After two years in prison, the Governor changes and Festus decides to re-try Paul in Caesarea. Paul, as a Roman citizen, appeals to Caesar and will be sent to the Supreme Court in Rome. King Agrippa II and his sister visit Festus.
After two years in prison, the Governor changes and Festus decides to re-try Paul in Caesarea. Paul, as a Roman citizen, appeals to Caesar and will be sent to the Supreme Court in Rome. King Agrippa II and his sister visit Festus.
Welcome to this episode. We are continuing the extraordinary story that forms a key part of the later section of the book of Acts that Luke is telling. Luke was an eyewitness and a travelling companion of Paul for this particular period of time. He travelled with Paul to the city of Jerusalem, away from his church planting responsibilities in Greece and in Turkey, as we call it today, and back to Jerusalem. This is the framework for Series 6.
Background and Introduction
Paul’s goal is to go via Jerusalem to the capital city of Rome. He wants to go to Jerusalem, particularly because together with a group of other people, they are taking a large financial gift in Roman coinage with them, mostly by sea, from the different churches that they planted, to Jerusalem to help with a problem with poverty and need amongst the Christian believers in Jerusalem. That’s his goal. But, as we’ve seen in the episodes that are before this one, the story of what happened in Jerusalem is remarkable and filled with conflicts, problems and difficulties for Paul. It all started when he went into the Temple, where some people recognised him who had seen him in another part of the world, and they criticised him as opposing Judaism, causing division and rioting amongst Jews, and disrespecting the Temple and the Jewish Law. There was a spontaneous riot in the Temple as described vividly by Luke in an earlier chapter. Luke was probably an eyewitness of this event, which nearly led to Paul’s death, because they were beating him so severely. The Roman guard in a nearby fortress rushed into the Temple compound, took him into custody, and into the Antonia Fortress and interrogated him. The commander was really not clear what to do.
He brought Paul back to discuss with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, what was going on and what the accusations were. That was inconclusive, so the commander took Paul back into the fortress. Then he was told by a relative of Paul, Paul’s nephew, that there was an assassination plot against Paul and, as a result of that, the commander decided to transfer Paul to Caesarea. Caesarea was the capital city of the province of Judea where the Roman headquarters were and where the governor lived and ruled. The governor was Governor Felix and in the last episode, we saw how Felix dealt with Paul. He invited the leaders from Jerusalem up. There was a hearing but then Felix didn’t make any decision; he deferred the whole process and put Paul in prison in Caesarea. The last verse of Acts 24 is where we left the story in our last episode and it says,
‘When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favour to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.’
There’s a two-year period that is not described in detail, during which Felix had been hoping that Paul would gather a bribe, a sum of money, to give to him to gain his release. That was often what happened with prominent, political prisoners, but Paul didn’t do anything like that. Felix also interviewed Paul and met him on many occasions. Paul witnessed to him; he testified about Jesus to Governor Felix on many occasions. That’s where we left the story. Two years have passed; a difficult time in Paul’s life. He was an activist. He liked to be on the move and he was confined to prison. We do know, from the previous chapter, Acts 24: 23, that Paul was allowed to see his friends who came into the prison and were able to supply his needs.
A New Governor
Then the new governor comes, Festus. We’re going to see, in this episode, what happens when Festus takes over the responsibility for this unusual and awkward, political prisoner - Paul, the Christian Apostle. Let’s read how the story unfolds. Acts 25:1 - 5,
1 ‘Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, 2 where the chief priests and the Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul. 3 They 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. 4 Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. 5 Let some of your leaders come with me, and if the man has done anything wrong, they can press charges against him there.”’Acts 25:1-5, NIV
The new governor, Festus, was immediately faced with the problem that the Roman governors had, which is that their capital was Caesarea, on the coast, where there was a large military assignment of soldiers, the civil servants and the leaders of the Roman authorities but the Jewish capital was the city of Jerusalem. The Roman governors didn’t like living in Jerusalem, so they lived in Caesarea. He went to Jerusalem to meet the religious leaders - the chief priests and the Jewish leaders. This was a very important relationship between the governor and the leaders of the religious establishment. We know this included the High Priest and included the ruling Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, that is often referred to in the book of Acts - seventy men who made decisions about the conduct of the Jewish religion. It’s interesting to note here, that when the new governor comes, the topic that the religious leaders want to talk to him about is Paul. There were many other things that they could talk to him about but they chose to talk to him particularly about Paul. They wanted Paul brought down to Jerusalem for a trial before the Sanhedrin. We notice here that they had already planned that they were going to ambush him. This is not the first time we see that an assassination plot is afoot amongst the Jews. We saw an assassination plot in an earlier episode where forty men bound themselves by an oath, that they would kill Paul while he was in the city of Jerusalem. That plot was a failure because the commander found out about it and removed Paul from the city of Jerusalem. Now there is another plot that they have in mind. It’s a hundred kilometres to travel from Caesarea to Jerusalem, and they were planning a group of people to ambush the Roman military escort, as they were taking Paul from one place to another. This was a time of high tension between the Romans and the Jews, and these things often happened. It’s interesting that the religious leaders are willing to use the tactic of assassination against their religious enemies. That’s an astonishing tactic for them to use, which shows the feelings of hostility they had towards Paul and their determination to remove him; they considered him a threat to Judaism because he was such a powerful witness for Jesus Christ.
Festus decided that the trial would take place in Caesarea, not in Jerusalem. This was a retrial of Paul. If you listened to the last episode, you’ll remember that his predecessor Felix, had undertaken a trial for Paul two years earlier, an inconclusive trial. Paul is now going to be retried two years later. Paul should have been released from prison after the first trial, because no charges were brought against him, and he was a Roman citizen. He had legal rights. It was illegal for him to be held in prison for two years. Now there’s going to be a retrial and Festus is going to listen to the case against Paul, in exactly the same way that his predecessor Felix had done two years before. But there’s going to be a different outcome. Acts 25: 6 - 12:
6 ‘After spending eight or ten days with them, Festus went down to Caesarea. The next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him. 7 When Paul came in, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him. They brought many serious charges against him, but they could not prove them. 8 Then Paul made his defence: “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.” 9 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?” 10 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. 11 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!” 12 After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”’Acts 25:6-12, NIV
This is a very dramatic re-enactment of the trial with a different outcome, but the same starting point, because the Jews bring many serious charges. They say that Paul is corrupting the Jewish religion, desecrating the Temple, stirring up rioting and causing division amongst the Jews. The things that had been stated in the previous trial and which Luke describes there, are surely being re-stated here. The notable thing is that there’s no evidence; no eyewitnesses are called to any illegal actions, either illegal in the context of the Jewish religion or illegal in the context of Roman law. Paul refuses to go to Jerusalem. He knows that it’s dangerous for him to go to Jerusalem. He knows that he risks assassination and so he refuses; he wants to stay in Caesarea.
Appeal to Caesar
He makes a radical decision and it is represented in Acts 25:11, “I appeal to Caesar”. Caesar is the Roman Emperor. What does Paul mean when he says these famous words? As we’ve discussed in several previous episodes, Paul has Roman citizenship. Not every person in the Roman Empire was an official citizen. In fact, only a small minority of people were. Citizenship was not an automatic right; it was not a right of birth. It did not come to you because of the country you were born in, or even the ethnic group you were part of. Citizenship was a right given by the Roman authorities only to some people, notably people who lived in the central part around the city of Rome and in the country of Italy, for ethnic reasons, generally speaking. Those who served the Roman Empire in the civil service, in the army, or in other roles would often receive citizenship. Some people simply bought the right to be a citizen by paying money for that right. Paul clearly inherited citizenship from his father. Many people think that his father was a Jew serving in the Roman army and received his citizenship that way, but we can’t be sure about that. All we know is that Paul had Roman citizenship, which meant that he could not be punished without a trial, that he could not be held in prison without a fair trial, and that he had the right at any time to ask for his legal case to be taken away from the court it was being tried in, and taken to the supreme court of the Roman Empire, which was the Emperor’s court in Rome itself. His case could be heard, either by the Emperor or, more likely, by his representative, who acted as a supreme judge in that Supreme Court which only took place in the city of Rome. So, when he says, “I appeal to Caesar”, it means that Paul is no longer willing to accept the judgement and decision of the provincial governor in Judea. He wants to be transferred to Rome. The governor is then responsible to ensure that the prisoner is transferred from the province, in this case Judea, to Rome itself, under armed guard. This is what is going to take place in due course. This was really rather shocking. The governor realised that he must follow this appeal and so he declared, “To Caesar, you will go!” In this way, Paul would fulfil his long-held ambition to get to Rome, for the first time ever, and to preach the Gospel of Christ in the city of Rome.
The Visit of King Agrippa
We are going to follow the story a little bit further because another person is introduced into the situation - another ruler. King Agrippa comes to visit the Roman governor. Let us read the story and then we’ll discuss who Agrippa is and what his significance is in the situation. Acts 25:13 - 27,
13 ‘A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. 14 Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. 15 When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. 16 “I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges. 17 When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought up. 18 When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. 19 Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. 20 I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. 21 But when Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.” 22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear this man myself.” He replied, “Tomorrow you will hear him.” ,23The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24 Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. 27 For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.”’Acts 25:13-27, NIV
King Agrippa II, is the ruler of a province north of Judea - Galilee and the surrounding regions. The country of Israel is divided mostly into two sections, at this time. Judea is ruled directly by the Roman governor, which includes Caesarea and Jerusalem, and Galilee, which is ruled indirectly for the Romans by King Agrippa. He has to fulfil various conditions to continue his rule. Bernice is his sister. They were coming to visit Festus simply because the two rulers were getting to know each other. Festus had only just arrived in the country and this was an official political visit, as you would see today between rulers of different nations, and often takes place when a new ruler comes into power. That’s exactly what has happened here. King Agrippa II’s father ruled before him, and he was King Agrippa I. He has already appeared in our story, in Acts 12. He was very hostile to the Christian faith and took decisive action against the Church a few years earlier. This is recorded in Acts 12: 2 - 3,
2 ‘He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.’Acts 12:2-3, NIV
with the intention of executing Peter. King Agrippa II’s father was a direct opponent of the Church and he caused the martyrdom of one of the Apostles, James the Apostle. This is the first Apostle to die and he died at the hands of King Agrippa I, who instigated a period of persecution against the Church. His period of persecution came to an end very suddenly as recorded at the end of Acts 12. King Agrippa I was in the city of Caesarea, where we are now, holding a public hearing and appearing in his royal robes when in Acts 12:23, The crowd shouted,
“This is the voice of a god, not of a man. Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.’
An act of divine judgement intervened at that point and his reign came to a sudden end. That was the father of this man. His father died in Caesarea very suddenly and unexpectedly. His father was an opponent of the Church, who had directly persecuted the Church and tried to execute the leaders. Here he is, in the same city, with the same issue with another of the big leaders. He dealt with the original twelve Apostles, and he tried to execute Peter, the leading Apostle of all. Now, King Agrippa II, the son, is face-to-face with Paul, the other major character of the Early Church. So, this is quite a powerful story. That’s why he says in Acts 25:22,
“I would like to hear this man myself.”
He was really interested to find out what was going on. Paul was brought in before him and there was an official reception for King Agrippa and his sister Bernice. Festus said, “I hope that this discussion will produce something I can write to the Emperor. I still don’t know what to say to him. He’s appealed to the Emperor but I still don’t know from the Jews, what the charges really are because there’s no evidence to support anything that Paul has done which is illegal.”
In our next episode we’ll see what happens when Paul addresses King Agrippa II and Festus.
Before we get to that point, let us pause and think about what we can learn from this episode. It’s interesting, first of all, to think, ‘Why did Paul appeal to Caesar and why didn’t he do it earlier on? There was a two-year period where he could have appealed to Caesar. He was waiting to see what would happen in the country. But when he realised that he wasn’t going to get out of prison - he was going to be held for a long period of time - he appealed to Caesar. My reflection here is that it is good to know the laws of your own country. The laws of our countries vary enormously concerning religious freedom and freedom to preach for Christ. I don’t know which country you live in, as you’re listening to this episode, but the general principle that we can learn from this is, it is good to know the laws of your country and how the justice system works, so that we can use them to our benefit whenever possible. Sometimes it isn’t possible to do that because of corruption or oppressive laws. But here there was a law that Paul could use and he did so wisely, “I appeal to Caesar.” He was going to be removed to the Imperial Court in Rome.
The second thing that I’m learning, from thinking about this episode, is about the power of perseverance. Paul was patient for two years. He couldn’t carry on with his work. He couldn’t travel around. He couldn’t visit the churches he had planted, that he so desperately wanted to support. He was restricted. I wonder whether you are restricted in your life. There are so many things that restrict us. It might be family issues; financial pressures: personal circumstances of all sorts; or health issues that restrict us. Paul was restricted. But what does Paul say about the restrictions that come through suffering? Elsewhere, in Romans 5: 3 - 5, he says,
3 ‘Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’Romans 5:3-5, NIV
Paul identifies that God can use suffering to strengthen our characters and our ability to continue being disciples in difficult circumstances. That may well be your experience. These were two very difficult years for Paul. Everything he wanted to do he could not do. He had no idea what his future was going to be. His life was at risk. He was in an uncomfortable, restricted situation like many of you are for one reason or another. We can learn from Paul here, to gain perseverance by embracing the suffering for Christ that is an inevitable part of the Christian life.
The other reflection I have is that difficult circumstances often produce surprising opportunities. Let us think for a moment about Luke. We have noticed in the narrative up to this point that Luke was travelling with Paul as he came to Jerusalem and whilst he was in Judea. He travelled almost certainly to Caesarea and was probably in and around Caesarea, helping Paul in the two years of imprisonment. But at the same time, Luke had time on his hands. He was supporting Paul, but he couldn’t be with him on a regular basis. We also know that Luke tells us at the beginning of his Gospel, that he carefully researched the life of Jesus. In Luke 1:3, it says,
‘since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you,’
When did Luke do this research, talking to the eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus? He didn’t live in Israel. That is not where he came from. This may well have been his first visit to the country. He has got two years while Paul is in prison. He is in the country, almost certainly, helping Paul where he needs to, but there are other people who can do that. It is almost certain that Luke used the time of being in Israel to travel around the country to different churches and even to meet members of Jesus’ family, in order to gather eyewitness accounts to write his Gospel. He wasn’t an eyewitness of Jesus Christ. He wasn’t there when Jesus lived. He had no personal memories to draw on. He depended entirely on the eyewitnesses of others. When would he have got that information? He could only have done so at this particular period of his life. There is a difficulty for Paul, providing an opportunity for Luke, which produces for us a remarkable and wonderful Gospel that I’ve used as the historical framework for teaching ‘The Life of Jesus’. It is interesting that difficult and dark circumstances may well come to you and to me but God can give us surprising, unexpected opportunities when things are tough, if we are open. Luke was open and willing.
My concluding comment would be to notice Paul’s faithful testimony. After two years, his testimony for Jesus was just as strong as it was beforehand. He clearly spoke for Jesus Christ and testified to him in exactly the same way that John the Apostle did when he was imprisoned on the island of Patmos, towards the end of his long life, which is described in the book of Revelation, chapter 1. With this I’m going to finish. Revelation 1: 9,
“I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
John was faithful to Jesus, even when in prison. Paul was faithful to Jesus, even when in prison. Whatever our circumstances, the most important thing is being faithful to Jesus all through our lives.
Thanks for listening to this episode and I hope you’ll join us as we follow the story further next time by seeing how Paul explained his message to King Agrippa II.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What have you learnt from the difficult times in your life?
- Read Romans 5:3-5. Do you agree with this in your own life?
- Pray for those you know who are struggling at this time.
- Be clear about the Roman system of justice. Why did Paul not appeal to Caesar earlier?