Outsider Reactions to Insider Faith (Acts 25:23-26:32)

It started as a simple conversation, but dinner that evening came served with a side of awkward.  I was out with some friends during my college years when the conversation landed on the subject of religion.

We’ve probably all been there.  That deer-in-the-headlights moment.  You weren’t looking for a spiritual conversation, but the conversation found you.  Ironic, isn’t it?  Religion, along with politics, is one of those subjects you just don’t bring up casually.  For some, these topics are off-limits entirely.  But there I was.  I don’t remember the exact question that was raised—or even my response to it.  But I do remember the anxiety.  I’ve never wanted to hide my faith.  But in that moment I felt the pressure, the need to “get it right.”  If they didn’t understand, how could I make them understand?

If you’ve been there, you’re hardly the first—or last.  In today’s reading, we look at the way Paul shares his own spiritual story.  We’ve heard his story before—of God’s radical grace and transformation.  But in this passage we get to see it through an outsider’s eyes.  How will the Roman officials respond?

…BY SAVING FACE?

Acts 25:23 – 26:32  The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in.  24 Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer.  25 I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome.  26 But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write.  27 For I think it is unreasonable to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him.”

I love the phrase “great pomp” (as opposed to mediocre pomp?).  King Agrippa had arrived.  This was a big deal.  But a conversation with Festus, the local governor we met in Acts 25, it’s starting to look more and more like a government foul-up.

If you remember, Paul had appealed to Caesar.  If the leaders followed through, Paul would be on his way to Rome.  But Festus seems worried.  What would he write to the Emperor?  Would he look foolish for making such a fuss over an innocent man?  Maybe by escalating it to the attention of King Agrippa, he could “save face” in front of his superiors.

The next lengthy section is a summary of Paul’s spiritual journey.

Acts 26:1 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense:

2 “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews,  3 and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.

4 “The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem.  5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee.  6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today.  7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me.  8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?

9 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.  11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.

12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests.  13 About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions.  14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’  15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ “‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied.  16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.  17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them  18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.  20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.  21 That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me.  22 But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen–  23 that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

…BY THE INSANITY PLEA?

24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”  25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable.  26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.  27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

We don’t know much about the faith background of Festus.  Previously he’d seemed to be fairly open.  But a man rising from the dead (26:23)?  This was too much.  So Festus is quick to dismiss Paul by the insanity plea.  The message was too weird to be taken seriously. King Agrippa was familiar with Jewish custom; this was probably not the first he’d heard some of these concepts.

If we’re honest, we speak a very different language from the rest of our world.  We speak in terms of “quiet times” and “devotionals.”  We talk about something that “the Lord laid on my heart.”  We insist we “have a relationship, not a religion.”  What’s wrong with any of that?  Nothing.  But like Festus, there will always be those in our world who think such language is just plain weird.

…BY ONE CONVERSATION?

28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”  29 Paul replied, “Short time or long– I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Paul was expecting more of a reaction from the King.  “Do you believe the prophets?” he pleaded.  “I know you do.”  But the King was unmoved.  We can’t assume that a total conversion can happen by one conversation.  Instead we need to pray the words of Paul—that God would accomplish His purposes regardless of the time that it takes, short or long.

30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them.  31 They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.”  32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”

Their conclusion?  The man’s crazy, but no criminal.  In fact, the craziest thing of all is that he appealed to Caesar rather than enjoying his freedom.  Paul is arguably the greatest missionary who ever lived.  Yet even he was labeled as crazy.  Why would we expect any different?

The greatest sin of our culture today is to be too dedicated to any one particular thing.  A “religious” person might be tolerated—maybe even admired for being morally upright.  But a person sold out to Christ and His gospel is just…well, weird.  No one wants to be labeled a “fanatic.”  But if I believe the gospel, I can be secure in my own identity in Christ.  Even negative reactions provoke me to bold love rather than cowardice.  Following Christ demands I place others ahead of self and faithfulness ahead of success.  “There is no failure here,” sings a popular musician. “Just when you quit.”

Are you praying for faithfulness in sharing your faith?

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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.

Redeeming Reputation (Acts 25:1-27)

Reputation.  It’s one of the only things in life that we get from others.  And once it’s damaged, it’s hard to repair.

Reputation is part of the reason it’s becoming so difficult to be a person of faith in the public square.  You call yourself a Christian?  Then be prepared to be labeled and shunned.  Our world sees Christianity as an exchange of reason and compassion for superstition, intolerance, hypocrisy, and repression.

But this is nothing compared to the life of Paul.  In this phase of our story, Paul becomes the focus of a high-profile court case.

THE PEOPLE’S COURT

Acts 24:1 Five days later the high priest Ananias went down to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus, and they brought their charges against Paul before the governor.

The charges against Paul were simple: he was falsely accused of violating Jewish law by bringing a Gentile into the temple.  Previously, Felix had refused to decide Paul’s case until his accusers arrived.  In this chapter, they arrive, and their appearance takes the form of a courtroom drama before Felix.

Opening statements

 Acts 24:2-92 When Paul was called in, Tertullus presented his case before Felix: “We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation.  3 Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude.  4 But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.  5 “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect  6 and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him.  78 By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”  9 The Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.

 Riots had broken out, and Paul was accused of being the “ringleader.”   Why would the government care about this?  Riots were a threat to political and social order.  The Jews were tolerated by the Romans, but Christianity threatened to upset this delicate balance.  Rome had previously allowed the Jews to execute those who violated the temple, and now the Jews wanted to cash in their chips.

Paul’s response

Acts 24:10-21 10 When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: “I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense.  11 You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship.  12 My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city.  13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me.  14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets,  15 and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.  16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.  17 “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.  18 I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance.  19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me.  20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin–  21 unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.'”

Paul could only respond to the charges by countering them with the truth.  His defense was twofold:

  • Lack of motive. He had not been in Jerusalem long enough to cause any riots (24:11), but had rather come for the Feast of Pentecost (cf. 20:16) and to worship.  In verses 17-18 he makes mention of bringing an offering from Gentile churches.
  • Lack of evidence.  None of his accusers had evidence or witnesses to verify that Paul had started any riots in Jerusalem.  (24:12-13)

Paul’s “counterclaim” was that his accusers were really the ones who had stirred up a disturbance (cf. v. 12).

PAUL AND FELIX (Acts 24:22-27)

Acts 24:22-27 22 Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.”  23 He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs.

24 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.  25 As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”  26 At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him.  27 When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.

Felix gives no indication that he leans one way or the other.  He is familiar with Christianity (“the way”)—could it be that he empathizes with Paul?  But he can’t risk his political career by upsetting Paul’s accusers.  So what does he do?  He stalls.  He waits until the commander, Lysias comes to decide.

But we never hear of Lysias again.

Maybe out of guilt, maybe because he knew of Paul’s innocence, Felix allows Paul a lot more freedom than usual, including visits from friends.  Felix even has conversations with Paul.  Unfortunately for Paul, these conversations proved too convicting.  Drusilla, his wife, was Felix’s third marriage and he had to break up another marriage just to have her.  All this talk of “righteousness” must have made him sweat.  So he left Paul in prison, calling for him only on occasion out of hope for a bribe.

This went on for two years.  Felix eventually got replaced—he had been too cruel in squashing a Jewish and Gentile conflict and replaced by Festus.  But, to keep the Jews happy, Paul was left in prison.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY

There are times and places when faith will earn you more foes than friends.  The temptation we face is to try and change our reputation.  How might we do this?

  • Fight back.  The best way to build ourselves up is to tear others down.  We can attack others for their political views, their moral views, or even spiritual views.  But this only deepens the cultural divide.
  • Distance ourselves.  Chances are, you’ve probably said something like this: “It’s a relationship, not a religion.”  For some, this is a great way to remember the truth of the gospel.  But for others, this statement does more to comfort followers than convert skeptics.  It’s a convenient way to distance ourselves from “those” kind of Christians.

If the gospel is true, than my reputation is built on the righteousness of Christ.   I don’t need to leverage my reputation in the eyes of others.  I have God’s approval—who else’s do I need?  Our prayer is that we learn to shed the shackles of focusing on our own reputation, and learn instead to live in His.