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The hearing before Governor Festus
Acts Chapter 25, verses 1-5
Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and the Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul. 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. Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong.”
The new governor of Judea was eager to visit the political and religious center of his province. He knew that the Jews had been dissatisfied with his predecessor, and he wanted to make a good beginning. He promptly went up to Jerusalem, and the chief priests and leaders of the Jews promptly renewed their case against Paul.
Paul had been sent to Caesarea to foil an assassination plot (23:15). Now another plot was underway, perhaps involving the same people who had earlier vowed to kill Paul. Festus may have known of the plot. He certainly understood that it would be more difficult to conduct a calm and orderly trial in Jerusalem than in Caesarea. He wanted to protect the rights of a Roman citizen. He refused to grant the request of the Jewish leaders.
Festus’ words in verse 5 sound like a suggestion or like permission, but they were really a command. Notice that he gave the prisoner the benefit of the doubt: “. . . if he has done anything wrong.” If Festus saw the letter that Lysias wrote to Felix (23:26-30), he knew that there had been a plot at that time. He also knew that Lysias did not consider Paul a criminal. Such a letter would be on file and would alert the governor not to do the Jews’ bidding. Besides, the proper place for a governor to sit as judge was on his seat of judgment, and that was in Caesarea.
Acts Chapter 25, verses 6-9
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. When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could
Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”
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?”
The “many serious charges” boiled down to doing “wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.” Essentially, they were the charges that the Jews had earlier lodged with Felix (24:5,6). They had not been able to prove them then, and they could not do so now.
As Pontius Pilate did in Jesus’ trial and Felix did in Paul’s case, so Festus did what he could to curry the favor of those whom he was supposed to rule with impartial justice. Legally, Festus could not require Paul to go to Jerusalem for a trial. But, since the alleged crimes allegedly took place in Jerusalem, he asked Paul whether he would be willing to stand trial in that city.
Acts Chapter 25, verses 10-11
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. 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!”
With great dignity and with a polite rebuke for his judge, Paul insisted that he was where a Roman citizen ought to be: before Caesar’s court. A judge who knows that the defendant is innocent has one obvious duty, and that is to dismiss the case and free the prisoner. The apostle understood that Festus’ request was a device to gain the Jews’ favor. He knew that if Festus was not willing to act justly in Caesarea, he would not be able to withstand the pressure of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
Paul was not trying to evade justice, but he would not submit to injustice. For the gospel’s sake, a preacher of the gospel must not be condemned as a criminal when he is innocent of the charges against him. That would hurt the gospel cause.
On the other hand, if a Roman court would rule in Paul’s case that his preaching was not illegal and was within the bounds of legal religious activity, that would give Christianity official recognition as a legally permitted religion. So Paul appealed to the highest earthly judge, the emperor in Rome.
Paul was using the ancient right of a Roman citizen. A person who was condemned in a Roman court could appeal to Caesar and have the case reviewed. In a case that had not been decided, such as Paul’s case, the defendant could appeal to Caesar at any point in the proceedings. That would put a stop to the trial, and it could not continue except before the imperial court. Caesar, or at least his personal representative, would have to dispose of the case.
At that time Nero was Caesar, emperor from A.D. 54 to 68.
Acts Chapter 25, verse 12
After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”
So momentous were Paul’s appeal and Festus’ decision on the appeal that the governor did not respond until he had conferred with his legal experts. The law said that the appeal must be granted, and so it was. Paul would at last go to Rome, as he had long intended to do (19:21).
In the providence of God, the hatred of the Jews and the unjust delaying tactics of the two Roman governors combined to permit Paul to preach the gospel in Rome. Two years before, in the barracks of the Antonia Tower, the Lord had told him: “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (23:11). Now it would happen.
The hearing before King Agrippa
Acts Chapter 25, verse 13
A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus.
King Agrippa was Herod Agrippa II. He was the son of Herod Agrippa I, who had James put to death with the sword and intended to do the same to Peter (12:1-3). His great-uncle was Herod Antipas, who beheaded John the Baptist (Matthew 14:3-12) and tried Jesus (Luke 23:8-12). He was the great-grandson of Herod the Great, who ordered the slaughter of baby boys in and around Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:16).
Although Agrippa did not rule Judea, he had control over the temple and the right to name the high priest. He controlled certain territories in the north of Galilee and the south of Syria. He had the title “king” under the authority of the Roman government.
It was important that he and Festus get along well, in view of his temple responsibilities, which gave him influence in Jerusalem. Bernice was his sister, but a number of heathen writers of the first century say that she was living with him as his wife.
Acts chapter 25, verses 14-21
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. When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned.
“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. 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. When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected.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. 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. 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.”
What crimes had Festus expected? Treason, sedition, forbidding to pay tribute to Caesar? Gallio (18:14), Lysias (23:29), and now Festus recognized that Jewish religious disputes really had no place in Roman law courts.
Festus was at a loss in trying to investigate and settle the case against Paul, because under Roman law there was no case against Paul. In his desire to get along with the Jewish leaders, Festus had been willing to conduct a trial in Jerusalem. But he would have been no more competent to investigate religious questions in Jerusalem than he was in Caesarea. He had not acted responsibly, and his prisoner finally took the responsibility away from him by appealing to Caesar. In his report to Agrippa, Festus tried to make himself look good, but his performance had not been up to Roman
standards of law and order.
Acts Chapter 25, verses 22-23
Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear this man myself.”
He replied, “Tomorrow you will hear him.”
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.
Jesus had predicted just such occasions as this for his disciples: “You will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict” (Luke 21:12-15). A king, the governor of Judea, five Roman tribunes, and the leading citizens of Caesarea gathered to see and hear Paul. He would witness to them about his Savior, and they would not be able to contradict him in a reasoned way.
Acts Chapter 25, verses 24-27
Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, yousee 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. 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. 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. For I think it is unreasonable to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him.”
Was Festus exaggerating a bit when he said “the whole Jewish community” wanted Paul’s death? Yes and no. The chief priests and Jewish leaders and “the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem” were the representatives of the whole Jewish community. On the other hand, not every last Jew desired Paul’s death.
The representative of Roman justice had to admit that there was no reason under Roman law for the prisoner to be held as long as Paul had been held. But now Roman law required that he be sent to Rome because of his appeal. The procurator could neither condemn nor pardon. He could only report what he knew about the case, and he did not understand the case.
Festus could not send Paul to the emperor without specifying charges. He had no idea what charges to specify, and he wanted help. Perhaps Agrippa, who tried to live in two worlds—Jewish and Roman—could help.
Where the NIV has “His Majesty,” the Greek original has “the Lord.” That reminds us that Nero was considered by the Romans to be a divine person. “Caesar is Lord” became a catchphrase of the imperial religion, and it would increasingly cause problems for those who believed and confessed that “Jesus is Lord.”
Acts Chapter 26, verses 1-3
Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.”
So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.
Paul understood, as Festus did, that King Agrippa was a man who could help gentile Roman officials understand Jewish thinking. He would formally defend himself against the Jews’ accusations and at the same time seize the opportunity to preach the resurrection. Since he had appealed to Caesar, he did not really have to make a defense, but he would do so for the gospel’s sake.
Paul’s hand motion was the customary signal that a speaker used to indicate that he wanted to make a formal presentation.
Acts Chapter 26, verses 4-5
“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. 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.
Paul was a well-known figure in Jerusalem, and all who knew him knew what his lifestyle had been. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul mentions that he outstripped his contemporaries in his zeal for the Law of Moses and the traditions he received from the fathers (Galatians 1:14). In Philippians 3:5,6 he writes: “[I was] circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” No Jew could accuse him of neglect in religious matters. How could they accuse him of trying to desecrate the temple?
Acts Chapter 26, verses 6-8
And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised ourfathers that I am on trial today. 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. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
As he had before the Sanhedrin (23:6) and before Felix(24:15), Paul wanted to speak of the hope of the resurrection.God promised the resurrection in the Old Testament and guaranteed it by raising Jesus from the dead. In speaking of the resurrection, there would be opportunity to preach Christ.
How unreasonable for the Jews to persecute Paul for teaching what the 12 tribes of Israel hoped for, what their service to God was all about! Why should King Agrippa or any other Jew consider it incredible that God raised Jesus from the dead? A religion based on the hope of the resurrection of all cannot reject the resurrection of the one!
Acts Chapter 26, verses 9-11
“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 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. 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.
The name of Jesus is the revelation of who he is and what he has done. Saul of Tarsus wanted to stop that revelation by every possible means. Here is the third account in Acts of Paul’s persecuting activity and his conversion. Each time it is recorded it makes the point that it was the risen Christ who turned a persecutor into a proclaimer.
Those whom he once persecuted Paul now called “saints,” God’s holy people. Where had he cast his vote against them so that they suffered capital punishment? Only the Sanhedrin could pronounce the death sentence for religious offenses, and only the Romans could carry out such a sentence. This might suggest that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin. It is more likely, however, that he cast his vote as a member of an investigating group that made recommendations to the Sanhedrin.
A detail of Saul’s raging activity against the saints that has not been mentioned before in Acts was that he tried to force believers to blaspheme. Those who would be willing to curse the name of Jesus, and in that way deny him, were spared imprisonment and death. Getting them to do so would be a great victory for one who hated the name of Jesus, greater than putting to death those who
would not deny.
Acts Chapter 26, verses 12-14
“On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 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. 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.’
Not at night in the privacy of a room but at noon on a public road, the bright light blazed. The light was not simply from or in the sky. It was from heaven, a special brightness signaling the presence of God.
The self-righteous persecutor learned that his activities were only hurting himself and that they were useless. A proverbial saying expressed the foolishness of trying to fight against God. A stick with a sharp point is still used in some countries to control an ox and to get it moving in the right direction. The beast that resists by kicking against the goad only hurts itself.
Acts, Chapter 26, verses 15-17
“Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. ‘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. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 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.’
The Romans and the Jews in that audience room knew what crucifixion was. There was no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth had died a hard and cruel and certain death. But here was Paul saying that Jesus appeared to him and spoke to him. That was a confirmation that he had arisen. That means that there is a resurrection. The risen Lord called Paul to bear witness to the fact of his resurrection, and Paul was doing just that. It was for that reason that the Jews hated Paul and were trying to kill him.
The Lord had promised to rescue Paul from the murderous plots of his own countrymen, who rejected Jesus, and from the attacks of the Gentiles. “I am sending you” means the same as “I am making you my apostle.”
The apostle’s mission was to give unbelievers the light of the gospel, to tell them the good news about Jesus. Paul was to continue the work that Jesus did in his own ministry and that which the Savior established by his perfect life and innocent death, the work foretold by Isaiah:
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light to the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who
sit in darkness.
I will lead the blind by ways they have not
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn darkness into light before them.
The Bible knows nothing of “happy heathen” who live a free life and should be left alone. It does not know of religious people who please God by following “the light that is in them.” It knows only of human beings who are in darkness until the gospel light shines on them, who are under Satan’s power until the good news about Jesus sets them free to serve God. Gentiles in their lawlessness and Jews who imagined they were keeping God’s law were all sinners in need of a Savior.
By faith in the risen Lord, those who are turned by the gospel receive the forgiveness of sins, a place among God’s saints. In verses 17 and 18 we see that God uses the gospel to save people and that salvation is received by faith.