Felix hears: the accusations, the defence and the gospel

Paul is in Jerusalem, he has had an encounter with a hostile crowd in the Temple grounds, an audience with the Sanhedrin that ended in uproar and now he is in the care of the Roman authorities.

Such was the intensity of Jewish opposition towards Paul that the commander in Jerusalem had to transport him to safety in Caesarea under Roman guard (of no fewer than 70 horsemen and 400 soldiers!).

What was going on? Lysias, the Roman commander in Jerusalem was bemused. Paul had precipitated a riot in the Temple grounds and then in an effort to discover what the fuss was about Lysias presented him to the Sanhedrin – more unrest ensued. A plot to kill Paul had been uncovered and now Lysias had passed the problem up the chain of command to Felix the governor in Caesarea. Lysias had concluded that the unrest was related to Jewish laws and in order to preserve the peace he sent Paul to Felix to have the matter dealt with according to due Roman legal process.

You may have noticed that there is a similarity in these events with those of Jesus’ trials. Both Paul and Jesus were involved in disturbances in the Temple, both were put under trial in the Sanhedrin as well as under Roman jurisdiction and as we will see in the next few chapters, both were presented to the Jewish monarchy. Why the similarities? We might conclude that Paul saw himself as a sort of second Messiah, retracing Jesus steps in order to establish his position as a representative of God, but this seems highly unlikely and is not in keeping with Paul’s character and mission. Rather, it seems that God is directing a process of decision on Israel. The Jews had been afforded every opportunity to accept the Messiah when he presented himself to them and now in like manner they are being given almost exactly the same opportunity to repent of their rejection of Jesus by accepting Paul’s message. As we shall see they once again set themselves against what was right. In the midst of this big story there are the personal stories of opportunities for faith and trust in Jesus, Felix whist playing his role as representative of the Roman authorities heard not just accusations against Paul but he heard the gospel too.

  1. Felix hears the accusation

Paul had been in Caesarea for 5 days and now the accusers arrive – Ananias with some of the Jewish elders and Tertullus, a lawyer. The wheels of legal process seem often to turn rather slowly, but it is notable that these events were moving quickly. The Romans did not tolerate unrest and were more than happy to get this thing sorted out, likewise the Jewish authorities wanted to stamp out anything to do with Jesus and these followers of his message.

So it’s time for the trial. Felix is the judge and what a judge he was! He had a reputation for brutality, he was a former slave. The Roman historian Tacitus described him thus “Antonius Felix, practiced every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of king with all the instincts of a slave.” In fact Felix was the first slave ever to become a Roman governor. He succeeded Pilate. Here are Tertullus’ (Ananias’ silver-tongued lawyer!) opening remarks to Felix – as you read them try to get a feel for what his tactics were:

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.

Interesting isn’t it? A highly flattering approach and as we will see there was little mention of facts as he presented the accusations and supporting evidence. Flattery is, as often as not, a means to deception and this seems to be the tactic of Tertullus – one suspects that Felix was well aware of what was going on! There were three accusations. Accusation 1). Paul was a troublemaker and stirred up riots all over the world. This was a serious charge, the Romans wanted to preserve the peace and anyone challenging this was in trouble. Accusation 2). Paul was a member ring leader of ‘the Nazarene sect’. The Jewish faith was a permitted faith under Roman law, but sects were not. Tertullus was skillfully portraying Paul as a leader of an illegal sect and a troublemaker. Notice also that Tertullus described the believers as a ‘Nazarene sect’ – Nazareth didn’t exactly have a great reputation; Paul was being portrayed in the worst possible light. Accusation 3). Paul had tried to desecrate the temple. This last charge was not really a charge at all, but since the Romans had permitted the Jews to execute any Gentile who entered the excluded are of the Temple, the charge was of importance. It’s noticeable that the accusation did not say that Paul had desecrated the temple but had tried to. You may recall that the Jews had accused Paul of attempting to bring a Gentile into the Temple. The three accusations having been made, the Jewish entourage heartily agreed and endorsed Tertullus’ statements.

Felix had a track record of dealing swiftly with such trouble makers and one can imagine that Ananias and his associates felt rather smug that their silver-tongued lawyer had done his work well and that Felix would waste little time in having Paul executed. But God was with Paul. Paul knew that God still had work for him to do in Rome and this must have given him fortitude under these difficult circumstances in which his life was held in the balance by sinful men and dishonest men. What Paul didn’t know at that time was that he was to spend no less than 2 years in Caesarea under the control of the Roman governor – what a time of great frustration for him, and yet it seems that Paul remained faithful to God and patient under these difficult circumstances.

  1. Felix hears Paul’s defence

Paul’s opening statement was brief – no sign of flattery, but rather an acknowledgement of Felix’s authority and Paul’s willingness to work within the system of Roman jurisdiction. Paul first sets out the timing of the events that lead him to be accused. It all happened just 12 days prior to this trial. Given that Paul had spent 5 of these 12 days in Caesarea, he was making it clear that he had insufficient time to have organised much of a riot and to have been much of a troublemaker. Next Paul sets out some facts relating to the accusations, Paul’s accusers had never seen him arguing in the temple, they had never seen him stirring up the crowd in the Temple or in any other part of the city – there was no evidence to support their accusations. So if none of this was true, what was true about Paul? Paul stated that he worshipped the God of the ancestors of the Jews as a follower of the Way – everything that Paul believed was consistent with the law and the prophets – Paul’s hope was identical to those of his accusers; a resurrection of the righteous and the wicked. Paul was demonstrating to Felix that his faith was the same as that of his accusers; he followed the Jewish religion, a religion that was officially accepted by the Roman authorities. We should note here that Paul was in no way saying that the establishment of the church was in some way a replacement of the Jewish system – this proposition has been laid at his door by many Christians but what emerges here is that the hope of Israel is distinct from the hope of the church, Paul indicates that the church was not a replacement for Israel, but was distinct from Israel.

Having stated the time Paul had spent in Jerusalem (not long enough to be a troublemaker) and having stated his motivation (not in any way undermining the law and the prophets) Paul next turned to some details of what he actually had been doing in Jerusalem for this short period. First, he was there to bring gifts to the poor (almost certainly poor believers who had sold their properties and land in a mistaken belief that the Messiah was about to come) and to present offerings. Second, Paul had followed the legal procedures for presenting offerings and was ceremonially clean when he attended the Temple to make the offerings – this is entirely consistent with his assertion that he was in full agreement with the law and prophets. Third, he did not attend the Temple with a crowd of supporters (just the four other men who were taking the vow), and he did not precipitate any disturbance whilst he was at the Temple. Fourth, the whole thing started with some Jews from the province of Asia – important players in this case who Paul points out had not even been invited to the trial! Fifth, when Paul stood before the Sanhedrin he was not accused of any crime. Paul sums all this up by stating that he had done nothing wrong of any sort, but if there was a reason that he was in this position and if there was any crime to answer for it was because ‘he shouted in the Sanhedrin “it is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today”’. Paul’s message was surly clear to Felix – this is not about insurrection but resurrection, the former being of importance to a Roman governor, the latter being of importance to participants in Judaism.

I wonder how Ananias and his associates felt having heard Paul’s straightforward and truthful defence? Felix had heard enough for now and there would be no quick decision – no doubt much to the dismay of Paul’s accusers! Felix adjourned the trial and stated that he would make his judgment when Lysias (the commander from Jerusalem) arrived. Paul was put in the care of the centurion but with a significant degree of freedom.

  1. Felix hears the gospel

It seems that Felix was unusually at a loss to decide what to do with Paul. His intention to decide the case on the arrival of Lysias seems never to have happened – perhaps he just didn’t want to decide. Pilate seems to have found himself in a similar position. In both cases the governor would have wished to preserve the peace and good relations with the Jews, but somehow neither wished to pass judgment on clearly truthful and compelling people. In spite of his indecision Felix had not finished with Paul. You will recall that Felix had married three times and his current wife was Drusilla – a daughter of Herod Agrippa I. Luke informs us that Felix knew all about ‘The Way’. This knowledge may well have come from his wife and it seems that Felix was at least partly interested in hearing more about Paul’s message. Luke records a meeting of Felix and Paul thus: ‘He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Jesus Christ’. Isn’t that something – Felix had heard the evidence and now he heard the gospel! I have little doubt that he was prepared to listen to Paul because Paul was credible, truthful and informed. As we bring the same message to our generation we must bear the same qualities if we are to have any hope of being listened to. Paul talked about three important things: righteousness, self control and judgment to come. This rings a bell – in John 16, Jesus told the disciples concerning the Holy Spirit that “he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment”. This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit and as we prepare and pray about our efforts to take the gospel to the people of our town we ought to pray indeed that the Holy Spirit will convict of sin, righteousness and judgment. This brings people to a point of decision and it was time for Felix to make his response. Sadly in spite of the fear sin and consequent judgment brought him he turned Paul away and rejected the gospel. He did speak with Paul again, but he had hardened himself and was now only interested in financial gain – a bribe from Paul.

If you have heard the gospel and experienced the work of the Holy Spirit convicting you, don’t delay, believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.

Paul was sent back to prison and remarkably spent the next two years in Caesarea in a sort of legal limbo – what a waste of time, what was God doing? How could this be? We often wonder at the circumstances we find ourselves in – sometimes it just does not seem right or fair. God was in control and Paul needed to trust and be patient. Patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit.

It took a change in the governor to bring about some change to Paul’s predicament – Porcius Festus succeeded Felix and as a new broom sweeps clean, Festus was ready to sort this situation out, we will find out what he did in the next chapter.