in the temple, ritually purified, without a crowd or a disturbance. 19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia who should be here before you and bring charges, if they have anything against me. 20 Or these men here should tell what crime they found me guilty of when I stood before the council, 21 other than this one thing I shouted out while I stood before them: ‘I am on trial before you today concerning the resurrection of the dead’” (Acts 24:10-21).
Paul could appreciate the skill with which Tertullus had presented the prosecution’s case. It certainly sounded more convincing than what was presented to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Given the way Paul’s case fell apart because of his words to the high priest, I’m certain that Paul weighed his words carefully. His answer is a masterpiece. He outdoes Tertullus in the elegance of his defense, only Paul is speaking the truth.
Paul does not seek to flatter Felix with deceptive words about the glories of his leadership. He does express thankfulness that Felix is not a novice, but a man of considerable experience in dealing with the Jews (Acts 24:10) and Christians (Acts 24:22). Paul expressed confidence that the things he had to say in his defense would resonate with all that Felix had learned about the Jews during his years as governor (and, during his years of marriage to a Jewess – Acts 24:24). There is no attempt to flatter here, but only an expression of gratitude. Paul is grateful that he can present his case to a man who is knowledgeable in these matters.
In verses 11-13, Paul gives a summary of his defense. It was only 12 days ago that he had gone up to Jerusalem to worship. That was hardly enough time to create the kind of disturbance that his accuser has just described. Paul’s words here remind me of Peter’s words in Acts 2, when some explained the tongues phenomena as the result of drunkenness:
In spite of what you think, these men are not drunk, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning (Acts 2:15).
There simply wasn’t enough time for Paul to do those things for which he was indicted.
Beyond this, Paul had come to Jerusalem to worship, not to cause trouble. He was not arguing or debating with others in the normal places for such activities. Let those who were accusing him prove otherwise. (This would be hard to do, since his accusers had not witnessed Paul committing the alleged crimes in the temple. And those who had falsely accused him were not present.)
In verses 14-16, Paul answers the charge that he was a cult leader, someone outside the boundaries of Jewish orthodoxy. If it could be shown that Paul was not really a Jew, but some kind of cult leader, his religious freedoms would be revoked, and he would no longer be able to preach the gospel under the protection of Rome. You will recall that a similar charge was leveled at Paul in Corinth, but Gallio threw it out of court (Acts 18:12-17). Gallio recognized that there were strong factions within Judaism.12 Now the same charge is raised again, and Paul will skillfully refute it.
Tertullus accused Paul of being a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. Paul does not deny that he is a follower of “the Way” and that it is regarded by some as a sect. But he refuses to grant that “the Way” is a departure from true Judaism. He worships “the God of our ancestors” (Acts 24:14). He believes everything written in the law and in the prophets (Acts 24:14). His faith does not deny or denounce the Old Testament Scriptures; instead, his faith is the fulfillment of these Scriptures.
The distance between Paul and his Jewish opponents is not as great as they would represent it. He has a hope in God, as do they. It is a hope that is based upon the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, both the righteous and the unrighteous (Acts 24:15). It is on the basis of his resurrection faith that Paul seeks to live in such a way as to maintain a clear conscience toward God and toward His people (Acts 24:16).
It would seem as though Paul’s adversaries hoped that he would lose his temper and say something really incriminating, but he did not. Now, as I read Paul’s words concerning the resurrection of the dead, it appears as though Paul is tempting his Jewish adversaries to “blow up” as they had done when he had identified himself as a Pharisee before the Sanhedrin.
Are any of you old enough to remember that song, “Give me that old time religion. . .”? Well, Paul is saying,
“My religion is that ‘old time religion.’ ‘The Way’ is not a sect, a departure from that which is true. Faith in Jesus as the Messiah is the fulfillment of Israel’s ‘old time religion.’ I believe what these fellows say they believe, which includes the resurrection of the dead.”
This is the point at which the Pharisees and Sadducees erupted when Paul stood before the Sanhedrin. It must have taken everything they had for these Jewish leaders to keep silent. These men could hardly be Pharisees, because the Pharisees proclaimed Paul’s innocence at his appearance before the Sanhedrin. These Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection at all, but they dare not lose their tempers here. Paul has therefore linked his faith (“the Way”) with true Jewish orthodoxy, and true orthodoxy with a belief in the resurrection. He even explains that his orthodox belief in the Messiah of the Old Testament is the basis for him striving to live his life with a clean conscience. How, then, can these Jews accuse him of being the leader of some new and heretical sect?
I can just see the Jews glaring at Paul and staring at Tertullus, imploring him to say something that will neutralize Paul’s powerful arguments. But there was nothing to say. This silence spoke volumes and had to register with Felix. It is the same kind of silence we find in Acts 6, where the unbelieving Jews could find no words with which to refute the Spirit-empowered proclamation of Stephen:
9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke (Acts 6:9-10).
It was the kind of silence that made them want to lash out against Paul, but they could not do so in Felix’s court. No flattery or elegant words from Tertullus could refute the truth.
Now, in verses 17-21, Paul concludes his defense. With the backdrop of his introductory words, he tells Felix what really happened at the temple a few days earlier. He came to Jerusalem, not to incite a riot, and not to debate with the religious leaders; he came to worship in the temple and to be ritually purified. Personal purification and worship is a far cry from seeking to cause dissention or to defile the temple. Those who incited the riot were Asian Jews who falsely accused him of wrongdoing. These accusers should be present to make their case before Felix. Their absence (like Paul’s accusers’ silence a few moments earlier) speaks volumes. Those who claimed to see Paul’s “crime” are nowhere to be seen, so let those present put forth a plausible accusation of wrongdoing. The only “crime” to which they could testify is Paul’s outcry that he was a Pharisee, and that his trial before the Sanhedrin was really about his belief in the resurrection of the dead (something he had just claimed – without objection – to be the heart of orthodox Judaism).
What was the source of the anger and animosity toward Paul? It was not some terrible crime, but rather Paul’s belief in the resurrection of the dead. All of this is about theological differences among Jews. That is what caused the riot in the Sanhedrin. It is what caused the riot in the temple. It is what Gallio, the Roman governor of Achaia, had concluded when Paul was tried before him in Corinth:
12 Now while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews attacked Paul together and brought him before the judgment seat, 13 saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God in a way contrary to the law!” 14 But just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of some crime or serious piece of villainy, I would have been justified in accepting the complaint of you Jews, 15 but since it concerns points of disagreement about words and names and your own law, settle it yourselves. I will not be a judge of these things!” (Acts 18:12-15)
22 Then Felix, who understood the facts concerning the Way more accurately, adjourned their hearing, saying, “When Lysias the commanding officer comes down, I will decide your case.” 23 He ordered the centurion to guard Paul, but to let him have some freedom, and not to prevent any of his friends from meeting his needs13 (Acts 24:22-23).
We must take note of Luke’s words in verse 22: “Felix . . . understood the facts concerning the Way more accurately, . . .” Felix was an experienced governor. He not only understood Judaism, he understood Christianity. Even a governor like Gallio could figure out what was going on in his courtroom, and he threw the case (and the prosecutors) out. The problem isn’t that Felix lacks some vital information (in this case, from Claudius Lysias, the commander). The problem isn’t that the issues are so illusive Felix cannot comprehend them. The problem isn’t that the verdict is unclear. He knows that Paul is innocent, and he doesn’t want to anger the Jewish leadership by saying so. As a politician, he knows (so to speak) that favoring Paul will win him few votes at election time,14 but that favoring the Jews will gain him many votes.
Felix sought to avoid the painful consequences of the decision he knew he should make. Instead of doing as Gallio, his predecessor, did, Felix delayed his decision. He claimed to need to investigate this matter more fully and follow up by interrogating Claudius Lysias, the commander. He did not hand Paul over to the Jews for execution. He pacified the Jews by keeping Paul in prison. He thereby protected Paul’s life. And he granted Paul a measure of freedom, granting access to Paul by his friends.
24 Some days later, when Felix arrived with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 While Paul was discussing righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for now, and when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.” 26 At the same time he was also hoping that Paul would give him money, and for this reason he sent for Paul as often as possible and talked with him (Acts 24:24-26).
Both Paul (Acts 24:10) and Luke (Acts 24:22) have already told us that Felix was well informed concerning Judaism and Christianity (“the Way”). One reason for his understanding of Judaism is that his wife, Drusilla, was a Jewess (Acts 24:24). This was a most interesting woman:
“Drusilla was the youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa I, and at this time was not yet twenty years old. As a small girl she had been betrothed to the crown prince of Commangene, in eastern Asia Minor, but the marriage did not take place because the prospective bride-groom refused to become a proselyte to Judaism. Then her brother Agrippa II gave her in marriage to the king of Emesa (modern Homs), a petty state in Syria. But when she was still only sixteen, Felix, with the help (it is said) of a Cypriot magician called Atomos, persuaded her to leave her husband and come to be his wife, promising her (with a play on his name) every ‘felicity’ if she did so. Accordingly, she joined Felix as his third wife, and bore him a son named Agrippa, who met his death in the eruption of Vesuvius in A. D. 79.”15
“She was one of three daughters of Herod Agrippa I (Drusilla, Mariamne, Bernice). Her father murdered James, her great-uncle Herod Antipas slew John the Baptist, her great-grandfather (Herod the Great) killed the babes of Bethlehem.”16
What a legacy this woman had! Felix and Drusilla arrived some time later and called for Paul. Good old Paul, old “one note” Paul. His message was always simple and clear: “Jesus Saves.”
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. 22 For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, 23 but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:21-25, emphasis mine).
Our Lord told His disciples that the Spirit would convict the lost of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8-11). And so what do we find is the substance of Paul’s message to Felix and his wife? It is not: “I’ve been framed! I’m innocent!” It is, “righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). No wonder Felix became frightened (Acts 24:25), and (so it would seem) Drusilla never came back for any more of Paul’s preaching. Only Felix seems to have done this, frequently. He had some kind of fascination with Paul and his message, not unlike Herod (Drusilla’s great-uncle) had with John the Baptist (Mark 6:20).
I have to confess a thought that popped into my mind as I was reading this text about Felix calling for Paul to hear him preach and also with the hope of receiving a bribe. When summoned by Felix, Paul consistently gave him the same message. It was not the message Felix wanted to hear. It was a message about righteousness, self-control, and judgment. It was a message that frightened Felix. Felix needed to be saved from his sins. It wasn’t Paul who needed to be delivered by Felix; it was Felix who needed to find deliverance from sin and guilt through faith in Jesus. Paul’s message was right on target.
I have to wonder what some of the smiley-faced, “God can’t wait to bless your socks off (as soon as you send in your check),” preachers would say to Felix. Might it be a broad, flashing smile, and the promise of good things, if Felix would only first make his “seed faith” contribution? Shame on me for thinking such thoughts. No, shame on them. Shame on anyone whose gospel excludes righteousness, self-control, and judgment.
After two years had passed, Porcius Festus succeeded Felix, and because he wanted to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison (Acts 24:27).
Felix never did “get enough information.” Felix never did pronounce a verdict. In the end, God removed him from his office. I can’t help but recall Daniel’s words to Nebuchadnezzar:
Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you. Break away from your sins by doing what is right, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps your prosperity will be prolonged” (Daniel 4:27).
Nebuchadnezzar had been warned that his kingdom would be taken from him. Daniel urged Nebuchadnezzar to turn from his sin and to do what was right. Perhaps then his reign would be prolonged. Nebuchadnezzar did not listen (until after his removal came about), and neither did Felix. At the end of two years, Jewish protests led to the removal of Felix by Nero. His day of opportunity seems to have ended.
Meanwhile, Paul remained in prison. I am reminded of Joseph, who remained in prison two years after telling the cupbearer that he would be released and restored to his former position (Genesis 40:23—41:1). Felix effectively left the problem of Paul to his successor, Festus. Felix chose to please the Jews, rather than God. It is a much sadder day for Felix than for Paul.
If you are like me, you are tempted to find the conclusion of Acts 24 disappointing. Do we not want Felix to take a stand for truth and justice, to ignore the political pressures, and thus to pronounce Paul innocent of all charges? Doesn’t that sound like the best thing that could happen? But what if this had happened? Humanly speaking, Paul would be released on the street, no longer under Roman protection. The Jews who were intent on killing him would have little difficulty doing so. And there is little chance that Paul would ever have had the opportunity to proclaim Christ to Felix and Drusilla, Agrippa and Bernice, and finally Caesar.
God’s ways are seldom our ways, but God keeps His promises. He informed Paul that he would stand before kings (Acts 9:15). He has, and he is yet to stand before others. God informed Paul that he must bear witness in Rome, just as he has done in Jerusalem (Acts 23:11). He will soon be on his way to Rome. God’s ways are always perfect, and His promises are sure.
If I were writing history, I would not have written it as God has done. Somehow, when I compare Acts 23 with Acts 24, I find that the outcome appears to be backwards. Think about it for a moment. In chapter 23, Paul messes up to one degree or another. He himself admits to having done wrong by speaking as he did to the high priest (even if he did so ignorantly). Paul offends the high priest, then insults him, and finally causes a riot among the members of the Sanhedrin. Paul is obviously discouraged. Here is where I would have had Felix procrastinate, so that Paul could “cool his heels” in prison for a couple of years. It would serve him right for speaking too quickly and too harshly. But what does God do? He knows Paul’s weaknesses and that he is well aware of his failings. God knows that what Paul needs is encouragement, not rebuke. And so our Lord personally stands by Paul in his cell, assuring him that what He has purposed for Paul will be accomplished. No wonder Paul could write:
For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
And so our Lord visits Paul in chapter 23, assures him that he will preach the gospel in Rome, and then delivers him in a way that reveals His sovereign control over the affairs of men. A plot is formed to kill Paul. Paul’s nephew just happens to overhear it, tells Paul, and then informs the Roman commander, who takes extreme measures to protect Paul from harm. The presence of God and the providential care of God are dramatically demonstrated in a chapter where Paul is at his worst.
Then we come to chapter 24. Paul is in his finest form. His Jewish opponents come to Caesarea, accompanied by the finest legal representation money could buy. Tertullus does a masterful job of making a legal sham appear to have substance and style. No matter, Paul does even better. Paul exposes the emptiness of the charges against him, explains what really happened in Jerusalem, and then shows that this conflict is really about the gospel. Because Paul has done so well, we expect God to bless him by granting him a “not guilty” verdict, and then a release from prison. Instead, Felix procrastinates, does not pronounce a verdict, and leaves Paul in prison for two years.
When Paul is at his worst, God deals most gently and graciously with him, standing with him, and sparing him from almost certain death at the hands of assassins. When Paul is at his best, Felix refuses to do his job, seeks to appease the Jews, looks for a bribe from him, and leaves him in prison for two years (which would have been longer, it would seem, if Felix had not been removed from his position).
We need to beware of a mechanical view of the relationship between our faithfulness and God’s blessings. This is something Asaph struggled with in Psalm 73.17 It is something that Job’s friends struggled with as they watched him suffer. Sometimes doing what is right results in suffering and persecution, not immediate blessing (see 1 Peter 2:18—3:6; 4:1-19).
Our problem is that we equate the goodness of God with material prosperity, physical health, and emotional well-being. The truth that Asaph learned (through adversity) was that the “nearness of God” is the believer’s good (Psalm 73:28), and that nearness is often realized in the darkest moments of our life. Our Lord was nearer to Paul in his confinement (Acts 23:11) than He was at other times. Our Lord drew near to Elijah at a time of dark despair (see 1 Kings 19). Many are those saints who have come to savor the dark days of their lives because of the way God used adversity to draw near people in pain.
67 Before I was afflicted I used to stray off,
but now I keep your instructions.
68 You are good and you do good.
Teach me your statutes!
69 Arrogant people smear my reputation with lies,
but I observe your precepts with all my heart.
70 Their hearts are calloused,
but I find delight in your law.
71 It was good for me to suffer,
so that I might learn your statutes.
72 The law you have revealed is more important to me
than thousands of pieces of gold and silver (Psalm 119:67-72).
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:3-4).
28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Luke merely informs his readers that thanks to Felix, Paul’s case is not settled, and thus Paul spends two years in prison. I have found it interesting to observe the way some commentators have felt obliged to “fill in this gap,” with suggestions that he may have written Hebrews or some other epistle during this time. We can’t stand to think that Paul might have been “put on the shelf” for two years. Paul is too valuable to the work of the kingdom, isn’t he?
The divine delay Paul experienced in Caesarea brought to mind an excellent little book entitled, Divine Confinement: Facing Seasons of Limitation,18 by our friend and former church member, Brenda Smith. I believe each one of us experiences seasons of “divine confinement.” After all, we live in a world that is suffering and groaning, waiting for the great day of deliverance at the return of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:
18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance (Romans 8:18-25).
Think of the various forms “divine confinement” can take. Some may be divinely confined by their health or physical condition. Brenda’s father is confined to his bed and a motorized chair. One of our elders is confined by a kidney transplant that is now beginning to fail. A young man, in the prime of his youth, is suffering from a debilitating ailment. A Christian wife (and her children) is abandoned by her husband, who divorces her to marry another. A number of people I know (including my godly parents, until recently) are confined with caring for a family member who requires almost constant attention.19 Someone may feel confined (“trapped”) in a marriage where love no longer thrives. An overworked pastor is forced to step aside from his ministry for a time because he is physically and emotionally drained.
What I wish you to understand from our text about divine confinement is this:
1. If you are a Christian, God has purposed divine confinement for your good, for your spiritual growth, and for the blessing of others.
2. You should not necessarily assume that your confinement is punishment for wrongs done, or for failures on your part. This wasn’t the case with Paul in our text. Paul’s confinement followed a brilliant defense and a faithful proclamation of the gospel.
3. Times of confinement are often the opportunity for ministry to others. Lest we suppose that Paul’s time in that Caesarean prison was a total waste, let me remind you that it was during these two years that Felix continually met with Paul and heard the gospel each time.
4. Times of confinement are sometimes preparation for future ministry. God may have been preparing Paul for the hard days to come as he made his way to Rome. Sometimes a period of confinement is necessary to strengthen and deepen our roots.
5. It may be that we never know (in this life) what God’s purposes were for our confinement. I think of Job in this regard. So far as we know, Job was never told what God’s purpose was for his “confinement.” Nevertheless, Job grew in his understanding of God, and in his faith.
Many of the great saints of old experienced “divine delays” in their lives. I think of Abram, who had to wait 25 years for the child God promised. Joseph had to “wait” a number of years until he was reunited with his brothers (and two years until Pharaoh’s cup-bearer remembered him). Israel had to endure 400 years of slavery in Egypt and 40 years in the wilderness before they possessed the land of Canaan. More than a dozen times in the Psalms, the psalmist will ask God, “How long?” Christians have to patiently endure the adversities of this life until our Lord returns. But this waiting is for a purpose, and that purpose is always a good one for the Christian (Romans 8:28).
14 Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the Lord (Psalm 27:14, NASB95).
7 Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him;
Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way,
Because of the man who carries out wicked schemes.
8 Cease from anger and forsake wrath;
Do not fret; it leads only to evildoing.
9 For evildoers will be cut off,
But those who wait for the Lord,
they will inherit the land (Psalm 37:7-9, NASB95).
As I conclude this lesson, I would hasten to point out that there is a world of difference between “divine delay” and “human procrastination.” From God’s point of view, Paul’s two-year incarceration in Caesarea was a “divine delay,” or “divine confinement.” But from Felix’s point of view, his failure to release Paul was simply procrastination. God delayed Paul’s case in a way that might appear to be detrimental. But in the end, we can see this delay as God’s good hand. Felix procrastinated, assuming that this delay was in his best interest. But in the end, it was a deadly miscalculation for him.
It is never good to procrastinate in making a decision regarding the gospel. Felix’s procrastination resulted in him hearing the gospel a number of times. But because he never seems to have decided to trust in Jesus, his greater knowledge of the gospel only increased his judgment.
47 That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or do what his master asked will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know his master’s will and did things worthy of punishment will receive a light beating. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked” (Luke 12:47-48).
My unsaved friend, listen carefully to the gospel that Paul preached. We are all sinners, who deserve and await eternal punishment. There is nothing we can do to earn the righteousness God requires, or to contribute to our salvation. Jesus did it all. He died in the sinner’s place, bearing the penalty for our sins. He also rose from the dead, the assurance that the Father accepted His sacrifice. Acknowledge your sin and trust in the work which Jesus Christ has accomplished on your behalf, and you will be saved. Do not delay, for the day of opportunity will end, as it did for Felix.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 31 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on August 13, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
4 This is only a fraction of those who were present at the Sanhedrin. I would assume that most of those present were Sadducees. It is interesting that Claudius Lysias, the Roman commander, is not present (but we can assume that his written statement, recorded in Acts 23:26-30, had been read by Felix).
5 The NET Bible contains this footnote: Some later mss include some material at the end of v. 6, all of 24:7, and some material at the beginning of v. 8: “and we wanted to judge him according to our law. 24:7 But Lysias the commanding officer came and took him out of our hands with a great deal of violence, 24:8 ordering those who accused him to come before you.” Acts 24:6b, 7, and 8a are lacking in P74 ? A B H L P 049 81 1175 1241 pm and a few versional witnesses. They are included (with a few minor variations) in E ? 33 323 614 945 1505 1739 pm and a few versional witnesses. This verse (and parts of verses) is most likely not a part of the original text of Acts, for not only is it lacking from the better witnesses, there is no easy explanation as to how such could be missing from them. The present translation follows NA27 in omitting the verse number, a procedure also followed by a number of other modern translations.
6 One can be reasonably certain that the Jews who accompanied the high priest were those most committed to the death of Paul. This would suggest that they were likely Sadducees, and not Pharisees.
7 F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 436-437.
8 Interestingly, the NASB renders “troublemaker” (in the NET Bible) “pest.” Paul is a real pest. That word “pest” just doesn’t do justice to the accusation Tertullus is making. Paul is a disaster wherever he goes. He is not just an irritation, like some little dog, yipping at your feet. He is like a lion, who is determined to tear you to pieces.
10 See footnote 3 above.
11 Jewish (and perhaps Roman) law prohibited compelling a man to bear testimony against himself, but this did not seem to trouble Tertullus or his employers.
12 This is something like the factions we see within Islam. Islam may seek to maintain a united front, but within, there are strong differences. Nevertheless, no one disputes the fact that these factions are still within the fold of Islam.
13 Someone asked me if this meant that Paul’s friends brought him the food and supplies he needed, as is the case in a number of prisons outside the USA. I suspect that this was the case.
14 I understand that governors were elected by voters. I’m using a contemporary political situation to reflect what factors resulted in Felix’s refusal to pronounce a verdict.
15 F.F. Bruce, op. cit., pp. 447-448.
16 A.T. Robertson, III, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), p. 422.
19 This is what prepared and prompted Brenda Smith to write her excellent book.