Politics and doing the right thing: Festus’ conundrum

Who would be a leader? Pilate was faced with one of the trickiest decisions one could imagine. He had the responsibility of representing the Roman Empire on his shoulders, a responsibility that demanded order and efficient administration of Roman justice. But he had the misfortune to preside over an unruly people prone to rioting and unfathomable religious trouble making.

Jesus was on trial, the Jews wanted him dead, but Pilate knew he was innocent, would he do the right thing or opt for an easy life? Who would be a leader indeed.

Felix had faced with a similar conundrum. The Roman commander in Jerusalem had brought Paul to him. Paul seemed to precipitate riots wherever he went! The Jews wanted him dead and sent a delegation of their religious hierarchy along with a silver-tongued lawyer to argue their case. Felix heard the case and faced the same conundrum as his predecessor Pilate – what to do? Pander to the Jewish religious establishment and have an innocent man put to death? Or release an obviously innocent man? Who would be a leader! Felix took the easy option and left Paul in prison in Caesarea awaiting a decision. Two whole years had passed by the time we come to chapter 25.

One wonders how Paul felt during this period. We rather forget as we turn the page from Acts chapter 24 to 25, that 24 months had passed: 24 months of waiting and uncertainty, 24 months of restricted activity, 24 months of lost time. Isaiah said “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40: 31), I wonder if Paul comforted himself with this thought as he waited, not fully knowing what would happen next.

Felix was moved on, a new governor was installed and Paul continued to wait.

As we contemplate the problems the Roman authorities contended with and as we consider the Jewish hatred of Paul and the gospel we do well to remember that God’s plans were being worked out. The Jews had rejected the Messiah and were now rejecting the promised new covenant – a promise that would change them from the inside out. Now it was time for God’s judgment. Paul’s final God-given mission was to speak in Jerusalem (job already done) and then in Rome. This would set the scene for God’s judgment of the Jews at the hands of the Romans.

  1. Festus Acts

‘A new broom sweeps clean’ – Festus seems to have been a more diligent governor than Felix – he wanted the ‘Paul problem’ sorted out. Festus had only been in office for three days when he visited Jerusalem. And presumably as he visited this main city under his jurisdiction he would have had meetings with the key movers and shakers of the city. As he began discussions with the High Priest he would doubtless have been surprised at the topic of discussion: Paul. The High Priest spoke against Paul and sought a favour from the Roman governor – send Paul to us in Jerusalem, we’ll sort this problem out for you, he’s been in Caesarea for two years, it’s time for us to get this thing sorted out once and for all. Festus was no mug! He seems to have guessed the motive of the High Priest. Luke gives us the inside story and mentions that the High Priest wanted to have Paul killed by some sort of ambush as he travelled from Caesarea to Jerusalem. This is remarkable. The leader of the religious establishment in a conspiracy to murder an innocent man! Be careful! bitterness and self importance are a potent mix!

Festus had met the likes of the High Priest before and was not easily fooled. He firmly rejected the request. Since Festus had plans to return to Caesarea shortly, he suggested that the High Priest and his associates join him and make their accusations – Festus would be the judge of their accusations. I suspect that the High Priest was not at all keen on this idea, but what could he do other than comply.

Ten days later the trial began. Festus occupied his position on the judgment seat and the accusations were made. What an ugly scene as a group of religious people who ought to have known better hurled their false accusations against Paul. Likewise, Satan is the accuser of Christians, he keeps up his accusations day and night. Let’s not follow his bad example.

The accusations just would not stick – they simply could not be proven. Paul’s response is of some importance ‘Neither against the law of the Jews, not against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all’. We should recall that by this time the letter to the Romans had already been penned by Paul. God had reveled much to Paul of the new covenant and how it should operate, as the Jews had not yet been judged we can see that the new covenant was entirely consistent with the Old Testament principles and whilst some changes in Jewish custom were called for, Paul was not about the business of dismantling the Jewish worship system – he was neither against the law nor the Temple.

Festus faced the same dilemma as his predecessors: an innocent man, false accusations, and a need to keep the peace. He wanted to keep the Jews on side – there would be no trouble on his watch. With this in mind, Festus asked Paul if he had any objection to going up to Jerusalem for Festus to pronounce judgment? One can imagine that Jewish contingent were rather pleased at this suggestion, perhaps they would have their way after all? But God was in control….and Paul was not going to go without a fight either! We can rather easily assume that our lives are no more than a pre-written book and our circumstances are like a cork bobbing on the rough seas of life, all we can do is go with the flow, que sera sera - but is this really the case? Paul could easily have accepted the difficulty of his situation and given up any attempt to influence his circumstances for the better, que sera sera, God will overrule. The bible seems to always invite us to choose what is right and to be active in our lives – the alternative is the misery of being forever victims of circumstance.

Paul rejects the request for a judgment in Jerusalem and forcibly points out that he is under Roman law and has done nothing to wrong the Jews. He stated that if he had done anything deserving death he would take his punishment even if it meant death – but he was innocent. Paul next played the last card in his hand – he appealed to Caesar. It was the right of every Roman citizen under threat of capital punishment to appeal to Caesar. Festus’ reply to Paul’s request is simple and to the point ‘you have appealed to Caesar? To Caesar you shall go!’. One wonders if Festus was pleased with this outcome – it saved him the problem of making a decision that could have upset the Jews, the decision had been made for him. For Paul this was a good outcome too – in God’s revealed plan for him he needed to go to Rome, his trip was now booked!

  1. Before the king

Festus now had a small problem to sort out, just as the Roman commander in Jerusalem had wondered how to present the ‘Paul-problem’ to Felix, so likewise now Festus had to get his reason straightened out as to why he was sending Paul to Caesar. The problem was not entirely easy. What exactly were the allegations against Paul? And how would Festus present this to Caesar without looking like a time waster?

Some local knowledge would go a long way. I recall arriving one time in Osaka, I was with my German colleague, we had just arrived in the city after a long flight and we were hungry and ready to eat. The trouble was we had real difficulty in choosing a restaurant as everything (door way menus, names of reastaurant etc) was in Japanese – we eventually selected one that ‘looked nice’. We had no idea what sort of food was on offer but what was certain was that my colleague was not keen on fish, especially raw fish and shell fish. We were handed two menus entirely in Japanese, so my colleague proceeded to draw (and rather amusingly act out the types of meat he was happy to eat) – chicken (flapping wings), OK, beef (horns and moo!) OK, pig (snort, snort) OK, but fish (he resorted to a pen and paper) not OK. We were clearly not making ourselves understood at all, but the rest of the diners were taking a keen (and presumably amused) interest! Eventually one young man joined us and with his excellent skills in the English language took us through the menu. There was chicken skin, chicken gizzard, chicken foot, chicken meat, chicken knee joints (in batter) – we were in a chicken restaurant! A little local knowledge does indeed go a long way.

Enter King Herod Agrippa II and Bernice his sister.

You might recall that the previous governor, Felix, had married Drusilla who was part of the Herodian Royal family. Festus now meets up with the sister (Bernice) and brother (King Herod Agrippa II) of his predecessor’s wife. Luke is careful to inform us that it was ‘some days’ after Paul’s appeal to Caesar that this Royal pair visited Caesarea. The occasion of their visit was to ‘greet Festus’ – Festus was new to the job of governor. It was only after Herod Agrippa II and Bernice had been in Caesarea for ‘many days’ that Festus discussed Paul’s case with his royal visitors. Previously Festus had acted quickly to try to sort out Paul’s case, but now that haste had gone. It seems that Festus whilst wishing to sort these things out, had suddenly lacked the urgency he once had – perhaps Festus was at a loss as to what to do. He had to send Paul to Caesar that much was clear, but what was he going to say? What was the case against Paul? How could he present this to Caesar without looking foolish? It was something to do with Jewish laws and customs and he needed some assistance, Herod and his sister could surely help.

Festus describes the situation in some detail to Herod and Bernice and I find his explanation to be of great interest. He reported that when the chief priests and elders presented their case against Paul they surprised Festus by ‘bringing questions to him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed to be alive’. It becomes clear that the issue for the Jews was Jesus – and the real problem for them was that Jesus had been (without any shadow of doubt) killed by crucifixion but now Paul claimed he was alive. Twenty five years prior to these events, the Jewish religious leaders had had a similar encounter with Peter. Peter had made the same claims about Jesus and on that occasion the Sanhedrin were advised by a wise member, Gamaliel, to let Peter go. There were two possibilities Gamaliel stated: first if Peter’s claims about Jesus were false then the movement he was part of would fizzle out, or second, if the claims about Jesus were true, the Sanhedrin could not oppose them as they would be part of an unstoppable movement of God! What a tragedy that 25 years later, these religious leaders still opposed the truth in spite of the evidence before their eyes.

King Agrippa readily agreed to interview Paul. Imagine the scene – Agrippa and Bernice arrive at the auditorium with ‘great pomp’ and are accompanied with the great and the good. Paul is brought in before them. What a contrast: a human king with all the trappings and a servant of the king of kings! Festus gives a brief speech describing Paul’s circumstances and invites the assembled to examine Paul to enable Festus to specify the charges against Paul.

Next time we will listen in on this fascinating discussion.