Paul's Arrest and Imprisonment

Part 2

In this lesson, Luke describes Paul's appearances before Roman governors Felix and Festus and the outcome of those hearings.
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This is the second part of a three part set concerning the varied and lengthy period of Paul's imprisonments. In part one I described the events that led to his initial rescue and detainment by Roman soldiers from an angry mob at the Temple in Jerusalem. On that occasion he tried to address the crowd and later was brought before the Jewish leaders in order to find a crime to charge him with. These attempts failed as both the mob and religious leaders fell into disarray to the point where the soldiers had to take Paul into protective custody once again to save his life.

In the section we will cover in this chapter, Luke will continue to describe Paul's journey through the Roman legal system as he fulfills Jesus' prophecy of proclaiming the gospel to various governors and kings (Acts 23:11).

The Conspiracy - Acts 23:12-35

12When it was day, the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. 13There were more than forty who formed this plot. 14They came to the chief priests and the elders and said, "We have bound ourselves under a solemn oath to taste nothing until we have killed Paul. 15Now therefore, you and the Council notify the commander to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case by a more thorough investigation; and we for our part are ready to slay him before he comes near the place."
16But the son of Paul's sister heard of their ambush, and he came and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17Paul called one of the centurions to him and said, "Lead this young man to the commander, for he has something to report to him." 18So he took him and led him to the commander and said, "Paul the prisoner called me to him and asked me to lead this young man to you since he has something to tell you." 19The commander took him by the hand and stepping aside, began to inquire of him privately, "What is it that you have to report to me?" 20And he said, "The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down tomorrow to the Council, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more thoroughly about him. 21So do not listen to them, for more than forty of them are lying in wait for him who have bound themselves under a curse not to eat or drink until they slay him; and now they are ready and waiting for the promise from you." 22So the commander let the young man go, instructing him, "Tell no one that you have notified me of these things."
- Acts 23:12-22

As the most educated, highest profile Jewish convert to Christianity, Paul became the number one target of the Jewish leadership. He posed a danger to them for several reasons:

  1. As a respected Pharisee and teacher of the Law, he could appeal to every segment of Jewish society with the gospel.
  2. He could successfully debate other teachers and priests concerning Jesus as the Messiah according to the Scriptures.
  3. He was well known both in Jerusalem and throughout the Empire by Jews, Gentile converts to Judaism, as well as Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity, so he attracted attention in ways that the Jewish leaders could not.
  4. His personal conduct was irreproachable, and he performed healings and miracles.
  5. As a Roman citizen he had the protection of Roman Law and was beyond the reach of the Sanhedrin's legal or political power.
  6. He was accepted as an Apostle in the Christian church and as such had influence with a growing number of believers in Jerusalem. This threatened the status quo which the Jewish leaders wanted to maintain at all costs (they killed Jesus, so nothing was impossible for them to do).
  7. The worst sin, however, that drove them to murderous rage, was the fact that Paul was responsible for bringing Gentiles into the church and encouraged both Gentile and Jewish converts to worship together as equals, "There is neither Jew nor Greek [...] for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

In doing this, Paul was violating their sense of privilege and destiny as God's people and threatened to destroy the purity of their religion which, as practiced by these leaders, consisted of maintaining a cultural exclusivity which they mistook for piety. They thought that keeping Gentiles out was the way to remain pure and please God, when in fact their job was to bring Gentiles in from paganism to worship the true and living God, but keep Gentile/pagan practices out as a way of maintaining their purity. In other words, love and receive the sinner (Gentile), and hate the sin (immoral pagan practices and religion). They simply hated the Gentiles and marginalized the Gentile converts to Judaism thus creating a class system within the Jewish religion where the priests and Pharisees were at the top and the people, the poor, the lame, the sinners (i.e. Matthew the tax collector) made up the lower classes with Gentile converts occupying the bottom rung.

Paul was their sworn enemy because he preached that all these people held the same position in the eyes of God through Christ. If this message was accepted they feared that their religion, their favored position and their way of life would be destroyed. Knowing these things helps us understand their zeal in plotting to kill him.

We note again that Luke provides personal information about Paul's nephew warning him of a murder plot. This is a rare glimpse into Paul's private family life that only a close acquaintance like Luke could provide.

23And he called to him two of the centurions and said, "Get two hundred soldiers ready by the third hour of the night to proceed to Caesarea, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen." 24They were also to provide mounts to put Paul on and bring him safely to Felix the governor. 25And he wrote a letter having this form:
26"Claudius Lysias, to the most excellent governor Felix, greetings.
27"When this man was arrested by the Jews and was about to be slain by them, I came up to them with the troops and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. 28"And wanting to ascertain the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their Council; 29and I found him to be accused over questions about their Law, but under no accusation deserving death or imprisonment.
30"When I was informed that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, also instructing his accusers to bring charges against him before you."
31So the soldiers, in accordance with their orders, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. 32But the next day, leaving the horsemen to go on with him, they returned to the barracks. 33When these had come to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him. 34When he had read it, he asked from what province he was, and when he learned that he was from Cilicia, 35he said, "I will give you a hearing after your accusers arrive also," giving orders for him to be kept in Herod's Praetorium.
- Acts 23:23-35

Luke names the commander (Claudius Lysias), another historical and social marker, and provides the report to Felix, the procurator of Judea (treasury officer for a Roman province). He summarizes the case (leaving out his own blunder in illegally arresting and attempting to torture a Roman citizen) and informs Felix that he has no legal charge to make against Paul. However, because of the violence of the Jews, he is sending Paul and his accusers to Felix for him to sort out the case. This is a question of jurisdiction. If there is to be a charge against Paul, where he will be tried and who will judge the case has to be decided. Felix agrees to oversee the preliminary hearing to determine if a charge can be made. However, since Paul is from another Roman province (Cilicia), if a law has been broken he would then have to be sent there for trial.

Paul Before Felix – Acts 24:1-27

Felix obtained his position through his brother Pallas who was secretary of the treasury during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. Both he and his brother were slaves who became freedmen and eventually rose to power in the Roman government. Felix was immoral, cruel and subject to bribes which led to an increase in crime and instability in Judea. Tacitus, the Roman historian, said of Felix that he had the position of a king but the heart of a slave. He ruled from 52-58 AD. He lived in Herod's palace located in Caesarea by the Sea which was the official residence of the governor/prefect/proconsul/king or official who ruled Judea on behalf of Rome. Paul, who had not been charged with any crime, was also kept here (although not in the prison section) while he awaited the formulation of some charge against him.

(Acts 24:1-9) The Jewish leaders arrive and through their chosen attorney (prosecutor) they make three charges:

  1. Paul was causing unrest among the Jews.
  2. He was the leader of a renegade sect referred to here as the Nazarenes (reference to Jesus' home town).
  3. He tried to desecrate the Temple.

Of course there is a germ of truth in these accusations which gives them some credibility:

  1. There was dissension among the Jews, but they were the ones who caused it as they followed and persecuted Paul from city to city.
  2. He was a leader in the church, one of many, but their goal was not rebellion against the government.
  3. He was present at the Temple but respecting its laws and customs, not desecrating it.

The lawyer also lies concerning the Jews' actions saying that they had arrested Paul and were bringing him to court for judgment, when in truth they had formed a mob and were about to kill him when the Roman soldiers intervened. Luke adds that the Jewish leaders also attacked Paul once their lawyer had finished his presentation.

Note that after a brief and respectful acknowledgement of Felix, Paul responds to each accusation:

1. Causing Dissension

10When the governor had nodded for him to speak, Paul responded: "Knowing that for many years you have been a judge to this nation, I cheerfully make my defense, 11since you can take note of the fact that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 12Neither in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor in the city itself did they find me carrying on a discussion with anyone or causing a riot. 13Nor can they prove to you the charges of which they now accuse me.
- Acts 24:10-13

He not only denies the charge but challenges his accusers to actually provide proof.

2. Leading a Renegade Sect

14But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets; 15having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16In view of this, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.
- Acts 24:14-16

His accusers were suggesting that Christianity was some form of religious/political fanaticism that threatened the stability of the people and, even worse, presented a challenge to Roman rule. Had not Jesus, their leader from Nazareth, been executed by a former governor for similar crimes? In response, Paul argues in response that his faith is no challenge to secular rule having its source and promise in the very religion espoused by his accusers, and a message of punishment and reward at judgment which was quite familiar to all who were present. Paul even uses the idea of God's judgment to defend himself saying that as a faithful Christian he would not do such things (cause trouble, attack the government, etc.) as a matter of conscience because it would be sinful if he did.

3. Desecrating the Temple

Paul explains the reason why he was in the Temple area in the first place and argues that he was there according to Law and custom. He blames the riot, which ultimately led to his arrest and appearance before Felix, on the false accusations of the Jews from Asia who publicly accused him of bringing a Gentile into the restricted part of the Temple. Paul wraps up his defense by challenging his accusers to explain why they rioted when he simply proclaimed the basic promise of the gospel which was resurrection from the dead of those who believed in Jesus Christ. Apparently the lawyer and the Jewish leaders had no counter arguments, evidence or comments to answer Paul's defense.

22But Felix, having a more exact knowledge about the Way, put them off, saying, "When Lysias the commander comes down, I will decide your case." 23Then he gave orders to the centurion for him to be kept in custody and yet have some freedom, and not to prevent any of his friends from ministering to him.
- Acts 24:22-23

Felix understood Paul's arguments because he was familiar with Christianity's teachings. There was no evidence presented and Paul had convincingly answered his accusers. This familiarity enabled him to accept Paul's credibility and account of events without further witnesses. But this was about politics and power not religion, so using the excuse that he needed to consult with Lysias, the commander, Felix put off a decision. He sent the Jewish leaders home and kept Paul under guard in the palace with a measure of freedom to move about and receive visitors while under house arrest. We get a glimpse of Felix's true motives in the following verses.

24But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, "Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you." 26At the same time too, he was hoping that money would be given him by Paul; therefore he also used to send for him quite often and converse with him. 27But after two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, and wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned.
- Acts 24:24-27

He seems to have been a conflicted man. On the one hand eager to hear Paul preach and teach and affected by the message; the fact that he feared suggests that he had a measure of faith because the Word was getting to him. On the other hand, he gave in to his greed by hoping to profit from Paul's imprisonment and demonstrated his lack of honor and mercy by keeping a man he knew to be innocent unjustly imprisoned to gain favor with other evil men.

Luke ends this section with an additional historical notation that these events took place the year that another Roman official (Porcius Festus) was replacing Felix as procurator in 59-60 AD.

Trial Before Festus - Acts 25:1-12

History records that Porcius Festus was fair and reasonable, much more so than Felix the official he came to replace. Luke writes that three days after his arrival in Judea, Festus travels to Jerusalem in order to meet with the Jewish leaders. Their first order of business is a request to bring Paul back to Jerusalem for a trial that Festus can judge there. Of course their goal is to kill Paul during the trip from Caesarea since they cannot win their case against him in court, nor can they successfully attack the well guarded palace at Caesarea. Festus agrees to hear arguments for a trial in Jerusalem and invites the leaders to come to Caesarea to make their case for a change in venue.

6After he had spent not more than eight or ten days among them, he went down to Caesarea, and on the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. 7After Paul arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove, 8while Paul said in his own defense, "I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar." 9But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, answered Paul and said, "Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me on these charges?" 10But Paul said, "I am standing before Caesar's tribunal, where I ought to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also very well know. 11If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar." 12Then when Festus had conferred with his council, he answered, "You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go."
- Acts 25:6-12

Luke does not describe the charges but notes that the Jewish accusers still have no proof. Of course their goal is not to win the case but to separate Paul from his guards in Herod's palace. In an effort to curry favor with the Jewish leadership, the new governor proposes a change in location to Jerusalem for the trial (obviously not aware of the true intentions of these men).

As a Roman citizen, Paul's case could not be moved to another jurisdiction (other than Cilicia where he came from, or the governor's palace where he was held) without his permission (Lenski, p.996-997). Paul, seeing that he could not receive proper justice before this judge (Festus) or the previous one (Felix) because these Roman officials wanted to avoid trouble with the local Jewish leaders, used his privilege as a Roman citizen to be judged in Caesar's court in Rome by the Emperor himself. In the Roman system, any citizen had the right to make an appeal to Caesar if he felt that he was not receiving justice in the lower courts. In many cases the Emperor would actually hear the case himself or it would be heard in the Imperial Court at Rome. By making this request Festus is legally bound to transfer Paul to Rome where he will receive a fair hearing and in doing so the Apostle will also escape the ever present threat of violence against him by the Jewish leaders.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the subtle forms of discrimination that take place in the church. How can this be corrected?
  2. Share a time when you had to "Wait on the Lord." Why was this difficult? What advice would you give to those who are in this position now?
  3. If you were imprisoned for your faith, how would you spend your time while incarcerated?
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