Sunday’s Sermon — Acts 25, Paul on Trial

8 Feb

Two years. Innocent. But awaiting trial. Two years. For two years Paul languished in the prison in Caesarea. All that time the governor Felix had kept him waiting. After being convicted by Paul’s gospel message of righteousness and self-control and the judgement to come, he put Paul off, at once attracted to Paul’s message and repelled by it. He tried to get Paul to offer a bribe, but Paul would not. So Paul is left waiting. The man who had been a tornado of activity was left in a cell. Yet, he had a promise. God had told Paul that he would not only escape Jerusalem but that he would testify for the gospel in Rome. Paul had a word from God, a promise, so he knew that he would get out of the prison, somehow, some way.

It is not uncommon for God’s people to suffer even though they are innocent. We think of the sufferings of Joseph, years and years in prison before God fulfilled His promises. We think of David and Saul, where David had to flee the king even though he had only been good to the king. We think of Daniel in the lion’s den, of Elijah on the run from Ahab, of Moses criticized by his people, and supremely we think of Jesus, of whom the book of Isaiah says,

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

so he opened not his mouth.

    By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?

    And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death,        although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet we read in the same section of Isaiah, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him.” You see, for Joseph and David, for Abraham and Sarah and Hannah and Elijah and Moses and Daniel and for Paul, the things that happened to them were not cosmic accidents. They were not the schemes of the devil. They were not the result of bad luck or systems that were against them. They were right from the hand of God. And in every case, the sufferings they faced were not to be compared to the later and greater glory. And in every case, the sufferings they faced furthered God’s purposes in the world. God is sovereign over this universe. We often don’t understand. We often can’t understand. As the great Wesley hymn And Can it Be? says in one of its verses, ’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies: Who can explore His strange design? In vain the firstborn seraph tries To sound the depths of love divine. ’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore, Let angel minds inquire no more. ’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore; Let angel minds inquire no more

The mysteries of God’s design are undeniable but the reality of His sovereign rule in this universe is also undeniable. You can suppress it, you can push it down, you can try to explain it away, you can even deny it, but it is there, always, sustaining your every breath, holding together the forces of gravity, the hand that moves the world. If even His finger were moved off the world for a second, all the universe would crash in on itself and we would be destroyed. He could say the world and slay any one of us where we sit. It is He who rules and reigns in all things. Don’t worry about Trump or Hillary or Bernie or Ted or Marco. One of them or somebody else will win but none of them will reign. One of them may put money in your pocket or take it away, they may enact legislation that moves our nation in one direction or another, but none of them can stay the hand of God. As a popular Steve Green song from many years ago says, “Though the earth be removed And time be no more These truths are secure God’s word shall endure Whatever may change, these things are sure… We believe So if the mountains are cast down into the plains When kingdoms all crumble, this one remains Our faith is not subject to seasons of man With our fathers we proclaim We believe our Lord will come as he said The land and the sea will give up their dead His children will reign with Him as their head . . . We believe.”

What I am continuing to learn from the Bible is that God is working out His purposes all the time and the way He chooses to work out those purposes in our lives is often hardship. As I read this week in my devotions about Israel sending in the spies into the Promised Land in Numbers 13 I was reminded of how the call of God on Israel was difficult. They were indeed heading into a land of many people. They would have to fight. It would be difficult. But they had the promise of God that they would prevail. If we want a life of ease we ought never take up the name of Christian. If we want a life of meaning it is the only name we should ever know, for we will never find anything with as much eternal value as the gospel of Jesus Christ. But this value is unfolded in the struggles of life ruled by the sovereign hand of God. This was Paul’s experience in Acts 25, and it will be our experience too. Two years . . . an innocent man. What would you do? How would you feel? Would you be tempted to question God? I want to briefly look at what happened with Paul in chapter 25 this morning and consider what his story can show us about our own way of looking at the world.


25 Now three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea.

Festus was the new Roman governor in Judea. He was making a courtesy call as he came into office. Festus wanted to connect with the leaders of the most important city of the land to see if there were any pressing issues he needed to deal with.

 And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews laid out their case against Paul, and they urged him,

The pressing issue on the minds of the Jews was still Paul, even after two years. They laid out their case against him. But they did not really want to put him on trial, as we see in verse 3.

asking as a favor against Paul that he summon him to Jerusalem—because they were planning an ambush to kill him on the way.

The Jews did not want Festus to rule on Paul, they wanted to use Festus as a way to get Paul to come to Jerusalem, so they could assassinate Paul on the way. Their earlier ambush plan had been foiled, so now they would try again. Bitterness doesn’t go away apart from a work of God, it just gets worse.

Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself intended to go there shortly. “So,” said he, “let the men of authority among you go down with me, and if there is anything wrong about the man, let them bring charges against him.”

Festus doesn’t take the bait. He won’t be ordered around by the Jewish religious leaders. If they want to see Paul, they will come with Festus, he will not bring Paul to them.

After he stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea. And the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. When he had arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him that they could not prove.

After staying in Jerusalem a few days Festus returned to Caesarea and convened a court to try Paul. The Jews came from Jerusalem and brought many and serious charges. But there was one problem: they couldn’t prove any of the charges. By this time it had been two years and their original charges were false anyway. They really couldn’t build much of a case. Their only hope was to try to pressure the new leader to appease them. But Paul’s defense is brilliant.

Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.”

On the surface, Paul’s reply seems to be a simple denial of the charges against him. Remember, the Jews had charged him with defiling the temple by bringing a Gentile into it. They had charged him with speaking against the law of Moses. They had charged him with stirring up the people. But none of the charges the Jews brought had to do with Paul showing disrespect to the Roman Empire. But Paul adds here, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.” By focusing on the fact that he had not offended Caesar, the Roman government, Paul is setting up his way of escape. By linking the charges against him to an offense against Rome Paul is making a way for his case to be taken out of the hands of the Jews entirely. We see this in verses 9-12.

But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” 10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. 11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” 12 Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.”

Festus knew the religious leaders of Jerusalem were powerful and he wanted to please them, so he asked if Paul wanted to go to Jerusalem to face trial before Festus there. In other words, Festus wanted to move the trial to the religious leader’s home court. But Paul shifts the focus to Rome, again proclaiming his innocence and appealing to Caesar. Once Paul appeals to Caesar, he provides cover for both himself and Festus, as Festus’ hands are tied by the appeal of a Roman citizen to a trial in Rome. He would have to send Paul to Caesar. Now the effect of Paul’s appeal was that Paul was going to be out from the threat of death at the hands of the Jews, Festus was going to be out from the obligation to please the Jews by sentencing an innocent man to death, and the Jews were going to be dissatisfied that Paul would not be tried, convicted and executed at this time.

But I wonder, how does this relate to our earlier sermons in Acts which highlighted the fact that Paul did not live a self-protective life? We said a few weeks ago that Paul did not live for self-preservation but for Christ-exaltation. Is this still true in chapter 25? I believe it is true and I believe that Paul’s appeal to Caesar is not an expression of fear but is an expression of great faith. Back in chapter 23, after he had been mobbed by the angry crowd, while he was in the Roman soldier’s barracks under guard in Jerusalem, the Lord appeared to him and gave him a promise, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” So as Paul remembered this promise he appealed to Caesar, knowing this act would get him to where God had promised he would go. In addition, remember that Paul’s ultimate mission was to Gentiles. While he had come to Jerusalem to bring a gift of aid to the Christians in Jerusalem, his ultimate ministry was not among the Jews in Jerusalem but was for the Gentiles. So in appealing to Caesar, Paul would get back into Gentile territory, back onto the ground God had called him. 

13 Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus.

Time would pass before arrangements could be made for Paul to go to Rome, so in the meantime King Agrippa II and his sister Bernice came to Caesarea for a visit with Festus. Again, as a new Roman governor it makes sense that the king of the surrounding areas would come visit. So Agrippa comes with Bernice. Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great, who had been king at Jesus’ birth. Bernice’s husband had died so she came to live with her brother. Festus takes the opportunity of their visit to discuss with them the case of Paul. As leaders with an extensive knowledge of the Jews, Festus probably thought Agrippa and Bernice could give him good advice.

14 And as they stayed there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying, “There is a man left prisoner by Felix, 15 and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16 I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. 17 So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. 18 When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. 19 Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. 20 Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. 21 But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.” 22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” said he, “you will hear him.”

So Festus recalls the story of Paul for Agrippa and Bernice and after hearing the whole story Agrippa is intrigued. He wants to hear from Paul himself.

23 So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. This verse is fulfilled in Luke 21:12, But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.

24 And Festus said, “King Agrippa and all who are present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish people petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 But I found that he had done nothing deserving death. And as he himself appealed to the emperor, I decided to go ahead and send him. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write. 27 For it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not to indicate the charges against him.”

Festus knows he must send Paul to Caesar since Paul has appealed to Caesar but he doesn’t want to be called incompetent by the Emperor for not having any charges to bring against Paul. Therefore, he asks for Agrippa’s help to understand the situation so that he will have an adequate reason to send Paul to Rome. This is what we will look at next time when we look at the fascinating 26th chapter of Acts.

What do we say about this chapter today? I see two truths which, if we can grasp can help us greatly. First, we must talk about the sovereignty of God. Paul is surrounded by powerful people in this chapter. Roman governors, kings, officials, Jewish religious leaders, but the bottom line is this: none of these people has any power at all over Paul that God hasn’t given them. One of my favorite lines in the gospel of John is when Pilate says to Jesus, “Will you say nothing? Don’t you know I have the power to set you free or have you crucified?” And we remember Jesus’ reply . . . “You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given you from above.” Paul was not ultimately in the hands of those who imprisoned him, he is in the hands of God.

Second, we must talk about the necessity of faith. Paul could live anchored in the love of God because he believed the promise of God. He believed what God had told him, that he would testify in Rome, that he would be a light to the Gentiles. And this trust in the promise of God gave him the foundation to bear any burden and endure any trial, even the hatred of his people, even the darkness of prison. Paul was convinced that the God who made the promises would be faithful to keep them. Vance Havner said that in today’s church there is too much “sitting on the premises and not enough standing on the promises.” He’s right. Why not us? Why not now? Why can’t we by the power of God live a life of holy love? Why can’t we see victory over that persistent area of sin? Why can’t we be useful instruments in the hands of a mighty God, no matter our age or station in life? What’s holding us back? It’s not God. It’s not Him. It’s not because He hasn’t promised us anything. He has promised us everything we need for life and godliness. Don’t let go of Him when hard times come. Don’t live a life of passivity where you just expect God to do everything. Don’t let go and let God, grab hold and let God. He’ll take you on a wild ride but where you end up is really good.

Steve Camp wrote a song several years ago that I have always liked. It is called “Living Dangerously in the Hands of God.”

How easily Jesus is forgotten Amid the comfort of my life How the flames become a flicker And faith a brilliant disguise Oh, Sunday’s become a holiday Prayer an empty exercise And the cost of real devotion Seems so foreign to my life Our Lord, He is a hiding place His hold is strong and sure Though the storms may rage around me In His love I stand secure So let me live like I believe it And though my faith is prone to fail Though I cower under trial By His grace, I shall prevail There’s safety in complacency But God is calling us out Of our comfort zone into a life Of complete surrender to the cross To live dangerously Is not to live recklessly but righteously And it is because of God’s radical grace for us That we can risk living a life Of radical obedience for Him You’ve got to walk on For the Lord, He walks with us You’ve got to walk on Oh, though it costs you everything You’ve got to pray on For the eyes of the Lord Move to and fro throughout the earth That He may strongly support those Whose hearts are completely His Oh, to gladly risk it all Oh, to be faithful to His call Abandoned to grace But anchored in His love Living dangerously Are you living dangerously Oh, we ought to be living dangerously In the hands of God Are you living dangerously In the hands of God

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