Paul's Defense before Festus
Topic: Persecution Passage: Acts 25:1–25:27
One of my favorite Bible stories spans the last 13 chapters of Genesis. Joseph is the favored son. His brothers grow jealous. They trap Joseph. They sell Joseph into slavery. They lie about Joseph. Because of circumstances outside his control, Joseph winds up in Egypt. Potiphar’s wife frames him. Joseph ends up in prison. The cup-bearer forgets Joseph. Two whole years pass in prison.
Then finally light begins to dawn. Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man; and we eventually learn the Lord orchestrates all of this. At the very end, Joseph tells his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive…” (Gen 50:20).
What makes the account one of my favorites is the robust vision of God’s sovereign commitment to save his people, even when the circumstances appear like they’re spinning out of control. When you’re on the ground with Joseph, all you can see is setback, after setback, after setback, after setback—and you wonder how any good could come of this. There’s injustice all over the place. Wicked people are winning. “Where are you, Lord?” you might even ask.
But then comes the revelation: God meant it for good. God’s sovereign will was never thwarted. God’s commitment to save his people never waned. He stood beside Joseph throughout. He’s still in charge when life seems upside down. That’s a great comfort to those walking through chaos and uncertainty and hurt; times when you’re being wronged by another. Stories like this give us hope that God is working in and through our dire circumstances to save his people.
In our trek through Acts, a similar theme pervades Paul’s five defense episodes—we’re in the fourth one today with Festus. On the ground with Paul, it looks like setback, after setback, after setback. The Jews have beaten him, tried to kill him, lied about him. The Romans have arrested him, nearly flogged him, fudged on justice to him. He’s been waiting in prison two years. “How can this be good for the gospel?” we might ask. “Your best guy is in prison, Lord! What are you doing?!”
But as we keep reading, it becomes plain: God’s purpose to advance his gospel and save his people is right on track. Even the imprisonment of his apostle will not thwart the gospel’s advance. It just gives Paul another context in which to preach Christ. But there’s more to learn than just that from Paul’s defense before Festus; and that’ll become clearer as we move along. What I want to do is read Acts 25. We’ll stop here and there to reflect a bit on what’s happening—the goal is a good overview. Then I want to point out five ways this account should impact us.
Scene #1: Festus Consults the Jews
So let’s begin with the first scene in verses 1-5, Festus consults the Jews. Festus is another Roman governor. He replaced Felix, who left Paul in prison. Paul hadn’t done anything wrong; Felix just wanted to do the Jews a favor. We’re now two years later. Paul is still in prison. Maybe we’ll actually get a Roman governor who doesn’t forfeit justice for self-promotion. Don’t get your hopes up.
Verse 1, “Now three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews laid out their case against Paul. They urged [Festus], asking as a favor against Paul that he summon [Paul] to Jerusalem…” Luke then tells us why; and it’s not for justice and due process. It’s “because they were planning an ambush to kill him on the way.”
They tried that once already in 23:12-15. But God foiled their plans using the Romans. God foils their plans again here in verse 4: “Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself intended to go there shortly. ‘So,’ said he, ‘let the men of authority among you go down with me, and if there’s anything wrong about the man, let them bring charges against him.’”
So far, not too bad. Festus seems like he’s on the ball. He’s getting to the bottom of things the right way and in the right order. He’s not going to be pushed around by the Jews. The trial will happen on his turf, not there’s. That throws a wrench in their plans. The Jews are going to have to do this the Roman way.
Scene #2: Festus Hears Paul’s Defense
Which brings us to the next scene in verses 6-12, Festus hears Paul’s defense. Verse 6, “After [Festus] stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea. And the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. When he had arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him that they couldn’t prove.” Surprise, surprise! They did the same before Felix in 24:5-6. Their Law says, “You shall do no injustice in court.” Yet they charge Paul with wrongs they couldn’t prove.
Verse 8, “Paul argued in his defense, ‘Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.’” Already we know Paul isn’t against the Law or the temple; he simply explains their fulfillment in Christ. So this could turn into an intramural debate of sorts, where the Jews take their religious position and Paul takes his—and Rome wouldn’t care all that much (cf. Acts 23:29; 25:19). That’s why the Jews interlace their religious charge with a civil charge.
They slander Paul as some revolutionary against Caesar. But as we’ve witnessed throughout Paul’s ministry, followers of Jesus don’t spread his kingdom by political revolt. They do it through patient, truthful teaching and love, even when that love means suffering for Christ’s sake. Remember, the goal of Paul’s defense isn’t simply to get Paul off the hook. He doesn’t defend his innocence for his own sake. 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 Paul has done anything wrong.
That should’ve been enough to convince Festus to release Paul. But it seems that Festus, just like Felix, loves self-promotion more than justice. Verse 9,
But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” But Paul said, “I’m standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I’ve done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I’m a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I don’t seek to escape death. But if there’s nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.”
Who’s the real Roman citizen here? Who has Rome’s best interest at heart? Whose character is the most upstanding? It’s obviously not the Jews. They planned to bypass due process, assassinate a Roman citizen, and now they obstruct justice with false charges. It’s also not Festus. He knows what’s right, as Paul indicates; but he doesn’t act on what’s right—all to do the Jews a favor. Festus has no right to give Paul over to the Jews; and yet he equivocates on justice to do the Jews a favor.
Meanwhile, Paul remains innocent of political upheaval, he respects the governing authorities, and he even shows willingness to submit himself to the death penalty if he’s actually guilty. To top that off, he’s not against Caesar. He’ll stand right before the man if that’s what it takes to convince Rome about the truth of Christianity and the integrity of his gospel witness.
Scene #3: Festus Is in a Pickle
Well, this puts Festus in a bit of a pickle, which we see develop in verses 13-27. King Agrippa and his sister Bernice happen to be in town; and Festus calls on him for advice. Let’s listen to what he says in verse 13…
Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus. And as they stayed there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying, “There’s a man left prisoner by Felix, and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.” Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” said he, “you will hear him.”
Notice how Festus paints himself in the best possible light. We know he did this to do the Jews a favor. But here Festus says he was only at a loss how to investigate these questions. The only loss he’s really concerned about is his reputation with the Jews, and now his reputation before Caesar. He knows he can’t release Paul to the Jews, or he’ll upset the Jews. But Paul also appealed to Caesar, which means Festus is forced to come up with some good reason why he kept Paul in custody. Otherwise, what’s he going to tell Caesar? He’ll be the laughing stock of the town, if as a governor he can’t even tell Caesar why Paul is being kept in prison. That’s his worry. Verse 23…
So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. And Festus said, “King Agrippa and all who are present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish people petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving death. And as he himself appealed to the emperor, I decided to go ahead and send him. But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I’ve brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we’ve examined him, I may have something to write. For it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not to indicate the charges against him.”
To which we all want to say, “Exactly, because there are none!” Twice Festus notices Paul’s innocence before Rome. But here, “Oh! Let’s make something up, so that we don’t look like a bunch of fools”—that’s the way he’s acting. That’s why he wants Agrippa’s advice. He’s in a pickle. All the while Paul is the man of integrity; Christianity stands out as what’s good for the Empire and most concerned for justice.
Pay attention to Acts as a message conveying historical reality.
What are the takeaways in a passage like this? One takeaway is right on the surface, and it has to do with the historical figures involved. We’ve now met two Roman governors—Felix and Festus—and a Roman king and his sister—Agrippa and Bernice. All four appear in ancient historiography outside the Bible; and you can research when they ruled, what role they played, and what sort of characters they were. Not only does Luke’s testimony complement these historical sources, but he’s even writing Acts within the living memory of eyewitnesses or those who spoke to them.
So it’d be real easy for anyone to go verify whether Luke was telling truth or not. They could go to Paul and ask questions; they could go to the court records and see what happened; they could go to the military tribunes and prominent men of the city and ask questions. As Paul will tell Agrippa later on, it’s not as if these things have happened in a corner. Point being: there’s no fake news here. It’s all true.
Luke gives us what actually happened. If he gives what actually happened with Paul, then he also gives what actually happened with Jesus. His Gospel tells us that Jesus came and was born the Son of David; that he lived, taught, died to forgive our sins, and rose again according to God’s promises in Scripture; that Jesus then ascended to heaven with the apostles witnessing everything; and that Jesus is still alive emboldening his church by the Spirit to spread the gospel to the end of the earth. This is historical reality. All that matters to most religions is whether the experience holds true regardless of historical verification. But Christianity is dependent on its historical claims. Acts is a key contributor to those historical claims. Luke helps you and me follow Christianity not just because of subjective experience but because it’s objectively true.
Imitate how the apostles subject themselves to governing authorities.
Another takeaway is that we have an example in Paul of what it looks like to live before governing authorities. Many of us have read Romans 13 before: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
1 Peter 2:13-15 is another one: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”
We read that and we ask, “Okay, but how? What if they’re corrupt? What does being subject to their authority look like? How do I act if they wrongly accuse me and make up all kinds of stuff? Show me how.” Well, all we need to do is flip back a few pages in Scripture and read Acts. Here we have numerous examples to compare and contrast and relate to the governing authorities of our own day. Great wisdom is required for different settings and different rulers, but great wisdom you can find by patterning your responses after those of the apostles. Watch how and when he utilizes his rights to serve the gospel. Watch how he respects the governor without compromising his allegiance to Christ. Watch how he serves his enemies.
Those who follow Jesus will have lives that image Jesus.
When you do, you’ll soon realize that those who truly follow Jesus have lives that image Jesus—that’s a third takeaway. Luke wants you to see the risen Jesus at work in Paul. We know this by the way he writes about Paul. Here’s some homework for you: go home and read Luke 23. Then read Acts 25-26 and jot down the similarities.
Here’s a few things you’ll find. In Luke 23, you find a Roman governor (Pilate), a Herodian King (Antipas), the Jews, and Jesus on trial before them. In Acts 25-26, we find a Roman governor (Festus), a Herodian King (Agrippa), the Jews, and Paul on trial before them. Authorities brought Jesus before Pilate; they order that Paul be brought before Agrippa—same word (Acts 23:1; 25:6). The Jews accuse Jesus of religious and civil rebellion; they do the same against Paul (Luke 23:2; Acts 25:7, 11, 15-17). The Romans acknowledge Jesus’ innocence three times; the Romans do the same for Paul three times (Luke 23:4, 14-15; Acts 25:18, 25; 26:31). Jesus isn’t freed; Paul isn’t freed (Luke 23:16-25; Acts 26:32).
Why is Luke writing his account this way? Why not summarize the ordeal, especially since it’s the second time we’ve heard a trial like this? Why pay attention to such details once again? Because the Holy Spirit wants you and me to see more than just another trial. The Holy Spirit wants you and me to see Jesus alive and animating his people to walk in his footsteps.
You could even add how God’s kingdom wasn’t growing among those with all the political power and great pomp—Agrippa and Bernice with all the glamour of their military cohorts. Just as it was with Jesus, so now with Paul—God’s kingdom was growing among those who walked the road of weakness and humility to speak the truth of the gospel. In true followers of Jesus, you will see Jesus imaged, reflected.
How would you say people see Jesus imaged in you? Are they getting a clear glimpse of Jesus in the way you serve others? Are they getting a clear glimpse of Jesus in the way you speak to others—like to your spouse, to your children? When you respond to your parents or your classmates; when you talk to your clients or coworkers; when you communicate on social media—could people identify Jesus in your words, in your servanthood, in your sacrifice? What about in your joy and in your delight and in your contentment in the Father’s care for you?
If I answered those questions for myself, I’d have to say my image isn’t very clear. The mirror of my life is still quite broken and smeared with the filth of my sin. I need the Lord’s forgiveness and grace to walk in the newness of his life. I need my eyes fixed afresh and often on Jesus. Only by beholding his glory will we be transformed into his image from one degree of glory to another.
Remain confident in God’s sovereign purpose to spread his name.
A fourth, don’t miss the Lord’s sovereign purpose in Paul’s imprisonment. With Paul getting shuffled around all over the place—before this people and that, before this official and that, before this governor and that; now before a king—with all the craziness going on, it’s easy to forget God’s sovereign purpose. Turn back to 9:15-16. At Paul’s conversion, the Lord says these words to Ananias: “Go, for [Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
What’s God’s sovereign purpose in all this suffering and imprisonment? To make his name famous among the Gentiles and their kings! The suffering of God’s people is not merely happenstance. It’s not merely the coincidence of Christians living in a hostile world. It happens by God’s will and design for his name to advance through a suffering church. Did you notice that this whole thing has pagans talking to each other about Jesus? They don’t get it, but they’re still talking. Right? Festus to Agrippa, maybe over a lunch sometime: “the Jews had certain points of dispute…about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.”
Yeah! Rejoice! Christ’s name just went forth! Paul’s got Roman governors and kings discussing the resurrected Jesus. And what does Romans tell us? Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. God’s spreading his word to save.
Or what does Paul say in Philippians 1:12-14? “I want you to know…that what has happened to me [his imprisonment] has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” The whole imperial guard has heard, and everybody knows why Paul’s in prison—Christ! Yes! God’s purposes aren’t thwarted by chains and bars and unjust leaders. The gospel is advancing. Jesus’ name is becoming more and more famous through it all.
So give yourself to it, brothers and sisters. No matter the cost, you can’t lose by investing yourself in making Jesus’ name famous. God is unwaveringly committed to making his name famous. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea”—Habakkuk 2:14. That’s where the world is heading. So give yourself to it with all the might God gives you. His purpose will not fail.
God strengthens his people in the most crazy and unjust circumstances.
Last takeaway and then we’re done. When I prepare sermons, I do so while praying through the membership roll each week. I couldn’t help but keep thinking of several of you who are experiencing unjust treatment of some kind. For some time or more recently, you’ve faced unjust treatment from a spouse. You’ve lost your job and the employer didn’t handle the matter well or with sufficient notice. Or, perhaps you just feel a whole lot of uncertainty about the future—you’re following Jesus, and you’re being faithful as best you know how, but you can’t really see where all this is leading. And what makes it even worse are all the untrustworthy people involved.
Can I just ask you to read this passage and notice how God strengthens Paul and supplies Paul with everything he needs to be faithful in these crazy, unjust, uncertain circumstances? If the Lord is able to strengthen Paul and give him patience with evil and soundness of mind and faithful servanthood and boldness to preach when facing these kinds of circumstances—beloved, he will also strengthen you in the most crazy and unjust circumstances. Our God is a God who strengthens his people: “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa 41:10).
Or how will Paul say it to King Agrippa in 26:22? “To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great…” “I’ve have the help that comes from God!” That’s who your God is. He helps us in the most crazy, insane circumstances. With injustice all around, he will stand with you beloved and make you a faithful witness to his name.
So don’t lose heart, brother. Don’t lose heart, sister. The Lord is in this. Look at his faithfulness to Paul in the midst of his crazy circumstances. Then rest yourself in the fact that he will graciously care and sustain you too, not matter what comes in the path of obedience.