Israel’s Watergate, Festus’ Waterloo (Acts 25:1-27)Related Media
1 Now three days after Festus arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. 2 So the chief priests and the most prominent men of the Jews brought formal charges against Paul to him. 3 Requesting him to do them a favor against Paul, they urged Festus to summon him to Jerusalem, planning an ambush to kill him along the way. 4 Then Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea, and he himself intended to go there shortly. 5 “So,” he said, “let your leaders go down there with me, and if this man has done anything wrong, they may bring charges against him.”
6 After Festus had stayed not more than eight or ten days among them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he sat on the judgment seat and ordered Paul to be brought. 7 When he arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges that they were not able to prove. 8 Paul said in his defense, “I have committed no offense against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.” 9 But Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favor, asked Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and be tried before me there on these charges?” 10 Paul replied, “I am standing before Caesar’s judgment seat, where I should be tried. I have done nothing wrong to the Jews, as you also know very well. 11 If then I am in the wrong and have done anything that deserves death, I am not trying to escape dying, but if not one of their charges against me is true, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” 12 Then, after conferring with his council, Festus replied, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you will go!”
13 After several days had passed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. 14 While they were staying there many days, Festus explained Paul’s case to the king to get his opinion, saying, “There is a man left here as a prisoner by Felix. 15 When I was in Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me about him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16 I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to hand over anyone before the accused had met his accusers face to face and had been given an opportunity to make a defense against the accusation. 17 So after they came back here with me, I did not postpone the case, but the next day I sat on the judgment seat and ordered the man to be brought. 18 When his accusers stood up, they did not charge him with any of the evil deeds I had suspected. 19 Rather they had several points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a man named Jesus who was dead, whom Paul claimed to be alive. 20 Because I was at a loss how I could investigate these matters, I asked if he were willing to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges. 21 But when Paul appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of His Majesty the Emperor, I ordered him to be kept under guard until I could send him to Caesar.” 22 Agrippa said to Festus, “I would also like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” he replied, “you will hear him.”
23 So the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience hall, along with the senior military officers and the prominent men of the city. When Festus gave the order, Paul was brought in. 24 Then Festus said, “King Agrippa, and all you who are present here with us, you see this man about whom the entire Jewish populace petitioned me both in Jerusalem and here, shouting loudly that he ought not to live any longer. 25 But I found that he had done nothing that deserved death, and when he appealed to His Majesty the Emperor, I decided to send him. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after this preliminary hearing I may have something to write. 27 For it seems unreasonable to me to send a prisoner without clearly indicating the charges against him.”1
When I was a student in college, haircuts were a luxury. Finally, the time came when I could put it off no longer. I decided to economize by going to a barber college. It was my first visit and also my last. I knew I was in trouble the moment I sat in the barber chair. The “barber” was breathing very heavily and muttering to himself. What words I heard were not encouraging. It was his first day of cutting hair. He had some problems with his previous customers, and he wasn’t really sure how to approach cutting my hair. At that moment, I was ready to empty my wallet just to avoid the damage I knew was inevitable. Fortunately, the instructor saw the impending disaster as well and came to my rescue. He cut my hair to show the trainee how it was done. One’s first day on the job can be traumatic, for the employee and those nearby.
I recall another situation in which I observed the “first day” of a man’s employment. During the summer following my first year of seminary, I was employed as a teacher in a state penitentiary in my home town. On my last day of class, I was to introduce my replacement. He was a new teacher just out of college. Apparently he had been given some advice about how to get off to a good start with the inmates. Essentially, he stood up and made it clear that he was the one who was in charge. At the end of the hour, the inmates filed out of class. One made a point of passing behind me, and he whispered these words in my ear: “We’ll see.”
When we come to Acts 25, we are introduced to a new personality. His name is Festus, and he is the replacement for Felix, before whom Paul stood in chapter 24. We might say that Luke is giving us an account of Festus’ first day on the job. Like my “barber” years ago, things will not go well. He fully intended to make it clear that he was in charge, just as that young teacher had done years ago. But there were many Jews involved who seemed to be saying, “We’ll see.”
Before we get into our text, let us briefly review how Paul got to this point in the story. Against the urging of his friends, Paul was determined to press on to Jerusalem; even the Holy Spirit had made it abundantly clear that imprisonment and persecutions awaited him there (see Acts 20:22-24; 21:4, 10-14). In Jerusalem, Paul met with James and the elders of the church. While they praised God for the Gentiles who had come to faith in Jesus through Paul’s ministry, they also had their concerns. The rumor was circulating that Paul taught Jews living abroad, among the Gentiles, not to observe their Jewish culture and customs. In order to prove this rumor false, the Jerusalem church leaders urged Paul to publicly worship in the temple and to do this with four Jewish men, whose expenses he would pay. This way it would be apparent to all that Paul still worshipped as a Jew and that he encouraged other Jews to do likewise.
That was the plan, but it didn’t turn out as the Jerusalem elders had hoped. Some Asian Jews, eager to find fault with Paul, jumped to the false conclusion that Paul had taken Gentiles into the temple, thereby defiling it. (No matter that these “Gentiles” were actually the four Jewish men whose expenses he had paid. And no matter that Trophimus was one of the Gentile believers who had come with a generous donation for the needy Jews in Jerusalem – see Acts 20:4; 21:29.) And so these Asian Jewish opponents of the gospel incited a riot in the temple. The Roman commander, Claudius Lysias, came on the scene just in time to rescue Paul from the hands of the Jews, who were about to kill him. Paul persuaded the commander to allow him to address the crowd, which he did in Aramaic, but it exploded into another riot when Paul conveyed the message God had given him in a vision: He was to flee from Jerusalem and go to the Gentiles because the Jewish people had rejected the gospel.
Not speaking Aramaic, the commander still had no explanation for the violent reaction of the crowd to Paul, and so he prepared to get the truth “the old fashioned way” – by beating it out of him. But when Paul let it be known that he was a Roman citizen, this put a quick stop to that. So the commander tried another approach – let the Jews get to the bottom of all this. Thus, Claudius Lysias summoned a meeting of the Sanhedrin. But Paul quickly antagonized Ananias, the high priest. Knowing he had no chance of a fair hearing, Paul shouted out that he was a Pharisee and that he believed in the resurrection of the dead. The Sanhedrin exploded into another riot, with the Pharisees declaring Paul innocent and the Sadducees wanting to kill him. The Roman commander once again had to suppress a riot.
While Paul was in confinement, the Lord stood beside him, assuring him that he would bear testimony to Him in Rome, just as he had in Jerusalem. At this time, a group of more than 40 Jewish men formed a conspiracy, vowing not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. They obtained the cooperation of the Sanhedrin, who agreed to request a second appearance by Paul, so that they could obtain further testimony. In this way, the assassins would be able to kill Paul on his way to the Council. The plot “just happened” to be overheard by Paul’s nephew, who reported this to Paul, and then to the commander. The commander quickly put together an impressive “body guard,” who escorted Paul to Caesarea, where he could stand trial before Felix. The trial was held, and the prosecution utterly failed to make its case. Nevertheless, Felix delayed the judicial process for two years, until he was recalled by Rome. As we come to chapter 25, we find Festus, Felix’s replacement, attempting to get off to a good start at the beginning of his administration. While he attempted to “take charge,” things did not go well in his first days on the job.
Festus’ First Official Visit to Jerusalem
1 Now three days after Festus arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. 2 So the chief priests and the most prominent men of the Jews brought formal charges against Paul to him. 3 Requesting him to do them a favor against Paul, they urged Festus to summon him to Jerusalem, planning an ambush to kill him along the way. 4 Then Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea, and he himself intended to go there shortly. 5 “So,” he said, “let your leaders go down there with me, and if this man has done anything wrong, they may bring charges against him” (Acts 25:1-5).
Since Paul’s trial in Caesarea two years earlier, some of the faces have changed. Ananias, the high priest whom Paul had offended, has been replaced.3 Ironically, Ananias’ replacement must have been appointed by Herod Agrippa II, whom we meet in our text. Felix has been replaced by Festus. Tertullus, the silver-tongued lawyer hired by the leaders of the Sanhedrin to prosecute Paul before Felix, is nowhere to be seen.
Felix was a veteran as governor of Judea, who ruled with an iron fist. But his methods greatly angered the Jews. It may very well be that the Jewish leaders Festus visited in Jerusalem were responsible, in large measure, for the removal of Felix. If so, these men would be sure to convey the message to Festus that he too could be removed, if he did not win their favor. Thus, his prompt visit to Jerusalem comes as no surprise.
Festus is not nearly as well known as Felix, but all indications are that he was a novice and not really equipped to handle Paul’s case.4 Felix was experienced and very familiar with Judaism (Acts 24:11). After all, his wife was a Jewess (Acts 24:24). In addition, Felix was familiar with Christianity (“the Way,” see Acts 24:22). Festus was probably lacking in all these areas. History does not have a great deal to tell us about Festus, but neither is it unkind to him:
“In the year of Felix’s recall by Nero (or possibly a little later), Porcius Festus came into the office of procurator of Judea where he lived but two years and then died in office. Little is known concerning the life or character of this man, apart from a brief account by Josephus. He appears to have been an honorable and prudent man, for the most part. Had the circumstances of his reign been more favorable, his success might have been greater. However, the impossibility of his situation was brought about by the corruption and maladministration of his predecessor, Felix. Violence, intrigue, sedition, and extreme loyalist bigotry made of the Jews an impossible people for this Roman procurator. Josephus describes the beginning of his rule thus: “Festus succeeded Felix as a procurator, and made it his business to correct those that made disturbances in the country. So he caught the greatest part of the robbers, and destroyed a great many of them.” Josephus describes somewhat in detail the nature of these disorders and the measures employed by Festus to correct them. Withal his task proved impossible and the situation grew worse, a condition which may have contributed to his early death.”5
Almost immediately, the Jewish leaders begin to press Festus regarding their case against Paul. They ask Festus for a “favor”6 against Paul, urging him to summon Paul to Jerusalem so that they can ambush him along the way. Before, it was the 40 assassins who took the initiative in the plot to kill Paul; now it is the Jewish religious leaders, members of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court in the land.
Here is the point at which I see Festus attempting a “take charge” posture. He will not let these Jewish leaders push him around! He will not come to their turf; they will come to his. He was soon to be on his way to Caesarea. Let the Jewish leaders come to him there, and there he would try Paul.
Paul’s Trial in Caesarea
6 After Festus had stayed not more than eight or ten days among them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he sat on the judgment seat and ordered Paul to be brought. 7 When he arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges that they were not able to prove. 8 Paul said in his defense, “I have committed no offense against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.” 9 But Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favor, asked Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and be tried before me there on these charges?” 10 Paul replied, “I am standing before Caesar’s judgment seat, where I should be tried. I have done nothing wrong to the Jews, as you also know very well. 11 If then I am in the wrong and have done anything that deserves death, I am not trying to escape dying, but if not one of their charges against me is true, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” 12 Then, after conferring with his council, Festus replied, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you will go!” (Acts 25:6-12)
All appearances are that Festus is in control of the situation. He has not given in to the Jewish leaders’ request that Paul be summoned to Jerusalem and that his trial be conducted there. He is now in Caesarea, and he promptly takes his place on the judgment seat to hear the case against Paul.
Festus is in for a big surprise. His later words to Agrippa and Bernice (Acts 25:15-20) will reveal that Paul’s case was completely misrepresented to him when he was in Jerusalem. First, it would seem, they asked that Festus summon Paul to Jerusalem, where he could be ambushed on the way. When this did not work, they seem to have represented Paul as a revolutionary. We know that Festus would have taken this very seriously. Such folks were his primary concern at the beginning of his administration. Such matters would receive top priority; no wonder he was so quick to hear Paul’s case.
But as soon as he started the trial proceedings, the Jews took Festus completely by surprise. They surrounded Paul like a pack of wolves, accusing him of very serious crimes. But none of these charges could be proven. Luke is not quite ready to tell us what these charges are, but we shall soon learn from Festus’ conversation with Agrippa and Bernice. Luke’s account of Paul’s defense is greatly abbreviated as well. He simply denies committing any offense against Jewish law, or against the temple, or against Caesar. We would thus infer that they had accused him of all three, which will prove to be a most serious tactical error on the part of the opposition.
If no charges could be established, then the entire case should have been thrown out of court as Gallio, the governor of Achaia, had done.7 Suddenly Festus is willing to grant Paul’s Jewish opposition a favor, but it is for self-serving reasons. He now realizes that he is in way over his head and that he has no idea what to do next. He cannot find Paul innocent without incurring the anger (and opposition) of the Jewish leaders. He cannot find Paul guilty because no charges have been established. And so he “suggests” that Paul’s trial be moved to Jerusalem. He indicates that he will still be trying the case, but now with the help of the Jews who oppose Paul.
As some commentators have indicated,8 Festus’ suggestion is not so much a request for Paul’s assent as it is a directive. Festus has every intention of trying Paul in Jerusalem. Did Festus think he was in control of the situation? Did he think that Paul had no option but to comply with his “suggestion”? If so, Festus was wrong. He had not counted on the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen.
Luke informs us that Festus turned to his counselors and consulted with them (Acts 25:12). We are not told what Festus said to them, but I would imagine that after Paul appealed to Caesar, Festus turned to his council and said, “Can he do that?” After a few moments of silence and some muffled conversation, he was assured that Paul was well within his rights. He could do that. And thus Festus responded, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you will go!” (Acts 25:12)
We should note from Festus’ later actions and conversation with Agrippa and Bernice that Paul’s appeal accomplished several things.
1. It immediately suspended Paul’s trial before Festus.
2. It took the matter out of the hands of Festus, as well as the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
3. It assured Paul of Roman custody and protection, and a safe arrival to Rome (Acts 25:21).
There is a strange irony here. Paul, who could not be persuaded to turn back from going to Jerusalem, cannot now be persuaded to go back to Jerusalem. Paul had more confidence in receiving justice from a Roman (aka “heathen”) judge than he did in receiving justice from the highest Jewish court in the land.
A Fortuitous Visit
13 After several days had passed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. 14 While they were staying there many days, Festus explained Paul’s case to the king to get his opinion, saying, “There is a man left here as a prisoner by Felix. 15 When I was in Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me about him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16 I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to hand over anyone before the accused had met his accusers face to face and had been given an opportunity to make a defense against the accusation. 17 So after they came back here with me, I did not postpone the case, but the next day I sat on the judgment seat and ordered the man to be brought. 18 When his accusers stood up, they did not charge him with any of the evil deeds I had suspected. 19 Rather they had several points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a man named Jesus who was dead, whom Paul claimed to be alive. 20 Because I was at a loss how I could investigate these matters, I asked if he were willing to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges. 21 But when Paul appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of His Majesty the Emperor, I ordered him to be kept under guard until I could send him to Caesar.” 22 Agrippa said to Festus, “I would also like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” he replied, “you will hear him” (Acts 25:13-22).
Festus’ first reaction to Paul’s appeal was probably relief. Granted, he could have felt a certain amount of frustration that Paul was able to successfully go over his head by appealing to Caesar, and thus undercut his authority (in particular, his authority to send Paul to Jerusalem, and thus to gain favor with the Jews). But surely there would also be a sense of relief: Festus no longer had to deal with this thorny problem. The Jews had nearly demanded that he send Paul to Jerusalem. Now, it was out of his hands. This was Caesar’s problem, and gratefully so.
But as reality set in (or perhaps as one of his counselors pointed out), Festus had to realize that Paul’s appeal to Caesar really put him on the spot. When Paul is brought before Caesar, the Emperor’s first question is going to be, “What are the charges against this man?” That was the problem. There are no charges. All along, there had been accusations that were unproven and untrue. Neither Claudius Lysias, nor the Sanhedrin, nor Felix, nor Festus had ever established any basis for accusing Paul of wrongdoing. Now Paul was going to stand before Caesar and claim his innocence, and since there were no charges against him, Festus (not to mention others) was going to look bad. His first case, and it was already under appeal.
Festus must have welcomed the appearance of Agrippa and his sister9 Bernice as a stroke of good fortune. Here was a man who was generally regarded as a Jew10 and who was very knowledgeable in matters of Jewish religion. Let’s pause for a moment to consider the background of Agrippa and Bernice.
The Agrippa of our text had quite a heritage. Herod Agrippa II was the great grandson of Herod the Great, the Herod who slaughtered the babies around Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18) and who died not long thereafter (Matthew 2:19). One of Herod the Great’s sons (by Malthace) was Herod Antipas. He married Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for which he was rebuked by John the Baptist. For this, Antipas arrested John and later put him to death.
Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great. He was given the title, “king of the Jews.” He is the Herod who had James put to death and who arrested Peter, planning to execute him as well (Acts 12:1ff.). Because he accepted men’s praise as though he were a god, he was smitten with worms by an angel of the Lord and died (Acts 12:20-23). When Agrippa I died, his son, Herod Agrippa II, was only 17 years old. This tender age was deemed too young for a king, and so a governor was appointed over Judea. (Two such governors were Felix and Festus, men we find in Acts 23-26.) He was given a very small and relatively insignificant “kingdom” in part of what would now be Lebanon. Later, additional territory in Galilee was given to him to rule. He was responsible for the temple, and he also was given authority to appoint the high priest.
All of this is to say that Herod Agrippa II was very well informed in Jewish matters, as well as in Roman law. He was an expert on the subjects that were most important to Festus. But at the same time, Agrippa had no legal authority in these matters. He could not overturn the decision of Festus (if you would dare call it a decision), nor could he release Paul, or prevent him from appearing before Caesar. Agrippa would hear Paul’s case as a favor to Festus and as a matter of personal curiosity.
Agrippa II was one of three children. He had two full sisters: Bernice (with whom we find him in our text) and Drusilla (the wife of Felix – see Acts 24:24). Bernice was first married to her uncle, and then lived with Agrippa in a way that raised eyebrows and made tongues wag. Later, she would have an affair with Titus, before he became emperor. This was quite a couple, and they are about to hear the gospel from Paul.
In verses 13-22, Luke allows his readers to be a “fly on the wall,” overhearing Festus’ private conversation with Agrippa and Bernice. It supplies details that were not made known to the reader in verses 1-5. It explains, from a human point of view, why Festus changed his mind about doing the Jews a favor, and thus why Paul was forced to appeal to Caesar.
Agrippa and Bernice had come to congratulate Festus on his appointment as governor of Judea. Because they stayed on many days, the opportunity arose for Festus to share his problem with them. He explained that he had inherited a left-over prisoner, whose case Felix had never closed. When he was in Jerusalem, the chief priests and the Jewish elders pressed him to condemn Paul. Festus rightly reminded these Jews that Roman law did not work that way. A man must first be given a trial, where charges must be proven and the accused given an opportunity to make a defense.
This is surely ironic, because we know that Jewish law worked the same way. Nicodemus questioned his fellow-Jewish leaders for wanting to do away with Jesus without a trial with these words:
“Our law doesn’t condemn a man unless it first hears from him and learns what he is doing, does it?” (John 7:51).
This is why I refer to this chapter in the title of this message as “Israel’s Watergate.” Jewish interests (that is to say, the interests of these Jewish leaders) have become so important that they overrule the law of the land. A crime (the illegal execution of Paul) is now justified as protecting “the public good.” The same excuse was employed to justify the wrongful execution of Jesus:
47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.” 49 Then one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is more to your advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.” 51 (Now he did not say this on his own, but because he was high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not for the Jewish nation only, but to gather together into one the children of God who are scattered.) (John 11:47-52)
When the Jews arrived in Caesarea, Festus promptly opened the trial against Paul. The charges put forward against Paul had completely changed from those raised against him in Jerusalem. Law and order were undoubtedly high on Festus’ agenda, so we can be assured the accusations against Paul that were raised in Jerusalem included threats to peace and public order. Among other things, Paul would have been accused of being a revolutionary (as Claudius Lysias initially supposed – Acts 21:38), and thus guilty of crimes against Rome and Caesar. That is why Paul spoke these words in his defense:
“I have committed no offense against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar” (Acts 25:8).
But when Festus asked for the charges against Paul, he was completely shocked at what he heard. None of the charges he expected were raised, but instead, he found himself in the middle of a religious debate. Some time earlier, Gallio had recognized this and threw the case against Paul (and his accusers) out of court:
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!” 16 Then he had them forced away from the judgment seat. 17 So they all seized Sosthenes, the president of the synagogue, and began to beat him in front of the judgment seat. Yet none of these things were of any concern to Gallio (Acts 18:12-17, emphasis mine).
The real issue had not really been about violations of Jewish or Roman law. Festus now understood that this was a debate between Jews regarding their religion. To be more specific, it was a debate about a man named Jesus and Paul’s claim that He had risen from the dead. Festus was no theologian, no student of the Jewish religion. How was he supposed to judge such matters? This is why he requested that Paul go to trial in Jerusalem. The Jews there (perhaps now including the entire Sanhedrin) would be better judges of such matters. He could still preside over the proceedings; he wouldn’t be abandoning Paul altogether.
Now comes a second surprise, every bit as great as the first. Festus would never have imagined that Paul would refuse his suggestion. Festus had tried so hard to maintain control of this situation, and once again, he has lost control. Now comes the real dilemma: Festus must send Paul to Caesar, and he dare not send him to Rome without having some charge against him. This is where Agrippa and Bernice come in. They understand such things. Surely they will be able to counsel Festus regarding the proper charges to file against Paul.
Festus had presented his case well to Agrippa. It was a most interesting case indeed. Tomorrow he will hear the case. No one was more delighted than Festus.
The Proconsul Seeks Counsel
23 So the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience hall, along with the senior military officers and the prominent men of the city. When Festus gave the order, Paul was brought in. 24 Then Festus said, “King Agrippa, and all you who are present here with us, you see this man about whom the entire Jewish populace petitioned me both in Jerusalem and here, shouting loudly that he ought not to live any longer. 25 But I found that he had done nothing that deserved death, and when he appealed to His Majesty the Emperor, I decided to send him. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after this preliminary hearing I may have something to write. 27 For it seems unreasonable to me to send a prisoner without clearly indicating the charges against him (Acts 25:23-27).
There is nothing new to be learned here regarding the dilemma facing Festus. What is new is the ever-growing group of people that will hear Paul’s “defense.” Festus seems to have chosen to make this a festive occasion. A group of dignitaries gathers in a magnificent (no doubt) hall with great pomp and circumstance. Gathered are not only Agrippa and Bernice, but also the senior military officers, along with the prominent men of the city. Anybody who was “somebody” must have been there. Why not seek the counsel of as many of the elite as possible?
Festus then gives the word, and Paul is brought in. While Paul stands before them, Festus gives this impressive group a word of introduction so they will understand the purpose for their gathering. It is a brief summary which leaves out some of the details we have seen earlier in this chapter. This should come as no surprise in that Festus wants to be seen in the best possible light. What is significant, I believe, is that Festus very plainly declares that Paul is not guilty of any serious crime, certainly nothing worthy of death (and this is what the Jews were demanding). And so the dilemma: Paul has appealed to Caesar, and Festus must send Paul to Caesar, but he has not yet established any charges against him. The purpose of the meeting is to arrive at what these charges might be, for Festus can hardly send Paul to Caesar without any charge at all.
Do You Desire Judgment or Grace?
The answer to this question seems simple, but it is not quite that simple. There is a strange irony in our text, for twice the Greek word for grace (charis) is used, not in the normal way Christians would expect (e.g., “For by grace you are saved through faith. . .” Ephesians 2:8), but in the sense of a favor granted. The Jews asked Festus for a favor against Paul. Initially, Paul refused it, but later changed his mind. The irony is that Paul insists upon the “judgment” of Caesar rather than receiving the “grace” of the Jews. Is it possible that human “grace” is inferior to “judgment”? In this one case, it is.
How vastly different it is with “divine grace” and “divine judgment”! No one who truly understands divine judgment would prefer it to divine grace. When Felix called for Paul to speak with him, Paul spoke of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come,” and it terrified Felix (Acts 24:25). Divine judgment will render to every man according to his works, and our works will never justify us. They only condemn us. Divine grace satisfies divine judgment through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. He paid the penalty for our sins, in full. He offers the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life to all who trust in Jesus. Choose divine grace! Delay the choice and you will merit divine judgment.
The “Best” of the Story
Noted radio commentator, Paul Harvey, has a trademark broadcast segment called “The Rest of the Story.” He begins by telling one side of the story and ends with a segment that leaves the reader with a very different perspective or emotion. I’d like us to focus on this chapter in Acts in the same way.
You will remember that in 1 Corinthians 2, Paul explains the limitations of the human mind when it comes to divine truth and God’s provision for Christians in the light of these limitations.
7 Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” 10 God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who among men knows the things of a man except the man’s spirit within him? So too, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God. 13 And we speak about these things, not with words taught us by human wisdom, but with those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. 14 The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to advise him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:7-16).
Thus, there are two ways of perceiving the events of Acts 25. From a purely human viewpoint, the events that have transpired in chapters 21-25 have been sort of a “comedy of errors.” It is a litany of human failings. Paul goes to Jerusalem in spite of endless warnings (remember, this is the human perspective). There, he unwisely takes the advice of James and the elders and gets into trouble with the Jews. The Asian Jews totally misinterpret Paul’s actions and leap to the false conclusion that Paul has defiled the temple by bringing Gentiles into its forbidden precincts. A Roman commander suppresses the riot and, fortunately for Paul, spares his life. Rather than remain silent, Paul convinces the commander to allow him to address the crowd, and thereby creates a second riot. Then, when standing before the Sanhedrin, Paul offends the high priest and sets the whole Council into yet another riot. Fortunately for Paul, his nephew overheard the plans of a radical group who had a scheme to assassinate Paul. That brought Paul to Caesarea. Felix didn’t have the courage to let Paul go, and now Festus seeks to send Paul to his death. Paul then appeals to Caesar. It all looks like a sequence of human failures, weakness, and outright evil.
But now for “The Rest of the Story,” or as I prefer to call it, “The Best of the Story.” You see, there is a divine perspective, which allows us to see these chapters in an entirely different way. One of the prominent themes that permeates the Book of Acts is that of the sovereignty of God. In the “Great Commission” of Acts 1:8, it was clear that the church was to take the gospel to the farthest parts of the earth. The way this came about was not through the church establishing a missions program, but through God using persecution to scatter the church abroad (Acts 8:1-2; 11:19-21). Whether men obey God or seek to oppose Him, God uses “all things” to further the gospel. In spite of all kinds of human weakness and failure, God moves Paul (and the gospel) toward Rome, where Acts will end.
In Acts, we see the expressed will and purposes of God for His church, and particularly for Paul:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).
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).
Nothing that has occurred has hindered the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Indeed, everything that has happened has been used of God to fulfill these purposes. God’s sovereignty is nowhere more evident than in the midst of human opposition and failure. We shall see more about this later in this lesson.
Specific Examples of Divine Sovereignty in Our Text
Luke has introduced us to some of the “performers” in the divine drama played out before us in the Book of Acts. Recently we have been introduced to Ananias, Felix, Festus, and Agrippa II. Luke has described for us how things were, with each of these people playing their part. But let’s pause for just a moment to consider how things might have been.
A number of commentators inform us that King Agrippa II was the son of King Agrippa I, the Agrippa who put James to death and intended to do likewise with Peter. A few would remind us that this Agrippa I was the king whom an angel of the Lord struck dead with worms, because he did not give glory to God (but received it for himself – Acts 12:20-23). It was because of this “premature” death of Agrippa I that Agrippa II did not succeed his father as the King of Judea. Agrippa II was only 17 when his father died, and this was deemed too young for a king, especially a King of Judea. Thus, Judea was ruled by a governor, rather than by a king (King Agrippa II).
Instead of ruling as “King of Judea” as his father had, Agrippa II was made “king of Chalcis,” a small territory ruled by his deceased uncle, Herod of Chalcis. (Incidentally Bernice, Agrippa’s sister, had been the wife of Herod of Chalcis, but after his death, she lived with Agrippa. His other sister, Drusilla, was the wife of Felix.) In time, Nero added parts of Galilee and Perea to his realm. He was also given the administration of the temple and the authority to appoint the high priest.
Agrippa II was regarded as a Jew, though he was a Jew by religion, rather than by birth. We are told that insurrection and revolution became more and more prevalent in Judea. Both Felix and Festus sought to put an end to these, but they were not entirely successful. Agrippa was loyal to Rome and to the Jewish people. When the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66 broke out, Agrippa made an impassioned appeal to the Jews to live in peace. He failed, but was rewarded by Rome for his loyalty.
Here is where it gets interesting. Ananias, the high priest who presided at Paul’s trial before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23 (see verse 2), has been replaced by the time Paul appears before Festus in Acts 25. This must mean that Agrippa was the one who replaced him. In addition to this, when Rome did not allow Agrippa to inherit his father’s title as “King of Judea,” rule of Judea was given to a governor. While Agrippa had no official capacity when he arrived to congratulate Festus, we should remember that he could have had Festus’ authority and even more had he become the King of Judea (something that would have happened, if God had not smitten his father when his son was too young to take his place).
How would things have been different if Agrippa II had become King of Judea? For one thing, the chaos that took place in the temple would have been his concern. For another, Paul would have stood trial before Agrippa, and not Felix or Festus. I doubt very much that the high priest or the Sanhedrin would have intimidated Agrippa as they seemed to do with Felix and Festus. Had Agrippa been the King of Judea, he may well have been in a position to quell the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66, which would have prevented the destruction of Jerusalem.
My point in all of this is to say that God was in complete control of what took place in the Book of Acts, just as He is today. It was time for judgment to fall upon Jerusalem and Judea for their rejection of Jesus as the Promised Messiah. The procrastination and refusal to execute justice on the part of Jewish and Roman officials not only brought about the fulfillment of God’s plans and purposes for Paul, but we also can see God’s hand in bringing about our Lord’s promise of judgment on Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37—24:2).
While we see the hand of God orchestrating the fulfillment of His promises (of judgment on Jerusalem, and of Paul’s testimony to kings, and even to Rome), we also see the gracious way in which God has confronted those in positions of authority with the gospel. The Sanhedrin has heard the gospel from Peter and John, Stephen, and Paul. Felix and Festus, the Roman governors, have likewise heard the gospel. Even Agrippa will have heard the gospel. Agrippa is the last of the Herodian dynasty. How many of these leaders have been confronted with the gospel? This is the grace of God.
In particular, I am fascinated by the way God involves Agrippa in such a way that he will hear a very clear presentation of the gospel from Paul. Officially, this was none of his concern. He came for a social visit, but he left having heard the gospel clearly proclaimed. Here is a “king” who hears the gospel, and yet he had no official reason for doing so.
God Turns Chaos into Cosmos (Order)
The natural man will view the events of our text as just another example of human failure. There appears to be more chaos here than cosmos (order). I would like to suggest to you that God is a God of order, but that He brings this order out of chaos. This is the way the creation account of Genesis 1 reads:
2 Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water. 3 God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light! 4 God saw that the light was good, so God separated the light from the darkness (Genesis 1:2-4, emphasis mine).
The creation account describes God’s handiwork in terms of taking what was chaotic and transforming it into cosmos (order). When Jeremiah describes God’s judgment upon Jerusalem, he uses the same terms that were used in Genesis 1:2 to describe the chaotic state of divine judgment:
I looked at the earth and I saw in a vision that it was formless and empty. I looked up at the heavens and their light was gone (Jeremiah 4:23, emphasis mine).11
The good news is that God is going to create a “new creation,” so that the chaos we now experience will be transformed into cosmos (order).
17 For look, I am ready to create new heavens and a new earth! The former ones will not be remembered; no one will think about them anymore. 18 But be happy and rejoice forevermore over what I am about to create! For look, I am ready to create Jerusalem to be a source of joy, and her people to be a source of happiness (Isaiah 65:17-18).
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).
But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides (2 Peter 3:13).
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. 2 And I saw the holy city – the new Jerusalem – descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:1-2).
Our God is a God who delights in turning chaos into cosmos. The apparent chaos of Paul’s circumstances in Acts 25 (and beyond) will soon prove to accomplish God’s purposes. God will turn Paul’s chaos into cosmos.
Is your life a mess? Is it chaotic? At times, does it seem to make no sense at all and seem to be futile? How God delights in transforming chaotic, wasted lives into beautiful new creations that bring great joy to us and great glory to Him:
So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The Bible is filled with stories of transformed lives, lives that were once chaotic, but now have purpose, joy, and hope. The reason this can be is that there is a sovereign God who is so good and so powerful that He can cause all things to work out for the good of His children, and for His glory:
And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
Have you trusted in Jesus as God’s only remedy for the chaos of your life resulting from sin? Jesus is the One who can turn chaos into cosmos. I urge you to trust Him today.
27 As Jesus stepped ashore, a certain man from the town met him who was possessed by demons. For a long time this man had worn no clothes and had not lived in a house, but among the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out, fell down before him, and shouted with a loud voice, “Leave me alone, Jesus, Son of the Most High God! I beg you, do not torment me!” 29 For Jesus had started commanding the evil spirit to come out of the man. (For it had seized him many times, so he would be bound with chains and shackles and kept under guard. But he would break the restraints and be driven by the demon into deserted places.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” because many demons had entered him. 31 And they began to beg him not to order them to depart into the abyss. 32 Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and the demonic spirits begged Jesus to let them go into them. He gave them permission. 33 So the demons came out of the man and went into the pigs, and the herd of pigs rushed down the steep slope into the lake and drowned. 34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they ran off and spread the news in the town and countryside. 35 So the people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus. They found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind, . . . (Luke 8:27-35).
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 32 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on August 20, 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.
3 “Though Ananias had been replaced by a new high priest, Ishmael ben Phabi, there had been no change in the policy of the Sanhedrin.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 370.
4 “Felix had been an experienced administrator of Judaea when Paul’s case was submitted to him, but Festus was a novice, and his inexperience might well be exploited to Paul’s detriment.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 453.
5 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, op. cit., p. 369. I. Howard Marshall adds, “Porcius Festus, who succeeded Felix as procurator, appears to have been a good ruler, although his period in office was probably too short for him to make any lasting impression on Jewish relationships with the Romans. He was probably in office from AD 58-60 to AD 62 when he died.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 383.
6 It seems ironic that the word here, and again in verse 9, is charis, normally rendered “grace.” This is all these folks know of grace.
7 See Acts 18:12-17; see also Acts 19:23-41.
8 “As Haenchen (p. 670) drily remarks, a governor’s query is tantamount to his decision.” I. Marshall, op. cit., p. 384.
9 It is interesting to note that Luke merely speaks of “Agrippa and Bernice,” not “Agrippa and his sister Bernice.” Why this omission? I believe Luke intends for us to think of Agrippa and Bernice as a couple. Would you not assume that Bernice was Agrippa’s wife, apart from information we obtain from secular history? The relationship between this man and his sister was seen as scandalous. Luke may have been delicately alluding to this by his choice of words.
10 “Agrippa was for all practical purposes a Jew – he had, for example, the right of appointing a high priest – and Festus might well seek light on a difficult case by consulting a Jew who would be free from official association with it.” I. Marshall, op. cit., p. 387.
11 The later edition of the NET Bible renders this verse differently, but I prefer the earlier rendering because it more clearly alludes back to Genesis 1:2. The allusion is pointed out in the footnote of the later version.
Related Topics: Spiritual Life