Have you ever been on trial in a courtroom? I was once. I was 17, scared, nervous, and very guilty. I wrote about that story here. This week we’re learning from the Apostle Paul how to talk about God, and in Acts 24-26 he’s back on trial, but this time Paul testifies before the bigwigs in Israel, two governors and a king. I wonder if Paul was scared or nervous. He seems quite bold and courageous, and as we observe what he says, we’re going to learn how to talk about God.
We last left Paul in Caesarea, one of the many towns across the Roman Empire named in honor of one of the Roman Caesars, the emperors. This port city of Caesarea is located in northwest Israel, along the Mediterranean Sea. Acts chapters 24-26 take place while Paul is in prison in Caesarea.
We start in Chapter 24. Throughout verses 1-23, in Caesarea, Paul is on trial, and the Roman governor Felix hears arguments from both the Jews, who have traveled from Jerusalem to present their case, and from Paul, who makes his defense. Basically, each side makes the same arguments we heard in Acts 22-23 when Paul was on trial in Jerusalem. The Jews accuse Paul of being a law breaker, and Paul retorts that he is innocent. The Roman governor Felix adjourns the trial, saying that he will wait to make a decision until the Roman commander arrives from Jerusalem. We met that Roman commander in Acts 22-23, the soldier who protected Paul, and eventually sent Paul to Caesarea. In the meantime, Governor Felix keeps Paul under guard, but with the allowance of freedom so that Paul’s friends can care for his needs.
But the Roman commander never arrives. Instead in verses 24-26, Felix and his Jewish wife, Drusilla, spend time with Paul, who ends up teaching and preaching to them. This results in Felix feeling afraid, probably because Paul is talking about judgment, maybe leading Felix to experience some guilt, so Felix puts a stop to Paul’s teaching. The author of the book of Acts, Luke, reveals that Felix was looking for a bribe from Paul, so Felix calls for Paul often.
This goes on for two years! Luke never mentions the Roman commander further, the guy Felix was waiting for to make a ruling on Paul’s case. In verse 27 we learn that Felix is succeeded by a new Roman governor, Festus. Paul has remained in prison this whole time, two years, because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, but there’s a new governor now. How will Festus treat Paul?
This brings us to Chapter 25. In verses 1-5, the new governor Festus goes to Jerusalem, where, even though two years have gone by, the Jewish leaders are still making accusations against Paul, urging Festus to have Paul brought to Jerusalem, though of course the Jews don’t tell Festus that they are plotting to kill Paul. Festus, instead, invites the Jews to Caesarea for another trial.
At the trial the same thing happens as in the trial before Felix. Look at verses 6-12. Paul and Jews again make opposing statements. This time, Festus tries to get Paul to go to Jerusalem, but Paul appeals to Caesar, which Festus honors. The vision in 23:11 is coming true. That was the vision I mentioned earlier, in which Jesus told Paul that he would preach in Rome.
But right around that time, another ruler shows up. In verses 13-27 the author of Acts, Luke, tells us that King Herod Agrippa II and his wife, Bernice, arrive to greet the new governor, Festus, and they all end up discussing Paul’s case. Agrippa is curious, and he asks to hear from Paul. Festus agrees and the next day brings Paul in for an audience before Agrippa.
Now we have come to Chapter 26. Verses 1-23 should be very familiar. Paul retells his story of salvation. It’s the same story that we first heard in chapter 9, and that we heard last week in chapter 22, when Paul told his story to the angry crowd in Jerusalem. It is the story of how Paul, a zealous Pharisee, was persecuting Christians, and Jesus appeared to Paul, changing his life. Paul now became a vigorous missionary preacher for Jesus.
This time, though, Paul is not talking to Jews. He is talking to Roman governors, their wives, and perhaps attendants and soldiers in the palace. Look at verses 24-32. In verse 24, Festus interrupts Paul, saying Paul is insane. Why? What had Paul just said? Most likely Festus is referring to Paul’s claims about Jesus’ resurrection. Paul turns to Agrippa, because he knows Agrippa is acquainted with the events Paul is talking about, and Paul says, “The King,” meaning Agrippa, “is familiar with these things…because it was not done in a corner.” In other words, Paul is saying, Agrippa should be able to verify that these events he is talking about are true because they are well-known.
Really? Paul thinks Agrippa will back him up on this? Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it in future posts. For now, let’s see how this chapter finishes. Paul presses Agrippa, particularly on prophecy. Read verse 27, where Paul urges Agrippa to agree with him. Agrippa deflects the question, asking Paul if he thinks he could persuade Agrippa to become a Christian in so short a time. Paul essentially says yes, but that the timing doesn’t matter. Rather Paul’s desire is that those listening would become what he, Paul, is, except of course for the chains. When Paul mentions his chains, I suspect he has a sly grin on his face and twinkle in his eye. I also have a feeling that joke might have been well-received, probably getting some laughs from the rulers. Of course I don’t know that, but when Agrippa, Festus, and Bernice leave, Agrippa says, “Paul hasn’t done anything deserving of death.” Festus responds that Paul could have been set free, except that he appealed to Caesar. That’s how chapter 26 ends. To Rome Paul will go.
Considering these various interactions that Paul has with Roman governors, what can we learn about how to talk about God? In posts three through five of this series, we’ll take a closer look at what Paul says, and a theme will emerge. I’m convinced that this theme is a key for how we can talk about God in our day. Frankly, I wonder if we’ve taken it for granted, and we need to recover the theme. What is the theme? Check back tomorrow!