Paul Before Festus: Part 1 of 4 (series: Lessons on Acts)
by John Lowe
July 11, 2016
Acts of the Apostles
By: Tom Lowe
Lesson: IV.F.4: Paul Before Festus (Acts 25:1-27)
We have seen the Apostle Paul as he appeared before Felix and then in a private interview with Felix and his wife Drusilla. And apparently, there were other meetings we know nothing about. Now he will appear before Festus (Felix’s replacement), and later he will appear before Agrippa. I am sure that he rejoiced in the opportunity given him to testify before these high political figures of the Roman Empire. Remember that when the Lord Jesus had apprehended Paul on the Damascus road, He had said, “. . . He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and Kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Paul is moving according to God’s plan and program.
Each time Paul tells about what the Lord Jesus had done for him, he tells it with a great deal of conviction and enthusiasm. Paul witnesses a good confession of Jesus Christ. Although Felix trembled as he listened, the rascality and cupidity and covetousness of this man triumphed. He had his chance. He sent for Paul many times but he wanted a bribe, not salvation.
Those two years that Paul languished in prison are silent years in the life of Paul. Perhaps he was exasperated by it all. We don’t know. We do know that the hand of God was discernible in all this, and His purposes were carried out.
Josephus’s portrait of Porcius Festus is much more positive than his portrait of Felix. Festus was an efficient and mostly just administrator; he also corrected disturbances and caught many of the revolutionaries. Josephus also indicates that Festus died in office, apparently having served in Judea only a year or two. A Roman administrator might struggle to balance the interests of justice for an individual and political sensitivity to the local elites, especially if there was a potential for unrest. Luke will make the point that Christians must follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
This chapter of Acts functions mainly as a transition. Luke is setting the scene for Paul’s climactic speech before Agrippa in chapter 26. As he does so, he strengthens two themes important to his history: (a) the controversies regarding Paul and the Christian Way are a thoroughly Jewish matter, and (b) the legal structure and personnel of the Roman Empire are functioning at this time as instruments of divine providence.
Notice, the first section (vs. 1-12) is crucial because in it Paul appeals to Caesar, sets the direction for the remainder of the book, and shows how the apostle reached Rome.
1 Now when Festus was come into the province, after three days he ascended from Caesarea to Jerusalem.
“Now when Festus was come into the province, after three days he ascended from Caesarea to Jerusalem.” It appears from this that Festus stayed for three days in Caesarea. It doesn’t say that he met with Felix at that time, but I believe he did, if for no other reason than it was the right thing to do—protocol.
Festus’s residence would be in Caesarea (the capital of his province), but it was politically appropriate to visit the local authorities centered in Jerusalem. Festus went “from Caesarea to Jerusalem”; from the seat of the Roman government in Judea to the center of Jewish religious leadership. Though it was not necessary, it was politically expedient for the new governor to confer with the high priest and the Sanhedrin, and vice versa.
2 Then the high priest and the chief of the Jews informed him against Paul, and besought him,
3 And desired favour against him, that he would send for him to Jerusalem, laying wait in the way to kill him.
4 But Festus answered, that Paul should be kept at Caesarea, and that he himself would depart shortly thither.
5 Let them therefore, said he, which among you are able, go down with me, and accuse this man, if there be any wickedness in him.
“Then the high priest and the chief of the Jews informed him against Paul, and besought him.”(2) Relations between Felix and the Jewish authorities had been strained, because of Felix’s incompetent administration of the province. Festus inherited from Felix a province seething with factions, intrigue, discontent, and insurgency. A new governor, however, meant a new chance to introduce agendas previously deferred, and Paul’s case was one of those. The enemies of Paul didn’t waste any time getting to the new governor to try to get a judgment against Paul.
“The chief of the Jews”(2)—the influential Jews of the city—are called elders in 25:15: “about whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the ELDERS of the Jews informed me, asking for sentence against him.” They are therefore the same official group that has made up the opposition to Jesus and His followers “saying, The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the ELDERS and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up”(Luke 9:22; see also 20:1; Acts 4:23; 23:14; 25:15). They continue to be the villains in the story, and Rome continues to be the protector of Christians.
“And desired favour against him, that he would send for him to Jerusalem, laying wait in the way to kill him.”(3) Paul’s enemies in Jerusalem wanted him moved; giving as the reason the frequent assaults by revolutionaries throughout the country that could result in him being freed. But that is not the real reason. They knew their case was so weak that the only way they could rid themselves of him was by ambush while he was being transferred from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Members of the priestly aristocracy would not necessarily appear to have sponsored the violence against Paul (as violent as the agendas of some of them were reported to be, according to Josephus and other early Jewish sources). Festus would be eager to correct the bad relationship of the previous administration; hence, he would probably try to accommodate local politics. That would be one of the reasons for his moving the issue up on the docket, and that does not breach protocol.
I don’t know whether Festus was actually aware of their plan to ambush the party and kill Paul. I think he was, but it doesn’t really say that he knew about it. However, he refused to agree to their demands and requested instead that they come to Caesarea to bring charges; and that would put an end to their evil plans.
“But Festus answered, that Paul should be kept at Caesarea, and that he himself would depart shortly thither.”(4) It seems that Festus understood Paul’s situation. I’m of the opinion that Felix told him about Paul’s imprisonment, and I think he explained the circumstances (v. 1). I’m sure he told Festus that he had brought him to Caesarea to protect him from being put to death by the Jews. So when Festus gets word from the Jews that they want Paul in Jerusalem, he could have said something like, “Oh, I will bring him up here. I’m going back to Caesarea myself. I’m not going to stay here in Jerusalem.” Here is another Roman who preferred Caesarea to Jerusalem.
“Let them therefore, said he, which among you are 6able, go down with me, and accuse this man, if there be any wickedness in him.”(5) The town clerk at Ephesus had a similar attitude (19:38-41). Could Festus have found out about the Jew’s plan to ambush and kill Paul if he were returned to Jerusalem for trial (v. 3)? We don’t know, but it’s possible.
Luke has confidence in the orderly procedure of Roman courts, a confidence he wants to commend to his readers. For Luke, the way forward for the church in his own situation at the end of the first century is to fit into the Roman world as loyal citizens, trusting in the validity of Roman justice. See the differing perspectives in 1 Peter and Revelation, written slightly later and under different circumstances, which also deal with the proper conduct of Christians under Roman rule.