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The assassination plot
Acts Chapter 23, verses 12-15
The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.”
Forty men of Israel took God’s name in vain by swearing to commit murder. Although Luke does not say so, these conspirators were probably dagger men. Their aim, their method, and their oath fit the pattern. It is not likely that men who took such an oath would starve or die of thirst if they failed to do what they had sworn to do, for the rabbis had made it possible for them to be released from such an oath.
It is remarkable that the religious leaders of the people involved themselves in such a plan. They either believed that such actions were a service to God or, as Sadducees who did not believe in a judgment after death, they simply lacked the fear of God.
Acts Chapter 23, verses 16-24
But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.
Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” So he took him to the commander.
The centurion said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.”
The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?”
He said: “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. Don’t give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush forhim. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until theyhave killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request.”
The commander dismissed the young man and cautioned him, “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.”
Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. Provide mounts for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.”
The tribune took the plot seriously, assigning 470 men to guard a Roman citizen. Twice he had seen an undisciplined mob try to kill the prisoner, and only Roman intervention had saved Paul. Now the tribune was contending with a more disciplined group of conspirators. He took every precaution to get this prisoner safely to the administrative headquarters in Caesarea.
Some interpreters think that the word that the NIV translates as “spearmen” refers to two hundred pack animals or extra mounts, rather than to armed men. Taking 470 troops away from Jerusalem would considerably weaken the garrison there. Taking 270 would leave more in the city to maintain security. Leaving at 9:00 P.M. was a way of avoiding the hostile attention of the conspirators.
Felix occupied the official position that Pontius Pilate once held. He was governor, or procurator, from A.D. 52 to 60. The Roman historian Tacitus characterized him as a man who “exercised the power of a king with the mind of a slave.”
Acts Chapter 23, verses 25-30
He wrote a letter as follows:
To His Excellency, Governor Felix:
This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him.
Here we learn the tribune’s name. The name Claudius suggests that he gained his citizenship during the reign of Claudius or that of his predecessor, Claudius Tiberius. The name Lysias suggests that he was of Greek ancestry.
The form of the letter (sender’s name, addressee’s name, greeting, message) was typical of the form used for letters in the first century. It is the form that James and the church at Jerusalem used in their letter to the gentile believers (15:23-29). It is also the form employed by the writers of many of the New Testament epistles.
Claudius Lysias was shading the truth with his explanation of how Paul came to be his prisoner. The first time he and his troops rescued Paul (21:30-33), he had not yet learned that his prisoner was a Roman citizen. He had him bound with chains and later directed that Paul be flogged and questioned (22:24). Only then did he learn through the centurion that Paul was a Roman citizen.
The representative of Roman law had to admit that he did not see any reason why Paul should be punished under Roman law. Like Gallio at Corinth (18:15), he did not think that a religious issue among Jews was something for Roman officials to occupy themselves with.
Paul was in a strange position. He was not charged with any specific crime against Roman law, yet he was being remanded to a higher Roman authority. Partly to protect him from the Jews, partly to satisfy the Jews, and partly to rid himself of a troublesome case that he did not know how to deal with, the tribune was sending Paul to Governor Felix.
Acts Chapter 23, verse 31
So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris.
The detachment, with the prisoner, left the city at 9:00 P.M. Antipatris was about 40 miles from Jerusalem. The usual march for Roman infantry was 24 miles per day. Perhaps moving more quickly than usual in the cool of the night, the group reached their destination before the next day had passed.
Caesarea: Paul’s witness before kings and governors
The hearing before Governor Felix
Acts Chapter 23, verses 32-33
The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him.
The road to Caesarea led away from the center of the Jewish agitation against Paul. The smaller, more mobile cavalry troop sufficed as an escort for the rest of the trip, about 30 miles to the coast. The infantry returned to Jerusalem.
Acts Chapter 23, verses 34-35
The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, he said, “I will hear your case when your accusers get here.” Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.
Under Roman law Felix had to ask his prisoner from what province he had come. The prisoner could then choose to be tried in his home province or in the province where he had allegedly committed a crime. Felix was a deputy to the legate who governed Syria and Cilicia. Therefore, he could claim the right to hear Paul’s case no matter which jurisdiction the latter might choose.
The palace that Herod the Great had built at Caesarea was used by the Roman authorities as their official residence and headquarters. Paul was kept there as a prisoner, just as he was kept in the official headquarters in the Antonia Tower at Jerusalem.
Acts Chapter 24, verses 1-4
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. 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. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.
The elders who went with Ananias were members of the Sanhedrin. Tertullus was a man who could present the charges against Paul in a way that was in accordance with Roman court procedures. The accusers had to make the case that Paul was guilty of more than teaching and living contrary to the Jews’ religion. They had to demonstrate that he had violated Roman law.
Tertullus understood that the standard procedure in addressing a Roman dignitary was to use flattery. There was peace during Felix’s rule in the sense that there was no war. He had crushed the terrorist uprising led by the Egyptian (21:38). As to reforms under Felix, there is no record. Two years after this hearing, he was called back to Rome and replaced because of poor performance in office.
Tertullus’ use of “we” in his opening words might mean that he was a Jew with training in Roman law, but it could also simply indicate the way in which a lawyer identifies himself with his clients.
Orators tend to promise at the beginning to be brief, even when they are not. Tertullus really was brief, once he had finished with the flattery.
Acts, Chapter 24, verses 5-9
“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 and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”
The Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.
As in the trials of Jesus and Stephen, the charges amounted to false witness. The Jews had rioted in many of the places where Paul preached, but he had not incited the riots. The word used for “troublemaker” is literally “pestilence.” The accusation was that Paul constituted a plague, dangerous to the public welfare. As “ringleader” of a sect, Paul could be charged with advocating an illegal religion, one not allowed under Roman law.
Paul, of course, had not desecrated the temple, nor had he tried to. The accusers knew by now that the charge of the Jews from the province of Asia that Paul had taken a Greek into the court of Israel (21:28) was false. But they were still willing to accuse him of the attempt to do so.
In his charges, Tertullus wanted to make it appear that Paul’s actions threatened the “peace” and “reforms” that Felix had brought about. The Jews’ reasons for bringing charges were religious, but they wanted to depict Paul as a threat to Roman law and order. Desecrating the temple would have been a violation of Roman law, which protected the religion of the Jews.
The NIV has a footnote here to indicate that some manuscripts of the New Testament read: “So we seized him and wanted to judge him according to our law. But the commander, Lysias, came and with the use of much force snatched him from our hands and ordered his accusers to come before you.” Compare this with 23:10,30 and see how it turns Lysias’ rescue of Paul into an injustice against the Jews.
Acts Chapter 24, verses 10-16
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. You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 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. And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 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, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
Like Tertullus, Paul began his address in a complimentary way, but not with the flattery that Tertullus employed. He simply expressed his gladness at appearing before a judge who knew the Sanhedrin and its tactics, who had dealt with them in the past.
Felix would understand that “no more than twelve days ago” meant that Paul had come to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. It would be an easy matter to learn what the prisoner had done during that time, especially since he had been in Roman custody for more than half of those 12 days.
Paul categorically denied the charges against him. He asserted that his accusers would not be able to prove them.
his defense Paul stressed that he was a religious teacher, that his faith was really the true faith of Old Testament believers, that the disagreement between him and the Jews was not political but religious, and that there really ought not to have been a religious difference between them and him.
In his defenses before Felix, before Festus (25:1-12), and before Agrippa (25:13–26:32), Paul tried each time to lead to the message that God raised Jesus from the dead. His accusers never wanted to discuss this fact. Neither could they deny it. The Pharisees especially could not challenge the resurrection of Jesus without seeming to deny the teaching that set them apart from the Sadducees. Also, Paul’s reminder that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked was really a call for all who heard him to repent.
Paul then applied this message to himself. He knew that deliberate sin can destroy faith and struggled to keep his conscience clear of any sin—against God, his conscience, or other people. He had not desecrated the temple, as he goes on to assert:
Acts Chapter 24, verses 17-21
“After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. 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. 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. Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin—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.’”
This is the only direct reference in Acts to the collection that the gentile mission churches gathered “for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26). The offerings that Paul had come to present were probably connected with the vow he had taken, mentioned in 18:18. It was obvious that he had not come to Jerusalem to desecrate the temple or to stir up rebellion against Roman rule. It would also be obvious to Felix after six years of governing Judea that a man who was bringing offerings to the temple would not be stirring up the crowds while he did it.
If Paul had been guilty of “stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world” (verse 5), then those Jews from Asia who accused him of teaching against Israel and Israel’s laws and Israel’s temple (21:28) ought to have been present as witnesses in the hearing before Felix. They were not.
What had set off the violent dispute between thePharisees and Sadducees in the Sanhedrin was Paul’s bold confession of the resurrection (23:6,7,10). Preaching the resurrection is a religious statement, not an incitement to rebellion. Any Pharisee in the delegation of elders who stood before Felix could not call that a crime. They would not let the Sadducees call it a crime or a strange doctrine of a strange sect. Once again Paul was demonstrating that the accusations against him were not based on any crime against Israel or Rome.
Acts Chapter 24, verses 22-23
Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” 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.
Felix knew more about the way, that is, the faith and life of the disciples of Jesus, than might have been expected of a Roman official. His third wife, Drusilla, was Jewish (verse 24). With her help he probably understood both Judaism and Christianity better than most Romans in high official position did.
The governor ordered that Paul be kept under conditions of minimum security, something like house arrest. As far as we know, Lysias never came to Caesarea for the trial. We do know that Felix never did get around to deciding Paul’s case.
Acts Chapter 24, verses 24-26
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. 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.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him.
Felix was willing to hear Paul tell the story of Jesus, but what that story means for life and for eternity he did not want to hear. He was afraid because he had a bad conscience. He put off hearing the whole will of God to a more convenient time. There is no evidence that he ever did find it “convenient” to hear it. The time to hear God’s Word, law and gospel, is always now, always today.
The motives for Felix’s further frequent talks with the apostle were mixed at best. He had perhaps not lost all interest in Paul’s message, but he also hoped to receive a bribe. Giving and receiving bribes was not uncommon, either for imprisoning or for releasing people. It was illegal, but it was done. Perhaps Paul’s mention of the relief gift and offerings (verse 17) gave Felix the notion that Paul, or Paul’s friends, had the financial resources that would make a considerable bribe possible.
Acts Chapter 24, verse 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.
Time ran out on Felix as far as hearing and believing the gospel were concerned. He was recalled to Rome in A.D. 59 to face charges that he had been inept and remiss in his rule of Judea. Jews from Jerusalem would be his adversaries in the hearings in Rome. Therefore, he did theJews one more favor and left Paul in prison. That was not justice, and it was evidence that he had not repented, in spite of all he had heard from Paul.
Porcius Festus became procurator in A.D. 60 and died in 62. He too would have his opportunity to deal justly with Paul. Moreover, he would have opportunity, as Felix had, to hear the gospel and repent.