Paul's Arrest and Imprisonment

Part 3

Luke describes Paul's hearing before a third Roman official, Agrippa, and his subsequent appeal to be judged at the Imperial Court in Rome by Caesar himself.
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In the previous chapter we covered Luke's description of Paul's appearances before an outgoing and incoming governor. He first argued his case before Felix but was kept in prison for two years as a favor to the Jewish leadership. When Festus became governor, Paul also appeared before him and fearing an attack from the Jews as well as continued imprisonment, appealed his case to Caesar in Rome.

Festus permitted this but before his departure Paul would appear before yet another ruler. This episode completes the third section of Paul's imprisonment before his transfer to Rome.

Festus and Agrippa - Acts 25:13-22

Now when several days had elapsed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and paid their respects to Festus.
- Acts 25:13

King Agrippa ruled another province to the north with a similar name for its capital city: Caesarea by the Sea - Festus, Caesarea Philippi - Agrippa. Agrippa II was the last of Herod's descendants to rule as king. He grew up in Rome and was trained in Roman ways in the court of the Emperor Claudius. Even though he ruled a northern territory he was given charge over the affairs of the Temple in Jerusalem and had the authority to appoint the High Priest. Because of this responsibility he was trained in Jewish Law, custom and religion. This may be one of the reasons Festus sought his opinion on Paul's case since it involved both the Temple and Jewish religious matters.

Bernice was Agrippa's sister and the rumor at the time was that these two carried on an incestuous relationship. As was the custom, Agrippa and Bernice were visiting Festus, the new ruler, at his palace in Caesarea by the Sea, in order to welcome him to his new position. An interesting note is that the palace where Festus was situated was originally built by Agrippa and Bernice's grandfather, Herod the Great, and they played there together as children (Lenski, p.1003).

14While they were spending many days there, Festus laid Paul's case before the king, saying, "There is a man who was left as a prisoner by Felix; 15and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews brought charges against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16I answered them that it is not the custom of the Romans to hand over any man before the accused meets his accusers face to face and has an opportunity to make his defense against the charges. 17So after they had assembled here, I did not delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought before me. 18When the accusers stood up, they began bringing charges against him not of such crimes as I was expecting, 19but they simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive. 20Being at a loss how to investigate such matters, I asked whether he was willing to go to Jerusalem and there stand trial on these matters. 21But when Paul appealed to be held in custody for the Emperor's decision, I ordered him to be kept in custody until I send him to Caesar." 22Then Agrippa said to Festus, "I also would like to hear the man myself." "Tomorrow," he said, "you shall hear him."
- Acts 25:14-22

A couple of things to note about Festus' account:

  1. He says that Paul was left in prison as if he was serving time for some crime when in reality he was denied his legal right to freedom by both Felix and Festus in order to curry favor with the Jewish leaders.
  2. Festus explains that he quickly held a hearing to determine Paul's case but was at a loss since the charges against him were for religious violations not usually pursued in Roman courts. What he does not say, however, is that those accusing him provided no proof of these alleged religious crimes and instead of dismissing the case he chose to keep Paul in prison with the hope of receiving a bribe in exchange for the Apostle's freedom.
  3. Festus tells Agrippa that he offered Paul a choice: to stand trial in Jerusalem or stay in prison in the palace at Caesarea. What he neglects to mention is the third option: to set Paul free since his accusers had no evidence that Paul had violated any Jewish or Roman laws.

Paul's request for a direct appeal to Caesar puts Festus in a difficult position politically since his mismanagement of this case would make him look bad not only with the Jewish leaders (who would lose their opportunity to kill Paul) but also before his superiors in Rome who had recently appointed him to this new post. His effort to bring Agrippa into the picture may have been an attempt to curry favor with a local ruler who was highly regarded by the Emperor.

Paul Before Agrippa - Acts 25:23-26:29

Festus Presents Paul's Case

23So, on the next day when Agrippa came together with Bernice amid great pomp, and entered the auditorium accompanied by the commanders and the prominent men of the city, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24Festus said, "King Agrippa, and all you gentlemen here present with us, you see this man about whom all the people of the Jews appealed to me, both at Jerusalem and here, loudly declaring that he ought not to live any longer. 25But I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death; and since he himself appealed to the Emperor, I decided to send him. 26Yet I have nothing definite about him to write to my lord. Therefore I have brought him before you all and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after the investigation has taken place, I may have something to write. 27For it seems absurd to me in sending a prisoner, not to indicate also the charges against him."
- Acts 25:23-27

Festus' short speech before Agrippa and the assembled guests is a master class in political dissembling. Festus had orchestrated this event to cover his failure in providing Paul with basic Roman justice. Note how he does this:

  1. By creating an "event" with important guests, and placing Agrippa and Bernice at the center of attention he spread the responsibility for what happened to Paul from only himself to Agrippa who would now share in the decision and outcome.
  2. He does not mention the fact that after having heard the accusations of the Jews and Paul's defense, he failed to render a verdict and this is why Paul was still imprisoned and forced to appeal to Caesar.
  3. By proclaiming his ignorance of Jewish religious customs (which was not necessary to judge the case and render a verdict), and appealing to Agrippa's knowledge of such things, he included Agrippa's name and prestige in this matter.

Festus may have lost the goodwill of the Jewish leaders, but was more concerned with protecting himself politically before his masters in Rome early in his term as governor over the Judean Province.

Paul's Defense Before Agrippa (26:1-29)

1Agrippa said to Paul, "You are permitted to speak for yourself." Then Paul stretched out his hand and proceeded to make his defense:
2"In regard to all the things of which I am accused by the Jews, I consider myself fortunate, King Agrippa, that I am about to make my defense before you today; 3especially because you are an expert in all customs and questions among the Jews; therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.
- Acts 26:1-3

Paul's reference to the king is brief and respectful. As a Roman citizen he is aware of what is going on in the empire politically, and thus knows who Agrippa is and how he was prepared for the role of governor and overseer of the Jewish Temple.

4"So then, all Jews know my manner of life from my youth up, which from the beginning was spent among my own nation and at Jerusalem; 5since they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion. 6And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; 7the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews. 8Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?
- Acts 26:4-8

Paul summarizes the results of the three appearances he has had before the Jews, Felix and Festus. He explains that the Jews were familiar with him as a Pharisee, a highly respected position in that society. He also mentions their absence of testimony concerning his past life and by extension lack of evidence concerning any crimes he may have committed. He then declares what their anger and religious disagreement with him are all about: the promise of bodily resurrection through Jesus Christ.

Agrippa, having been schooled in matters of Jewish Law, custom and teaching knew about the division between the Pharisees and the Sadducees over these issues. Paul's point is that this was a disagreement over religious matters, not a crime worthy of death for either a Jewish or Roman court. He even pleads his case for belief in the resurrection by stating that raising a man from the dead was not impossible for God if He chose to do so, and not beyond the ability of man to believe that God was capable of doing such a thing.

9"So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. 11And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities.
- Acts 26:9-11

At this point Paul begins to tell his personal story, now that he has dealt with the accusations against him and the fact that these have no legal merit. He briefly details his initial attacks against Christians as a zealous Pharisee duly charged by the religious leaders (who now want his death) to destroy this sect and its followers. This he did in the most vicious ways by putting them in jail, promoting their executions (e.g. Stephen), chasing them out of local synagogues, forcing them to curse and deny Christ and carrying on this crusade against them from city to city.

12"While so engaged as I was journeying to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. 14And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.' 15And I said, 'Who are You, Lord?' And the Lord said, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; 17rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, 18to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.'
- Acts 26:12-18

This is Paul's own personal account of Jesus' appearance to him as told to and recorded by Luke. The event was as follows: a powerful bright light appears to him and those with him as they are journeying to Damascus in order to carry on the persecution against Christians in that city as authorized by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Note that all were affected by the light since all fell to the ground when seeing it, however, only Paul hears the voice of the Lord.

There is a lot of discussion surrounding the meaning of Jesus' statement concerning Saul (verse 14 - "It is hard for you to kick against the goads"). This refers to a situation where a farmer ploughing a field with a team of oxen would prod the animal with a stick or "goad" so it would move faster or maintain a straight line. Often when "goaded" the animal would kick back but would only hit and hurt itself as a result. In today's vernacular we would convey this idea with the expression, "Why are you beating your head against the wall?" Jesus was revealing two things to Paul here:

  1. He could not win this battle against these Christians.
  2. He would only be hurting himself in the process.

It is not mentioned here but Paul's tactics and attitude were violating his own faith and Law as a devout Jew. He knows by the light and the voice he hears that he is in the presence of a heavenly being, however, he does not yet know who. Jesus identifies Himself and goes on to inform Paul concerning his future service. He will become a minister; in his case a servant directly appointed to carry out Jesus' instructions. He will be a witness of the risen Christ (because it is the risen Jesus who now speaks to him). In other words, he will be a witness to the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, appointed to this task by Jesus Himself, as were the other Apostles. This, then, would be his calling to apostleship. Also, like the other Apostles, Jesus tells him that He will provide further instructions and revelations in the future. Finally, the Lord lays out the scope of his service which will include ministry to both Jews and Gentiles in preaching the gospel, and through this free people from the ignorance of the true God and grant them forgiveness of sins and eternal life in heaven (the inheritance given to faithful Christians).

Jesus summarizes what Paul will receive and eventually begin to do but it will take many years before all these things are fully realized in his life.

19"So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance. 21For this reason some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to put me to death. 22So, having obtained help from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place; 23that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles."
- Acts 26:19-23

Paul continues by fast-forwarding from the day of his encounter with Jesus to his fully matured ministry of preaching and teaching the gospel to Jews living in Jerusalem and the surrounding region as well as Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire. It is in the context of this preaching and witnessing ministry that he was in Jerusalem (not to make trouble or desecrate the Temple or to break Roman laws), but to urge people to repent and believe that Jesus was the Messiah according to the Law and the prophets.

He finishes by bringing his story into the present moment as he stands before these high officials and prominent citizens, and he urges all of them to believe in the risen Christ. It is at this point that he is interrupted by Festus.

24While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, "Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad." 25But Paul said, "I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. 26For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner. 27King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do." 28Agrippa replied to Paul, "In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian." 29And Paul said, "I would wish to God, that whether in a short or long time, not only you, but also all who hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these chains."
- Acts 26:24-29

Festus, who is either "feeling the heat" of the gospel message personally or afraid that Paul's bold and direct speech might offend some of his guests, especially Agrippa whose approval and support he needed in this matter, decides to interrupt Paul's speech. Paul answers Festus' charge by reminding him that the king knows about Jesus, His teachings, His cross and the eyewitness reports of His resurrection and the subsequent growth of the church. The point made but not spoken is that Festus, along with everyone else present, are accountable to the gospel and subject to God's judgment in failing to respond. In essence, Paul tells him that he, Festus, will not be able to plead ignorance at the judgment.

What is truly amazing in this situation is that Paul, having dealt with one king, now goes after the other ruler, Agrippa. He challenges the king by asking him outright concerning his faith in the prophets concerning the coming of the Messiah, who he has just stated was Jesus, the risen Savior. The king dodges the question by signaling to Paul that he knows that the Apostle is trying to convert him to Christianity. His point is that if he answers yes (I believe the prophets) then that will be the first step leading to his eventual conversion.

Paul, seeing the king's hesitation to continue, extends the invitation to everyone there. His final reference to his "chains" is a reminder to both kings that he is being held as a prisoner for proclaiming the message that they just heard which is clearly not a breech of either Jewish or Roman law. He may be bearing the chains and imprisonment, but these two kings will bear the guilt.

Agrippa's Response

30The king stood up and the governor and Bernice, and those who were sitting with them, 31and when they had gone aside, they began talking to one another, saying, "This man is not doing anything worthy of death or imprisonment." 32And Agrippa said to Festus, "This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar."
- Acts 26:30-32

Agrippa confirms what the Apostle had claimed and Festus had concluded: that Paul was not guilty of any crime. By saying this, Agrippa puts the case back into Festus' hands leaving him to send Paul to Rome without criminal charges. The king could not free Paul now because he had made an official appeal in open court which could not be changed.

This sets the scene for the final event recorded by Luke: Paul's voyage to Rome.


God's Timetable is Not Our Timetable

Paul spent over two years in prison at Caesarea. He was in the prime of his ministry: the churches needed him and no one else of his stature was effectively bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. There was no other story or event recorded that could somehow explain or make up for the lost time and work Paul would have done during that period. The only thing that helped Paul bear the frustration, discomfort and perceived loss of time and opportunity was the knowledge that God was fully aware of his circumstances and the length of his imprisonment.

When we are assured that God has His timetable and it rarely matches our own, we can find peace and acceptance in periods of illness, failure and delay where the only thing we can do is wait.

Your Own Story is Your Best Witness for Christ

Notice that Paul did not address these educated people with theological arguments or a long list of Scriptures and their careful explanation; he simply told his story. His conversion was familiar, sincere and powerful because it detailed the changes that took place in his life because of Christ.

Not everyone can teach a class on the Bible or debate Bible doctrine with those of another viewpoint or religion. However, everyone has a story about their conversion, or their growth in Christ, or some prayer God has answered. Your story is your very best witness because it is true, familiar, powerful and can be repeated many times without losing its effect to impact people for Christ. When in doubt, therefore, or brought forth to witness, just tell your story!

Discussion Questions

  1. If you were the leader of your country, what three things would you do to share your faith and help the church?
  2. Paul claims in I Timothy 1:15 that he is the worst of sinners. Why does he say this and how is his sin greater than say, Hitler's terrible deeds in WWII?
  3. Describe a time when someone you preached to/taught rejected the gospel. Why do you think they refused to believe/respond? What would you do differently if you had the chance?
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