Paul ended his third missionary journey by going to Jerusalem to bring an offering to the church there from the churches he’d founded on his missionary journeys. Some Jews from Asia who’d earlier seen him in the city with a Gentile saw him in the temple and, thinking he’d taken the Gentile into the temple, stirred up a crowd against him. He was rescued by Roman soldiers stationed at the Fortress of Antonia adjacent to the temple area.
The next day the tribune commanding the soldiers brought Paul before the Jewish Sanhedrin so that he could find out why they were angry with him and decide what to do with him. A dispute arose among the Jews that threatened Paul’s safety and the tribune returned him to the barracks. Then, hearing of a plot by some fanatic Jews to assassinate Paul, the tribune sent Paul under military escort to Caesarea, where the governor (Felix) had his headquarters.
In this post I’ll describe Paul’s appearance before Felix as it is narrated in Acts 24. I’ll divide my account into three parts: the Jews’ accusation, Paul’s defence, and Felix’s response.
The Jews’ Accusation
Five days after Paul’s arrival in Caesarea–or, in light of Paul’s reference to twelve days in verse 11, after his arrest in the temple–the high priest, some elders from the Sanhedrin, and a spokesman arrived to present the Jews’ case against Paul. The seriousness with which they took the case is shown by the high priest’s (Ananias) making the trip and their bringing a spokesman (Tertullus), probably a Hellenistic Jew familiar with both Judaism and the procedures of a Roman court.
Tertullus began his presentation with flattery in order to gain the goodwill of Felix: “Since through you we enjoy much peace, and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation, in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude (Acts 24:2-3, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV). His description of Felix bears little resemblance to the truth, Tacitus (an early Roman historian) saying that “indulging in every kind of barbarity and lust,[Felix] exercised the power of a king in the spirit of a slave” (The Histories, V,9).
Tertullus then made the following accusations against Paul, the first two general and the third specific:
1. That he “[is] a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world” (Acts 24:6). This accusation implied treason against the emperor. Although Paul didn’t rebut it directly here, he did in a later hearing, saying, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense (25:8).
2. That he “is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:6). This accusation identified Paul as the leader of a new and thus illegal religion. It assumed that Felix knew something about Jesus and the movement inspired by him, a correct assumption because further on Luke describes Felix as having “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” (24:22).
3. That “[h]e even tried to profane the temple”(24:7). This was the accusation that had originally stirred up a crowd against Paul, except that Tertullus just accused Paul of trying to profane the temple but the original accusation was that he had actually profaned it by bringing a Gentile, Trophimus, into it (21:28).
The other Jews affirmed that the accusations were true, and Tertullus appealed to Felix to examine Paul regarding them.
Invited by Felix to respond, Paul began by complimenting the governor as Tertullus had, but more briefly and honestly than Tertullus had, “Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense” (24:10). He implied that Felix’s governing Judea for several years would enable him to assess the accusations against Paul and Paul’s response to them.
Then, although not having been informed of the accusations before Tertullus made them, Paul replied to each of them in turn:
1. He replied to the first accusation by observing that he’d been in Jerusalem for no more than twelve days, which provided little opportunity for him to cause trouble, and that during that time his accusers “did not find [him] disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd, either in the temple or in the synagogues or in the city” (24:12).
2. He replied to the second accusation by admitting that he followed “the Way,” which his accusers called a sect, but claimed that in following it he “worship[ped] the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (24:14). Thus he affirmed that he was a faithful Jew.
He went on to observe that because of his having a hope of the resurrection, he “always [took] pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (24:16). That Paul considered this important is shown by his having made a similar claim before the Sanhedrin (”I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day,” 23:1). In his commentary on Acts, Ajith Fernando argues persuasively that today’s church needs to be blameless before the world in the same way, concluding, “The church, then, must rediscover the priority of holiness and look for the ways prescribed in the Scriptures to release the dynamic of the Holy Spirit who enables Christians to live holy lives. This is why Christianity is so unique. Other religions also teach us to be good, but Christianity gives us the power to become good” (The NIV Application Commentary: Acts, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998, pages 585).
3. He replied to the third accusation by explaining that after being away from Jerusalem for several years he’d come to it “to bring alms to my nation” (referring to the gift he’d brought to the church in Jerusalem from the churches which he’d founded) and “to present offerings,” and that while he was doing so his accusers had “found [him] purified in the temple, without any crowd or tumult” (24:18). He went on to comment on the absence of the Jews from Asia who’d charged him with bringing a Gentile into the temple,” claiming correctly that “they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, should they have anything against me” (24:19).
Paul closed his defence by observing that the Sanhedrin had found no wrongdoing in him when he’d appeared before it except “this one thing that I cried out while standing among them: ‘It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day’” (24:21). The resurrection’s being a doctrinal matter over which the Sanhedrin itself was divided, Paul implied that he should not be on trial.
“Having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way,” Felix put off Paul’s accusers, telling them, “When Lysias the tribune comes down I will decide your case” (24:22). We don’t know how Felix obtained his special knowledge of the Christian movement or if he ever sent for Lysias for information additional to what Lysias had given in the letter he’d sent Felix when he sent Paul to him (see 23:26-30). Felix then gave orders that Paul be kept in custody but, probably because he was a Roman citizen and hadn’t been proved guilty of any crime, given some liberty and allowed to have his friends attend to his needs.
After some days Felix and his wife, Drusilla, had Paul appear before them and speak about his faith in Christ Jesus. Drusilla was Jewish and, according to one text, had asked to see Paul and hear him speak. However as Paul talked about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment,” Felix became alarmed and told him, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you” (24:25). In his commentary on Acts, French L. Arrington explains how Paul’s message was just what Felix needed to hear: “Righteousness requires that everyone be treated justly, but Felix had been a tyrannical, unjust ruler. He had not practiced self-control, for his marriage to Drusilla was the result of his enticing her away from her former husband….Along with all the unrepentant, Felix would stand under divine condemnation in the future judgment…” (The Acts of the Apostles, Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrikson Publishers, 1998, page 238). Apparently, although Felix had the power of life and death over him, Paul didn’t pull any punches with him but proclaimed the Gospel to him boldly.
“At the same time [Felix] thought that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him” (24:26). Roman law prohibited officials from taking bribes, but they still did it. When Paul had defended himself before Felix he’d told of his bringing “alms to my nation” (24:18), and Felix may have thought that he’d be able to get money from the friends who visited him and offer Felix a bribe for his release. However Paul didn’t do so, choosing to trust in God instead. This continued for two years, after which Felix was replaced as governor.