When we left Paul last in Acts 23, he was in the midst of a good news/bad news situation. For a third time he had riled up the crowds, most recently by speaking about the resurrection in front of the Sanhedrin. Paul was in an odd situation where he was essentially under arrest but he had not been charged with a crime because the Romans didn’t know what to charge him with. They couldn’t let him go free, both for his safety but also because he might really be a danger as far as they knew.
Paul sitting in the Roman barracks is not good enough for a group of Jews who want nothing more than to see Paul dead. They make an oath to kill Paul and they scheme to set things in motion that would allow them to carry out their plan. All of this is rather bad.
Fortunately for Paul, the Lord has already spoken to him and assured him that this will not be the end of his story. He will go to Rome and he will testify about Jesus there. So it doesn’t matter what the Jews plot or what they try to do because Paul is under the Lord’s protection. And it just so happens that Paul’s nephew overhears the plot to kill Paul and the commander in charge of Paul is warned of the danger. This is where we pick up in Acts 23 this morning.
23 Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. 24 Provide horses for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.”
25 He wrote a letter as follows:
26 Claudius Lysias,
To His Excellency, Governor Felix:
27 This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. 28 I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. 29 I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. 30 When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him.
31 So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris. 32 The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. 33 When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. 34 The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will hear your case when your accusers get here.” Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.
We’ll be covering a lot of scripture this morning because there is a lot of story and frankly not a whole lot that needs to be explained. There are 470 trained military men who accompany Paul on his transfer to Caesarea. If this seems like overkill, I imagine it is. There were 40 Jews who took an oath to kill Paul. Even with the element of surprise, they probably wouldn’t stand much of a chance against 40 trained Roman fighters. Instead Paul gets 470 men to accompany him.
I understand that the commander doesn’t want anything to happen to Paul under his watch but I could also see the temptation to just let this attack occur as well. Presumably nobody would care much if one prisoner was killed in an ambush that couldn’t have been foreseen. At least that’s how I’d be tempted to view it. I can’t know for sure but this large number of protectors seems like a reminder to Paul that the Lord is with him and no harm will befall him.
The letter that is sent along with Paul is mostly true with a few minor embellishments. The commander makes himself out to be a protector of freedom as the rescuer of Paul. He leaves out the part where he almost beat a Roman citizen of course. Overall, this commander does seem to be concerned about Paul’s welfare however and he has done the right thing to protect an innocent man. Contrast him with Pontius Pilate who handed Jesus over even though he knew Jesus was innocent.
24 Five days later the high priest Ananias went down to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus, and they brought their charges against Paul before the governor. 2 When Paul was called in, Tertullus presented his case before Felix: “We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. 3 Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. 4 But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.
It should be no surprise that flattery is not a new concept and the man who would function as the prosecutor here opens by speaking highly of the governor who would decide the case. As I was reading commentary on this passage, it just happens that Felix was not that great of a governor. Certainly there were worse ones than he, but the area did not experience a long period of peace like Tertullus said nor is there any surviving records of any great reforms under his leadership. In short, the flattery is a lie.
5 “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect 6 and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him.  8 By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”
9 The other Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.
Finally after waiting several days, an actual accusation is made against Paul in court. You’ll note that the accusations have expanded beyond just bringing a Gentile into the temple. The Jews know that the Romans wouldn’t be very concerned about this and they also knew that this would be quite difficult to prove.
On the other hand, surely word of Paul’s deeds had spread and it would be verifiable that there had been riots in several cities that Paul had visited. They try to belittle Christianity by referring to it as a sect and even tying it with Nazareth as this was not considered to be an important place as even the people of Jesus’ day looked down upon it.
10 When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: “I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense.11 You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 12 My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. 13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
Paul does not make the same false flattery as Tertullus to open but he does acknowledge the governor’s experience in handling matters such as these. He appeals to Felix’s experience to give him a fair trial.
Paul’s defense is almost a non-defense. He admits to being a Christian which the Jews were calling a sect. But Paul also says that the accusations are baseless because there is no proof of his wrongdoing. Paul doesn’t need to offer excuses or alibis. Instead, he basically challenges his accusers to prove that he did anything wrong instead of just declaring it over and over again as they had previously done.
17 “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. 18 I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. 20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin—21 unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”
In sales there is something that is known as the ABC’s of sales – Always Be Closing. In other words, always be looking for a way to close the deal and complete the sale. Paul doesn’t need to make a defense because he knows his accusers have nothing on him. So instead, he switches into evangelism mode and begins to present the gospel by speaking of his hope in the resurrection.
Paul lives what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…
Paul was obviously under a great deal of stress standing in court and being accused of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, he was always ready to give an answer for the hope that he had. This is not just something that Paul had to do but it is a challenge for the rest of us as well.
The idea is not that this is for people who are gifted evangelists or teachers or preachers. Everybody should be able to offer an explanation of the hope that they have in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or pretty. But it should be honest. You should be able to answer a few simple questions about your faith if you’re asked about it.
Do you believe that you are going to heaven when you die? Why do you believe that?
I know that people get tongue tied and flustered if they’re not used to explaining their beliefs but in my opinion the saddest response that you can give to this kind of question is “I hope so.” I want everyone to be able to say without a shadow of a doubt that yes, they are going to heaven. And the reason they know they’re going to heaven is that even though they are a lousy sinner, Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins. That’s the basics. Feel free to word that any way you like but every Christian should be able to say why they believe beyond a doubt that they are going to heaven. Paul always looked for the opportunity to express his faith. Personality wise not everyone is going to be so bold as Paul was but no matter how bold or timid you are, you should be able to answer the question if asked.
22 Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” 23 He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs.
Felix is familiar with Christianity. As it had spread throughout the Roman world it is actually a good sign that he is acquainted with it because it means that he is in touch with his people. Paul remains under guard but essentially he is placed under house arrest. He is not free but he experiences a fair amount of autonomy.
24 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”26 At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him.
Once again, Paul presses the gospel and it apparently strikes a nerve with Felix. It causes him to be afraid because he was certainly not a righteous man. Like many of the Roman rulers of the time, Felix has a twisted marriage history and Drusilla is his third wife whom he stole from another man. On top of this, it appears that he is corrupt in looking for a bribe so it is no surprise that he does not like it when Paul speaks of future judgment.
27 When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.
Paul waited in Caesarea for two years without ever having a verdict issued. This is a case where nobody gets what they want and yet it is probably best for all parties. Paul is safe even though he is not exactly free. Under house arrest, he can have guests come and go as they please and he’ll be able to write to his associates. We have a few epistles written while Paul is in prison but most certainly there were many more.
The Jews would have had Paul out of the way but they ultimately still want him dead. Whether this is a victory or defeat for them all hinges on how concerned they are with his continued influence even while in prison.
The trials are not over either. Paul will go before Festus for another trial. And then Paul will present his case to King Agrippa even though Agrippa is not able to issue a verdict. And ultimately Paul will go stand trial before Caesar.
This is not a short amount of time that Paul spends in prison. In fact, from the time of his arrest in Jerusalem until the time that he is likely freed in Rome, counting his transport and shipwreck time on the way to Rome, Paul is probably under guard for five years. That’s not a short amount of time for anyone to give up and as Paul is not a young man those years spent in prison likely seem all the more precious to him.
A couple of years back I preached on the book of James. I’m currently studying it again for my own self. James has a lot to write about trials and seeing them as things which cause growth. Paul had literal legal trials to endure in this phase of his life but the application is universal.
We all go through trials in life. And sometimes it feels like things are not moving as swiftly as we’d like. If God wants us to wait for something though, it is not wasted time. If God wants us to endure something, it is to teach us something important.
We don’t know of all the good that came out of Paul sitting under arrest while waiting for trials to conclude. We don’t know what kind of growth came about because he endured such things. The book of Acts doesn’t tell us and I can’t begin to guess. But I can guarantee one thing. Paul didn’t do this in vain. Likewise, when we endure such things, we don’t do it in vain either. God has a purpose even when we can’t see it for all of the hardship that we currently have.