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

Sermon by Derek Thomas on August 26, 2007

Acts 25:1-12

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The Lord’s Day

August 26,

Acts 25:1-12

To the Ends of the Earth

“Porcius Festus”

Dr. Derek W. H.

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

“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

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

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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