The Religion of the Great Perhaps (Acts 25:1-22)

Do you believe in “fate?”  Do you believe that things happen for a reason?  Do you believe there are no accidents?

Your answer to this question might say a lot about your background.  Different cultures define “fate” differently.  If you were raised in east India, for example, your view of “fate” might be linked to things like “karma.”  Your culture would basically tell you to “deal with the cards you’re dealt.”  Here in the west, we tend to think of “fate” as connected to a “higher power.”  “Someone is watching over us,” we might say.  If something good happens, we might say, that it was “meant to be.”  When we experience suffering, we might console ourselves with the sentiment that “everything happens for a reason.”

We don’t need to unpack all that.  We only need to know that the Bible does not present us as creatures merely carried along by impersonal “destiny.”  Instead, we can have confidence that we rest secure in the hands of an infinitely wise and infinitely just God.  If we forget this, we surrender ourselves only to the religion of the great perhaps.  But when we remember that God is in control, even times of confusion and difficulty become powerful testimonies to the magnificence of God.

Why is this so important?  Because in today’s reading we see Paul standing before the authorities.  He has been stripped of any illusion of control.  But while control can be taken away, trust cannot.   We see God at work in three different stages in this section.

POWER STRUGGLE

Acts 25:1-22  Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem,  2 where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul.  3 They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way.  4 Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon.  5 Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong.”

Portius Festus wasn’t stupid.  He knew that to effectively rule as governor of Syria, he’d need the support of the people.  But he quickly learned that he’d stepped into a mess left by the former administration.  The Jews were starting to realize that to get rid of Paul, they couldn’t wait for Rome.  They had to take matters into their own hands.  But do you see the strange way that God works?  The Jews were in a tug of war with the Roman government.  God used the power struggle to spare Paul’s life.  Nothing happens by accident.  God can use even the worst of life’s circumstances to reveal the best of His grace.

FINDING HIS APPEAL

6 After spending eight or ten days with them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him.  7 When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove.  8 Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”  9 Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?”  10 Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well.  11 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”  12 After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

Festus, like Felix (Acts 24) is a complex character.  He seems to empathize with Paul.  But he soon realizes why Felix never dealt with the situation.  Release Paul, and he offends the Jewish leadership.  Any disturbance of the peace would not reflect well on his political career.  Paul, as a Roman citizen, had a right to appeal to Caesar.  Festus was probably relieved at having the decision removed from his hands.  Again, God is at work.  The appeal to Caesar would only propel Paul forward to help him reach Rome.

A NEW AUDIENCE

13 A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus.  14 Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner.  15 When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned.  16 “I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges.  17 When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in.  18 When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected.  19 Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.  20 I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges.  21 When Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.”  22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear this man myself.” He replied, “Tomorrow you will hear him.”

The scene shifts.  We now meet king Herod Agrippa II.  If the name sounds familiar, he was the great-grandson of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1).  We’ll spend more time with this man in our next reading together.  The point of this section is that Paul’s high-profile court case granted him a new audience—new experiences he would never have had otherwise.

THE GOSPEL AND FATE

If I believe that my life is governed by fate, chances are that changes my perspective on my negative circumstances.  At worst, I see my struggles as the result of some past failure.  “If only I’d listened to my mother.”  “If only I hadn’t taken that job.”  At best, I see it as some hurdle to overcome.  “Everything happens for a reason,” I insist.  “I just need to stay strong.”

Do you see how both reactions are wrong for the same reason?  Fate pushes me toward self-examination.  My performance comes into question.  But if the gospel is true, then my life is not governed by fate, but by a personal God.  Jesus left His Father’s side so that each of us could be drawn near.  And because of this, God draws us into His larger story.  Like Paul, God is at work in every detail of our lives.  Are you looking for Him?  Or are you preoccupied with understanding your own destiny?

To believe in the gospel means to repent of the religion of the great “perhaps.”  I believe that when we read stories like Paul’s, we can hear God whispering to us: “Don’t worry if you don’t have it all figured out.  I never meant for life to be figured out.  I meant for life to be lived.  Trust in Me.  Look to Me.  Talk to Me.  It doesn’t mean that life will get better, or even easier.  But it does mean that life can be filled with purpose and joy.”

Is that your prayer life?  Are you seeking God in every circumstance?  Today’s a great day to start.

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