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PAUL’S TRIAL BEFORE FESTUS

Acts 25:1-25:27
Key Verse: 25:11

In the previous passage, Paul’s trial before Felix, we learned Paul’s logical and systematic defence, the hope of the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked, and Paul's shepherd heart for the governor as he discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come. In particular, may we believe the hope of the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked and live with this hope in this world and serve others with this hope. In today’s passage Paul stands trial before a new governor, Fetus, and the trial was comparatively very short. Paul makes his appeal to Caesar. Let’s think about the meaning of this.

First, Paul’s trial before Festus (1-12). Look at verses 1 and 2. “Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and present the charges against Paul.” Felix was a new governor and probably wanted to do the job well. Of utmost importance was having a good relationship with the Jews. So Festus took the initiative and went up to Jerusalem just after three days in the province. There he heard the Jews’ presentation of charges against Paul. The Jews then urgently requested Festus, as a favour to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. The Jews were unyielding in their attempt to kill Paul. In the gospel story when Jesus overcame the devil’s temptation in the desert, Luke wrote at the end of the story, “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time” (Lk 4:13). The devil never gives up and always seeks for an opportune time. Such was the case of the Jews to get rid of Paul. They tried yet again to set an ambush, seeking an opportune time.

How did Festus respond to it? Look at verses 4 and 5. “Festus answered, ‘Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong.’” Festus seemed to be a just governor and want to keep the justice of Rome. After spending eight or ten days with them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him.

Let’s see Paul’s trial before Festus. Look at verse 7. “When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove.” Here we are not told what the serious charges were. But look at verse 8. “Then Paul made his defense: ‘I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.” Now we see that the Jews’ charges against Paul included his doing something against Caesar. They really wanted to put down Paul by any means, even by the means of charging him with something that was against Caesar. They thought it would work out since Caesar was the highest power at that time. Their new strategy worked in Festus. So Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favour, said to Paul, ‘Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?’ It was likely that the Jews’ original intrigue to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem was going to succeed.

But look at verse 10 and 11. “Paul answered: ‘I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!’” Then after Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: ‘You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!” Here in Paul’s answer and Festus’ declaration Caesar is mentioned 4 times: 2 times in Paul’s answer and 2 times in Festus’ declaration. In today’s whole passage, the name Caesar is written 6 times (8,10,11,12,12,21), ‘Emperor’, 2 times (21,25) and His Majesty (26), 1 time. Luke definitely emphasized it. Why is it a big deal about Paul’s appealing to Caesar? Certainly, he used his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar. But why did he appeal to Caesar. What is the meaning of this?

As Paul said in his defence, he had done nothing against Caesar. He knew that he was not guilty of any crime before God. Yet, he was not sure he would win Caesar’s court when he appealed to Caesar. For the book of Acts ends with Paul’s staying in a rented house in Rome (Acts 28:30) and later on he was imprisoned in Rome two times. The New Testament contains five epistles by Paul, all written while he was prisoner in Rome (Colossians, Philippians, Ephesus, Philemon, and 2 Timothy). So we can say that he did not appeal to Caesar to be released. Then what led him to appeal to Caesar? Certainly, Jesus’ words of command and promise given when he stood trial before the Sanhedrin must have been in his heart, “As you have testified about me, you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11). However, try putting yourself in Paul's shoes: it must not have been easy to keep the promise given to him--he had been stuck in prison in Caesarea for the past 2 years! During this time, unsure of what was going on, he could have wondered how the promise could possibly be carried out. But through Paul’s appeal to Caesar, we can see that he has been actively seeking a way to go to Rome, all the while cherishing the command and promise of the Lord Jesus in his heart. So as soon as the accusers said about Caesar, he did not snatched the opportunity and made an inspired appeal to Caesar. The purpose of his appeal was very clear. It was to go to Rome by any means, whether as a free man or a prisoner, in accordance with the promise of Jesus.

And when Paul appealed to Caesar, he was not looking at Caesar to depend on him. He was looking at the One who is above Caesar. At that time most people thought that Caesar was ruling the world. Yet, in truth he did not know why he was on the throne and who gave him the power to rule. When Jesus was on trial before Pilate, Pilate tried to threaten Jesus, saying, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Then Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above…” (Jn 19:10,11). He (the God of heavens) sets up kings and deposes them (Da 2:21), and he sets over the kingdoms of men anyone he wishes (Da 5:21). At that time Caesar had no way to know this. The Roman Emperor Caesar would disappear from the stage of history in a matter of time. We have seen this kind of thing in Acts. When King Herod killed James and was about to kill Peter, the power of his sword seemed to be untamable and unrelenting. But soon he was eaten by worms and was gone in a day. God is the sovereign at that time, now and forevermore. This is a constant teaching of the Bible. As an example, take the story of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. He had a troublesome dream and did not know what the meaning of the dream. The king summoned all sorts of magicians to interpret him the meaning of the dream, not telling them his dream. They were at a loss and helpless for such an unreasonable request. When the king was about to execute the wise men of Babylon, Daniel appeared and stood before the king and fully met the king’s demand, telling the dream and interpreting it. In the dream was an enormous, dazzling statue with the head of gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. Suddenly, the statue was struck by a rock not cut by human hands, and all the gold, silver, bronze, the iron and the clay of the statue were broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the earth. The gold head symbolized the kingdom of Babylon (2:37), and the arms and chest of silver the following kingdoms, kingdom of Persia and Medes (5:31), the belly and thigh of bronze were the kingdom of Greece (8:20) and the subsequent kingdom of Rome (Many Bible scholars say that the legs refer to the Roman Empire because her empire extended like two legs to the nations of both west and east). These kingdoms would rise and wane, but the rock, the kingdom of Christ would conquer the whole world. It coincides with the words of angel to Mary at the time of Jesus’ birth, “You will be with child…his kingdom will never end” (Lk 1:31-33).

So when Paul appealed to Caesar, Paul must have believed the Sovereign Ruler of history who is far above Caesar and have had the assurance to go to Rome and testify about Jesus there. He believed that the gospel of Christ would be preached and change the people of Rome and be spread until the kingdom of Christ be established in the very centre of the Roman Empire. This was his vision based on Jesus’ words of promise and it came true.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) once went on a search for an island of primitive inhabitants, searching for evidence of the link between apes and human beings. . He found one such an island, where the people were living like monkeys: They were naked and had no laws and even no language. Darwin, excited, said to himself, “Right! Let me research on this island. I want to demonstrate that these people are in between monkeys and modern human beings.” 30 years later, Darwin revisited the island and to his surprise, found the people dressed and a society formed around a town church! The native people were going to the church carrying the Bible and hymn books with them. Darwin was surprised by the power of faith, and could not insist his theory of the evolution. Human beings are different from other animals. They are made in the image of God. When any people hear the gospel of Jesus, they can be changed. This is a reason Paul wanted to go to Rome and testify about Jesus, preaching the gospel.

There is a book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach (Born 1936, an American writer.) In that book there was a seagull named Jonathan. He observed the lives of other seagulls at the beach: when they were hungry, they flew a little bit to catch their prey and then returned. And when hungry again, they sought their food. Such was their life. Simply, the repetition of this cycle. Other than for purposes of satisfying their hunger, the seagulls had no reason to fly. So Jonathan began to say to his fellow seagulls, “We can fly higher and see farther” and whispered them to go to an unknown new world with hope. Then the fellow seagulls told him that he must be out of his mind and drove him out. Jonathan was very sorry and sorrowed. His sorrow was not the sorrow of being driven out of their world. He had a greater sorrow that although they could fly high and go father, his fellow seagulls could not have the vision and glory of the flight. When Paul had God’s hope and vision through the words of the Lord, his life was different.

Thank God for the personal promises given to us. God’s words of promise give us hope and vision. When we face adverse situations and times just pass by without visible advancement of the words of the promise, it is not easy to believe God’s given promise and live accordingly. But God wants us to believe and trust in the sovereign God. He rules each individual and each nation and the whole world in the compass of his words of promises given to his people and accomplishes his purpose according to the promises. With this faith we can challenge and actively go forward holding on the promises of God in our hearts. God wants us to live on a higher ground with faith in the sovereign Lord having his promises in our hearts

Second, Festus and Agrippa (13-27). Look at verse 13. “A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus.” Herod Agrippa II was the son of Herod Agrippa I of Acts 12 and the great grandson of Herod the Great. Bernice was a sister of Drusilla, the wife of Felix, and she was also a sister of Agrippa II himself. (Rumours were rife that their relationship was incestuous.) They came to Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. What did they talk? Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. Paul became the topic of their conversation. Felix told Agrippa the long story: Paul, left as prisoner by Felix; the Jewish leaders’ charges against Paul in Jerusalem; Festus' reply based on the Roman law; the unexpectedness of the trial, as he was faced with their unfounded charges against Paul during the trial in Caesarea; all this weird talk of their religion and a dead man named Jesus, who Paul claimed was alive; and the clincher: Paul’s appeal to Caesar! Festus was at a loss as to what to do. Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear this man myself.” At this Festus replied, “Tomorrow you will hear him.” King Agrippa and Festus were great figures at that time. Compared to them, Paul was a pitiful prisoner. At the order of Festus Paul had to be brought in at the court Festus convened. But the focus of their talk was Paul and all the things were directed to Paul’s going to Caesar. Certainly, they did not know what they were talking about and why Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, and so did not know what was happening in history. It was because they did not know Jesus who was raised from the dead and was alive as the Sovereign Lord over the whole world.

Look at verse 23. “The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in.” Agrippa and Bernice would have on their purple robes of royalty and the gold circlets on their brows. Doubtless Festus, to do honour to the occasion, had donned the scarlet robe which a governor wore on state occasions. Following them, as they entered the audience room, in the pageantry of the procession, were both the high ranking officers, the military tribunes who were ‘members of the procurator’s staff, and the leading men of the city. When they had taken their seats, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. What a contrast between pompous authorities and Paul at the disposal of the governor !

According to tradition, Paul was only a little fellow and unappealing in appearance, balding, with beetle brows, hooked nose and bandy legs, yet ‘full of grace.’ Wearing neither crown nor gown, but only handcuffs and perhaps a plain prisoner’s tunic, he nevertheless dominated the court with his quiet confidence. It was because he had faith in the sovereign God and hope and vision in him for God’s world salvation purpose.

The point of Festus’ saying in verses 24-27 is that despite the whole Jewish community’s accusation against Paul, Festus still found nothing wrong with Paul. It was because of Paul's his appeal to Caesar that Festus decided to send him to Rome. But he still needed something definite to write through this investigation. Again there was no way for Festus and the king Agrippa and all the high authorities to know why Paul was going to Rome. Festus just wanted to write something on the papers to prevent ruffling Caesar. All these pompous authorities were like Jonathan’s fellow seagulls. But Paul was filled with God’s hope for the world and was going to Rome to testify about Jesus there, filled with God’s hope for the world. The days were counted and approaching for Paul to get to Rome.

In this passage we see Paul’s unyielding challenge to go to Rome in faith in the Sovereign God according to Jesus’ words of command promise. In this he appealed to Caesar. May we look up at the Sovereign God and hold to his personal promise in our hearts and challenge any situation for the fulfillment of his promise and his grand purpose of world salvation.

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