sermon: Facing Times of Stress: When God Is Silent (Part One)
The Plot to Murder Paul
Martin G. Collins
Given 11-Aug-18; Sermon #1446; 67 minutes
Hardships are a normal part of life, perhaps leading us to despair that God has abandoned us. In Acts 23-26, the apostle Paul could have had these depressing thoughts, but did not. Paradoxically, when God seems to be silent, He is feverishly at work micro-managing what otherwise appears as insignificant details. When forty Zealots took an oath conspiring with the Sanhedrin to take the life of Paul, it looked as though he was as good as dead. But God intervened on Paul's behalf to fulfill His purpose. Because of this intervention, an army of armed guards transported Paul out of physical danger, thereby unwittingly facilitating an opportunity for Paul to preach the Gospel to three Roman leaders while he was a prisoner. Characteristically, God uses small things to accomplish His purpose, as He does by calling the base and foolish of the world to confound the wise. Despite the fallacious charges made against Paul by his many enemies, God enabled him to refute the charges with the truth. Just as all the stratagems arrayed against Paul eventually crumbled, the stratagems conspiring against God's called-out ones will also come to nothing. We need to remember that, during those times we fail to see God's hand, He is hard at work intervening on our behalf.
We all hope that there are not going to be any serious difficulties in our lives, but there surely will be. Whether you have had them or not, it does not matter. You will still experience them in your lives and very probably there will be more, many more to come. I do not mean to depress you, but that is just a fact of life. In fact, Job 5:7 says, "Yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward." You are very familiar with that statement. That is a poetic way of saying that hardships are a normal part of life for Christians as well as others.
So hardships will come eventually, just as they came to the apostle Paul. What we are going to see in Acts 23 is how Paul went through his hard times and how God took care of him. Chapters 23 through 26 of the book of Acts may not seem like it on the surface, but it has a very broad application. It is about hardships, about the difficult times in life that come to everyone. Today we will investigate how the apostle Paul was able to successfully face times of stress.
Now what do you do at times when God seems silent? Well by the time of Acts 23 Paul had begun to experience some of these dark days already. Even when he was free traveling from city to city to preach, he experienced difficult and uncomfortable circumstances, to say the least.
On more than one occasion, he was the victim of mob action. He was beaten, stoned, and later he is going to be shipwrecked. Yet during those earlier days he was at least free. Now he has entered a period of his life in which he is imprisoned. He does not have the liberty to travel and the days of incarceration in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and eventually Rome become quite long. Paul was in prison for two years in Caesarea and for another two years in Rome, at a minimum, to say the least. So including travel time, Paul was in Roman custody for at least five years, possibly longer. Now, after Paul had spoken to the Sanhedrin, Jesus appeared to him and said,
Acts 23:11 But the following night the Lord stood by him and said, "Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome."
Now that is a New Testament equivalent of God's appearing to Abraham after he had rescued his nephew Lot from the four kings of the East who had attacked and overthrown Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar. Abraham had won the battle through a surprise attack, but he was still in danger of a full retaliatory assault from a superior force. And God told him:
Genesis 15:1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward."
That must have been a tremendous comfort to Abraham, as God's words in Acts 23:11 must have been to Paul. But in Paul's story, Jesus does not appear to Paul or speak to him as far as we know from anything mentioned either in Acts or in Paul's letters. Paul has no special revelation, no direct word of comfort during the events that are recorded in this chapter from this point on in the story. What God does, though, is point Paul in the direction of his service for God. He comforts him by saying those words, and then he sends him off.
Paul's lack of comforting words in this chapter does not mean it is of no value in helping us through difficult times. On the contrary, it gives us a realistic introduction to what he says about living through dark times.
He says that there are days in our lives when not only do things seem dark, but also God does not seem to be speaking to us. He seems silent and remote, and I think we have all experienced that at times in our lives. Does that mean that God has forgotten us or does not care what is happening? In a real sense, God is never closer to His people than when they cannot see His intervention. But there are still those dark times when we seem merely to be plodding along on some weary path from day to day, and we wish somehow we could break out of it. And in other areas I think it was Paul who called it weary in well doing.
But what do we do in these times? We live by the words we have received from God earlier, and what that means in our case is that we are to live by the inspired written Word of God, because that is where God has spoken and continues to speak to us, even during times that He seems silent. "Do not be afraid," God told Abraham. "Be of good cheer," Jesus told Paul. These words were not repeated, but they had been spoken, and they were meant to remain with these men and strengthen them to trust God in their difficulties to come.
So if we think that God is supposed to comfort us and supposed to encourage us all along the way in an obvious way, that is not the way He works. In fact, He tells us, each and every one of us as individual Christians and members of God's church, to comfort one another, to encourage one another. These words were also spoken to you, as well as to me, and to Paul. Now, if you are going through hard times, as many are, or if you are anticipating them, you are to live by faith in these promises and trust God, who gave them.
The story is straightforward here in Acts 23. Paul had been attacked by the Jerusalem mob and had almost been lynched, and Paul was taken into Roman custody. It would have seemed to all who were in Jerusalem, Jews and Romans alike, that in the keeping of this large military force, Paul was now certainly very safe. Yet there were men in the city known as zealots who were determined that the apostles should not escape their hands. There were 40 of them and they got together and they took an oath that they would not eat or drink until they had killed Paul. They went to the chief priests and elders and said what they had done. They told the chief priests and elders that they had made this pact. Continuing on in Acts 23 we are going to read verses 12-16. In verse 12, you will notice several times how they emphasize they want to kill Paul here.
Acts 23:12-16 And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. Now there were more than forty who had formed this conspiracy. They came to the chief priests and elders, and said, "We have bound ourselves under a great oath that we will eat nothing until we have killed Paul. Now you, therefore, together with the council, suggest to the commander [that is the Roman commander] that he be brought down to you tomorrow as though you were going to make further inquires concerning him; but we are ready to kill him before he comes near." So when Paul's sister's son heard of their ambush, he went and entered the barracks and told Paul.
So the zealots of Paul's day were the equivalent of what we call terrorists today, and they were conspiring, as terrorists do today, and their cause was the deliverance of their people from Roman occupation and control, and they proceeded exactly the way terrorists do in our time. They were secretive. Nobody could be certain who they were. They operated apart from the law. They were violent. They were ready to do anything they thought necessary to accomplish their political objectives, particularly assassinating people. Human nature does not change. It was the same then, and it is the same today.
Some have questioned whether the zealots could have cooperated with the Sanhedrin, as the zealots seemed to have done in this story, since they were not supportive of the Sanhedrin. They were fanatics, and they considered the rulers of the Jews to be compromisers with Rome. As a matter of fact, there were times in Jewish history when they were violently and openly opposed to the Sanhedrin policies. Ananias, who is the high priest who presided over the Sanhedrin, exemplified a spirit of cooperation with Rome. So at the time of the Jewish rebellion against Rome a decade or so later than this story, when the zealots managed to take over the city of Jerusalem, they murdered Ananias because of his policies.
How could men like this cooperate even for such a limited objective with those who were their actual enemies? The answer is that they could, just as terrorists today will cooperate with various governments temporarily for their own sometimes quite antagonistic objectives. Terrorists are a threat to their own governments as well as to the external enemies they oppose. But sometimes terrorists are in some ways useful to these governments. And remember the ancient proverb: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Because they are useful, the governments shield them and allow them to operate under the blanket of their own political authority. Certain Near Eastern governments do the same thing today as they did back then in Paul's day.
That cooperation was going on in Jerusalem, and the Sanhedrin hated Paul for his teaching. If the zealots, for whatever reason, wanted to kill him, the Sanhedrin was willing to cooperate with them to that extent.
Consider for a moment the people's choice between Barabbas and Jesus. The decision of the mob is the world's decision, and the world will always choose a robber and insurrectionist, a murderer like Barabbas, rather than the guiltless Christ. Why? Because Barabbas is of the world and is the world, and Barabbas is one of them and however dangerous he may be he is a least controllable, and they can handle him. But how do you handle Jesus and what Jesus taught?
So consider what Barabbas was like and what his intentions were. There was Barabbas, the murdering rioter who was going to destroy the establishment. He was even willing to burn them out. He wanted to kill them. Why would they want to free Barabbas? Simply because if they let Barabbas go, he starts another disturbance or another riot. You could always call out the sheriff with constables or the marshals or Homeland Security or FBI, or whatever authority there was available, to take this person on or get rid of them all. All you would have to do is gather the government agents, call in the SWAT teams or the army, and you would squash whatever he is up to because he is not really out with a valid or righteous indignation or policy. He is just strictly out for selfish reasons.
Now you can always stop Barabbas but the question is, how do you stop Jesus? How do you stop a man who has no guns, no tanks, no ammunition, but still is shaking the whole country. How do you stop a man who, without firing a shot, is getting revolutionary results? The Jewish leaders could see only one answer. Get rid of Him. And they made the same mistake people have made down through the history of man. They thought you could get rid of the idea by getting rid of the man from whom the idea comes. So they said, "Let's get rid of Jesus and make sure He can't roll over us and interfere with our traditions, our human traditions."
They knew that Barabbas would try to exploit them, but he would not ask to run their lives. So Jesus tells them to change the way they have always lived, to repent of their sins, and give up their power. And that is the problem. Men would rather be enslaved to tyranny than let Jesus rule their lives with liberty. They would rather be exploited than let Christ determine the value of their lives. So they said, "Give us Barabbas!" Mark 15:15 says, "So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered Jesus after he had scourged Him to be crucified." The crime of Barabbas was the same crime of which the Jewish leaders had falsely accused Christ. And their position in Israel was certainly not enhanced by Barabbas' release. Yet they chose him because their opposition to Jesus was far greater than to Barabbas.
Jesus explains why the Sanhedrin hated Paul so much and why the world increasingly hates Christians today. We are seeing mounting hatred and violence against Christians in the news more every day. John 15:18-19 says, "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me [that is Jesus] before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you."
That explains why Paul was going through the very same thing that Jesus Christ went through. And it explains why you and I, maybe not everyone in this room but many of us, are very likely go through a time of persecution for the very same reason. We are trying to apply this passage to ourselves. However, it would be surprising if anyone who hears this has a band of fanatical people literally united against him or her in this way today. For most of us, these are very different times. But do not think for a moment that this hatred will not turn to violent against us.
Still, it is worthwhile noting that although we may not have a band of forty terrorists trying to kill us, we nevertheless have a far greater enemy than that. Our enemy is Satan and he is around 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our enemy is Satan, whom the Bible describes in I Peter 5:8 as a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. And we are at the top of his list.
Satan is an extremely fierce foe, and he is all the more dangerous because he is a spiritual being that we cannot see. Also, although Satan is for himself and not others, not even for the world itself in its opposition to God, there is nevertheless a certain cooperation between Satan and the world so that Satan uses it and the world uses him. And that is really the banner that they wave. Satan is for himself, the world is for themselves, and they use each other because we in God's church are the enemy.
These two, the world and the Devil, are allied against us in much the same way that these Jewish terrorists are allied with the Sanhedrin against Paul. But the enemies of the apostle failed in their plan, and neither the world, the flesh, nor the Devil will succeed in overthrowing us. Here are three scriptures to reinforce that.
I John 5:4-5 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
I John 2:16-17 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.
James 4:7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
Those were some wonderful, comforting, encouraging promises to us that we can build our service in God on and find confidence in when God seems silent in our lives.
Paul had a nephew, the son of his sister, who was living in Jerusalem. Up to this point in Acts and in all we may have read from Paul himself, we have been given not the slightest information about Paul's family. All we know is that Paul received his Roman citizenship from his father, who was therefore obviously a Roman before him. And there are places in Paul's writing where we might have expected him to write about his family. We know they were Jewish. How had they reacted to his conversion to Christianity?
How did his father take it? He had invested a great deal in Paul's education. He had sent him to the best universities. He had given him the best religious training, and Paul had become a distinguished rabbi and he was on his way up among his people when suddenly he went over to the other side and his family probably disinherited him. Did Paul have brothers? Did he try to see his family during his travels throughout Asia?
But suddenly, in the midst of the story, here is a boy who is Paul's nephew. And not only is this boy present in Jerusalem, perhaps having been sent to Jerusalem to study as Paul had been sent years earlier, but he is also somehow privy to things that are going on in the Sanhedrin. He overhears the plot against Paul and learns of the Sanhedrin's willingness to become involved. This small fact may indicate, incidentally, that Paul's family was rich and had contacts with the most important people in Judaism. If they had sent Paul's nephew to Jerusalem to study the same way that they had Paul to Jerusalem years before, and if the boy seems to have had access to the Sanhedrin, Paul's family may have been a very distinguished family.
When Paul's nephew heard the plan, he went to the military barracks and told Paul, and for his part, Paul asked the soldier who was guarding him to take the boy to the Roman commander to whom he could tell his story and the soldier did it. The commander heard the story and immediately acted to remove Paul from danger.
Here we have another of those startling biblical cases where God, who can use the great as well as the little things of life, uses small things to accomplish His purposes. Who would have expected, including Paul, that his nephew would have come out of nowhere to be a warning from God. God does not hesitate to use small objects for His purposes.
When He made the first man Adam in Eden, He made him from the dust of the ground, stooping to collect and form it. You might call it the basest of materials. He could have used some more notable substance. How would you like to be made out of diamonds or some other beautiful stone? But in order that we might be reminded later what Genesis 3:19 says, "Dust you are, and to dust you will return," He chose dust to remind us of our humility, or the state that we should be in.
When God revealed himself to Moses to call him to be the deliver of his people, he appeared in a burning bush on a hillside in a remote, barren area of the world. And when he sent David to kill the Philistine giant Goliath, it was with a sling and five small stones, Samson killed 1,000 Philistines with a jawbone of a donkey.
Many of the great people of the Bible were, at least in their early years, hardly great people at all. Abraham, the father of the faithful, worshipped idols until God revealed Himself to him. Moses, who was the son of slave parents, killed an Egyptian and spent the next forty years in the desert as a shepherd. David was the youngest son in an obscure family in an obscure town in Judah. Yet God called this nobody to be the greatest king of all. Most outstanding was when God was ready to send His own Son to earth, He chose a humble virgin of Nazareth to be His Son's mother.
That is the way God operates. If that is the way God operates, if God delights in using little things, then God can use us, however small or apparently insignificant we may think we are. Paul states this principle in I Corinthians 1.
I Corinthians 1:26-29 For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.
Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were prudent by human standards. Not many were influential. Few of you were wise in the world's eyes, or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose people the world considers foolish to shame those who think they are wise. He chose people who are powerless to shame those who are powerful. He chose people despised by the world—people counted as nothing at all—and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. And if that is true, then there is hope for each and every one of us.
In this story, God uses Paul's nephew to save Paul. Do not ever say, especially when you go through dark periods, "Things are really bad for me. I'm not accomplishing anything. God can't use somebody like me, especially not in the circumstances in which I find myself." Do not ever say that, because when you do you are in a sense hindering God's use of you. I have heard people in the past say, "Well, I'm not going to be able to go to the feast next year because the price of gas keeps going up and I won't be able to afford it." Maybe you have just decided for God. You are not going. You know, it is very serious when we say those things. Words have power and more power than we realize. It is usually people like us in circumstances like ours that God uses.
In this story, not only was the boy in Jerusalem, which was significant, but he also happened to be in the right place at the right time. Do you think of circumstances as being things that are against you, something that God cannot control? Have you ever found yourself thinking, "If the circumstances of my life were different, perhaps then I could have been somebody or could have done something great for God or could have triumphed in the difficulty in which I am in now." Do not think that way. Circumstances do not limit God. Circumstances are independent of God. God creates circumstances and God is the Master of circumstances and who knows what great things someone in this room or many in this room might be called to do in the future as things heat up.
Think of the amazing circumstances in Joseph's life that God used to raise him from the pit of slavery to become the prime minister of Egypt. Circumstances as small as the fancy coat his father gave him that provoked his brothers' jealousy. The circumstance that the cistern in Shechem was dry at the season of the year he was thrown into it so that he did not drown but his life was preserved. Circumstances that involved the passing of the Midianite caravan at precisely that moment so that his brother said, "Look, here's a caravan on its way to Egypt. Let's not kill him. Let's sell him and make some money out of this."
Circumstances as small as his being purchased, not by a person of little importance in Egypt, but by Potiphar the captain of the Pharaoh's guards. The circumstance of the attachment that Mrs. Potiphar had for him. The accusation that caused him to be thrown into prison, and not just any prison either, but the one where the political prisoners were kept.
Circumstances so small as the chief cupbearer and the chief baker being imprisoned along with him and their having dreams and the fact that he was able to interpret their dreams. When the chief cupbearer was restored to his position in Pharaoh's court, he forgot Joseph who had interpreted his dream favorably. Two years passed, two dark years for Joseph, who was languishing in prison. But one day Pharaoh himself had a dream, and the cupbearer was there to remember that Joseph had been able to interpret his dream earlier and so spoke about Joseph to Pharaoh. They sent for Joseph and he became the second highest in the land. Insignificant circumstances, yes, but circumstances that were created and were being used by God.
So do not ever say, "God can't deal with my circumstances. They're too complicated, too difficult, or too depressing." It is probably in those very circumstances that God wants to work through you. He has a way of using many kinds of circumstances to bring people to faith and glorify His own great name.
Turn back to Acts 23 please. When the commander received word of what was up, he did what he could. It was his job to keep Paul safe so he prepared an escort for him. And I do not know if you find it amusing or not. I find this section of Scripture somewhat amusing when we read about what happened.
Acts 23:23-24 And he [the Roman commander] called for two centurions, saying, "Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearman to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor."
How would you like to be saved by what is for all practical purposes an entire army. That is protection. Think of it. This man assembled 470 crack troops of the Roman army—foot soldiers, spearman, even cavalry to escort Paul safely out of town. And Paul had horses (plural) too. He did not even have to walk. God had really prepared that for him. This mighty company took him by night about 35 miles downhill from Jerusalem to a staging area for troops that had been built by Herod. It was called Antipatris.
There the greatest danger being behind them, the men on foot left Paul and returned to the Jerusalem garrison, while those who were on horseback went on to Caesarea. The Roman commander in Jerusalem, Claudius Lysias, wrote a letter to the governor, whose name was Felix and who resided in Caesarea. Felix was the corrupt brother of Claudius' Freedman Palace, which makes no sense to us at this point, and was at this time married to Drusilla, the daughter of Herod Agrippa the First. He was King Herod Agrippa.
Felix was the procurator of Judea from AD 52-59. He was ruthless in quelling Jewish uprisings. And though he was a Freedman, he seems never to have grown out of his slavish mentality. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that he wielded the power of a king with all the instincts of a slave. So it was a man who had no power was given power and it went to his head as fully as it was possible. The letter is interesting because while it is basically accurate, it is nevertheless at the same time, rather self-serving as official correspondence tends to be.
Acts 23:25-30 He wrote a letter in the following manner: Claudius Lysias, to the most excellent governor Felix: Greetings. This man was seized [speaking of Paul] by the Jews and was about to be killed by them. Coming with the troops I rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. And when I wanted to know the reason they accused him, I brought him before the council. I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him deserving of death or chains. And when it was told me that the Jews lay in wait for the man, I sent him immediately to you, and also commanded his accusers to state before you the charges against him. Farewell.
It was true that Paul was a Roman citizen and that the commander had learned this. But he had learned it after the rescue, not before, and carefully leaves out that he had already bound Paul and was about to have him flogged before he learned it. So he is painting one picture in the letter which is making him look good, but he was actually working in ignorance through most of this thing. All the same, the letter was generally accurate, and the commander had acted responsibility in dealing with this volatile situation.
When Paul was moved to Caesarea, he was able to speak about Jesus to kings. That was the opportunity that he was given. Twenty years earlier Jesus had said that he was to carry His name before the Gentiles and their kings, and now that promise began to be fulfilled. Paul had not testified before kings when he was free, which I find very interesting. But now, as a prisoner who we might say was a victim of circumstances, Paul testifies in Acts 24 before Governor Felix, in Acts 25 before Governor Festus, and eventually in Acts 26 before King Agrippa, all before he was taken to Rome. So Paul did some of his greatest witnessing as a prisoner.
If that was the case, what can God do with us? We are free now. What if we were imprisoned? God could do greater things with us in that circumstance but we would not be looking at it that way. We would be, "Woe is me! I'm in prison for my beliefs." I cannot tell you what God is going to do in your circumstances. I cannot see the future anymore than you can. But God is doing something in your circumstances. And if you are going through dark times, as Paul was, if you are discouraged, if the way seems dark, if you are weary with the struggle, the message of this chapter is to continue to trust in God and serve Him regardless of your circumstances. His purposes for you will be accomplished, the day will be bright, and the will of God will be done. There is absolutely no doubt about that.
Moving on in the 24th chapter of Acts, Paul finally testifies before the rulers of the world. Paul's appearance before Governor Felix is recounted in some detail and includes in Luke's account the accusation brought against Paul, Paul's defense, and the response of the governor to Paul's presentation of the gospel.
Felix was the Roman governor. He had status, but his background had not been particularly distinguished. As I mentioned before, he had been a slave and then became a Freedman under Claudius. He pandered to the depravity of the emperor and rose in the court until he was eventually awarded the governorship of Judah. What a sycophant! He was just oh-so-obsequious. He did everything you could imagine. Groveled, whatever it took, complimented, charmed, and whatever other despicable words you can think of, he did it. He was corrupt and his administration was hated by the Jews. His time as governor was characterized by dishonesty. His wife was a teenager whom he stole from another king.
Finally, the corruption of his rule became so great that Nero himself, who was himself so evil and is known as being one of the most evil men in history, recalled him. He would have been executed if his brother, who was in Rome at the time, had not pleaded on his behalf. This was the man before whom Paul now appeared to give an account. They do not get much lower than him on the evil scale.
Five days had passed during the time the Sanhedrin had gotten their case together and responded to the invitation to come to Caesarea to press that their charges against Paul before the governor. They brought a lawyer with them, whose name was Tertullus. Tertullus is a Roman name, but that is all we know about him. People who know the Greek language thoroughly say they detect certain Latinisms in his speech.
Acts 24:1 Now after five days Ananias the high priest came down with the elders and a certain orator named Tertullus. These gave evidence to the governor against Paul.
Luke probably gives a condensed form of what was said just as he has done with other speeches in the book of Acts. But if his condensation of Tertullus' speech reflects the proportions of what this man said, we can assume that half of his address was given to flattery of the governor.
Acts 24:2-9 And when he was called upon, Tertullus began his accusation, saying, "Seeing that through you we enjoy great peace, and prosperity is being brought to this nation by your foresight, we accept it always and in all places, most noble Felix, with all thankfulness. [He said this keeping in mind that this guy used to be a slave and now he is a corrupt, awful man.] Nevertheless, not to be tedious to you any further, I beg you to hear by your courtesy, a few words from us. For we have found this man a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, and we seized him, and wanted to judge him according to our law. But the commander Lysias came by and with great violence took him out of our hands, commanding his accusers to come to you. By examining him yourself you may ascertain all these things of which we accuse him." And the Jews also assented, maintaining that these things were so.
In Acts we have a Greek translation of a Latin speech. Tertullus was a professional orator, which is what the lawyers of the day tended to be, and he had been hired by the Jews to present their case in Caesarea before the Roman governor. And that was sheer hypocrisy, of course. The Sandedrin hated Felix, and corrupt and vain as he must have been, probably even Felix was shrewd enough to have listened to this orator with skepticism. He was probably, at least inwardly, rolling his eyes as this guy went on and on. He must have wondered, "What is it that these Jewish leaders are after that they would come all the way from Caesarea and flatter me in this fashion?"
It soon became clear they wanted the governor to kill Paul. They had several charges against him, which their lawyers skillfully developed. Let me give you those three charges.
1) He is a troublemaker. Now, a literal translation of troublemaker would be pest, but it was stronger than what pest usually means for us today. For us, pest usually means a nuisance. But in the earlier days of the English language, pest meant plague, an idea that we preserve in the stronger but somewhat archaic word pestilence. So basically, they were calling Paul a pestilence. What they were saying was that Paul was a plague of mammoth proportions. He was an infectious disease. He spread contagion and Tertullus was suggesting that if Paul were set free, he would spread turmoil, disorder, and maybe even rebellion throughout the entire empire.
This was the charge the Jewish rulers had brought against Jesus Christ at the time of His trial and for the same reasons. They knew that the Romans were not interested in religious matters but were intensely concerned about anything that might stir up trouble for the empire. Before Pilate, the Jews accused Jesus of making himself a king to rival Caesar. And here before Felix, they accused Paul of causing turmoil and social unrest as a troublemaker or as a leader, and that comes to the second accusation.
2) They said he is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect. Now each of these words was loaded with strongly negative connotations. Paul was a follower of Jesus, of course. But even at this early date, the Jews apparently wanted to avoid using Jesus' name. He was just "the Nazarene." They would not call him Christian because that included Jesus' name as well. Also, Tertullus did not even refer to Paul as a follower of the Nazarene. It was the Nazarene sect instead. Sect has overtones of heresy. Finally, Tertullus called Paul a ringleader, and he could as easily have said leader but he did not. He used the harshest words possible to describe Paul. He said ringleader because the word had the same overtones for them as it has for us. They were saying that Paul was whipping up this troublesome heresy that for some unknown reason had grown up within Judaism.
3) That Paul tried to desecrate the Temple. This third charge was not true. Paul had not tried to desecrate the Temple, and this was only the mob's accusation, which does not have to be true to be damaging. Hitler's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels supposedly said, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." This is exactly what they were trying here. Yet in telling the story, Tertullus distorted the truth even further. "So we seized him," he said. He meant we arrested him because he had tried to desecrate the Temple. But that was not what had happened. The mob had violently pursued Paul and was trying to kill him. The people who had actually arrested Paul were the Romans, and they did it in order to save his life.
Acts 23:10 Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the barracks.
So those were the charges. Paul is a troublemaker. We do not need any of those. We have had enough already. He is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. We all hate heresy, and he has tried to desecrate our Temple. Even Rome acknowledges that to be a sacrilege. So they played to the royal court, so to speak, or the judge, on terms that they would be able to understand. Perhaps Tertullus thought he could score points with the last accusation, because Roman law gave special status to the Jewish temple and even prescribed the death penalty for those who violated it.
Tertullus had made his accusation, sat down, and Felix must have nodded to Paul, and Paul, according to the strict procedures of Roman law, had an opportunity to present his rebuttal. And that is what we come to now. Paul began his defense in a polite manner, totally different than the way Tertullus did. But his words to the governor are restrained, especially when they are compared with those of the professional orator Tertullus. Tertullus had flattered Felix—Paul would do no such thing.
Nevertheless, he pointed out that he knew Felix had been a judge over Israel for a number of years, long enough to know something about the kind of nation it was and because of that, Paul was glad to be able to make his defense before him. Felix would have been aware, Paul points out, of the kind of charges that were being brought and the fact that they were, he implies rather than states this, insubstantial. Paul was thankful that Felix knew enough about Israel to know that these charges were insubstantial to put Paul to death.
Now, after this brief introduction, Paul began to answer the charges that Tertullus had made, and he dealt with each one in order. The first: I am not a troublemaker. The first charge had been that Paul was a troublemaker, and his response was that it just was not so. Also, he said, I can prove my assertion, and they are unable to prove theirs. First, it has only been 12 days since I arrived in Jerusalem. Felix was aware that Paul had already been imprisoned in Caesarea for five days. He had been in prison in Jerusalem for one day, so six of the 12 days were accounted for. At the most then Paul had six days to stir up the kind of trouble they were accusing him of starting.
How much trouble can one person stir up in a week? It was not Paul who was stirring up trouble, but the Asian instigators and the Jerusalem mob. If they had been given time for rebuttal, these men might have replied something like this. "Well, we're not so concerned about the trouble he was stirring up in Jerusalem as we are about the trouble he has been creating all around the world," because that is what Tertullus emphasized—that he was causing trouble worldwide which is the way that they exaggerated. This was a court of law, and it was not a place where secondhand information could be credited. The Jews had to testify to what they knew Paul had done during the six days he was in the Jewish capital.
Acts 24:10-13 Then Paul, after the governor had nodded to him to speak, answered: "Inasmuch as I know that you have been for many years a judge of this nation, I do the more cheerfully answer for myself, because you may ascertain that it is no more than twelve days since I went up to Jerusalem to worship. And they neither found me in the temple disputing with anyone nor inciting the crowd, either in the synagogue or in the city. Nor can they prove the things of which they now accuse me."
So he threw it right back in the accusers face.
The second accusation against him, Paul rebuts by saying, "I am a follower of the Way." The second accusation was that Paul was a ringleader of the Nazarene sect, and Paul admits to this accusation, although he phrases it differently. He does not say it is true, I am a ringleader. He does not even change it to say it is true that I am one of the leaders of the movement. He does not refer to Christianity as the sect of the Nazarenes, either. He calls it the Way. Yet despite those qualifications, the apostle nevertheless agrees with the substance of the accusation. But that was no problem because the only substantial legal question was whether Paul's following the Way was sufficient grounds for a punitive judgment and this the Jewish leaders had not argued.
Was Paul not permitted to practice his religion? Did not Roman law provide religious freedom? Well, actually, it did. Besides, if the Way was a sect within Judaism, as the accusation had tended to admit, and if Judaism was itself protected by the government, as it was, was Paul himself not protected also? If the governor was to rule against Paul for his adherence to Christianity, would he not also have to move against these leaders of the Sanhedrin who had come to press their case against him? You see how wise a response this was by Paul. Paul also stressed the similarity between his beliefs and those of the men who were accusing him.
Acts 24:14-15 But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets. I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.
If pressed, Paul would have argued that following Jesus was not a deviation from the original true religion God gave Israel, but rather God's true religion itself, from which Judaism came. If anyone had strayed from God's original true religion, it was the Jews by their own human traditions.
Matthew 15:3-9 He [that is Jesus] answered and said to them [That is the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem.], "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God"—then he need not honor his father or mother.' Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'"
So for political purposes, so to speak, Paul did not mention the resurrection earlier in this case because the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection but the Pharisees did. Nevertheless, the resurrection was essential to Christian belief and practice. So when he had the opportunity, which he did not have on the earlier occasion but did have here, particularly in his later private conversations with the governor, Paul witnessed God's truth. He testified that he believed in the resurrection, not only as a matter of doctrine, but also as personal experience, since Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead, had appeared to him.
The third charge Paul rebuts. He says, I did not desecrate the Temple. The third charge was that Paul had tried to desecrate the Temple. Paul emphatically denied it. He had not come to desecrate the Temple. Then why did he come to Jerusalem? It was on an errand of mercy. He had been establishing churches in Gentile lands, and these churches had been taking an offering for the Jerusalem poor, which he had come to the city to deliver. He was there to deliver aid to the churches of God in Jerusalem that the Gentile churches had accumulated together.
When they found Paul in the Temple, not only was he not causing trouble, he was submitting to the laws of the Jews' religion. He was ceremonially clean and there are people in Jerusalem who knew that this was true. And he had gone through the rites of purification when they seized him. At the very point that they were seizing him, he was going through the purification and was purified according to their law of entering the Temple. So it was not Paul who created the disturbance but themselves and this was Paul's defense against Tertullus' formal charges.
The trouble that occurred was because of charges raised by certain Jews from Asia. Since this was a court of law, it was the Jews from Asia, not the Sanhedrin, who should have been present to testify against Paul. The Sanhedrin was not there when it happened. They were not eyewitnesses and if anyone was to testify, it needed to be those who were present. The only thing the Sanhedrin could possibly testify about was that when Paul was before them, he had shouted about the resurrection of the dead, which if you recall, I mentioned that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection and so deeply offended them.
Acts 24:20-21 "Or else let those who are here themselves say if they found any wrongdoing in me while I stood before the council, unless it is for this one statement that I cried out, standing among them, 'Concerning the resurrection of the dead I am being judged by you this day.'"
Moving on with the story, Felix heard the arguments and then what did he do? He did what many men in similar situations have tried to do. He knew Paul was innocent. Caught between what he knew to be right and pressure from people who are demanding that he do wrong, Felix refused to decide, and that was perhaps not so bad for Felix. He was kicking the can down the road.
Acts 24:22-24 But when Felix heard these things, having more accurate knowledge of the Way, he adjourned the proceedings and said, "When Lysias the commander comes down, I will make a decision on your case." So he commanded the centurion to keep Paul and to let him have liberty, and told him not to forbid any of his friends to provide for or visit him. [He took almost an open door to be able to receive guests, aid, whatever it took. So he was treated quite nicely, except for being in prison, but at least on the care part.] And after some days, when Felix came with his wife, Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him concerning the faith in Christ.
So Paul had another opportunity to witness to Felix. The facts seem clear. Felix should have released Paul, but he had the right to hear what the commander of the Jerusalem garrison had to say. The difficulty, as Luke shows, is that Felix was not merely postponing his decision until the case was presented to him, but he was hoping to be bribed by Paul. Remember he was a scoundrel to begin with, and you could pay him off for anything, and he would pay anybody off to get what he wanted. So he was hoping for a bribe from Paul. But Paul was hoping he would make a judgment at the earliest possible moment. Rather delay and compromise were characteristic of Felix. He habitually postponed what he knew he needed to do.
Luke ends the segment of the story by telling us that Felix kept Paul in custody and heard him on more than one occasion, and he was interested in what he had to say. And Paul told him about things like righteousness and self-control and the judgment to come. And Felix was moved by this testimony, but he was afraid, so he blocked his mind to the truth.
Acts 24:25-27 Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and answered, "Go away for now; when I have a convenient time, I will call for you." Meanwhile he also hoped that money would be given him by Paul, that he might release him. Therefore he sent for him more often and conversed with him. [It is interesting how God used his greed to actually keep calling Paul back. God can use anything to further His agenda.] But after two years, Porcius Festus succeeded Felix; and Felix, wanting to do the Jews of favor, left Paul bound. [Notice he wanted to do the Jews a favor. He was always trying to satisfy the people.]
Felix had a great deal going for him, Luke says. He was well-acquainted with the Way, and that is he already knew something about Christianity, and he knew Paul was innocent of the claims against him. Most important, he knew he was himself a sinner because when Paul spoke about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, he trembled. Yet, despite his knowledge of Paul's innocence Felix postponed his decision. It never was convenient to send for Paul. And with these words, Felix passes from the pages of Acts, from history, and from life. We do not hear from him again.
Let us begin to wrap this up. This is where many people find themselves today. They know about Christianity, maybe not a great deal, but enough. Some have learned about it from their parents as they were growing up. They had Christian parents who taught them about Jesus Christ. Some learned about it from a friend, or they know someone whose Christian example had an effect on others. Some have heard or read about the truth on the Internet. Literally billions of people know about Christianity, that is, Christianity in the way that it promotes Jesus Christ as the Savior.
And like Felix, many have little or no real reason to doubt the character of those who have testified about God's way of life. There have been prominent representatives of Christianity whose character has been doubtful, and sometimes they will use the sins of these prominent persons as an excuse for not believing. But generally the people who have set a good example by living God's way of life are of good character and strong in faith and their witness is incontestable.
Also like Felix, many unbelievers know that they are sinners and that they are in danger of the judgment. Deep down, unconverted people are troubled even if they do not realize it, because God has made sure their consciences are aware of right and wrong. Paul writes in,
Romans 1:18-19 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifested in them, for God has shown it to them.
For those who have been introduced to God's truth and refuse God's call, it will be many times harder for them to respond to God's calling a year from now and even harder a year after that and a year after that. They are not going to become more open to God's truth by delaying, and they will have far more sin to overcome later than sooner. Sin is cumulative. It continues to accumulate in a person's mind, just as mercury accumulates in fish, and so on.
In my next sermon, we will see the important people of the world, with all their power and pageantry, arrayed on one side and here on the other side, brought out without even much warning or opportunity to prepare a special defense, is this spurned Jew from Tarsus, the apostle Paul. What a lopsided contest. All these great people with their positions, power, pomp, and pageantry on one side, and on the other side, Paul, a degraded prisoner.
When we see the impressive things of this world, they usually seem to be what is lasting or stable. That is the way human nature is. It looks at what it can see as being lasting. What could be more stable, more impressive, more weighty than the Roman Empire in the person of those who represented it, of whom Paul was about to face. Nevertheless, everything secular and physical was in the process of passing away. In time the people were also passing away. They died. Eventually, even the Roman Empire passed away.
But the words of Jesus Christ, to which the apostle Paul was called to bear witness, prevailed. It prevailed not only during Paul's day, because it was the truth and it was spoken, but it also prevailed in the decade to come, and the decade after that, and the century after that, and the millennium after that.
So it is that the gospel of Jesus Christ, God's truth, is with us in power even today, when Rome is just a memory. It is in the words of Jesus Christ in the form of the Old and New Testaments that we find comfort and encouragement to face times of stress, even when God is silent otherwise.
We all need to be warned about forgetting. The account in Acts chapters 23-26 has been written to help keep us from forgetting things we need to remember. And Jesus assures us that "heaven and earth will pass away but My words will by no means pass away."