To Rome!

For the last several weeks in the book of Acts, Paul has been in the midst of trials and examinations as he stands accused by the Jews of various things which have broken their laws.  He has stood before the Sanhedrin and caused a riot when he discussed the wedge issue of the resurrection which the Sadducees and Pharisees disagreed on.

After this, there was a plot to kill Paul which was discovered so he was moved out of town to Caesarea.  There he was given a trial before Felix.  Felix stated that he would issue a verdict soon but instead he left Paul sit in prison for two years as a favor to the Jews.

After two years, Porcius Festus took Felix’s place.  This is where we pick up the story this morning.  As this story is a lot of the same type of stuff that we’ve looked at the last several weeks, I plan on approaching the message a bit differently this morning.

Acts 25:1-5

25 Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and the Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul. They requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me, and if the man has done anything wrong, they can press charges against him there.”

Despite the fact that Paul has been out of the way and awaiting a verdict on his trial for two years, he has not been forgotten about by the Jews.  It only takes Festus three days on the job before the Jews see their opportunity once again to get rid of Paul.  They are not interested in having another trial and have him legally locked away or even executed.  They know that they don’t stand a chance of winning a trial because they are unable to prove their charges.

So instead, they scheme once again to have Paul transferred and to ambush and kill him along the way.  Festus doesn’t know about the ambush but he is probably smart enough to know that there is a reason why Paul was taken to Caesarea in the first place.  It’s possible that he has read the file on Paul or he just doesn’t want to start moving people around without first getting all of the facts that he can.  So instead he essentially offers to hold another trial of Paul since the previous never ended with a verdict.

Acts 25:6-8

After spending eight or ten days with them, Festus went down to Caesarea. The next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him. When Paul came in, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him. They brought many serious charges against him, but they could not prove them.

Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.”

I don’t know if the issue of Paul was on the top of Festus’ agenda when he took office or if the Jews made it his top priority but whatever the case, he convenes court the first day that he arrives in Caesarea.  The narrative is the same before – Paul is accused of wrongdoing, he proclaims his innocence.

One of the problems that we have in our world today – and of course there are many – is how our media covers our justice system.  For the last week we have seen what amounts to race riots.  The only facts that we know for certain is that a white police officer shot and killed a black man who happened to be unarmed.  And because of this, many people have protested racial inequality.

I’m not saying that there’s not a difference in the way that whites and minorities are treated by police, but I’m not saying that there is either.  Statistics that get thrown around in times like this are always pulled out of context to make whatever argument the speaker wants.  It’s a fact that minorities are disproportionately arrested compared to whites.  This fact doesn’t prove racism however.  Percentage wise there are more crimes in urban areas and urban areas have a higher percentage of minorities.  It could be something about cities that leads to higher crime rates and thus a disproportionate number of minorities who are arrested, and nothing inherently racist about the arrests themselves.  Or it is quite possible that a higher percentage of minorities commit crimes because they are more likely to be living in poverty and grow up in one parent homes.  The fact of the matter is that one statistic taken out of context doesn’t prove anything.

Back to the current situation that we see played out in the media, charges are being made that at this point cannot be proven.  There could be more information than is publicly available that could shed light on who is innocent or guilty but at this time people are reaching potentially dangerous conclusions based on pieces of information that do not represent the whole truth.  Most media outlets publish these pieces of information as they come available, even updating things by the hour, but some organizations seem to selectively emphasize or leave out details based upon the narrative that they want to create.

Instead of allowing courts to determine guilt or innocence, people are tried by the court of public opinion long before they are able to defend themselves.  In a perfect world, people who are guilty of wrongdoing would always be caught and found guilty whether that is a young man who committed a crime or a person in authority who abused their power.  The reality is that we have usually made up our minds about someone’s guilt or innocence as soon as a story initially breaks and we’ll only accept evidence as real if it later confirms our previously formed opinions.  In this case, for most people it won’t matter if the suspect is found to have been on drugs or video is discovered of him assaulting the police officer.  Nor will it matter to many if the officer is discovered to have had a history of racial profiling.  Many people have made up their minds and evidence to the contrary is not considered after this.

I want to advise all of you to not be quick to reach hasty decisions about things that you hear on the news.  Remember that in a perfect world the news media would exist simply to inform the public for their own good and they would be neutral and independent in their portrayal of that.  However, the news media is a profitable industry and they will feed us what keeps people watching their shows, talking about their commentators, and sharing their articles on social media.

This advice does not just apply to the current racial tension that we have, it applies universally to politics, financial issues, foreign policy, and social issues.  You’re always going to have an opinion about what is going on and that is fine.  But try to be well educated about those issues.  And when evidence comes about that is contrary to what you currently believe, take it into consideration.  Believe it or not, you are allowed to change your opinion on things, particularly when you are presented with new evidence that better informs you on a topic.

How does all of this relate to Paul?  As I said, I was approaching things a bit differently this morning.  The Jews obviously had their minds made up long before any sort of trial.  They never had any proof about their accusations however.  And today it is the same in many cases that we make accusations and hurl about different ideas without any real proof.

Acts 25:9-12

Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?”

10 Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. 11 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”

12 After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

Festus wishes to transfer Paul to Jerusalem after they came to Caesarea to initiate a trial.  Even though he initially pushed against them, perhaps they have worn him down.  Maybe they have bribed him or they have threatened to voice their displeasure with him to his bosses.  Whatever the actual reason, Festus is trying to gain favor with the Jews as Felix had done before by leaving Paul in prison.  Only this time it is more dangerous because a transfer could lead to Paul’s murder.  Even though Festus doesn’t know it, Paul at least has to understand this as a possibility since it was what was attempted before he was transferred to Caesarea in the middle of the night.

This tells us something important about government that we shouldn’t forget.  Just like the news media is going to run stories that get the largest audience because they want more money, politicians are going to make political decisions that are in their best interest.

There is a strange catch 22 about democracy, particularly in our modern world.  We elect representatives to make our laws.  They are supposed to represent our interests whether that is on a local or national level.  This requires them to act as leaders because we can’t possibly understand all of the issues that we must deal with.  Take something that seems like a simple local issue such as widening a road and adding a lane.  There could be 100% support for such a project but an informed leader might decide that it is not in the best interests of their people because of issues they are not aware of.  Perhaps that new lane requires digging up pipes and cables that would be difficult to move.  Or maybe that new lane is perfectly viable except there is no money in the budget for it and while everyone wants a new road, nobody wants to have to pay for that road.

The other side of that coin is that while a representative is to lead on issues that we can’t be well informed about, because those leaders are elected they must keep their people happy.  This means that maybe they do what is popular rather than what is best for the people.  Or even worse, my they do what the biggest donors want them to do because elections cost a lot of money and if they don’t keep their biggest donors happy, they won’t get re-elected.  It’s not even about keeping a majority of their people happy but rather it’s about large donors happy.

Ultimately, Festus is a politician just like Felix was.  His job will be easier if his constituents are happy, even if he was not elected to office.  Rome likes peace and if word makes it back to Rome that his people are not happy and in danger of revolting, he’ll be out of a job or worse.  So Festus offers to transfer Paul.

Paul has been shuffled around enough.  He might expect the Jews to try to ambush him or maybe he suspects that he will just get shuffled around without ever being found guilty of anything.  As a Roman citizen he has certain rights and one of those rights is to appeal to Caesar himself.

Once Paul appeals to Caesar, the trial is over.  This is like what you see in cop shows where the police have a suspect in an interrogation room and they start asking him questions.  And finally he’ll get tired of the questions and ask for a lawyer.  Once that happens, he is not allowed to be questioned without his lawyer present.

Paul’s appeal to Caesar is irrevocable.  That means that once he makes his appeal, he can’t take it back and nothing can legally stop him until he gets to present his case before Caesar.  This is the long route to Paul ultimately making it to Rome as he desired.

When Paul made plans to go to Rome, I’m sure that he never envisioned going there as a prisoner.  We never know how God is going to use things in our life to bring about something else important.  A job loss could lead to a great career change.  A trip to the doctor for a head cold could unveil cancer in its earliest stage.

Close by discussing trials.

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