Paul Before Festus: Part 2 of 4 (series: Lessons on Acts)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

6 And when he had tarried among them more than ten days, he went down unto Caesarea; and the next day sitting on the judgment seat commanded Paul to be brought.
7 And when he was come, the Jews which came down from Jerusalem stood round about, and laid many and grievous complaints against Paul, which they could not prove.

“Sitting on the judgment seat”(6) means (1) that he sat on a bema, a raised ‘judgment seat’ where one in a position of judicial authority would sit to render his verdict in a court case he had overseen, and (2) that this is an official hearing.

“The Jews . . . laid many and grievous complaints against Paul, which they could not prove.”(7) Paul is again called upon to defend himself against the accusations of the Jews; which they could not substantiate. It’s a repeat of the scene with Felix; however it provides an opportunity to present the gospel to Festus.

A case could be reopened based on new evidence, but it would be thrown out if no such evidence were presented. Ancients often claimed (often rightly) that their legal opponents offered no proof. A speaker often summarized and then refuted the opponent’s charges; like a court recorder, Luke summarizes Paul’s response here. The accusations concerning Jewish law and the temple (21:28) would be relevant to a Roman magistrate only if Paul had violated the sanctity of the temple (21:28), a charge that had not been confirmed. An implication of treason against Caesar, however, would be fatal. Changing charges in the midst of a case was illegal, but with a new governor, Paul’s enemies have started the case anew.

8 While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended any thing at all.

“While he answered for himself” has been translated as “Paul said in his defense,” by the ASV. Paul’s case is presented as a model for the Christian situation in Luke’s own time, and the defense is that the Christian faith is not against the Jewish law, the Jewish temple, or the Roman emperor, i.e., that it is perfectly legal from the perspective of both Jewish and Roman law.
9 But Festus, willing to do the Jews a pleasure, answered Paul, and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me?
“But Festus, willing to do the Jews a pleasure (favor).” History reports that Festus was a fairer and more cooperative governor than most who ruled Judea; he undoubtedly wishes to bring about a good relationship with the regional officials. Luke knows, however,that law is not always administered fairly, that local politics and corrupt officials hinder the just administration of the law. Nonetheless, Luke’s story advocates the view that when Jews and Romans judge Christians fairly by their own laws, Christians are vindicated. The story of Paul illustrates, both to Luke’s Christian readers and the Roman authorities to whom he hopes to appeal (Luke 1:3), that Christians are only harassed and persecuted when Roman justice is perverted by plots (23:12-22; 25:3), bribes (24:26), and misunderstandings (21:27-34). These factors, and not Jewish or Roman law, are the causes of Paul’s continuing imprisonment. This Festus is another scoundrel. Paul is not only in the midst of a gang of thieves, he is in the midst of a bunch of scoundrels.

“Festus . . . answered Paul, and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things 7before me?”: Though the governor has authority to make such decisions—whether or not to send Paul to Jerusalem—Paul throughout his trials is presented by Luke as a fascinating person respected and consulted by the Roman authorities—“And he gave order to the centurion that he Paul should be kept in charge, and should have indulgence; and not to forbid any of his friends to minister unto him” (24:23; see also 23:17). Festus had changed his mind on this (vs. 4-5); apparently feeling this would be a suitable compromise with which to placate “the Jews.” Also he was realizing he did not know how to handle this kind of religious case (v. 20).

10 Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar's judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest.
11 For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them.

I appeal unto Caesar.
Paul, addressing Festus, who is seated on the bema seat said, “I stand at Caesar's judgment seat” (i.e., thy judgment seat, O Festus); ‘where I ought to be judged’(10) (and not before a Jewish Court, like the Sanhedrin). This is a compliment paid to Festus, that Paul considered any judgment rendered by Festus to carry the same weight as those rendered by Caesar himself. (Was Paul stroking his ego?)

“Then said Paul . . . 3I appeal unto Caesar.”(10) There are some people who think that Paul made a mistake here, that he should never have appealed to Caesar. They think he should simply have let his case rest with Festus. Dear reader, don’t you see that Festus was going to use Paul for his own political ends? Festus was going to take Paul back to Jerusalem. It was at Jerusalem that he had had to be rescued from a plot against his life, and it seemed foolish to risk such danger again.

Perhaps Festus was receiving bribes from the Jews who had come from Jerusalem. I am reluctant to criticize Paul. I don’t think that he made a mistake here. Paul was a Roman citizen and he exercised his rights as a citizen, which was the normal and the right thing for him to do.

Paul would have nothing to do with this switch of venues for several reasons: (1) the journey from Caesarea to Jerusalem would be dangerous. The 40 Jews who two years before (24:27) had taken an oath to murder Paul (23:13-14) would probably have gotten out of their oath by then—the rabbis did not consider a vow binding if it was a sin against life—but they would still want to kill Paul. (2) The possibility of a fair trial in Jerusalem was remote. (3) He had already languished as a prisoner in Caesarea for some two years. Going back to Jerusalem would have surely meant death for him. He doesn’t purposely make himself a martyr. In fact, he did what he could to avoid martyrdom. (The charges were serious enough to demand a death penalty, if the accusations were true.)

“I stand at Caesar's judgment seat.”(10) Paul reminded Festus that he is standing in an official court of Caesar, where he ought to be tried, not in Jerusalem before the Jewish religious court, with its bias against the Way of Jesus, and where, he sensed, he would be sentenced to death on the charge of polluting the temple.

“Where I ought to be judged.”(10) In this case, Paul the Roman citizen has the right to say where he will be tried, but most citizens of Paul’s and Luke’s day could not. They were at the mercy of the local Roman and Jewish officials.

“I appeal unto Caesar.”(11) The emperor was Nero, who ruled 54-68 1CE. This is not a personal appeal, but a legal action analogous to appealing to the Supreme Court in the legal system of the United States. In the storyline of Acts, however, the legal basis for Paul’s appeal is unclear. Normally the appeal was made after a verdict had been reached in a local court, but Paul’s uncertain legal situation has not yet resulted in a verdict. Some scholars of Roman law argue that Roman citizens had the right to appeal to the emperor when a change of venue for their case was proposed, as here. However, Nero normally delegated the hearing and judging of cases to others. Later, the governor Piney in Bithynia executed many Christians but sent those who were citizens to Rome for trial. Noncitizen provincials had no automatic right to appeal a governor’s decision (except to accuse the governor of extortion or a capital charge). Defendants often expressed a willingness to die if found guilty as a way to emphasize their innocence or their indignation at the charge. The current emperor to whom Paul appeals is Nero; he was still under the more positive influences, he had not yet become notoriously immoral or begun to persecute Christians. Luke is not interested in the precision of legal details, but in the general picture he wishes to project: Rome is the protector of Christians from the arbitrary intrigues of local Jewish and Roman officials. There is definitely some irony in Paul’s circumstances—in the light of the prophecy of Agabus that the Jews will deliver Paul into the hands of the Gentiles—for repeatedly it was the Jews who tried to pry Paul out of the hands of the Roman authorities!

You will remember that two years before this the Lord had appeared to Paul and had promised him a trip to Rome: “. . . the Lord said, Be of good cheer: for as thou hast testified concerning me at Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome” (Acts 23:11). That’s what is taking place. He went to Rome by the will of God. He was in chains—but the Lord hadn’t told him how he would get to Rome. This was God’s method for him. When Paul wrote to the Romans, he told them that he was praying to be able to come to Rome and he asked them to pray that he might be able to come (Romans 1:9-10; 15:30-32). I believe he went to Rome by the will of God. I don’t think that Paul made a mistake here.

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