A commentary on Paul's defense before Felix
by Given O. Blakely
INTRODUCTIONHere is an account of a man standing for God in the midst of fierce opposition. You must take courage from the account, not viewing it as mere history. It is an example of spiritual life in unspiritual surroundings, godly courage in an threatening environment, and excellent presentation in the midst of intimidation and opposition! You will see this word of Christ fulfilled in this circumstance. "When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Matt 10:19-20).
Paul's marvelous defense was not owing to his disciplined mind--although he did have one. Nor, indeed, did it spring from his academic excellence--which also is apparent. This was the outworking of his walk with God. His boldness came from his faith, and his precision from his trust in God. The Lord made him equal to the occasion.
The Jewish elders did not present their case well. The oratory of Tertullus, together with his legal expertise and political savvy, miserably failed him. However, Paul rose to the occasion because his life was "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).
As Jesus had instructed "the twelve," Paul's presentation was "shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16). He is complementary, but he does not flatter. He speaks the truth without embellishing the facts. He appeals to the governor's integrity rather than his ego. Unlike his enemies, Paul is dominated by cheer, not hatred, in his defense. "I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense" (Acts 24:10). Faith straightens out our head as well as our hearts. It enables us to speak wisely as well as act boldly. The man or woman of God becomes stronger as their faith in God grows and flourishes.
The reference to "many years" might be a stumbling block to some with historical expertise. Historically, we understand that Felix had been governor since 53 A.D. If, as generally conceded, Paul appeared before Felix some time near 58 A.D., the "man years" period of Felix' governorship would appear a hyperbole. However, contemporary historian Tacticus expressly states that Felix was joint procurator with Cumanus; and therefore he had been a judge to the Jewish nation long before the banishment of Cumanus. (1)
This is not a casual observation! It is intended to remind you that the person of God is not allowed the luxury of misrepresentation. Too, it is best for those that speak for God to be mindful of their circumstances. Incidently, I have often pondered how Felix must have felt about his exposure to the Jewish nation "for a number of years." I have no doubt that Paul's presentation was one of, if not THE, best presentation he had heard from that community.
And why was Paul "cheerful" in his presentation? It was certainly not because of the environment, or the circumstances in which he found himself. He was about to give an answer for the hope that was within him. He was dominated by the hope of which fellow-apostle Peter wrote. "But in your hearts set apart 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, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Pet 3:15). Peter was martyred shortly after the trial covered in this chapter. He wrote his first letter prior to his death in A.D. 62-64. However, the words that he penned reflected a Kingdom manner--this is the way God led people to think. Paul did what Peter said before he said it! With a good conscience, and with "gentleness and respect," he defended himself to his enemies, and those that spoke "maliciously against" his "good behavior." In a day when human rights are accentuated, it is good to "participate in the divine nature" in speaking before those that hate us.
JUST THE FACTS!
A lot had happened in a short period of time! Twelve days before this event, Paul "went up to worship at Jerusalem" (v. 11). This was not something secret--like entering a seclusive retreat. Felix could "easily verify" the facts--they were a matter of public observation. I suppose, when making a defense before the world, we should speak of things that can be "easily verified." For those that choose to live at a distance from God, this is exceedingly difficult.
Paul will not embellish the case. He will not lift himself higher than Jesus has lifted him! Too, note that he speaks of something for which the Jews were noted--going to Jerusalem to worship. His faith had not caused him to make a break with the good things of his religious heritage!
Observe that Paul associates himself with the worship of God, not the corrupted Jewish system. Indeed, he is a Jew--but secondarily, not primarily! Jesus declared that God sought "the true worshipers," who chose "spirit and truth" as the environment of their worship (John 4:23-24). His intentions were to worship in Jerusalem, where Jews came to worship. His Jewish peers, however, did not entertain such noble objectives. They saw Paul's worship as a threat to their religious bigotry. Paul, on the other hand, did not perceive their corrupted religion as a threat to him. His hope was not corroded by the canker of their bitterness or the corruption of their religion. Thus he spoke more of his purpose than their deficiencies--a wise course, indeed!
THE EVIDENCE DOES NOT SUPPORT THE CHARGE
Paul does not hesitate to say he was in the temple and in the synagogues. He went to Jerusalem to worship, and therefore was found where worship was intended. While the legalist cannot account for Paul's actions, they make perfect sense to faith and hope. The Apostle sought to bring others within the circumference of worship. That is why he went to Jerusalem.
Paul affirmed that his accusers did not find him "arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city" (v12). Earlier in Acts, we see Paul taking a conciliatory attitude toward the Jews. Having consulted with "James and all the elders," Paul went out of his way to avoid offending believing Jews (Acts 21:18-26). Rather than stirring up the people, he was playing the role of a heavenly peacemaker among them! Identifying with a Jewish custom, from which grace had freed him, the Apostle even "joined in their purification rites" and paid the expenses of Jewish worshipers. In fulfillment of the spirit of Christ he became "all things to all men so that by all possible means" he "might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). He was not arguing, and he did not cause a riot!
Note, Paul's accusers did not find him doing what they declared in their charge! Sin does make people unreasonable. Paul's charge against them is to the point. "They cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me" (v. 13).
There is a confidence in Paul's defense that challenges our hearts and minds. He does not say his accusers will find difficulty supporting their charge, or that it is a trumped up one. He powerfully affirms their charge cannot be supported--and in a court of law, that is something that MUST be done! The circumstance of the Jews being unable to defend their charge against Paul fulfills the word of Peter. " . . . keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Pet 3:16).
UNASHAMED OF AFFILIATION
Paul's faith not only constrained him to deny involvement in wrong, it compelled him to acknowledge involvement in right. "However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked" (24:14-15).
For some, identity with an approved institution is the thing. That is not the way it was with Paul. He identified with what was considered a splinter group, or "sect." He admitted he worshiped the God of "our fathers," i.e., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt 8:11; 22:32; Acts 3:13). He could not identify with the Jews in their unbelief or rejection of Jesus, but he did not hesitate to claim their heritage. He was not ashamed of the good things that nation was given (Rom. 9:4-5). Faith compels us only to renounce what is false and corrupted. We may hold on to everything that is good and godly, even if received when dwelling in spiritual darkness from those who themselves are in darkness. That is a remarkable level of spiritual liberty that is scarcely known among professing believers.
Paul does not dwell long upon religious heritage. He quickly gets to the matter of present involvements. He does not refer to his spiritual life as an alternative life style, or to his theological persuasion as one of many valid choices. He refers to himself as "a follower of the Way." He refers to this course as one "which they call a sect." That was the false charge of Tertullus; i.e., "the Nazarene sect" (v. 5). The phrase "after the way" is significant. The phrase is translated from kata thn o`don. It does not refer to a manner of life, but the direction of life.
The word o`don ("way") means "a road; by implication a progress (the route, act or distance); figurative. a mode or means:--journey, (high-) way".(2) It has more to do with where you are going that what you are doing! The godly life is one lived toward God because of a preference for Him. It is a life of anticipation more than obligation. This is the "Way" prophesied by Isaiah, and opened by Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. "And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it" (Isa. 35:8). This is nothing less than a highway to heaven, personified in Christ (John 14:6) and accessed by becoming a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17).
In "the Way," the promises of God because the means of participating in the Divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). This is the very thing the Jews objected to. They saw Paul's message as a declaration of license and a repudiation of divine law. They were wrong on both counts! Knowing this, Paul openly acknowledged he was on this "Way." He knew they did not understand that "Way," but he identified with it anyway. He was not seeking Felix's approval. He was witnessing to his faith--something the Lord declared he would do in Rome!
He saw further than his peers, and he acknowledged it. His faith had caused a gap to form between him and traditional Jews, and he confessed it! He was part of a "new and living way" (Heb. 10:20) that started on earth and concluded in heaven.
THE DANGER OF A MERELY POSITIONAL THEOLOGY
It is in order to say something about the danger of, what I will call, "positional theology." Much of professed Christendom is like the old Judaism--it is based on position, or a set of theological tenets. Thus religious peers argue about differing "positions" on the second coming of Christ, the grace of God, the law of God, the new birth, etc. Some imagine that if they hold an acceptable position among men they will be accepted by God. I am convinced some people will be saved in spite of their position, not because of it! Make no mistake about it, what you believe is vital to your salvation. However, it is possible to intellectually embrace the correct position and still go to hell. A position can be impersonal, salvation cannot! The "Way" to which Paul witnessed is a personal "race marked out for us" by God (Heb 12:1). It involves living by faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38), walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16,25), and fellowship with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9). Any position that does not require these things is in wholly adequate.
NOT IN CONFLICT WITH THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS
Im his defense, Paul comes to grips with the false charges against him. The wayward Jews have represented him as being in conflict with the Law. Quite to the contrary, the Apostle states that he believed "everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets" (v. 14b). There is a reason why Paul stated his case this way. Note, he did not say he agrees with everything written in the Law and the Prophets--although he surely did. Rather, he confesses belief of everything that "agrees with the Law . . ." He did not accentuate the law and the prophets, but what fulfilled them! It would not have been on the part of wisdom to emphasis the law and the prophets in that setting! The issue with the Jews was not the law and the prophets, but Paul's supposed opposition to them. Wisely, the Apostle shines the light on the fulfillment of their words.
Jesus Himself was the realization of their message. The Scriptures actually testified about Christ (John 5:39), not a system of impersonal propositions, or a regimented external discipline.
HOPE IN GOD
How true it is: "hope" is a powerful distinctive of life in the Son. It speaks of a dominating persuasion of involvement in the world to come. It confesses this world is not the ultimate residence of the people of God, and acknowledges a fundamental variance with it. This hope is brought to maturity in Christ, but it has always existed among believers. Job, without a Bible, was dominated by hope (Job 19:26-27). Abraham was constrained by his consideration of the future (Rom. 4:18-20). Throughout the "Law and the Prophets" hope was a shining star.
Paul does not hesitate to identify with this Jewish thrust. "I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked" (v. 15).
It is rarely that you will hear men speak after this manner. However, this is the essence of spiritual life! Hope is faith in its forward posture, and it casts us upon the Living God. We have hope in Him, that there will be "a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked." That means all injustices will be corrected. The faithful will be rewarded. The balances will be adjusted appropriately. The Jews sought Roman law to correct what they conceived to be wrong. Believers look for the resurrection and the judgement of God!
In declaring his faith in this manner, Paul showed Felix that, and its foundation, it was perfectly consistent with the Jew's religion. Paul had the flower, the Jews had the bud. He had the tree, they had the root. By faith, he had embraced what the Law had foreshadowed and promised. They had raised the charge of contradiction; he raised the note of accord.
Paul goes to the heart of the matter. The dead will be raised, and an accounting will be made. It was a way of telling Felix this was not the ultimate tribunal! It was also a means of convicting the opposing Jews of their spiritual obstinance and blindess, as evidenced by their theological divisions.
THE MATTER OF CONSCIENCEPaul is striking at the heart of things in his defense. He does not waste time speaking about things having no eternal consequence. The conscience is a key aspect of our persons, and is to be protected at all cost (Rom. 9:1; 13:5; 1 Cor. 4:4; 2 Cor. 1:12; 1 Tim. 1:5,19; Heb. 10:22; 13:181 Pet. 3:16). Paul reflects this in his defense. "So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man" (v. 15). What a marvelous statement of the case! The Apostle exerted himself to have a good conscience when standing before God and man--and in that order! A condemning conscience is a terrible thing. It drove Judas to hang himself (Matt. 27:5; Acts 1:18-19). "Some," Paul told Timothy, by abandoning faith and a good conscience, "shipwrecked their faith," running it aground on the bank of fultilty and hopelessness (1 Tim. 1:19).
And why did Paul "strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man." It was because of his persuasion of God Himself and the resurrection of the dead. The individual coming to God, we are apprised, "must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Heb. 11:6). The NASB captures the sense of the text: "In view of this (a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked), I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men." The Apostle was constrained by the spirit of the Law and the Prophets, and a consideration of his ultimate confrontation of God. The Jews were motivated by in inordinate affection for the text of the Law and Prophets. Their religious persuasion did not properly affect their conscience. Paul distinguishes himself from them by confessing his faith reached into his very heart and soul. Whether in a court of law, a synagogue, or an isolated prison, he sought to have no cause for being justly condemned--by God or men!
A PERSONAL TESTIMONYIn confirmation of his confession, the Apostle mentions his conduct toward the Jews. If honest, Felix will see a sharp contrast between the demeanor of Paul and that of his accusers. "After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings" (v. 17). The Jews had lost their affection for Paul, but he had not lost his love for them (Rom. 9:1-3)! Even after "an absence of several years," he had it in his heart to minister to them in a practical way. He brought "gifts for the poor," and "presented offerings" to God!
This deportment had a great deal to do with his defense! It contrasted sharply with the charge that he was a "troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world." Paul had encountered similar charges in Ephesus (Acts 16:20), Thessalonica (Acts 17:6). And even Jerusalem (Acts 21:28). However, they were not true, and Paul's demeanor proved they were not. He sought to help, not agitate; console, not wound; unite, not divide! He disciplined himself to maintain a good conscience before God by presenting offerings. He endeavored to maintain a good conscience before men by ministering to their needs. That is what he "came" to do! Ministry was not incidental to Paul, it was something he did intentially. Like Jesus, he "did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matt. 20:28).
How did the Jews "find" Paul, and what was he doing? They did not find him arguing or inciting a riot. They found him in the temple, purified before God (according to their custom), and engaged in peaceful activities. "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" (Acts 24:18). Those are just the facts in the case. The charges against him were maliciously false--even a corrupt ruler should be able to see it. It is never reasonable to oppose those engaged in the work of the Lord. That is why those choosing such antagonism resort to chicanery to accomplish their purpose.
THE SOURCE OF THE TROUBLEThe Jews charged that Paul was the source of the trouble. However, this was not the case at all. Paul would set the record straight. "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" (v. 19). The sense of the text is better reflected in the NKJV. "In the midst of which some Jews from Asia found me purified in the temple." This agrees perfectly with the actual account of events as recorded in Acts 21:27. "When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him . . . "
If trouble cannot be raised by the hometown boys, the devil will import some insurrectionists. In this case, they were from another area, the province of Asia. The actual accusers did not even turn up at the trial! Although it may not clear in the NIV, Paul's intention is to show the source of the trouble. He was in the temple, and certain bigoted Jews from the province of Asia showed up. From then on, trouble erupted. His accusers presented their case as though they found Paul in violation of civil law, and had summoned him to appear before the court. It seems the disruption may even have occurred in the midst of distributing to the poor. We should not be surprised if Satan extends himself to interrupt the good work of the Lord.
TURNING THE TABLES
How ironic that the people who should have been present to charge Paul were absent! Paul is quick to bring this to the attention of Felix the governor. Thus he turns the tables, as it were, showing his accusers to be dishonest. The Jews from Asia, Paul charged "ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin--" Because he was in a civil court, the Apostle insisted that proper civil procedure should be followed. This event started with Tertullus, a skilled attorney, appealing to protocol. The hearing now takes a dramatic turn. Paul is not unlearned in the matter of procedure. He shows that it takes more than oratory to present an accusation.
Suffice it to say, faith in Christ brings our capacities to their full potential. Representatives of Christ that conduct themselves as though intellectual simplicity were a virtue do a great disservice to the cause of Christ. Our minds are effected by salvation. That is to be reflected in how we speak for Jesus.
THE FINAL WORD
Paul now concedes that there may have been a cause for the agitation. His concession is not an admission of guilty, but an exposure of the debilitating effects of empty tradition. Earlier, when Paul stood before the Jewish "Council," he perceived they were not in agreement with one another. Mind you, the Jews had opposed him because he spoke differently than they did. Yet, they had fundamental disagreements among themselves. Paul's critics included representatives from the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees said "that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all" (Acts 23:8). In a brilliant strategic move, Paul had cried out, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead" (Acts 23:6). Those insightful words caused the group to be divided, disrupting the mock trial of God's man. Now, before Felix, Paul acknowledges the real reason for the opposition. It was NOT because he was a "troublemaker," but because he was a preacher. It was NOT because he was a "ringleader," but because he was a proclaimer.
Paul was not a silent witness, but a verbal one. He did not merely embrace a position, he declared a reality! Like John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus Himself, if Paul would simply have kept quiet, opposition would have waned. However, it is not the nature of heavenly life to keep silent, particularly to avoid opposition or conflict.
THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD REVEALEDIt should not surprise us that God often fulfills His purpose through His enemies. The heart of the king is in the Lord's hand, and He can turn that heart wherever He desires. As it is written, "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases" (Prov. 21:1). Divine history confirms this to be the case. Pharaoh was favorably disposed to Joseph, elevating him to be second in command (Gen. 41). Cyrus was raised up by God, given all the kingdoms of the world, and charged with building Him a house in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 36:22-23). Darius was impressed with Daniel, making him a administrator of the Median kingdom (Dan.6:1). Our text shows this form of Divine providence.
"He (Felix) ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs" (v. 23). This is a most remarkable provision, and cannot be accounted for apart from Divine intervention. Paul remains a prisoner with freedom, and provision for all of his needs to be met. Ordinary rules were relaxed for the Apostle, allowing him to bear witness of Christ. We assume that the "beloved physician" Luke (Col. 4:14) was allowed to be with Paul during this time--a most gracious provision from the Lord.
Actually, this was a time of protection for Paul, when the Jews were prohibited by civil law from doing harm to the Apostle. Thus, the case of the opposing Jews utterly breaks down. No charge could be supported that made Paul amenable to punishment by Roman law.
EVERYTHING IS BEING WORKED TOGETHER FOR GOODHere is confirmation that God works everything together for the good of those who love Him. "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). Because Paul was in the heart of God's will, the favor of God was upon Him. It is possible for people to imagine that God will bless them when they are wayward--that there really are no stipulations for the blessing of the Lord. However, the ultimate good of God's people depends upon them loving God and being called according to His purpose. If these qualifications are met, circumstances will be under God, instead of you under them!
Here, the real person in bondage was Felix, not Paul. He sought to please the people he governed instead of the God that governed him. He had indulged his sinful passions, and now he was enslaved to them, unable to totally free an innocent man. As lenient as he was with, allowing his friends to come to him, he did not allow Paul to go to his friends. His generosity came short of its potential because his heart was unaffected by the truth. He "was well acquainted with the way," but was not in it himself. A most tragic circumstance!
1. Pulpit Commentary, The Acts of the Apostles, Volume 2, Page 232
2. Strong's Dictionary