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To the End of the Earth (54): Governor Felix- The Procrastinator

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Aug 12, 2007

Acts 24:1-27

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The Lord's Day Evening

August 12, 2007

Acts 24:1-27

To the Ends of the Earth

“Governor Felix — The Procrastinator”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me once again to The Acts of The Apostles, and we come this evening to chapter 24 — chapter 24 of The Acts of The Apostles — and we're going to read together the first 27 verses of this chapter. Before we do so, let's look to God in prayer.

Lord, this is Your word, written by the finger of God. Men wrote as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit. Help us then as we read it together this evening to realize afresh that it is Your word — every jot, every tittle — and written for our instruction and our edification, that we might be fully furnished, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's word:

“And 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. And 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 have 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 you self you will be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.’
“The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming that all these things were so.
“And when the governor had nodded to him to speak, Paul replied:
‘Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense. You can verify that it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem, and they did not 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. 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. 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. 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 is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day.’’
“But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off, saying, ‘When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will 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.”

Amen. And may God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

“Procrastination is my sin. It brings me naught but sorrow.

I know that I should stop it; in fact, I will — tomorrow.”

Well, this is a passage about procrastination. It's a very famous passage about Governor Felix putting off what had apparently begun to take shape in his conscience by the Spirit of God.

Paul has been giving what in effect have been pre-trial hearings. He has more or less defended himself before a Jewish crowd in the temple (we have read of that in chapter 22 of Acts. And then a more formal hearing before the Sanhedrin, which we read of a couple of weeks ago in chapter 23 of Acts). And now of course Paul has been taken from Jerusalem because of the plot to kill him. And involving upwards of eighty percent of the troops based in Jerusalem — eighty percent! — Paul has been taken to the military headquarters of the Roman Empire in that part of the world, in Caesarea, the coastal city of Caesarea.

Now the trial proper begins before Governor Felix — Marcus Antonius Felix.

The passage divides into three sections. There is the prosecution, which covers more or less verses 1-9; there is the defense by Paul, covering verses 10-21; and then there's the outcome in the rest of the chapter.

I. The prosecution of Paul.

In the prosecution we learn that the Sanhedrin, made up principally now of the Sadducees rather than the Pharisees, the ones who are really making the charge against the Apostle Paul, the ones who don't believe in any kind of resurrection–the one, you remember, that Paul cleverly divided the Pharisees and the Sadducees in his defense against the Sanhedrin–we learn now that they brought to Caesarea after five days a lawyer, an important lawyer called Tertullus. It might signal the weakness of the Jewish case that they hire such an important figure. It might be that they are eager to prosecute the case as quickly as possible. His name is Roman by derivation — Tertius — but he may also be Jewish. Some commentators think that in his prosecution he uses the first person plural, we. Well, any lawyer would do that, putting himself in the place of those that he's standing for. He's more likely to have been Roman. It would have been a clever ploy on the part of the Sanhedrin to employ a Roman lawyer, appealing therefore to Roman law, and perhaps appealing especially to Governor Felix.

The trial itself takes a standard Roman form. There is a pre-trial hearing, and then the accuser is brought forth and makes his charge in front of the accused (who at this point is silent), and only after the charges have been fully made, then the accused is allowed to speak in his defense, and then finally the judge will give his verdict.

You note the flowery language of the lawyer [no lawyer jokes tonight!]: “Most excellent Felix….” Yes, he appeals to Felix's ego. Felix, you understand, had been a slave. He had risen to power, but history has not been kind to Felix. He is, and forgive the expression, he's a ‘hanging judge,’ and was known to be a hanging judge. He had dealt sharply and with decisiveness with troublemakers in the past, and Tertullus was no doubt aware of this.

Three charges are brought. First, that Paul was a political menace; that he was “a plague” who had stirred up trouble, who had caused civil and riotous unrest not just in Jerusalem, but according to Tertullus throughout the world — throughout the empire, wherever he had been. Second, that he was a religious heretic. In other words, not only was he a disturber of the Pax Romana, the peace of the empire, but he was also the leader of a sect that lay outside of the religio lecito, special law given to Judaism that they were tolerated within the empire. Paul was not only therefore a political menace, he was a heretic–a criminal offense in the Roman Empire. And thirdly, that he had desecrated the temple. Luke has already informed us by now over the last two or three chapters that this was an out and out lie, of course; that is, the charge that Paul had brought Trophimus, the Gentile from Ephesus, and that apparently he had brought him into the Court of Israel — and that was by no means the case.

Felix is not impressed either with the fact that Tertullus says that the Jews arrested him in the temple. He's already read the letter written by Governor Lucius in the previous chapter, which had already told Felix that it was the Romans — it was the Roman legion in Jerusalem that had rescued the Apostle Paul from the hands of the Jews because, according to Lucius, he was a Roman citizen.

Well, both are bending the truth, of course, and Luke wants us to see that. This is the prosecution. This is the case that is now being made against the Apostle Paul. He's in a court of law. He's in a civil court. He is being tried before a judge, and he's being accused of three things. Two of them are out and out lies. The one about being a religious heretic may well in the eyes of the Roman Empire be something that may well be upheld. It is a test case.

II. Paul's defense.

And then, fascinating…somewhat fascinating in verse 10, Luke, who must evidently have been there, says that he nods to Paul. The sign, you see, that it's now appropriate for Paul to defend himself before these charges. Paul begins by saying that he cheerfully defends himself. He begins by saying that he's only been in Jerusalem for twelve days, five of them of course in prison in Caesarea, and a couple more held in captivity in Jerusalem–hardly enough time to stir up riots throughout the world!

What do you do when you’re falsely accused? What can you do when you’re falsely accused? Either in a private setting or in a public setting, what can you do when you’re falsely accused? What recourse was open to the Apostle Paul? And I want to put it to you that there is only one recourse that is ever open to us. It is to tell the truth. It is to tell the truth. Paul dismisses the claims that are just out and out lies, but in a way that almost — almost — convicts himself, he says ‘This one thing I agree to.’ The real case here, the real accusation here, and one which I do not deny, is that he had preached Jesus Christ. He was a follower of the Way. He had proclaimed before the Jews and before the Sanhedrin the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.

You notice how Paul here, as he had done back in Jerusalem, speaks about conscience. He tells the truth, you see, because there is a higher power before Whom we must all give an account. There is no sense of the Apostle Paul trying to ingratiate himself and bend the truth in his defense before Governor Felix. He must stand before a greater Judge than Felix. He stands before God and he lives his life, he says, as one that must always live both before man and before God with a clear conscience.

Do you know what Paul is saying here as he talks about himself as a citizen of Rome? He's doing something which will be echoed in fact in about 150 years from the time that Paul is writing this, when Tertullian, one of the great North African church fathers, giving in fact a similar defense in a very famous treatise that he wrote against an accusation that the church was a menace and a sect, and ought to be obliterated. He appeals to the emperor and says, “If you want to find a good citizen, then you will find them among the followers of Jesus.” Isn't that an astonishing thing? That in the year, roughly, 200 or so, Tertullian could say as Paul is saying here that Christians in fact are the very best of citizens. Rather than being troublemakers and causes of riots, actually the writings of the Apostle Paul are filled with respect to the higher powers. We are to pray for the higher powers; they are ordained of God to encourage good and to punish evil.

The real thing that is on trial here, as we've seen now in the preceding chapters here in The Acts of The Apostles, what is really on trial is the gospel. It is Jesus Christ who is on trial. It is the resurrection, as Paul mentions it in verse 21 and again in verse 25. And there in the defense, there in the court of law with his life on trial, what is it once again that the Apostle Paul is doing? Preaching the gospel. Pointing to Jesus. Proclaiming life everlasting by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Paul is a man who lives for one thing. He lives for Jesus. He lives for Christ. No matter where he is, whether he's bound or whether he's free, whether he's on one of his missionary campaigns or whether he's on trial for his life, he can't help but preach about Jesus Christ and Jesus’ resurrection. There's no doubt in my mind that one of the reasons Paul keeps bringing up the resurrection is because his accusers don't believe in the resurrection. His accusers are largely made up of the Sadducee sect of the Jews.

What does the resurrection do? The resurrection validates everything that Jesus said. The resurrection is the Father's “well done” on all that Jesus has accomplished. The resurrection says that Jesus is a man who is still alive, a man still to be reckoned with! That the empire may well have crucified this Nazarene from Galilee, but Paul is saying, ‘He's still alive, I tell you! And not just in the memory, and not just as a picture that you might put on a shelf or on the wall, but He is physically risen from the dead!’

It's a glorious thing to watch Paul defending himself. It's a glorious thing when the stakes are that high, when Felix could have found him guilty, taken him out and crucified him there and then. But, you see, Paul's life in the end was of no concern to him. He knew where he was going. He knew that this world was not his home. He was seeking another city, a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. He had a mind and a heart that was filled with the vision of the reality of the world to come. The gospel suffused every aspect of his being. It poured out of every pore in his body.

III. The outcome.

And the outcome–and the outcome, my friends, is fascinating and disturbing, because Felix waits now for Commander Lucius from Jerusalem to come down to give evidence. Now, why the commander hadn't come down initially may be because of a fear of unrest in Jerusalem. There was no point in going to Caesarea only then to discover that Jerusalem was in turmoil. His job and maybe his life would be on the line, so he had to make sure first of all that there was security and stability in the city before he came down. Secondly, Felix might have said, ‘There is no case here,’ and there is no need for him to come and give evidence.

Now obviously Felix feels that there is some need for him to come to give evidence, and Paul is kept incarcerated in Herod's praetorian. He's given a surprising amount of liberty. His friends are allowed to visit him — the seven, you remember, that made the journey from Asia Minor all the way to Jerusalem, and obviously Luke. I wonder what these eight men did when they came to visit Paul in Caesarea. Brought him food, perhaps. I'm absolutely certain that they spent time in prayer together, praying to the God of heaven for courage and wisdom and guidance. No doubt Paul spent some time giving advice and direction and encouragement to these men.

And then, Felix — Marcus Antonius Felix — married to Drusilla. Drusilla was the daughter of Herod Agrippa I, the Herod who was killed in that awful manner in Acts 12. She is not from good stock. Felix bribed the husband of Drusilla in order to have her as his wife. Shades here of John the Baptist on another occasion.

Drusilla was by all accounts, and historians seem to verify, what we would call a “looker.” She was very beautiful. What do you think in these private meetings when Felix obviously intrigued, obviously wanting to know…Luke says he knew something about the Way…? Drusilla was of Jewish stock. The Herods were of Jewish stock. They were familiar with bits and pieces of Judaism and the Way of Christ, and he wants to know more. He summons Paul into his presence for meetings and conversation. What do you think they would talk about? And isn't it absolutely staggering, in verse 25, that Luke says…do you know what Paul spoke to him about, this man who's married to a woman that he shouldn't be married to, gotten by an evil way? He spoke about righteousness and self-control, and judgment to come.

Were you squirming a little at Brad Irick's very Presbyterian story about separating the sheep from the goats? The story about heaven and hell? There was no gray in it. It was black or white. It was very Presbyterian! But my friends, that's the way of the Bible, and that's the Way of Jesus Christ, and that's the Way of Paul. Paul spoke to this man about his sin, about his unrighteousness. And there is only One that is righteous, namely the Nazarene from Galilee, Jesus Christ. He spoke to this judge who had the power to put him to death, that he too must give an account of himself. There is a Judge who stands over him. Powerful stuff. And the more Felix heard it, the more convicted he seemed to become, and do you know what he did? He sent Paul away. In the language of the King James Version, “some more convenient season…some more convenient season.”

My friends, there's a terrible lesson here. There's a lesson about procrastination. When the Spirit of God is moving in your heart and in your soul, when the word of God begins to do its work and to convict you of sin and righteousness and judgment to come, that's the Spirit's work. What will you do?

Now let me ask it in the present tense: what are you doing, my friends? Maybe you’re here tonight and maybe because you've been coming to this church or some other church for a number of weeks or months and God has been speaking to you, but you’re not a Christian, you’re not a believer. You have not been made right in the sight of God through faith in Jesus Christ. And God is speaking to you, showing you your need, of your sin, of judgment to come; that there is coming a day (as the little children were being told this evening) when God will cast the unrighteous, the goats, into hell–a place of torment and terrible judgment. And my friends, what are you doing with that information? What are you doing with that?

Ligon was telling us this morning of a famous battle in the twentieth century, but let me tell you of another famous battle, and I'm referring to the Revolutionary War in 1776, and the Battle of Trenton — Trenton in New Jersey on the Delaware River. A famous incident took place on Christmas Day in 1776, when George Washington brought his troops to cross the Delaware River. They crossed the river in three points at night, on a freezing cold night. The river was said to have ice in it, and the commander of the Hessians — the Hessians were Germans fighting on behalf of the British Empire — the Hessians…the colonel was a man by the name of Colonel Rowe, and he was playing cards — poker, I think. And a man comes to him with a note, and he had given strict instructions not to be disturbed. And the note was handed to him, but he put it in his pocket. And the note was of course about George Washington and that these troops had been seen crossing the river. By the time the game was over, it was too late. The note was found on his dead body the next morning, along with the death of many of his soldiers. He procrastinated. He put it off.

Do you think, my friends, that you can come to Jesus Christ at any time you want? Do you think that's true? Do you think you can leave here tonight and say, ‘Look, I can come to Jesus Christ after I've been through college — when I'm married or about to get married, that would be a good time to come to Jesus.’ And my friends, you will discover, perhaps like Felix discovered, that the more he put it off, the more he would realize he was unable to come to Jesus Christ. Because “now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation.”

I'm saying to you that Paul must have been saying to this man, this judge, Felix, as you sense the Spirit of God working in your heart and soul, convicting you of your need of Jesus Christ, come to Him now and without delay, and saying,

“Nothing in my hands I bring;

Simply to Thy cross I cling.”

You see, the more Felix put Paul off, the more the thought of bribery appealed to him. Imagine that. How little he knew of the Apostle Paul, that Paul would give him a bribe in order to let him free! Paul would stay in this prison for two long years, my friends. Two long years in which Felix failed to come to Jesus Christ.

Oh, my friends, I trust that won't be true of you.

Father, we thank You now for Your word, and it convicts us. And we pray tonight that by Your Spirit You would draw those in this congregation who are convicted about their sin and the need of salvation — that You would draw them to Jesus Christ without delay. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.