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The Spreading Flame - Series 6: Episode 9

Paul’s message to Felix, the Roman Governor

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 23:12-35

In Caesarea, Paul is imprisoned. The High Priest, Tertullus and other Jews come to accuse in the legal court. Paul defends himself. Felix the Governor, hesitates to make a decision and Paul is kept in prison for two years.

In Caesarea, Paul is imprisoned. The High Priest, Tertullus and other Jews come to accuse in the legal court. Paul defends himself. Felix the Governor, hesitates to make a decision and Paul is kept in prison for two years.


I hope you have been listening to the earlier episodes because this is a continuing story. This particular episode doesn’t stand on its own; it is part of an amazingly complex situation that happened to Paul when he went to Jerusalem in his final phase of work in the eastern Mediterranean before he went to Rome. We know that his goal is to get to Rome and he was determined to go to Jerusalem for a number of reasons that we are going to look at in this episode.

Introduction and Background

If you have followed the previous episodes, you will realise that as soon as he got to Jerusalem, he got himself into really big trouble because of conflict with the Jewish religious leaders in the city, who had taken great exception to Paul. They considered that he had betrayed the Jewish religion by proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and encouraging Jews to join the new Christian movement, which is described in this episode as ‘The Way’. It is just one aspect of the description of Christianity in the book of Acts.

In the last episode, the commander of the Roman military garrison in Jerusalem who had taken Paul into custody as a result of all these controversies, decided to send him away from Jerusalem to the Roman capital of the province of Judea, the city of Caesarea by the sea. This is where the governor lived and worked and ruled the whole province. The governor at this time was called Governor Felix. He is a successor of Pontius Pilate, who was also the governor or procurator of this province, and who made the decision to execute Jesus Christ. Governor Felix now has Paul in his custody and we learnt that there had been a planned assassination on Paul in Jerusalem which the Roman authorities wanted to avoid by taking him away from the city and away from the controversy. We find that the commander has written the governor a letter, explaining the situation and we found that Paul was being kept under guard in Caesarea, awaiting the arrival of the Jewish accusers, who were going to follow up and travel to Caesarea to make their case against Paul. This really is in the middle of a story and if you haven’t listened to the earlier episodes, it would be really helpful to do that, in order to understand the story. As far as we can tell Luke, the author of Acts, is an eyewitness to all these events. He certainly travelled with Paul to Jerusalem and he was with him in the events in Jerusalem in the recent episodes. He was probably here travelling to Caesarea, and seeing the things that happened to Paul at that time. There was an enormous military guard that was given to Paul to guarantee his journey to Caesarea.

The Legal Accusation

Now he has arrived, he is under guard and the question is, ‘What’s going to happen next? Will the Jewish leaders come up from Jerusalem?’ Yes, they will. They are determined to pursue Paul. This is what we discover in this particular episode. Acts 24:1 - 9,

1 ‘Five days later the High Priest Ananias went down to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus, and they brought their charges against Paul before the governor. 2 When Paul was called in, Tertullus presented his case before Felix: “We’ve enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. 3 Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. 4 But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly. 5 “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect 7 and even tried to desecrate the Temple; so we seized him.[7] 8 By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.” 9 The other Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.’

Acts 24:1-9, NIV

This was a high-powered delegation. The High Priest himself came up to Caesarea. He didn’t often travel there. The Jews didn’t like going to the city of Caesarea; it represented Roman rule. It wasn’t a place that the High Priest would visit very often, but this was such a big issue that he himself came with elders and a specialist lawyer, in order to try and convince the governor, Felix, to have Paul punished.

His words to the governor are based on politeness, saying what a wonderful governor he had been in the country. But this wasn’t the case. History doesn’t tell this story. There was tension between the Jews and the Romans but in this circumstance, the High Priest was being respectful, honouring the governor, seeking to win his favour because he really wanted him to act decisively against Paul. This is a common human strategy in the law courts, as many of you will be aware. The lawyer, Tertullus, and the others, presented the case against Paul. What are they saying against Paul? These are very generalised accusations, “He’s a troublemaker; he causes riots amongst the Jews all over the world,” meaning all over the Roman Empire. They are referring to the fact that Paul has travelled to many places in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, and he has gone to many Jewish communities in different cities. He has spoken in many synagogues and the result of him speaking has always been a division amongst the Jews which we have seen in many episodes, up until this point. These are rather general accusations. There is a specific accusation that he tried to desecrate the Temple, to damage the Temple, or to do something against the Temple, when he went up to the Temple a few days earlier. We saw that incident described by Luke as an eyewitness, in an earlier episode. Then the other Jews joined in and they made all sorts of accusations.

Felix is listening to this great volume of criticism that is coming from the Jewish leaders but you will probably notice one interesting thing about this speech. There are no other eye witnesses being called. These are general accusations that are not being substantiated by evidence. It is in the nature of a legal court situation, that evidence is important. We all know, in different countries of the world, what happens when your law courts are corrupted and evidence is not what determines the outcome, but some political or personal motivation - some act of corruption. We see this all over the world. Here they wanted to persuade Felix to do something against Paul, simply because he was seen as a troublemaker, he would be a problem for the Romans, he would cause dissension and conflict and that would turn against the Romans. That was the case that they brought against Paul.

Paul’s Defence

Paul had an opportunity to defend himself and he did so vigorously. We know that Paul could debate vigorously, could speak very articulately. He could use evidence and he could challenge what other people said. He had spent a lot of time doing this in debating with the Jews concerning the interpretation of the Old Testament. In some cities he spent whole days talking to the Jews in detail and debating things. But here, the governor gives Paul the opportunity to speak. Acts 24:10 - 21:

10 ‘When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: “I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defence. 11 You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 12 My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone in the Temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. 13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors, as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. 17 After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. 18 I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the Temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. 20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin— 21 unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”

Acts 24:10-21, NIV

We see Paul’s well-reasoned defence. He is articulate, clear and confident; and he contradicts the claim that he came to Jerusalem to cause trouble. He made every effort when he came to Jerusalem to be peaceful, to be humble, to be private, to speak to the church, to be respectful of the Jews. We see that in the story that is told in earlier episodes. He didn’t have a crowd of people with him when he was in the Temple. He came with just a few friends to fulfil a religious ceremony. Paul’s argument is that there is no real evidence here. He points out that the initial people who caused the trouble, some Jewish people from the province of Asia who saw him in the Temple, who had seen him in other places, are not present to bring any accusation. They had just disappeared. They had stirred up trouble against him because they didn’t like him. He points out that he hasn’t broken any religious law; he hasn’t caused any rioting or conflict or violence; he hasn’t come with a group of people in the Temple to cause difficulty; he hasn’t come to stir up difficulty in Jerusalem. He points out that his reason for coming to Jerusalem was entirely different. He says in verse 17, exactly what it was,

 “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.”

He has already explained that the real issue is not that he has done anything to break any rules, but that he has proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah, and he has helped form the Early Church, known to the Jews as ‘The Nazarene Sect’; known to many Christians as ‘The Way’, as Paul describes it here. When he describes ‘my people’ in verse 17, he is talking, particularly about the church that is in Jerusalem, and in the surrounding area. He said that his motivation to come to Jerusalem was to bring financial gifts because poverty was a real problem. There were some economic problems for the church at the time, which might have been related to persecution, or they might have been related to food shortages. We don’t know exactly, but Luke has told us the story in considerable detail in earlier chapters, of Paul making great efforts to gather a large collection of money from the new churches in places like Corinth, Thessalonica, the Greek churches, and in other places in Asia. He has made great effort to bring that money to Jerusalem. He had many people willing to protect the coinage as they travelled to Jerusalem, and he wanted to bring a blessing and a gift to the church in Jerusalem because they were struggling at the time. So, his reason for coming to Jerusalem has nothing to do with causing controversy for the Jews. It is to help the church. Then whilst in Jerusalem, he said he was going to present offerings; show his respect to the Jewish Temple. That is his motivation for coming into the city.

Paul defends himself very vigorously. He basically points out that there isn’t eyewitness testimony or any substantial evidence against him. They have misrepresented him fundamentally concerning going into the Temple. He didn’t want to do anything against the Temple. In fact, we are told earlier that he is going with a number of men into the Temple to fulfil a Jewish religious ceremonial tradition, and he was advised to do that by the church leaders in Jerusalem when he arrived there.

The Governor’s Decision

It is a tense situation before Governor Felix. What is he going to do? Roman authorities characteristically were in a very difficult position. They didn’t like being presented with these conflicts amongst the Jews. Governor Felix is going to hesitate, in the same way that Pontius Pilate hesitated when the Sanhedrin brought the accusations against Jesus. When Pilate interrogated Jesus, he couldn’t see that he was any real threat to Rome whatsoever, and he hesitated and hesitated but eventually gave in and committed Jesus to crucifixion. Governor Felix has to make a decision here. And we will find out what he does in Acts 24:22 - 27,

22 ‘Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” 23 He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but gave him some freedom and permitted his friends to take care of his needs. 24 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I’ll send for you.” 26 At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. 27 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.’

Acts 24:22-27, NIV

What you see here are the actions of a man who is hesitating. You notice what he does as he adjourns the proceedings: he doesn’t bring an answer. He delays things. “I’ll wait for the commander to come up from Jerusalem.” This was difficult for the Jewish delegation because how long were they going to stay in Caesarea? Probably they left. Felix didn’t want to decide one way or the other, he hesitated. He deferred the decision and allowed Paul freedom so that his friends could come and take care of his needs. It is interesting here that Felix is described in verse 22, as someone who was well acquainted with The Way. He knew about the Church. Why did he know about the Church? First of all, his wife Drusilla was Jewish, so she may have given him some information. Secondly, there would have been other conflicts between the religious authorities and Christian churches in the country, which he would have heard about. Thirdly, in Caesarea there was a church. We know about this from earlier accounts. We know that the first convert in Caesarea was actually a Roman centurion, Cornelius, in the very city where he is now. Was Cornelius still around at this time? We don’t know; a few years have passed. But we know that his whole household was saved. But even more significantly, we also know that one of the most gifted evangelists of the Early Church, Philip, who we saw in action in Samaria with the Ethiopian eunuch and then preaching in the cities along the coastal area of Israel, ended up living in Caesarea. Paul met Philip not so long ago while heading down to Jerusalem, stayed in his house with his family, including his four unmarried daughters who prophesied. Philip is in the city. It is likely there’s a vibrant church in that very city and the governor would surely know about it. Probably members of the Roman establishment there had converted to Christianity, just like Cornelius had. The same thing happened to the Herod family and their households in the times of the Gospels; we notice some members of their household converted to Christianity. Probably the same thing was happening here. He knew about the Gospel. He had probably met Christians. He may well have met Philip the evangelist who lived literally a few hundred metres away, somewhere in the relatively small city of Caesarea. He was well acquainted.

He adjourns the trial. Interestingly, he starts talking to Paul privately; calls him in from time to time. “Let’s have another chat, Paul. Tell us a bit more about your thinking.” He wanted to find out more. Something was going on in Felix because he didn’t have to give any attention to Paul but he obviously did. This tells us something interesting about this man.

Our story comes to an end with a rather difficult statement. Paul is in prison for two years while Felix is hesitating and not making a decision. In truth, he shouldn’t have been in prison for those two years. He was a Roman citizen. He hadn’t been formally charged by the Roman authorities. No evidence had been presented by the Jews to support the case that was brought by Tertullus, in the hearing that we just heard about. We don’t see any reference to any significant evidence. So, why is he in prison at all? This was a political act, not a legal act. It wasn’t correct legally and Paul knew that; he was going to fight against this unfair imprisonment just a little further along in time, by actually calling upon his right to be tried in a different court, which is in Rome itself, because he was a Roman citizen. We will find out more about that a little bit later on. But these two years pass - two difficult years.


Here are my reflections as we come to the end of this episode and think, what can we learn from here? First of all, although Paul was in prison, he had many friends and they had access to him. This is a common situation in the modern Church where Christian leaders are detained, imprisoned or exiled, put under house arrest - a variety of different things. One crucial thing at that point is, what support can they receive? Sometimes they can receive very little support, apart from prayer. But, by God’s grace, many people in confinement are supported by the Church and this is a really good example. We notice that his friends could take care of his needs, in verse 23. They did have access to Paul. We should never underestimate the significance of helping prisoners; prisoners for the Gospel. Who would his friends have been? The church in Caesarea that I have just described to you, would be an obvious example, but the people he travelled with, like Luke, were others. Luke is still in the country, as far as we can tell. He is still an eyewitness of what is going on. He  is not in prison. Luke would be coming and going, as would some of his other friends who travelled with him, maybe some of his friends from Jerusalem. They were helping him. They were taking care of his needs. This, very often, meant providing supplementary food, as is so often the case in modern prisons in developing countries today. The food is insufficient and extra nutrition is always appreciated. Paul’s friends helped him. We can support prisoners today, if that’s a relevant issue in our country or in the Church network we are in, by prayer if we can’t do anything else but if we have any access to them, never underestimate the significance of it. It was a great morale booster for Paul because he was an activist. He was always on the move and to be two years not being able to do anything, was a massive constraint for him.

Secondly, by way of reflection, let us think about Felix. Here is a very troubled unbeliever. He really is a troubled man, as far as we can tell, because he knew about the Gospel; he knew Christians. He was interested; he was intrigued by the Gospel, otherwise he wouldn’t have taken Paul out of his cell regularly and said, “Let’s talk further.” He wouldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t have had any reason to do it, but he did it regularly because he wanted to find out more. And yet he was unwilling to believe because Paul spoke more and more clearly to him about faith in Jesus Christ, verse 24 and 25. He ‘talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come’. He was very specific about Christianity - the need for putting faith in Jesus, and the risk of divine judgement at the end of our lives. Felix was very uncomfortable with this. One of the reasons he was uncomfortable was that he was motivated by money. You will notice here that he was hoping that Paul and his friends would bribe him. This was common, of course, as it is today in many parts of the world, for people to be released from prison or some legal punishment because of corruption, bribery, or payment of some official. Felix was hoping for that payment, and a big payment, because Paul was an important person. But it never happened. Notice that Paul didn’t for a moment, encourage his friends to bribe the authorities. Felix delayed a legal decision. He was literally sitting on the fence, spiritually. That may be the situation of some of the people listening to this episode. I really encourage you, if that is the case, if you are looking in at Christianity, to make that full decision to follow Jesus Christ, and not sit in the incredibly uncomfortable position that Felix was in.

Paul was a faithful witness even in prison. How is this story going to end? How is he going to get out of prison and what is going to happen next? That is what we are going to find out in our next episode and I hope you will join us for it.

Study Questions

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.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. The Governor probably wanted Paul to bribe him. Is this ever the right thing to do?
  • Discipleship
    1. What do you know of people who are in prison because of their faith? Find out about them and pray for them.
    2. What times in your life have been the most difficult?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Paul is having to wait again in prison. Trace the story line to find out how many years have passed since Paul wanted to go to Jerusalem.
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