A Problem Prisoner
Acts 24:22 - 25:27
A Problem Prisoner
Confusion and delay
Your household, like mine, may have gone through a stage in which it was filled with paraphernalia from Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends!
Whether it did or not I imagine depends on whether there was ever a small child, perhaps a boy, in your family, who was into trains! But we went through that phase, and actually, we haven’t passed entirely out of it, because I’m really, just a boy who likes trains!
But in the Thomas books, and DVDs and whatever else, when Thomas, who is a steam engine, and his friends get up to mischief, which is most of the time, or make mistakes, which is fairly often!, the man who manages the railway, who used to be called The Fat Controller, but is now just called by his name, he says, “You have caused confusion and delay.”
Confusion and delay.
It could be the title we give to this passage in Acts, couldn’t it? And perhaps that’s no surprise, since the Thomas books were written by a Church of England minister! Maybe this is where he got his inspiration!
Because the section opens with Governor Felix doing everything he can to cause delay.
He delays making a decision about Paul,
He delays making a decision about Jesus,
He’s then replaced as governor by Festus, which is where the confusion really comes in. Festus openly and repeatedly admits that he has no understanding of what’s going on.
He admits it to Agrippa. Verse 20, I was at a loss how to investigate such matters;
He admits it to the whole crowd who assemble for the trial, Verse 26, I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him
The historian Luke, who wrote this book of Acts, makes it pretty clear, that since the charges against Paul are bogus, those in positions of authority at a loss to make any sense of them.
And the second part of this section really serves to illustrate that, and so other than noting the confusion, and the legal and moral mess that those in authority create for themselves, confusion and delay, we won’t spend too much time there, but we’ll look more closely at the top half.
So let’s look at Governor Felix’ delaying tactics.
Considering that through all the trials and accusations so far, no evidence has been produced,
There are no witnesses who can testify, and Lysias has already written to the governor explaining that he’d found Paul innocent,
The right decision was really quite straight forward. Felix should have let Paul go free.
Imagine you find yourself in the Supreme Court, charged with some offence,
And the prosecutor says, “there’s no evidence against this person,
We don’t have any witnesses,
In fact the magistrate’s court has already found them not guilty”,
But the judge says to you, “Well, before I decide, I’d like to hear from the police officer who arrested you in the first place.”
That’s called a miscarriage of justice!
And you may have noticed the intriguing detail that Luke includes in this story, that Felix was well acquainted with the Way, that is the Christian faith. And the original language actually uses a comparative term. Felix was better acquainted with the Way.
Maybe Felix was better acquainted with Christian things than the Sanhedrin, these Jewish religious leaders who are bringing the charges against Paul.
There’s no doubt that they are vehemently opposed to the Christian message that Paul preaches;
They hired the professional lawyer slash spin doctor
They’ve plotted to have Paul killed, something they try again in chapter 25,
a whole bunch of them travelled down to Caesarea after Paul was taken there to make their accusations, and again as chapter 25 opens, 2 years later, they’re still at it, like a dog with a bone, back in Caesarea, determined to silence Paul and stop the spread of the Christian message.
But despite all this, those who are opposing Paul, don’t really seem to have much of an understanding of the Christian message that Paul is preaching.
We saw last week that the things they said about the Christian message, were obviously untrue to anyone who’d ever heard Paul speak.
They don’t understand Christianity at all.
Or maybe Luke means that Felix understood the Christian faith better than most people.
Whatever the case, even though he knows Paul has done nothing wrong,
Even though he is well acquainted with the Christian message and therefore knows the accusations are false, he delays proceedings.
He does, at least, instruct that Paul is treated as one would expect for a Roman citizen.
It’s not quite the treatment that King Agrippa, father of the Agrippa we meet here received when he was a prisoner of Rome. Josephus the historian records that Agrippa was to be chained to soldiers “of a gentle nature”, that he was to be allowed a bath every day, he was given comfortable bedding, and given various “indulgences” that would ease his time in prison!
Paul’s imprisonment isn’t quite up to that standard!, but he is given some respite. His friends are allowed to take care of his needs, and he was probably allowed some freedom around the palace and its grounds.
Once again, God sovereignly provides for Paul, through the citizenship with which he was born.
Before he even came into the world, God had provided for this moment.
Paul gives us a great example of evangelism
Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.
We’ve been praying for the group from Aldgate Baptist Church, who are planting a new church in Littlehampton in November. In fact in the Littlehampton Primary School gym where we used to meet!
So a couple of weeks ago I met with their team, to do some training, and to help them think about a bunch of things related to starting a new church, and as part of our session, I asked each person so write down what they thought was the essential content of the gospel of Jesus.
What does someone in the Mount Barker region need to hear, of the good news of Jesus?
And so let me ask you the same question, but let me give you a particular scenario, Imagine for a moment, that a married couple you know, come to you to ask about your Christian faith.
They’re interested in what you believe,
Intrigued at how you live and conduct yourself, and so they invite you round to their place, and as you sit in their lounge room, you explain your faith in Jesus.
What would you say?
I wonder what you would say to them.
Are there some bits of the Christian message we’d think they must hear?
Are there some bits, actually, that are a bit confronting, that might be hard for this couple to hear, and so would we be tempted to, leave those bits to the side a little.
What would you say?
Let me add some specifics to our scenario though,
Imagine the wife was only 14 when she was married to her first husband,
That she is the third wife of her current husband, and that he had stolen her away from her former husband, with the help of a sorcerer, who had convinced her to leave him, thus making both of them adulterers.
Add to that, that she was the daughter of a previous king, the sister of the current king,
And that the husband is the governor, with the power to sentence you to death, really at will.
Now!, As you’re sitting on their couch, and they ask you to explain what faith in Christ Jesus is all about, what do you say?
What do you think, man and a woman like that need to hear?
Where does the gospel of Jesus impact their lives?
Because, of course you’ve figured out that my hypothetical situation isn’t a hypothetical situation at all!
That this is the very situation that Paul finds himself in.
And yet, what does Luke tell us about how Paul speaks about his faith in Christ Jesus, to this couple to this couple whose personal lives, and at least his public life, have been characterised by immorality, and deception, greed and violence?
Does he leave out the bits of the Christian message, that a man who has lusted after someone else’s wife, to the point of seducing her away from him, might not like to hear?
Does he skim over the truths of the Christian message that could be quite confronting, or even enraging, to someone who has the power of life or death over us?
Paul spoke about faith that works itself out in life
Well, Luke tells us, verse 24, Paul spoke about faith in Christ Jesus, and, righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come,
Paul explains faith in Jesus as something that works itself out in life.
To this Jewish wife and her Gentile husband, Paul teaches that Jesus in the Christ.
Jesus is God’s long-promised king.
Which means that Jesus is the one to whom allegiance is due,
Not Felix, who’s Governor of this region,
Not the Emperor, who’s Felix’s boss,
It’s not even King Agrippa, who we meet later in this chapter, who is Drusilla’s big brother.
Can you imagine telling a member of the royal family, “actually there’s a new king in town, and you need to give your allegiance to him, oh and I’m telling everyone I meet, that they need to give their allegiance to him too!”
So last week, the Queen became the longest reigning British monarch in history, surpassing her great, great grandmother Victoria’s record of 63 years, 216 days.
Imagine you went up to the Queen, and said, “Thanks for all your hard work for your kingdom these past few, 63 years, but actually now we’ve got a new king, you’ve been replaced.”
That’s what Paul is saying to Felix and Drusilla.
Jesus of Nazareth, is the Christ.
He is God’s king.
He is the fulfilment of God’s promises,
And you need to give your allegiance to him.
It’s quite something to tell the ruler of the region, and his wife, the king’s sister, that Jesus is the true ruler.
But actually, it’s not much different today, to the gospel’s call on us to put Jesus in first place,
It’s Jesus who gets to call the shots. That’s Paul’s message. And it’s just as counter cultural today, as it was in 59 AD.
The British pastor John Stott once said that Paul never explains the gospel in a vacuum. And here he explains faith in Jesus, in a way that is particularly applicable to the lives of these 2 people. He unpacks it in terms of righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come,
Felix and Drusilla need to learn about righteousness, that is, a right standing before God. Not through a superficial obedience to the law, as Drusilla and her family had tried to maintain in the past.
But a right standing before God that can only come through faith in Jesus Christ.
righteousness also implies an ethical standing, against God’s standard of perfection.
For Paul to speak of righteousness, is to highlight Felix and Drusilla’s lack of right standing before God,
Their rebellion against him.
Their failure to follow his pattern for life,
To speak of righteousness, is to highlight sin.
That’s what happens isn’t it? We hear of God’s righteousness, his rightness, the fact that he always does what is right and good, and we see all the more clearly, wow, how far I’ve fallen short.
And of course self-control, for a man who employed a sorcerer, to entice his 16 year old wife away from her former husband, that’s something I’m sure he needed to hear.
We learn just a couple of lines down, that Felix kept Paul in prison, because he hoped that Paul would offer him a bribe.
Paul says, “You want to know about the Christian faith? It involves self control.
It is about submitting your desires, to the Lordship of Jesus”
And then the final part of the explanation is the judgement to come.
Of course, if you start with righteousness, and the failure to measure up to God’s standard,
And then if their lack of self-control is a clear demonstration of their failure to live as God would have them live,
To then start speaking about the judgement to come, could be quite frightening!
And so little wonder, that as Paul explains the Christian faith in these terms, Felix was afraid, and the conversation is abruptly cut short.
It is really worth our noticing, how Paul explains the gospel of Jesus, in a way that is relevant and particular to background and situation of this man and this woman.
By no means does he shy away from those aspects of the Christian message that they’re likely to find confronting, and do find confronting.
But he explains the good news of King Jesus, in terms that shed light on the reality of their lives,
He talks about Jesus as the Christ, in such a way that they can’t help but see their failure to live in a way that honours him as such, and so he highlights their great need for Jesus.
Their need to recognise him as the Christ,
Their need to have faith in him,
Their need to believe that only he can give them the righteousness, the right standing before God, that they need, in order to face the coming judgment with confidence.
How often, have many of us, I don’t want to accuse you, but I know I’ve done this, when I’ve been given an opportunity to share something of the good news of Jesus, I’ve succumbed to the temptation, to leave out bits that I think might be of particular offence,
Or where the lives of the people I’m speaking to are at odds with some part of God’s pattern for life, various issues relating to self control being a pretty good example, it’s really easy to skim over those bits, or actually, not make any mention of the claims of Christ over people’s bodies,
Over people’s minds,
The thoughts they entertain, and the desires they cultivate.
The very brief explanation of this conversation, and perhaps the later ones between Paul and Felix followed a similar line, as brief as Luke’s record of it is, we’re given enough to know that Paul doesn’t offer an abstract, conceptual theological lecture!
He shows that the gospel of Jesus impacts life.
Put it another way, he presents faith in Jesus in terms of the obvious implications for the life of his hearers.
I’m not suggesting we start all our gospel conversations with “God hates it when you do that!”
Sensitivity, demanded of us,
But oh, to have Paul’s courage!
Oh, to learn from his example.
Such is his great confidence in the power of the gospel of Jesus to change lives,
Such is his trust in God’s sovereign hand in the world, that to this man who sits in judgment over him, Paul says, “you too must face the judgement of God.”
What a great example of evangelism.
Paul’s Christian witness is not hampered by his imprisonment.
Let me highlight, what perhaps is obvious, but lest any of us miss it! Paul’s Christian witness is not hampered by his imprisonment.
In fact, in this case, his imprisonment has become the means of his missionary work, not the end of it.
Jesus has promised Paul that he will testify in Rome. We saw that in chapter 23. But that promise doesn’t mean that Paul, takes his foot off the accelerator now, does it?
“I’m going to testify in Rome, I’d better tread carefully now. Make sure I don’t upset anyone who has authority over me before I get there.”
Paul’s imprisonment actually gives him multiple opportunities to testify to his faith in Jesus, before kings and rulers, opportunities that he ordinarily wouldn’t have, if he was a free man.
No doubt that was a good reminder for Luke’s early readers, who within a few years, would start to face widespread persecution for their faith in Jesus.
And it’s good for us to remember too; What seems to us to be a hindrance, is not a hindrance to God.
Circumstances that we might imagine will silence Christian witness,
The sidelining of the Christian voice in society that we see today,
The changing circumstances we see in our world and in our own community are by no means the end of Christian witness, or the spread of the gospel.
And actually if we were to look at other parts of the world, and other moments in history where the gospel of Jesus has been silenced in the public sphere, or marginalised or outlawed, we’d have to say that actually, should those things ever happen in our country, history and experience would suggest an expansion of the gospel’s grip on people’s lives, the likes of which you and I have never witnessed in our country.
No doubt the early Christians were most distressed that Paul was in prison in Caesarea,
Even Paul may have been dismayed that despite no guilt being proved, repeatedly, he’s still not a free man.
But here, as a prisoner, he has repeated, frequent Luke says, opportunities to speak with the Roman governor of the whole region, and then King Agrippa as well.
God is still well and truly in control of this situation.
We’re still seeing Jesus’ promise being fulfilled;, witnesses, to the very ends of the earth.
We see an all-too common response to the gospel message
But let’s come back to Felix, because what we see from him, is, sadly, an all-too common response to the gospel message.
Some of us consider ourselves excellent procrastinators, “Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off to next week?!”
Felix has heard enough of the message of Jesus, God’s king, to be afraid of facing as judge, but he refuses to do anything, in the light of what he’s heard.
He has no intention of repenting,
No desire to place his trust in Jesus,
To acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ,
But he’s intrigued by the gospel message, or by Paul, and so there are frequent meetings and conversations.
Mostly, of course, he’s hoping for a bribe.
Felix’s response to Jesus, or his lack of response to Jesus, is a mirror of his lack of response to Paul. He delays, and procrastinates making a decision about Jesus, just as he procrastinates making a decision about Paul.
He sees God’s messenger as someone who can potentially make him a little bit richer, materially, but he refuses what’s actually on offer.
What a tragedy it is, to hear the gospel of Jesus,
To have it explained in such, life-applicable terms,
And to just, delay,
Felix proves himself to be more interested in politics than having confidence when he faces Jesus as judge. Hoping to curry favour with the Jews, he left Paul in Prison
It’s a Clayton’s decision! The decision you make when you’re not making a decision. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll know that comparison!
Felix had heard the accusations against Paul,
He had noted the lack of evidence, and the lack of witnesses,
He had everything he needed to make a decision now, and release Paul,
He knew Paul was innocent.
But he cared too much about what others thought, what others could do for him, and so he delays making a decision.
He needed the Jewish leaders to help maintain peace and good order in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, and so for political expediency, Paul remained in prison.
Felix delays and delays, until ultimately Paul’s imprisonment outlasts Felix’s governorship. Felix is replaced by Festus in a late night party room vote on Monday night,
Oh no, that was something else!
But there’s a leadership change, and in 59 AD, Festus replaces Felix.
The biggest tragedy though, was Felix’s delay in making a decision about Jesus.
If you’re here today because you’ve got questions about Jesus, you’re trying to find out about Christian things,
Please don’t do a Felix.
Don’t keep putting off a decision.
Here was a man well acquainted with the Way, but his non-decision, his Clayton’s decision with regard to Paul’s case, is mirrored by his Clayton’s decision, when it comes to Jesus.
Paul’s journey to Rome continues
And so as Felix, fades from the story, with Paul still imprisoned in the palace at Caesarea, we meet a new governor named Festus, and at the same time we see that the opposition to Paul hasn’t subsided during the 2 years he’s been in prison.
We’ve noted, and you’ll remember if you’ve been with us, there’s already been one assassination plot, and here in verse 3, the leaders petition this new and inexperienced governor, he’s only been in the job 3 days!, to bring Paul up to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way
Notice that it’s the chief priests and the Jewish leaders themselves who are implicated in this plot to kill Paul. Not un-named conspirators taking a secret vow to assassinate him;, the highest religious leaders in the land.
Getting rid of Paul, is the first order of business, that the religious leaders take to the new governor. And such is their lack of confidence that due process will give them the outcome they want, they form a lynch mob.
What lengths people will go to, to avoid being confronted with the gospel of Jesus.
Most people of course, don’t go around engaging in assassination conspiracies! But still, there are many today, who will do everything in their power, to avoid the word of God being heard
Some of you will be aware of the group Fairness in Religion in School, operating in the Eastern States, where there has traditionally been programs of religious instruction that school students can take part in if their parents want them to.
But this group, is not just saying “we don’t want to go to Scripture class, rather, we don’t want Scripture classes at all.
We don’t want children in our schools being exposed to the Word of God, which of course, has shaped our civilisation!”
And their approach, to my observation, seems to be to pour vitriol on anyone who would dare suggest that people benefit from hearing the Word of God, and their response to those who would bring the claims to Christ to bear on people’s lives, is vulgar and inflammatory to the extreme.
Don’t think circumstances like this are so far removed from our reality.
The second thing worth noting in this middle section is that it seems the chances of Paul getting real justice under Festus, are not much better than his experience under Felix.
Even though, verse 7, those accusing Paul made accusations that they could not prove, we find out in verse 9, that Festus sees Paul’s case as an opportunity to do the Jews a favour.
Paul knows that any courtroom in which the Sanhedrin function as judge, is not going to be a courtroom in which justice is available to him, and so perhaps the most significant turning point in these events comes in verse 10.
Paul says, “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!”
Paul’s saying that if he’s committed a crime against the laws of Rome, then he’s willing to take the punishment that Rome has determined. It’s the position that he’s held all along as we saw last week. A Christian person submits to the authority of the government that God has placed over them.
But if there is no crime,
If he hasn’t broken any Roman laws, then it would be unfair, illegal, and a terrible first act for a new governor, to hand Paul over for punishment to the Jewish religious leaders, simply so that he could ingratiate himself with them.
No, since Festus is Caesar’s agent, Paul sees himself as standing in Caesar’s court, but since he’s not convinced that this court, under the influence of his opponents as it is, is going to arrive at justice, so he appeals to have his case heard before Caesar himself, in Rome.
This wasn’t just a pipe dream, a last ditch attempt to get out of this situation. As a citizen of the Empire, Paul had the right to have his case heard before the Emperor, and following a discussion with his council, Festus grants the request.
Paul will be tried before the Emperor Nero.
We know that later in life Nero persecuted Christians violently. The historian Tacitus writes in some detail of the persecution, torture, and widespread execution of Christians, on Nero’s orders, especially in the wake of the fire of Rome in 64 AD.
But those days are still a few years off, especially as the very young emperor was still under the influence of his tutor Seneca, there’s no reason to think that anything other than justice would be waiting for Paul in Rome.
Paul works towards the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise
Remember the promise from Jesus, chapter 23 verse 11? We’ve mentioned it already, the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”
That was Paul’s assurance from Jesus, that the risen Lord would see to it, that Paul would speak the good news of the gospel in the capital.
And Paul believes, it’s clear from his behaviour, that if Jesus says it, it will happen.
And so Paul just sits back, and waits for events to unfold, believing that one day he’ll end up in Rome, ?
Paul grabs the bull by the horns,
He seizes the opportunity to drive forward God’s plans and purposes.
Jesus has said “you will end up in Rome”, but that’s no motivation for Paul to stop thinking strategically, to stop asking, “how can I be most effective, in fulfilling what I know Jesus wants me to do?”
Jesus has said “you will end up in Rome”, and Paul here seizes the opportunity to get there.
The imprisonment and denials of justice that at times must have been so frustrating for Paul, he now uses as his means of seeing Jesus’ promise cone true.
See, the promise, and God’s sovereignty which it demonstrates, they cause Paul to take the initiative in getting to Rome.
They don’t stop him, taking the initiative.
Now, we’re not Paul,
We haven’t had the risen Lord Jesus come and stand next to us, assuring us about what the next stage in our evangelism is going to look like.
And yet I think it’s a good reminder for us, that God’s sovereignty, shouldn’t dissuade us from evangelism, but rather encourage us in evangelism.
Believing as we do, Jesus’ words, that no one can come to him, unless the Father enables them, we ought not become less committed, or less urgent in our proclaim of the good news of Jesus, but more committed, more urgent.
Paul is off to Rome, to testify before kings and rulers, just as Jesus said he would.
Paul is off to Rome, in fulfilment of Jesus’ specific promise to him.
Paul is off to Rome, because Paul saw an opportunity.
All are true.
Paul works towards the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise.
Paul works at his mission, because he knows that God is sovereign.
There is nothing incompatible about those 2.
It’s because we know that it’s God who saves people, and not us, that we get involved in the work that we know God himself is involved in.
It’s because we’re convinced that God saves people as they hear the gospel of Jesus, that we make it our business, to bring people under the sound of the gospel.
It’s because we’re convinced that God saves people, that we long for the Word of the Lord to spread rapidly from this place, this community, and be honoured in the lives of others.