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To the End of the Earth (55): Porcius Festus

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Aug 26, 2007

Acts 25:1-12

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The Lord's Day Evening

August 26, 2007

Acts 25:1-12

To the Ends of the Earth

“Porcius Festus”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now as we come to Acts 25, you remember two weeks ago Paul is in prison; and he is in prison in the barracks of the garrison that is stationed in Caesarea, and under the authority of Governor Felix. And we ended the portion that we were reading at the end of chapter 24 the last time with Luke's comment that Paul would spend two years in this prison in Caesarea, still waiting for a trial.

Now before we read the first twelve verses of Acts 25, let's look to God together in prayer.

O Lord our God, we in the quietness of this evening bow in Your presence. We are a needy, needy people. We need Your word to instruct us, and we pray, Holy Spirit, that You would do just that. Help us as we read the Scriptures, that we might read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's word:

“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, and they urged him, asking as a favor against Paul, that he summon him to Jerusalem, because they were planning an ambush to kill him on the way. 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 is anything wrong about the man, let them bring charges against him.’
“After he 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 could not prove. Paul argued in his defense, ‘Neither against the Law of the Jews nor against the temple nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.’ 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 am standing before Caesar's tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourselves know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death; but if there is 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.’”

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

I wonder tonight if it ever occurs to you…if you’re ever tempted to think that God's providence is inefficient; that somehow or another what has occurred here to the Apostle Paul can't surely be “Plan A.” It must surely be “Plan B” or “Plan C” that the most gifted apostle, the most erudite preacher, a man who was tried and proved and tested as a church planter in needy times was kept in prison still waiting an arrest for two long years under the edicts of Governor Felix, until Governor Festus arrives. Surely, surely Paul could have been sent to the north coast of Africa, where in the coming century the church would grow and proliferate. Surely God could have sent him east to conquer the land that we now know has been conquered by other world religions. I wonder...In your life are you ever tempted to think that God's providential governance of the world and of my affairs is terribly inefficient?

“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.”

What did William Cowper say?

“Judge not the Lord by feeble strength, but trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence, there hides a smiling face.”

Paul is in prison. We know that he had freedom to the extent that Christians in Caesarea and Christians in Jerusalem were allowed to visit him during this time, but I've been pondering — as I've been looking and studying and mulling over this passage — I've been pondering in my mind what was going through the mind of the Apostle Paul during these two long wearisome years in Caesarea? I want us to bear that in mind tonight. I want us to try and find the contours that shape the disposition of the Apostle Paul…what it is actually. And as I was sitting this morning listening to Ligon expound those closing verses of Philippians 1, there are so many connecting points between what Paul is saying in Philippians (a letter that he's about to write when he gets to Rome, you understand) …so what we have in the epistle of Paul to the Philippians is, in some ways, to some extent a distillation of Paul's ruminations, of Paul's thought as he lay in this prison in Caesarea, and as he would again lie under house arrest in Rome.

What we have now is a change of leadership. Because Felix has done such a terrible job, not just with Paul, but with the administration of affairs in Judea and Palestine generally, he has been recalled to Rome. If it hadn't been for the fact that his brother, Pallas, was a friend in Nero's court in Rome, probably Felix would not have survived it. Governor Festus is now sent as the governor of the province. We know very little, in fact, about him. And what this passage, these twelve verses, bring to the surface is a study in contrasts. We have two principal characters here. We have, on the one hand, a powerful, ambitious political strategist, Festus; and on the other hand, we have the Apostle Paul, a man that (if I can borrow a phrase the Bible uses about David) is a man after God's own heart. And I want us for a few minutes to examine and explore the contrast between Festus and Paul.

Governor Porcius Festus. He arrives suddenly in Caesarea. Felix has been recalled. He probably arrived by boat in the harbor at Caesarea, and there will now be a change of administration. There is a new sheriff in town. He is not as bad as his successors will be — the villainous Lucius Albinus will follow, and the totally corrupt Gessius Florus will follow him, and it is Florus who leads the Jews into a revolt against the Roman authorities, and eventually leads to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and the Jewish wars that preceded it, beginning roughly in about A.D. 66. He arrives at a difficult time.

You have to feel a measure of sympathy for him. He's gaining office, as it were, political office, in a situation of civil unrest. We've seen the potential for unrest already. The assassins, the sicarii, as they were known technically — the freedom fighters of the Jews, the terrorists as far as the Romans were concerned — they were about and on the increase, and would increase even more in the next five, six, seven years during this man's initial administration. Festus won't be there very long. He was an ambitious politician, but he actually died within two years of office. This is as far as the providence of God…merely a temporary administration.

And do you notice in the reading, in three days of arriving in Caesarea, he's making his way to Jerusalem? That is not surprising. Jerusalem was of course the center of all things in that region. But what is surprising is that the number one thing on his plate, the number one issue on his docket, as it were, is this festering case of the Apostle Paul; this case which Felix, under an attempt to bribe the Apostle Paul (because Paul had brought all this money from Asia as an offering for the poor in Jerusalem) — Paul had influential and wealthy friends in high places, Felix must have thought, and he had been over the last two years trying to bribe Paul, and the case has not been resolved. And Festus, well, he hits the ground running. And he calls together the chief priests. There is a new priest in Jerusalem, and a new high priest. Ananias, who had been the high priest in Jerusalem, had been dismissed in a few short years. He will be assassinated by Jewish revolutionaries. The high priest, and probably Ananias along with him, and the chief elders — more or less the Sanhedrin court — are assembled in Jerusalem, and Festus is urged by this Jewish court to release the Apostle Paul to their jurisdiction.

You understand what's going on here. Luke tells us what's going on here. It's a re-visitation of this attempt to have Paul ambushed as he's brought from Caesarea up to Jerusalem, and killed. And even if the ambush were not to be successful, a trial in a Jerusalem court could end in only one way: he would be found guilty of having defamed the temple, a crime that was considered under Jewish law a capital offense, and the Romans had given to the Jews the right to administer that capital offense. A trial in Jerusalem either under the jurisdiction of Rome or, as it is more likely, under the jurisdiction of the Jews, would end in the death of the Apostle Paul.

Festus must surely have been tempted. It would mean surely that Paul would no longer be a problem. It would be a nice and easy way to get rid of a major issue on his agenda. Why not? Since Paul has insisted, and since Festus has probably by this time read the case notes, including the letter of Commander Lucius, you remember, who had brought a letter to the trial two years before…Festus must surely have read this. And knowing Paul to be innocent, why doesn't Festus just simply release him? Well, only the politically naive, of course, would ask that question. To release the Apostle Paul would be to guarantee Jewish revolt. It would be to increase the political upheaval and tension in the land.

So Festus invites the men, the Jewish men, down to Caesarea for the trial. They rehearse the same old charges. There are no witnesses, and they cannot prove a single charge that is being made against the Apostle Paul.

Festus is in a tight spot, is he not? He dare not repeat the error of Felix. And what happens next is a piece of political strategy. He asks the Apostle Paul if he’d be willing to be tried under the jurisdiction of Jerusalem. Now why does he ask that? Probably in a forlorn hope that Paul might agree. Probably knowing already that Paul is in fact a Roman citizen and entitled to a trial under a Roman tribunal. It's a place of desperate political expediency on the part of Porcius Festus, and Paul, as we shall now see, will have none of it.

Paul's reaction is immediate and forthright. He will not be given up, he will not be handed over. And Luke uses the same word as the word that he has used twice in the passage for favor …he will not be handed over to the Jews as what would be to all intents and purposes a favor of Festus to the Jewish Sanhedrin. He appeals to Caesar.

In the first century — at least in the middle half of the first century — everyone who was an Italian had the right to appeal to Caesar in a court of law in a case of law, in a case of jurisprudence. But those who are not Italians, like Paul, could only appeal to Caesar, and that be granted if there was no precedence in law for a case of this kind, which is the case here. So he appeals to Caesar. He appeals to a right that exists in Roman law for a Roman citizen to appear before Caesar. The Caesar in this case is Nero, and Nero has been on the throne probably now for three or four years. Ever since Paul was in Corinth, Nero has been on the throne. Now we have bad images immediately coming to mind when we think of Nero. That would not have been necessarily the case at this point in time. When Nero began his administration under the influence of Seneca and others, his initial administration was regarded to be somewhat more tolerant. It got worse, as we all know. He appeals to Nero. Nero had made it clear from the very beginning that he wasn't about to see any prisoner, and he would delegate all of these to an official of some kind.

As far as Festus is concerned, it was of course a double-edged sword. He would at least be rid of a problem. Sending Paul off to Rome means he was no longer on his agenda, but of course having Paul in Rome would remind Nero and the Roman Senate that things were not being handled well in Judea. So it was a double-edged sword for Festus.

Now what was Paul thinking? I want to suggest to you at least three distinct issues are brought to the surface in this passage that help us see something of Paul's mindset.

I. First of all, we see Paul's relationship to and his particular view of the civil magistrate, or the state.

Paul had written a letter to the Romans. He’d actually written a letter to the Christians in Rome, back when he was in Macedonia. It's probably three years now since he had written this letter to the Romans, and in the thirteenth chapter of that epistle, he’d made it expressly clear — his view regarding the state and the civil magistrate — that civil government exists for the welfare of society; that the civil magistrate is given the power of the sword (that is, the right to administer lawful use of force in enforcing the law). That's why he says to Festus, if I've broken Roman law, I deserve to be punished — and he's not trying to avoid that punishment. That punishment, of course, would be death. He's upholding the integrity of the system, of the legal system of the civil magistrate, of the governing authority. As far as Paul was concerned, Nero was in power because God had put him in power. Fetus was in power because God had put him in power. Felix had been in power because God had put him in power. And except in those instances where the magistrate is asking us to do that which God forbids, or forbidding us to do that which God requires of us, the magistrate is to be obeyed and the law adhered to.

He’ll write, when he gets to Rome and after he's eventually released (beyond, now, Acts 28)…he’ll write the pastoral epistles. He’ll write I Timothy (and he will tell Timothy, who has by this time been sent to Ephesus, and Paul is hoping to get to Ephesus, but because of circumstances he thinks that possibly he might not be able to get there), and he urges Timothy and the Christians in Ephesus to pray for kings and those in authority because they are there by God's command and by God's providence. And so Paul, throughout this passage, as he is a subject of Roman law in a process that is prolonged and frustrating (and perhaps in our eyes and ears not without fault, that a case of this kind should be delayed for so long), yet Paul at no point in seeking to buck the system or rebel against lawful authority. He will undergo the process of jurisprudence, seeing it as God-ordained.

II. Secondly, I think we see here something about Paul and decision-making.

You know — how do you make a decision when both options are equally bad? You know — Shall I go to Jerusalem and be tried by a Jewish Sanhedrin court and be found guilty even though I'm innocent, and be put to death; or, shall I put myself in the hands of the Romans, who are equally likely to find me guilty simply to get rid of a problem? Which do I choose? Jerusalem or Rome? How do you make a decision like that?

You've got to think that Paul in this prison cell in Caesarea must have pondered carefully the strategy, the answer, as in all likelihood this conundrum would be put before him. And he makes a choice, and a decisive choice, and he makes it, it seems to me, not out of a consideration of personal gain. He's ready to die. If he's found guilty, he's ready to die. He declares his innocence, but he's ready to undergo the system. But why does he want to go to Rome?

He wants to go to Rome, I think, because he wants to see this as a test case not simply for himself, but for the church. He wants to establish Christianity under the umbrella of Roman law that tolerated certain religions, like Judaism. He wants to argue before the Romans that Christianity is the necessary flowering of Judaism. It is Judaism come to full fruition, and therefore deserves the protection under civil law that Judaism was given. I find that enormously instructive: that Paul, I think, in the process of his decision-making here facing two equally bad scenarios, is making a decision based not on personal gain but on the needs of others, and on the needs of the church, and not for what might prove to be of personal gain for himself for a temporary period, but what will be a lasting gain for the church for a much longer period of time.

I don't know. I'm thinking out loud now. Luke doesn't give us the details. I wonder how Paul went through this process in his own mind. I wonder if he said something like, “Lord, I don't like any of these choices. And if I had my druthers, I want a third choice. I want to be set free. Send me to Africa. Send me to India. But if this is the only choice that I have, Jerusalem or Rome, it seems to me….” [And do you know? Paul doesn't say he was given special revelation here. He's not saying this because ‘God has told me this.’] He may well simply have made this decision based on his wits, on the wisdom that was available to him at that moment, in the light that had been given to him in those particular circumstances, and he may well have said, “Lord, this is the best solution that I can see. I may be wrong. And if my decision is wrong, frustrate that decision. Don't let it come to pass.” I don't know. I'm trying to imagine how Paul would have gone through this decision, and I'd like to think that that's the way I would try and make the decision in similar circumstances.

III. Paul and providence.
But there's a third thing we see here. Not only Paul and the civil magistrate, and not only Paul and the ethics of decision-making, but Paul and providence.

Because I want to come back to that question I asked you right at the very beginning: Do you think Paul was tempted in prison? Do you think he was even tempted for a second or two to say to himself, “Lord, You know, if I was in charge, I think I could bring about a better scenario than this. This seems so terribly inefficient.” We know, as Ligon has been reminding us and will continue to remind us in the second and third and fourth chapters of Philippians, that the church in Philippi were frustrated by it. Why would Paul, the greatest apostle then alive, why would God have Paul locked up in prison for years and years and years, and not be out there doing something useful?

But this was his usefulness. This was his usefulness. I've been reading the story again this week of Jonathan Aitken. Jonathan Aitken was a cabinet minister and a member of Parliament in the British government in the early 1980's, and he was found guilty in a very, very public trial against… He had sued a newspaper, and he was found guilty of having committed perjury. He was innocent of all the charges that they were actually making against him, and it looked at some point that he was actually going to win the case. But right at the very end of the case, the newspaper produced a receipt of a few days he had spent in a hotel in Paris. The total bill was something in the region of $1800, and it had been paid for by some Arab — Abdullah Sheik something-or-other — and he had lied in court about it. And he was sentenced and imprisoned for eighteen months. In the course of the trial, his wife divorced him. The trial cost him upwards of ten million dollars. He was bankrupt. His political career was in tatters. Three days after entering the prison, he gets a visit from a very notorious politician by the name of Lord Longford. Lord Longford had made a name for himself in the 1970's and ‘80's as a crusader against pornography. He was 94 years old at this point. And Lord Longford came to visit him in prison. His first words to Jonathan Aitken were, “I was having tea with the Queen Mother yesterday, and I told her I was coming to visit you today.” His next words to him were, “I almost envy you. To be humbled by God is painful, but it is a sure mark that He loves you and has a calling for you.”

They’re extraordinary words, aren't they? And I have a notion that at least a part of what God was doing in the life of the Apostle Paul at this moment in his life, frustrated as he must have been by God's providence, was that God was humbling him.

It's not without a degree of remarkableness that in this letter of Paul to the Philippians the second chapter is dominated by the idea of humbling oneself, of God humbling us.

And that's where I want to leave it tonight, because you may find yourself in very different circumstances to the Apostle Paul, but equally frustrating. You are not where you want to be. This is not the desire that you had when you were fifteen. This is not the circumstance that you said on the day that you got married, “This is where I want to be 15, 20, 25, 30 years from now.” And God is humbling you. And the great question that the life of the Apostle Paul demands of us is are we willing to bow beneath that yoke of Christ? Are we willing to bow and acknowledge — what it is that we heard earlier? — He is faithful. He is faithful.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word. Hide it in our hearts for Jesus’ sake. 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.