The Christian on Trial
Bible Text: Acts 24:1 – 21 | Speaker: Clayton Fopp | Series: Acts – What Kind of Church? | Acts 24:1 – 21
The Christian on Trial
It’s déjà vu all over again …
Lawrence Berra, or “Yogi” Berra, as he was known was an American baseball player and coach, who aside from being one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, was also known for his amusing bungling of the English language. Berra famously confused reporters and fans with statements like these:
“Baseball is ninety percent mental, the other half is physical.”
“Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.”
“You should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
And then, in attempt to clear up some of the confusion, he once stated, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”
But perhaps his most famous Yogi-ism, as they were called, was to describe a baseball game that was taking a familiar turn, as, “It’s déjà vu all over again”, thereby demonstrate demonstrating the ability to mangle not only the English language, but French as well!
It’s déjà vu all over again, it’s not bad though, because it kind of suggests déjà vu, with emphasis! Which is entirely appropriate when we’re in this part of the book of Acts!
Today we’re looking at the Apostle Paul on trial before Felix, the governor of Judea,
Paul then finds himself presenting a defence before Felix’s successor, Festus,
And thirdly, by chapter 26, both Festus and King Agrippa ask Paul to make his defence.
And although we’re going to look at them one at a time over the coming weeks, I don’t want us to lose sight of the big picture, the déjà vu;,
The similarities that we see,
The repeated statements, and especially, the repeated declarations, at the beginning, the middle and the end of this section, that the nations’ rulers find Paul innocent of all crimes.
In chapter 23 verse 29 last week, we heard the Roman Commander, Claudius Lysias declare, there was no charge against Paul that deserved death or imprisonment.
Right in the middle Governor Festus says to King Agrippa I found he had done nothing deserving of death, that’s 25:25,
And after all 3 trials, the king announces, “This man could have been set free, if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
What we’ve got in effect is one of those picture frames with 3 photos in it, and each photo, each trial, is framed by declarations of Paul’s innocence.
In focussing in on each trial, we don’t want to lose sight of that bigger picture.
So let’s look at how this first official trial unfolds.
The charge: Paul is bad for Romans and bad for Jews
Verse 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
Governor Felix was so immoral and corrupt, that he was removed from his position by the Emperor Nero, which is the absolute definition of the pot calling the kettle black! But it says something about just how lacking in moral fibre Felix was, if even Nero couldn’t stomach his exploits.
And not much better, is this lawyer Tertullus.
In fact he’s sort of half lawyer, half spin doctor!
More than half of what Luke records coming out of Tertullus’ mouth is just untrue flattery!
Have a listen to what he says, 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.
Archaeologists have discovered coins from during the governorship of Felix, with these same claims printed on them, about long periods of peace and reforms,
The problem is, it just wasn’t true!
Felix was one of the very worst governors that Israel had suffered under. Tertullus is just repeating Felix’s own propaganda back to him.
Someone who is so casual with the truth about the governor’s handling of his role, hardly fills us with confidence when it comes to arriving at the truth about Paul.
Everything in the story is telling us these charges are bogus.
And so their accusation is no surprise;, Paul and his Christian message are bad for Romans, and bad for Jews, they say.
“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.
It’s déjà vu all over again, these are the same charges that were brought against Jesus.
In Luke 23, the Jewish leaders accuse Jesus of these same charges before Pilate, who was governor of Judea about 20 years before Felix.
They accused Jesus of sedition, acting against the interests of the empire, and of speaking against the Jewish Law and religion.
Now the Jewish leaders are bringing these same accusations against Paul, no doubt hoping that the death sentence that was carried out against Jesus, will be repeated in Paul’s case.
Will being a follower of Jesus bring prosperity. wealth and acclaim?
Some people today will tell you that,
Some people will try and convince you to become a Christian with that promise,
And yet, we’d have to say the example here is, well it’s the exact opposite.
It’s déjà vu all over again. Those who follow Jesus can expect to, follow him, into opposition,
With all manner of false allegations being made against you.
The accusations are false
So Paul begins his defence with a general rebuttal of the charges against him.
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.
He’s been in town less than 2 weeks, so it would be easy for Felix to verify the facts, and find out that Paul’s telling the truth.
There was no argument in the temple,
He hadn’t stirred up a crowd.
Paul points out that there’s no evidence of the charges against him all.
In fact, if we flick back through Acts, or read some of Paul’s letters to Christians in the New Testament, we’d see that not only is Paul innocent of these charges of speaking against the Jews, speaking against the Empire, he is in fact completely on the other side of that argument.
Paul believed, Christians believe, that governments and authorities are established by God, and followers of Jesus will demonstrate their obedience to him, through their obedience to the authorities that he has established.
Paul had written to the Christians in Rome, maybe just 12 months before this event. Have a listen to what he said.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves
These are hardly the words of someone who goes about stirring up riots and causing cause trouble for the governing authorities, are they?
And in fact, while we’re thinking about Paul’s letter to the Romans just some months before, in chapter 9 of that letter, he describes the great privileges experienced by the nation of Israel. And he specifically includes, in his list of wonderful blessings that Israel enjoys, that have come from God, Romans 9 verse 4, the receiving of the law, and the temple worship
It’s quite remarkable, that the very things that his opponents choose to accuse Paul of being against,
He’s already on the record,
Well-known around the world, as being in favour of, and in the case of the privilege of the Jews, considers these things to be blessing from God’s hand!
Is it any wonder that Paul says in verse 13, they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me?
Luke really wants us to know, there is no truth to the claim that the Christian message is bad for the society to which it comes.
“Religion poisons everything” the celebrity atheists will tell us. Luke wants us to come away from reading his historical account thinking, “absolutely not.”
Paul is an Old Testament Christian
The best defence is offence, they say. And so Paul gets a little bit more proactive, speaking about what he has been doing, and what he does believe.
Verse 14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets,
The word which in the NIV Bible is translated admit, is sometimes translated confess, and that might be what your Bible has.
And no doubt as soon as Paul says he’s ready to confess, the whole courtroom is waiting with bated breath! But what he’s going to confess to is not the charges, clearly, but it’s a confession of faith.
He says he shares with the Jews who are listening, a worship of God.
He’s not worshipping a different God,
He worships the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
The God of the Old Testament.
Paul is an Old Testament Christian!
Not in the sense of denying the New Testament, he wrote a good chunk of it, but in recognising that there is no Christianity without the Old Testament.
Notice the way he describes the foundation of the Christian faith in verse 14, I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets,
The Law and the Prophets was a shorthand way of referring to the entirety of the Jewish Scriptures, what we today call the Old Testament.
Here as Paul defends his faith, we see what relationship our Christian faith has to what God had revealed of himself in the Old Testament.
We might live, we do live in the New Testament era, but if you’re a Christian today, and I imagine that probably most of us would identify ourselves that way, our faith has its roots back there, in the Law and the Prophets.
That’s where God began to lay out his plans to restore a broken world to himself.
That’s where God first announced that he would one day do away with the problem of sin and rebellion forever.
See this question that I keep wondering about as I read all these trials and defences in Acts, “Why the déjà vu all over again?” Why are these events all recorded for us?
Well here through what Luke records, we learn something about the Scriptures themselves, about what as Christian people, our approach, our relationship should be, to the Old Testament Scriptures.
We’re Old Testament Christians. That is, we, with Paul, believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets,
It’s this truth that shapes our church’s teaching program,
Should shape our personal Bible reading,
Informs our understanding of how God communicates. He has communicated progressively. Not all at once. God’s revelation of himself and his purposes didn’t begin with Jesus, nor was it complete with Genesis.
So Paul worships the God of their ancestors, but he does it as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. To us, to call something a sect is almost entirely negative. If we call something a sect we tend to mean outside of the mainstream, a fringe group.
But a sect, was the term used to describe groups like the Pharisees, even in the book of Acts.
Judaism was made up of a number of sects, different branches, different expressions of one broad religion.
And so for Paul to say “I follow the Way, which they call a sect”, is in effect to say, “I follow the Way, which even they call a sect, even they recognise is broadly part of Judaism.”
Judaism was a protected religion under Roman law, which means that if even his accusers think of Paul as practicing one of the various sects within Judaism, then as far as governor Felix is concerned, then there can be no charge against Paul.
That’s Paul’s argument to the direction of Rome,
And Paul would say that seeing Jesus as the Messiah, and trusting in him as the sole means of reconciliation with God, that’s not a deviation from Judaism, but the fulfilment of Judaism, true Judaism.
It’s those who accuse Paul who have abandoned true Judaism, because they had failed to hear what God said he would do,
And then recognise it when God did it.
Some years ago when I was working at Trinity Hills Church, which is an Anglican church, we had some visitors from other Anglican churches, who were all training for ordained ministry. After our service, several of them described the churches that they were a part of, and it turned out that in several cases, their churches had abandoned many of the elements of church services typically associated with the Anglican tradition.
They’d abandoned public confession, because they didn’t want to talk about sin in public,
They’d stopped saying the historic creeds like the Apostle’s Creed, because they weren’t really sure they believed everything that Christians had been declaring through those words for centuries,
They tended not to read much of the Bible when they gathered, and so on,
To the point that a number of these visitors commented that we were more Anglican than they were!
If you asked Paul, he’d say that he’s more Jewish than his Jewish opponents, because he believes everything that God had said in the Old Testament, and he believed that not only had God said those things, but that he also fulfilled all those things in Jesus.
Paul and the Jews had a shared hope
But even more so, the high point of what Paul and his accusers had in common, was the hope of the resurrection.
Verse 15, I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.
We saw last week that among the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees, that sect, believed in the resurrection, while the Sadducees, did not.
And there are no doubt some Sadducees here in the group that’s come down to Caesarea to accuse Paul, so they don’t have this same hope in God, but the Pharisees did, and Paul treats the Pharisees’ expectation of the resurrection as the true authentic Jewish position.
It’s not just Paul who has the hope of the resurrection, he says it’s something he shares with all God’s people.
Now, he understands that the resurrection has already begun, with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. That’s the point of difference, between him and the wider Jewish expectation.
This is the one place in the New Testament, where Paul specifically makes reference to the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked, or literally the unrighteous.
The Jews of Paul’s day believed in this 2-fold resurrection, based on passages like Daniel chapter 12, and it’s the implication of this resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked that is particularly important, because the resurrection of people who are wicked, or unrighteous, those who aren’t living in right relationship with God, implies that judgement follows life.
Every person will face God, upon their resurrection from the dead, and will give an account to him for their life.
Now, we might think that’s a fear factor, but for Paul, it’s a hope that he shares with God’s people.
For Paul there was great comfort in the fact that God would judge the righteous and the wicked.
For Paul, the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked was something to hope for.
It was his assurance that right would triumph.
We mentioned last week, the resurrection of all people is our assurance of right and just judgment for sin and evil, even when we don’t see it in this life,
The resurrection is our promise of justice, for those to whom it is denied in this life.
Like those Anglicans I met who had abandoned the patterns of traditional Anglicanism because they thought they were outdated, or unpopular, we might be tempted to neglect the truth of this two-fold resurrection,
We might not like to think particularly of people who have lived lives in rebellion against God being raised from the dead to face him,
But we mustn’t, in our thinking, or our words, or our practice, deny it.
Clearly Paul thinks the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked, is a significant enough part of the Christian message, to make it into this explanation of the Christian faith,
And he says, it’s the shared hope, to which all God’s people cling.
Is it your hope? The resurrection of the dead?
Do you have the same hope as Paul?
And if so, does it, like it does for Paul, shape your behaviour?
See he says, So I strive always, to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
Paul’s language of striving here is the word used for athletic training. In fact one Bible translation even uses the phrase I am “constantly in training.”
Think of the athlete who knows the competition that’s coming,
The football player who understands, that the pre-season needs to be lived out, with an eye to the grand final.
“Because of what I know is coming,
Because I know that every person will have to give an account before God,
I constantly strive to ensure I can stand before God with a clear conscience.”
And just as Jesus talked about the law being summarised in terms of loving God and loving your neighbour, “well”, Paul says, “I strive to make sure that I have a clear conscience when it comes to my neighbour, also.”
Never let anyone accuse Paul of being a dull theologian, an academic ensconced in his ivory tower, safe from ever having to wrestle with the implications, or the application of his theology.
The hope in the resurrection that he shares with all faithful countrymen, shapes his behaviour, shapes his conduct, even this day, on trial before Felix.
I wonder how often we think about it,
How our shared hope of the resurrection shapes our behaviour and conduct now.
I was reading a book this week about some Christian authors who overcame learning disabilities to develop and use their gifts to serve the church. And one of these women was writing about her struggles with this very issue, making decisions now, in the light of our confidence that we will one day be raised from the dead and give an account to God.
Of course, it’s not a weighing of the scales, that we anticipate. Did we do more good deeds than bad deeds? That’s what my Muslim friends believe about the end of their life;
Allah will assess the balance, and they’re never quite sure which way it will go, I guess until it’s too late!
No, Paul can say he’s got a clear conscience. It was for that statement actually that he got whacked by the High Priest’s thugs last week! He knows exactly where he stands before God, because he knows that final judgment is about how we respond to God’s King Jesus.
But still his conduct now is shaped that sure hope.
He wants everything about his life now, to demonstrate that he is a faithful disciple of Jesus.
Paul was in fact honouring the temple and the Jewish people
Paul then returns to the specifics of the charges against him.
So earlier on, in verse 14, he’d talked about his love for God’s Word, for the Law,
Here he mentions his concern for the temple, and his love for God’s people.
The original accusation that started all of this, was that Paul had been speaking against the Law,
Against the temple,
And against the people.
We’ve had to wait a while for Paul to actually address the accusations, that was way back in chapter 21, but here he does. And he says it is all entirely baseless.
“My whole reason for being in Jerusalem,” he says, “was to demonstrate my love for God’s people, and my respect for worship in the temple!
When he’d gone to such lengths to undertake the ceremonial purification in chapter 21, even going so far as to pay the expenses for the men who were going through this purification ritual with him, it’s just nonsense to suggest that at the same time, he’d defile the temple, by taking in someone who was prohibited by the law.
And not only that, Paul had come to bring my people gifts for the poor, and to present offerings.
My people is a way of referring to the Jewish nation generally, not Jewish Christians specifically. And Paul doesn’t make a big deal here of the fact that this money came from Gentiles, or from Gentile Christians, just that it was a gift for Jews, and how could anyone who brought a gift for the Jews, be accused of being an enemy of the Jews?!
Imagine I came round to your house and mowed your lawn,
Weeded the garden,
Vacuumed and mopped,
Cooked you a week’s worth of meals,
Paid all the bills that were stuck on your fridge,
And then you said, “That Clayton, he hates me!”
It’s just ridiculous.
The accusations against Paul just don’t make sense. And those troublemakers from the province of Asia who first stirred up opposition to Paul, well, they’re nowhere to be found.
And Paul actually breaks off in his recounting of these events midstream, before he gets to explaining their role in it all, “Objection, your honour! They ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me”
This is a significant point in Paul’s defence. The people who allegedly witnessed Paul committing these crimes, have disappeared.
Roman Law was quite strict when it came to accusers who abandoned their charges after they’d made them. The Emperor Claudius himself had drafted legislation and spoken in the Senate about prohibiting people from making accusations, only to abandon them later.
I recently came across a law firm’s document of guidelines for witnesses, as to how they ought to dress and conduct themselves in order to give evidence in court!
So from the fairly straight forward, be sure to eat breakfast and a light lunch on the day you’re giving evidence,
Through to the very specific: a woman witness should not wear black clothing, because black may convey a cold persona,
Actually the women really cop it! Long hair should be pulled back from the face. If a witness is not used to having her hair pulled back, she should practice wearing the planned courtroom hairstyle in advance, to allow her time to become comfortable with it.
Well, I wonder what they’d say about the witness not turning up at all!
The fact that these supposed witnesses don’t even appear, is a glaring admission that their charges are baseless. And for Tertullus to have raised an accusation against Paul in the total absence of any witnesses, was a fairly significant breach of Roman legal procedure.
And perhaps these fairly significant legal holes are noted by Felix.
He doesn’t grant the Jewish authorities what they demand,
And in not sentencing Paul to be executed, he at least implicitly denies their accusation that Paul and the Christian message are a threat to the good order of society.
He doesn’t release Paul as he should, based on the evidence, but we find out later, that’s as much about his Felix’s own greed, as anything else.
If you’re a Christian, be prepared for the fact that the response to the Christian message will not always be warm and welcoming! Luke, our historian, doesn’t want us to be under any misapprehensions!
John Calvin, the church Reformer in the 16th Century once observed, “No person is fit to preach the gospel, save only those who are prepared to suffer.”
This is why statements like that are true.
Of course, after pointing out the serious breach of Roman Law, in witnesses not turning up to press their charges, Paul actually suggests a legal tactic for his opposition!
Verse 20, Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin!
Paul’s saying, “Why don’t these guys who are here, go back to my prior convictions?
Let’s get out my National Police Certificate, and see what it says!
I stood before the Sanhedrin, I presented my defence, let’s give them the floor, and they can tell us all what crime they found me guilty of!
It’s clever, isn’t it!
Because the Sanhedrin hadn’t found him guilty of anything! In fact the Pharisees in that group had stood up and argued vigorously, we’re told, that Paul was innocent! “We find nothing wrong with this man,”
If the Sanhedrin had found Paul guilty of any crime, then Ananias the High Priest can step forward and tell the court what it was,
But he doesn’t,
Because he can’t,
What’s the phrase on our National Police Certificates for ministry among children? “Nil disclosable outcomes.”
“Oh there was this one thing though”, there was this one thing I said that they didn’t like, ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’ ”
Do you see what Paul’s done?
Even their own court,
The highest arbiter of religious matters in the land, couldn’t find any truth to the accusations against him, and a significant proportion of the court thought he was innocent.
After giving his accusers the floor, and inviting them to list off the crimes of which they’ve found him guilty, knowing that they’re unable to do that, all his accusers are in effect in the witness box alongside of him, testifying on his behalf, that all Paul did was speak about theological matters on which even they disagree amongst themselves!
It’s a shrewd argument on Paul’s part,
A Roman court had no interest in deciding issues among the Jews that the Jews couldn’t agree on themselves,
But notice that once again, Paul gets to the resurrection.
He never misses an opportunity to speak of the resurrection of the dead.
And he almost puts the words in his accusers’ mouths. What can they say about him? Well there’s really only one thing that came up in that meeting of the Sanhedrin, that they can testify about. They could say, “Paul believes in the resurrection of the dead”, which is exactly what he wants to say!
It’s because of the resurrection that he’s on trial.
Plain and simple.
Most of Paul’s Jewish countrymen also believed in the resurrection, what made Paul and the other followers of the Way different, was that they believed that Jesus was the Christ, and that through his resurrection, he had guaranteed the resurrection of all people.
The reign of God’s king had begun.
Paul was on trial for nothing less than his faith in Jesus.
And so it seems that Yogi Berra said it right! It is déjà vu all over again!
Paul’s is on trial for his faith in the resurrection of Jesus as the announcement of the new era of God’s dealing with his people,
Paul is on trial because he believes that in being raised from the dead, Jesus’ claims to be able to bring lost people to God were vindicated.
Paul’s on trial, because he believes the resurrection of Jesus announces and guarantees the resurrection of all people, the righteous and the wicked.
We’ve seen it before, and we’re going to see it again, as the story unfolds.
See, Luke wants us to be convinced of the centrality of the resurrection to the Christian faith.
He records it time and time again, to make sure we see what conviction and perseverance, faith in the resurrection of Jesus generates. One trial’s down, 2 still to come, all because of the resurrection, and yet Paul maintains his witness.
We see it over and over, the Christian message, the Christian faith, hangs on the certainty of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
But Paul doesn’t act like a prisoner, really does he? He’s not primarily concerned with presenting his own innocence. He’s much more interested in giving people an opportunity to investigate the issues and claims of the resurrection for themselves.
Which puts the question before us. What do we think of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?
Do we think it’s real?
Do we think it matters?
Do we think it’s significant enough, that presenting its reality and implications are worth putting our own well-being aside.
Do we think that Jesus raised from the dead, is what people need to hear?
In God’s kindness, Paul never seems to falter in his presentation of the claims of Christ, putting his own needs and preferences second.
What an incredibly kind and gracious God we’re presented with, who sustains Paul time, and time, and time again.