Sermon for Sunday Evening, December 17th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 25:1-12 ESV] 1 Now three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. 2 And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews laid out their case against Paul, and they urged him, 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. 4 Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself intended to go there shortly. 5 “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.” 6 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. 7 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. 8 Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.” 9 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.”
The last sermon I gave on Acts was titled “Paul Before Felix.”
Now today, the title of this sermon is “Paul Before Festus.”
And there will be one more, Lord willing, “Paul Before Agrippa.”
So there are three rulers that Paul must give a defense to. Plus there was the Council of the Jews, the Sanhedrin. And in each case it gives Paul the opportunity to preach the gospel.
So now we find Paul having been two years in prison. That’s a long time for a court case that was supposed to be settled in a few weeks.
And Paul probably would have languished even longer, but for their being a new governor in town.
Felix is out, and Porcus Festus is in.
It can be hard to remember the order of these two governors as their names are similar. But Felix (the cat?) has wandered away the house (to take some other Roman job it seems) and Porcius Festus is brought in. The Romans had a system for promoting men to various government ranks. If you did well you’d get promoted. Or if you were in favor with Caesar you’d get promoted to bigger and better places. While governor of Judea sounds like a rather prominent role, the reality is that it was considered a far off and backwards territory. Felix probably isn’t too sad to go elsewhere. And Porcius Festus probably doesn’t have his dream job now that he has arrived on the scene. Literally he arrives from elsewhere. He wasn’t a vice command or anything, but he is brought it in from work in another place.
The reason, history says, that this transition of governors occurred is because the Jewish Sanhedrin had complained bitterly to Rome after Felix crushed an uprising with great brutality. Felix even put to death the High Priest. So perhaps to prevent further riots, the Romans have changed to a new governor.
And while Felix was slow in making a decision on Paul, Festus is quick. Everything Festus does is to move along at a good pace. He’s not rushing, but he’s not delaying either. We have time references in our passage.
1) three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea.
2) Festus said to the Jews that “was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself intended to go there shortly.”
3) “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.”
And when Paul said “I appeal to Caesar,” Festus confers with his council and says, (presumably soon after Paul spoke) “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.”
Festus is an orderly Roman.
The Jews, on the other hand, are disorderly. They don’t want to see the rule of law decide the case. They want to kill Paul, via an ambushThey bring out the old plan of ambush again. They want Paul summoned to Jerusalem, pretending that he’ll get a trial there, when in reality that is a place where the Jews have greater strength there (unlike Caesarea which is more of a Roman city).
Festus isn’t ignorant of the situation. Perhaps Felix or someone else had briefed him on the case. He knows, Paul is being kept in Caesarea. “I’ll go there shortly,” he says.
In 8 days Festus does go to Caesarea, and some Jews come as well in order to bring charges again against Paul. But the charges, our narrator tells us, could not be proved.
Then, things are looking quite dire for Paul when Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, asks Paul “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?”
Of course not!, Paul must be thinking. Not only are the Jews trying to kill him (whereas the Romans are generally seeking to give him a fair trial), but Paul also argues that he should be tried before a Roman tribunal. The Romans are in charge.
Perhaps thinking that THESE Romans are continuing to delay, Paul, by his right as a Roman Citizen, says “I APPEAL TO CAESAR.”
Festus, with his council, says “To Caesar you have appealed, to Caesar you shall go.”
Now, we’ve noted before that the Caesar is Nero. So Paul has gone from the Sanhedrin, to Felix, then Festus, and will soon speak to King Agrippa, and then to Caesar Nero. Do you think he expects to get a better hearing from Nero? Probably not. Paul’s hope is not in the government. The Romans have saved him from the murderous hands of the Jews, and so that is a positive here. But going to Nero is not going to a safe place. Nero is a tyrannical, murderous, psychopath. He is one of the worst characters known to history. He is a perfect example of that maxim “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Nero isn’t so much WORSE than other men, he just has the power to produce more evil. Think about it; many people (perhaps most or all) if given absolute power would do some pretty terrible things. So there always needs to be checks on power; never letting a person have full control whether in a nation, or a church or a business, or a family.
So Paul is not expecting to get JUSTICE from Nero. Nero doesn’t care about the Christians. Paul is even beheaded in Rome, the history tells us. Perhaps by the decree of Nero. Is this any better than being stone by the Jews? No. So why is Paul appealing to Caesar? Well, for one, he can. It is his right. But there is a more important reason.
It fulfills the prophecy of the Lord, who spoke to Paul in Acts 23: “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
Paul appeals to Caesar, so he can preach to Caesar.
The word “preach” today has bad connotations.
Here is a better statement:
Paul appeals to Caesar, so he can proclaim Christ to Caesar.
But here is a question. Have you ever asked this? Why is it important to preach to Caesar, when God knows that Caesar won’t come to faith? Why is it important to preach to the non-elect at all? Well, for one we are told to preach to ALL MEN, and we can’t know whether they are elect of God. But also, preaching to the non-elect also bring to Glory to God as their condemnation is all the more justified in their denial of the Gospel. The Gospel saves those who believe, but those who despise the Gospel heap coals on their own heads.
So it is that Paul knows that he will not get justice with the government. Paul’s only hope is not in man, but in God. And, let me tell you something else. You, believer in Jesus Christ, you (like Paul himself) will not get JUSTICE with God, you’ll get something better. You’ll get MERCY.
While Paul is innocent of the charges brought against him, and should be therefore let go from his civil trial, he (like all of us) is GUILTY of SIN and deserves death and eternal damnation. But in Jesus Christ, he (and we) find forgiveness of sins. We have mercy, not justice.
Truth 1: Let that be our first truth here: our hope is not in government, but in Christ.
Application 1: And an application on that idea. The scriptures tell us this. Christians are not to use the government, the courts, to sue other Christians. We are to solve issues internally, within the church. Or better yet, very often, when we are wronged, we are to let it pass. That can be very hard to do. Turning the other cheek. And there was a day when that was the case. Now, we live in a litigious society. Constantly people are suing people, but rarely does anyone come out on top. The only one who wins is the lawyer.
[1Co 6:1 ESV] 1 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?
[1Co 6:7 ESV] 7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?
Truth and application: Christians may use their rights as citizens.
There is naturally limitation here. If we had some “right” that opposed the law of God, we’d not want to use that right. But, using the right to vote, or the right to a jury trial, etc., these are perfectly moral rights to take advantage of. And, this may be controversial in places, but I believe we can morally use our rights as American citizens to accept money from the government whether from tax returns, disability payments, or social security. And we can do this all the while opposing the systems themselves. We may want a better social security system, or none at all; we may want better public roads or to make them all private roads, but whatever we have as citizens, we are allowed to use. So don’t feel bad about taking social security payments or driving on the government’s roads. These are your rights as citizens.
Observation: Parallels between the trial of Christ and the trials of Paul
1) Each Paul and Jesus have traveled to Jerusalem.
2) They begin their trials under the Jews, and then under the Romans.
3) Falsely accused
4) And the accusations are similar. They are “troublemakers” “opposing Caesar.”
5) The Romans essentially find them innocent, but the Jews persist.
5) The Romans are “doing the Jews a favor.” Festus, Pilate.
But there are differences.
1) Where Christ is silent in his response, Paul speaks.
2) And where Christ is killed. Paul is not. Not yet anyways.
Conclusion: The Gospel
Now, what about the gospel? Where does Paul preach the gospel to Festus? It is not in the passage we’ve read. But we know that Paul preached it. Not only does Paul preach the Gospel to EVERYBODY, but we have an account later in the text, in the next passage.
It is from the words of Festus. When he explains things to King Agrippa, he says
“They (the Jews) had certain points of dispute with him (Paul) about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.”
A certain Jesus. Jesus was a fairly common name. Like Joshua.
And this was not any Jesus. It was a certain Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth. The messiah. The Christ.
And what had Paul explained at his trial, and Festus picked up? Paul asserted that Jesus who died was indeed alive! The resurrection of Jesus Christ! And that is what Paul had spoken of in all his trials, “I’m on trial over the resurrection.”
They all agreed that Jesus had died. But Paul (and many other Christians, certainly those who had seen Christ) said “He is risen!”
So the result of Paul’s trial! His being put to death whether in Jersualem or Caesarea or Rome, it doesn’t matter. Because there is life again! As Christ was raised from the dead, so will all be raised from the dead who are united to him!
Praise be to God.