Paul's Defense before Felix
In our journey through Acts, we’ve continued to witness the risen Lord Jesus advance his kingdom. Despite various obstacles, the gospel marches on. Conflict from within, persecution from without—regardless of deception, demons, dictators, even death, the purpose of the risen Lord Jesus to reach the ends of the earth with his grace is unstoppable.
Last time we gathered, we read of more than 40 men vowing to kill Paul. Only they missed who’s really in charge. The night before, the risen Jesus stood by Paul and said, “Take courage, for as you’ve testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” If the risen Jesus says, “You must…,” in the sense that such an event will necessarily occur—nothing will stand in his way.
Step one in getting Paul to Rome was foiling the plots of the Jews. The next step is Paul defending himself once again, though this time we have an actual governor in an actual court with a prosecutor, charges, and formal defense.
Now, I’ve mentioned this before and I’ll mention it again. Part of Luke’s goal is to vindicate Paul before Rome. That’s where Paul winds up in Acts 28. While Paul ministers in Rome, any authority could read Acts and see that Christianity was no direct threat. It wasn’t a military movement. It wasn’t a political revolt. It was right to let Christians preach the gospel without government intrusion. But in the process, Luke also presents an example in Paul when governments do interfere.
That’s very relevant to our situation. Quite regularly we read stories of other Christians on trial in a Muslim country, usually for unjust reasons. We read stories of Christians being detained in China and charged with “inciting subversion to state power” for preaching Christ. When we make disciples of all nations, we have material in Acts 24 they can learn from and that we can pray for them.
But even closer to home—there are ethical choices Christians make in which our own governments involve themselves. More famous are cases that’ve come before the Supreme Court: Hobby Lobby’s objection to the Affordable Care Act, which required employers to provide abortion-causing drugs for their employees; Masterpiece Cakeshop refusing to bake a cake that celebrates a same-sex wedding. Recently, some of you have sat before authorities in your workplace, explaining why your allegiance to Christ doesn’t permit you to participate in certain policies affirming transgenderism.
If we faithfully submit ourselves to Jesus’ lordship in the public square, it won’t be too long before authorities demand we defend ourselves. So Paul’s situation before Felix becomes rather instructive for us. I want to draw out several things we can learn from Paul’s trial before Felix. But before we get there, let’s walk through the narrative in full, stopping here and there to reflect on what’s happening. The passage breaks into three scenes: the charges brought; the defense made; the results with Felix. Let’s look first at the charges brought against Paul. Verse 1…
Scene #1: The Charges Brought Against Paul
After five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus. They laid before the governor their case against Paul. When he had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying: “Since through you we enjoy much peace, and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation, in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude. But, to detain you no further, I beg you in your kindness to hear us briefly. For we’ve found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him. By examining him yourself you’ll be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.” The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming all these things were so.
In verse 1, we meet a man named Tertullus, a spokesman. The NASB calls him an attorney. He’s a silver-tongued lawyer, persuasive in speech but corrupt in character. You almost get sick of his flattery in verse 2. Yes, it was common to open with a few words of respect—Paul does that much in verse 10. But Tertullus also praises Felix for bringing peace and reforms for the Jews. Only, by the time we get to the end of chapter 24, this is a corrupt ruler who seeks bribes and not justice.
What kind of man is Tertullus, then? He’s a man who praises the corrupt and denounces the innocent; he calls evil good and good evil. The latter he does by raising three charges against Paul. The first charge is sedition. Verse 5, “We’ve found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world.”
Rome didn’t care much about religious squabbles. But they cared a whole lot about people disrupting peace and compromising the state’s power. That’s why earlier in 21:38 they’re so alarmed that Paul could be this Egyptian revolutionary stirring up a revolt. Tertullus makes that his first line of attack. He wants Felix to believe that Paul is a troublemaker; that his actions threaten the state’s power.
As readers, though, we know that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, Paul was involved in a few riots. But Paul never instigates them. The Jews did. In 13:50, the Jews incite devout women and leading men, stirring up persecution and driving Paul out. In 14:5, a mob of Jews nearly kills Paul. In 17:5, the Jews grow jealous and take some worthless men, form a mob, and set the city in an uproar against Paul. Then they do it again in 17:13. Then two weeks prior to this trial, the Jews instigate yet another riot against Paul in 21:28. Tertullus twists the truth in order to set Felix against Paul.
His second charge is sectarianism. Verse 5, “He’s a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” Now, that doesn’t seem to be that big of deal, except that Felix would’ve heard of Jesus of Nazareth who stood trial before Pilate the governor. Against that Nazarene was also brought the charge of treason. Luke 23:2, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” Felix may have bigger problems on his hand after all, if that’s true of Jesus and now Paul. Only it wasn’t exactly. Yes, Christ was indeed king, the King of kings; but his kingdom didn’t advance through political revolt and military might. It advanced through truth, love, and self-sacrifice to spread joy in God’s glory.
Tertullus’s final charge is sacrilege. Verse 6, “He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him.” Again, with Israel and its worship protected under Roman law at the time, this becomes a big deal. Rome didn’t look favorably on people who disturbed the peace. He’s accusing Paul of disturbing the peace by acting against their precious temple. This additional charge may even give Felix a free pass. All he’d have to do is hand Paul over to the Jews; and they’ll take care of Paul themselves.
Some of your Bible translations may add verse 7 in brackets or in a footnote: “We wanted to judge him according to our own Law. But Lysias the commander came along, and with much violence took him out of our hands, ordering his accusers to come before you.” The earliest manuscripts don’t include these words. But even if the words were once present, they also don’t change the meaning. If anything, they show Tertullus twisting the story with more lies to cast the Jews in a favorable light—as if they were working for Rome’s advantage by seizing Paul.
The Jews then join in the charge, affirming that all these things were so. So you’ve got a corrupt governor, a silver-tongued liar, and a whole bunch of Jews affirming these charges are true. Paul is by himself. He has no defense attorney, no witnesses. The odds are stacked against him. Nevertheless, the risen Lord Jesus emboldens Paul to speak; and he stands firm in his testimony.
Scene #2: The Defense Made by Paul
That brings us to the second scene: the defense made by Paul. Paul opens with a positive word but not one of flattery. Verse 10, “When the governor had nodded to him to speak, Paul replied: ‘Knowing that for many years you’ve been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense.’” Then one by one Paul works through the charges.
First, Paul clears himself of sedition. Verse 11, “You can verify that it’s not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem, and they didn’t find me disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd, either in the temple or in the synagogues or in the city. Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me.” In other words, these guys are making stuff up. He came to worship in Jerusalem, not start a revolt. He came peacefully, and Felix could verify that with others who were there in that twelve day window. It wouldn’t be hard to find.
Next he clears himself of sectarianism. He does so not by denouncing their charge outright, but by qualifying their charge. He’s not part of a sect of Jews that’s gone mad. He belongs to those Jews who’re actually true to their God and their heritage in the Scriptures. Verse 14, “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”
Christianity isn’t contrary to the hopes of Israel. Christianity confesses that Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel. Paul isn’t out to derail the Jews. He’s out to announce that they’re Messiah has come, that their Law and their Prophets have been fulfilled, that Jesus has opened the way to worship God with a guilty conscious washed clean, that Jesus himself will bring the resurrection of the just and the unjust. These aren’t contrary to Israel’s faith. They’re the culmination of Israel’s faith.
Thirdly, he clears himself of sacrilege. Verse 17, “Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings. While I was doing this, they found me purified in the temple, without any crowd or tumult.” Paul cared for the poor in Jerusalem. He presented offerings. They found him purified. How much more Jewish could he be? They’ve really got nothing on him.
Then he adds one more piece to his defense, which turns the tables. Verse 18, “But some Jews from Asia—they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, should they have anything against me. Or else let these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, other than this one thing that I cried out while standing among them: ‘It’s with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I’m on trial before you this day.’”
In other words, “Can a real eyewitness please stand up?! These guys weren’t even there. Everything they’re saying is hearsay. The Jews from Asia started the whole mess. I tell you what: why don’t we let these guys charge me with something they actually did witness: “I cried out that ‘It’s with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I’m on trial before you this day.’” That’s where Paul wants to go. Not only does he defend his innocence, but he uses the whole situation to get back to the resurrection.
As we saw last time, that’s his inroad to Christ. Christ is the firstborn from the dead. He’s building the same inroad to the gospel, and using the courtroom to run people to Christ. What’s the fallout? Let’s look at the results with Felix. Verse 22…
Scene #3: The Results with Felix
But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off, saying, ‘When Lysias the tribune comes down, I’ll decide your case.’ Then he gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody but have some liberty, and that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs. After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, ‘Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.’ At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him. When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.”
Not exactly justice. Justice would mean Paul’s freedom. He gets privileges tied with his Roman citizenship, but he doesn’t get justice. Felix is being crafty. He knows Paul is innocent—Lysias already told him so in 23:29. He can’t punish Paul. But to release Paul would cause more headaches with the Jews. Even more, maybe he could use the situation to get something out of Paul, like money. Maybe Paul will bribe him. So he delays the verdict while giving Paul a few privileges, though he remains imprisoned.
Paul, though, sees this not as a hindrance to the gospel. He uses every opportunity to share the gospel. Verse 24, “[Felix] heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed.” Righteousness. The last time Paul brought righteousness and judgment together was in his Areopagus address in 17:31. “God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Even here in verse 15 he mentioned the resurrection of the just and the unjust—same vocabulary.
Regardless of Felix’s position and power, Paul doesn’t flatter him and build up his ego. He preaches righteousness, doing what’s right before the Lord. He preaches about self-control, which Felix doesn’t have. He’s looking for bribes. He’s pleasing Jews instead of executing justice. Even history books outside Scripture like those by Suetonius and Tacitus unanimously agree that Felix was corrupt, marrying three different queens, one of which he seduced to leave her husband.[i]
Yet Paul doesn’t hesitate to preach self-control; and not only that, the coming judgment. Can you hear Paul? “Felix, you don’t have the righteousness God requires; you don’t have any self-control; God will hold you accountable at the resurrection.” Question: who’s really on trial ultimately? Felix is. The world may play around with their own trials. But the gospel puts everybody on trial before God’s law. God’s word puts us in the dock and demands we explain ourselves; and we’ve got no defense!
We’re all guilty; and so is Felix. What’s his only hope? What’s our only hope? Verse 24, faith in Jesus Christ!” Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God (1 Pet 3:18). That’s the gospel for Felix. That’s the gospel for you and me. We don’t have the righteousness God requires. We lack self-control. God will hold us accountable at the resurrection. Your only hope to escape his judgment is Jesus Christ, who bore the judgment for you and gave his righteousness to you. Paul didn’t fear Felix. Paul didn’t cater to Felix’s worship of money. Relentlessly, Paul set the gospel before Felix, even if that meant it kept him in prison another two years.
Expect unjust treatment from those without Christ.
What does all this mean for us? To begin, Paul’s trial means that we should expect unjust treatment from those without Christ. In our American context, Christians often act surprised when the world hates them. They’re shocked by the culture’s aversion to Christianity. Sometimes Christians get really angry about it too, and have this attitude like, “They can’t do this to us! We’re taking this country back!”
But have we forgotten the words of our King, our Master, our Lord? “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you’re not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…” (John 15:19-20).
Or 1 Peter 4:12-13, “Beloved, don’t be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Christ said it would be so. Therefore, let’s not respond with shock and vitriol. The world doesn’t know any better. Let’s respond with patient faithfulness as we see first in our Lord Jesus and then in his apostles.
Renew your confidence in the Spirit to give us all we need.
At the same time, renew your confidence in the Spirit to give us all we need when we’re mistreated. I once had a teacher ask me the following test question: “Acts of the apostles, Acts of Jesus Christ, or Acts of the Holy Spirit? Please explain.” The point was clear. It wasn’t an either-or question, because in the acts of the apostles, we witness the acts of the risen Lord Jesus working by the acts of his Spirit.
That couldn’t be truer than in Paul’s defense right here. Hear this from Luke 12:11-12, “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, don’t be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
Or Luke 21:12-15, “…they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” “The Holy Spirit will teach you.” “I will give you.”
That’s Jesus’ promise. Take courage as you see that promise come true in the ministry of Paul. Should the path of obedience bring you before the authorities, the Holy Spirit will strengthen you and enable you to exalt Christ with what you say. You don’t have to fret about tomorrow. He will be with you, beloved; and you will speak boldly and in the power of the Spirit. He doesn’t fail his people.
Vindicating the gospel may require Christians to defend carefully their innocence.
Third, vindicating the gospel may require Christians to defend carefully their innocence. Paul must defend himself against false accusations. But the goal isn’t so Paul gets off the hook. He doesn’t defend his innocence for his own sake, to save his own skin. He defends his innocence for the gospel’s sake.
He doesn’t want the gospel falsely associated with some guy stirring up political revolts, when that’s not how Christ spreads his kingdom. He doesn’t want the gospel falsely associated with some heretical offshoot in Judaism, when Christ came to fulfill their Law and Prophets and make Israel’s hope of resurrection reality. Paul wants the message clear: he’s in chains because people hate Christ and him crucified and risen, not because he’s done anything wrong.
1 Peter 2:19-20 is helpful here. “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” Or 1 Peter 4:15-16, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” In other words, don’t suffer for the wrong reasons. Don’t suffer because you’re a moron. Rather, do what’s right as a Christian; and if you suffer for that, then great!
Paul gives Felix a lesson in why he’s suffering. He’s not suffering because he’s a troublemaker. He’s suffering because they don’t like him preaching the risen Lord Jesus. So Paul’s vindication in Acts really becomes the gospel’s vindication. We may have to defend our innocence, because we don’t Christ’s name with whom we’re associated to me misunderstood or maligned. Sometimes that may include admitting to your own wrongdoings—and may we be humble to admit those too. But it may also include defending ourselves who accuse us of wrongdoing when no wrong is present.
We must not compromise our prophetic witness for people in power.
Fourth, we must not compromise our prophetic witness for people in power. Christians may feel very confident in teachings like there is no God except the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, like justification by faith alone, or the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, or eternal punishment in hell for those who reject Christ. But put some in front of people in power, people with money, people with influence, people who with a single word can determine whether you live or die, whether you go home to family or remain in jail—and all of a sudden that confidence wanes.
The temptation in that moment is to flatter those in power. The temptation is to soften the teachings of Christianity. The temptation is to make the offense of the cross more palatable so you can just stay friends. For some of us, we don’t need people in power to feel that temptation. We fold before people who have no power.
Felix has the power to release him, and Paul doesn’t hesitate to raise the offense of the cross even higher the longer he stays in prison. He kept speaking to him about righteousness, self-control, and judgment. When’s the last time you talked to an unbeliever about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment? Yes, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. But he said things to them like, “You’re right to say, ‘I have no husband’; for you’ve had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.” A clear, prophetic word that lays the heart bare to their need for Christ.
Don’t compromise here, brothers and sisters. Christ is too glorious and hell is too awful to keep silent. Consider how you might speak to someone you know about righteousness, self-control, the coming judgment, and what God has done in Christ to save us and raise us to be with him forever. We worship God and fear him above all. He will never leave us or forsake us. Therefore, we can say with confidence, the Lord is my helper. I will not fear. What can man do to me?
The resurrection compels us to live before God and man with a clear conscience.
Finally, the resurrection compels us to live before God and man with a clear conscience. Notice the link Paul makes between verses 15 and 16. He says, “…having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. So I always [I think the NASB is better here: “In view of this—that is, in view of the resurrection of both the just and the unjust”] I always take pains to have a clear conscience before God and man.”
Some of you don’t have a clear conscience before God and man. Before God, your conscience is guilty. You’re far from his word. You’re not investing in his people. You’ve grown apathetic in the fight of faith. You’ve trained your mind to love the world instead of righteousness. You lack self-control over your passions. Or, your conscience bothers you because of the way you’ve treated other people. You’ve thought ill of them, but aren’t willing to confess it. You’ve judged others before actually knowing them. Perhaps you’ve gossiped and spread falsehood. Or, you’ve just ignored them.
Don’t let your conscience become seared. Rather, make this reality your meditation: God will raise you from the dead. You will stand before his throne and give an account. Jesus’ eyes are like a flame of fire. He will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. You may have fooled others; but nobody will fool the risen Lord Jesus.
Therefore, live before God and others in a manner fully pleasing to him. Turn away from choices dishonoring him; and bow your knee to his will. If you don’t, Daniel 12:2 says you will rise to everlasting shame and contempt. But for those who live for Christ and treasure him, you will rise to everlasting life and joy in his presence. Take pains to have a clear conscience before God and man. The resurrection is coming, beloved. As somebody once put it: Only one life twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.
[i]See the discussion and sources listed in Keener, Acts, 3328.