Out of the frying pan into the fire
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN INTO THE FIRE(Acts 25)
A sermon about the power of God to protect us so that we can bear witness to Christ.
Unrelenting Hatred – the Jews (Acts 25:1-5)
Unreliable Protection – Festus (Acts 25:6-12)
Unholy Partnership – Herod Agrippa (Acts 25:13-27)
This morning we continue our study through Acts as we look at Paul’s next series of trials before Festus and Agrippa in Acts 25. I’ve called this message “Out of the fire pan into the fire” because Paul seems to make it through one trial only to face the next one. We saw him go from trial before the crowd, to trial before the tribunal, to trial before the Sanhedrin, to trial before Felix and now we will see him tried before Festus and Herod before going on to trial before Caesar – the highest court of his day.
The chapter breaks down into sections with three main characters in view.
· The Jews in 25:1-5
· Festus in 25:6-12
· Agrippa in 25:13-27
In each of these sections we encounter people who miss the grace of the gospel. They are hearing the gospel proclaimed by none less than the Apostle Paul and they still don’t get it because their hearts have been hardened by hatred, self-righteousness and pride.
So we’ll look at each of these sections, each of these reasons and then step back and ask ourselves why is this portion of narrative inspired by God and put here in the text. The so what, which is the most perplexing question of all when it comes to this chapter.
1: Unrelenting hatred of the JEWS (25:1-5)
24:27: Felix is replaced by Festus as governor, but Paul is left in prison, not because he has committed a crime, but because it pleased the Jews and maintained peace which would score political points with Rome.
1: Festus takes over and does the responsible thing and journeys up to Jerusalem which was the religious centre and a political hotspot in his region. He calls a meeting with the Jewish Sanhedrin who would be working with him to manage Jerusalem and the Jews throughout his region. He undoubtedly had a number of items on his agenda which needed discussion and clarification so that the relationship could get off to a good start.
2: One of the main items on their agenda is Paul. Two years have passed and the bitterness and hatred hasn’t diminished at all. Paul has been in prison for 2 years, he could hardly have been stirring up trouble for them in Jerusalem, and yet it’s like he was arrested yesterday.
3: The plot to assassinate Paul, which was hatched by a few men, and merely had the tacit approval of the Jewish leaders – has now become something which the Sanhedrin have formally adopted and are trying to advance through their political influence. You can see the progressive hardening of hearts and the solidifying of Jewish opposition to Christianity. Here is the Jewish leaders who are supposed to uphold God’s Law, God’s justice, God’s morality – planning to assassinate a man who has repeatedly been found innocent in a court of law. If they were seeking justice, then why not allow justice to take its course. But here we find them trying to circumvent the law in order to secure the outcome they desire which is the death of Paul.
Hardness of heart
How did they justify this in their own minds? How could they reconcile this plan and these actions with their moral and religious duties as Rabbi’s and supposed holy men of God?
This gives us some insight into the deceitfulness of sin. God had given them many opportunities to hear the gospel, to repent, to accept his grace but with each rejection their hearts had become increasingly hardened to the point where they could use their religious power and influence to plan to murder and innocent man. They would side with Rome for the sake of killing a fellow Jew.
Beware of the deceitfulness of sin! This cherishing of sin in the heart which hardens us to the grace of the gospel. As one writer put it, “Sin always takes you further than you wanted to go, keeps you longer than you wanted to stay and costs you more than you wanted to pay.”
Rome Paul’s protector
Ironically, at this point, Roman law comes to Paul’s rescue in vs 4-5. At this point Festus is not willing to circumvent Roman legal procedure and he calls them to come up to Caesarea so that they may present their case before him there.
Here, for the first time, we get another perspective of Paul’s imprisonment. O the one hand it looked like Paul’s mission had been put on hold and gospel expansion had been arrested by his unjust detention. But now we understand that if Paul had been released and had gone around preaching the gospel as he had done before, he would be dead already. Remember from chapter 24, these men were not going to eat until they saw Paul dead and now we see they have the full support of the entire Sanhedrin and they are as bent on killing him as ever. Paul couldn’t even be transferred by Roman guard safely at this point.
We know from Philip 1 that Paul was undoubtedly having an fruitful prison ministry among the Roman guards. We know that he had a measure of freedom to see his fellow gospel preachers and to correspond with various churches. Many scholars believe that Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians were written while Paul was in prison at Caesarea, if not here than certainly later when he was detained in Rome. So God was preserving and protecting Paul in order to strengthen and expand the church in other ways, even given them inspired Scripture for future generations – all through this unjust detention.
Application: As believers who have to continue our gospel witness in the midst of turmoil and persecution and injustice – we need to see and be reminded that God is able to use evil for good, if we stay focussed on being witnesses for Him.
In the next section we will see that although Rome is protecting Paul at this point, he can’t trust in Rome. It’s a very unrealiable and tentative protection. His faith must rest in God and God alone.
Unreliable protection - FESTUS(25:6-12)
Read 25: 6-12
This is almost like a repeat of Chapter 24. The same court case, the same accusations, the same defence, the same non-verdict.
Vs 8 summarizes the charges well. I’ve done nothing against the Law of the Jews, neither against the Temple, neither do I pose a threat to Rome. I’m innocent of all moral, religious and civil wrong doing.
Vs 9 But here in vs 9 we get this phrase again, “Festus desiring to do the Jews a favour” The same thing was said about Felix in 24:27. Here we have Prov 29:25 illustrated, “the fear of man brings a snare.”
And at once we see how fickle and tentative Rome’s protection really is. Having heard the facts, having been confronted by Paul’s innocence and the lack of evidence for any of the accusations – yet again justice doesn’t prevail because of the fear of man, because of political expediency and personal agendas. Paul knows that if he is handed over to this counsel and tried in Jerusalem, he will never get a fair trial. In all likelihood he won’t even make it to trial. How quickly Festus is willing to dispense with jurisprudence for personal gain.
Application: When our morality is based on pragmatics, on what works, on what will serve my own personal interests – then we have no solid anchor to navigate right and wrong and quickly, very quickly, what we thought and said was wrong becomes right.
The only recourse Paul has at this point is to appeal to Caesar. Not much is known about this right from ancient sources but it seems that when there was no clear legal precedent, when the verdict of a judge was not based on clear-cut infringement of Roman law, then the convicted could appeal the judgement and in this case be heard before the highest court of appeal.
This has temporarily got him off the hook, but Luke’s readers would have been aware of something that we often forget. This Caesar to whom Paul is appealing for protection from an unjust Roman ruling – is none other than Nero.
You have to see the bitter irony in all this. Nero was one of the most cruel and unjust Roman emperors of history. This is like running to a Lion for protection from a cat…. Foxe’s book of martyrs describes some of Nero’s persecutions:
Nero even refined upon cruelty, and contrived all manner of punishments for the Christians that the most infernal imagination could design. In particular, he had some sewed up in skins of wild beasts, and then worried by dogs until they expired; and others dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate them. This persecution was general throughout the whole Roman Empire; but it rather increased than diminished the spirit of Christianity. In the course of it, St. Paul and St. Peter were martyred.
So Paul is appealing here, for his own protection, to the man who would ultimately be responsible for his martyrdom. Acts was likely written around AD62 by AD 64 Nero has burned Rome, blamed the Christians for it and launched an official attack on Christianity which saw the martyrdom of Peter and Paul.
Talk about not being able to trust in man for our protection and preservation…. And yet at this point in the book of Acts, in terms of the narrative, Nero’s office serves God’s purposes and provides for Paul’s protection from being handed over to the Jews and executed. Again, God is able to use even the greatest evil for good according to His plan.
UnHOLY Partnership - HEROD (25:13-27)
What happens in the next part of the narrative is that Festus, this Roman governor, gets Herod, the official King of the Jews to consider Paul’s case. This unprecedented partnership should sound familiar. The only other time we see it is in the trial of Jesus where Pilate the Roman governor and Herod the Jewish ruler become friends. Ironically on that occasion too, they find Jesus not guilty but are happy to hand him over for execution anyway.
13: This is Herod Agrippa II the son of Herod Agrippa I who was the Herod who had James killed and was then killed by God back in Acts 12. His great grandfather was Herod the Great who had the babies killed at Jesus’ birth and between them was another Herod (Antipas) who had John the Baptist killed and who was present at Jesus’ trial. So this is a dynasty which has had a long illustrious history with Christ and Christians and none of it is good.
14: Herod has probably come down on official business to meet the new governor of the region. He himself ruled a region more to the north in what is today Lebanon and a section of Galilee but the emperor had entrusted him with the care of the Temple and the responsibility to appoint the High Priest. So he had charge over what could be called the core of Judaism and that is why many regarded him as the king of the Jews and why he had to be well acquainted with Jewish law and ceremony.
15-18 Agrippa is not there for long before Paul’s case is raised. Paul was a burning coal that nobody wanted to handle. Festus recounts the events for Agrippa and for the most part is accurate, but again, he paints himself in the best possible light.
· 16 he paints himself as defending and upholding Roman law against Jewish pressure
· 17 I made no delay – emphasizing his efficiency and expediency
· 20 His suggestion that Paul go to Jerusalem is presented to be in the best interests of Paul, rather than acquiescing to Jewish pressure
· 25 Paul’s appeal to Caesar has prevented him from rendering a verdict of not guilty and freeing him, while in reality he was sitting on the fence and about to give in to Jewish pressure to have him tried in Jerusalem.
It’s amazing how prone we are to paint ourselves in the best possible light, to re-interpret our motives and to justify ourselves and our decisions. We are always the heroes of our own stories…. It’s so subtle because most of what he has said is true, except at those points where he acted foolishly and selfishly. On that part of the picture he does some creative photoshopping to remove the blemishes and enhance the good features.
It’s no wonder than that the gospel has no meaning or significance to him. Jesus himself said “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” Those who are right in their own eyes have no need of a saviour…
Again in vs 19 we see what the main point of contention is – Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. That hadn’t even come up in the summary of the trial that Luke provides in the previous paragraph, but it had evidently been a key aspect of the discussion that Festus had heard. But you can hear in the way he phrases it, that it’s all a mystery to him and sounds like a lot of empty babble about irrelevant religious matters. In chapter 26 he is going to hear Paul’s testimony again and be confronted with the gospel again and when Paul gets to the part about the resurrection in 26:24 Festus can’t contain himself, “He literally shouts out, Paul you’re out of your mind.” You’ve gone mad, all this talk about a resurrected saviour is for those who belong in a mental asylum. Paul is willing to give his life for this truth that Festus thinks is mumbo jumbo. Irrelevant at best, but more likely complete garbage.
So the text moves on to the next day when the trial begins…Read 25:23-27
Here we see another sin which keeps people from the gospel. We’ve seen bitterness and hatred, fear of man, self-righteousness and here we see pride.
23: Luke highlights the pomp and ceremony that accompanies Agrippa. This is all a show. This trial is not even necessary, much of it is just about the show of power and the appearance of wisdom. So much of what people do is for appearances and so little is a genuine searching for the truth in humility.
And then of course there is the hypocrisy that goes along with keeping these sins hidden in the heart. 25 He says he found Paul innocent, but now he is sending him to Rome as requested and doesn’t know what to write. So Herod is supposedly here to help him clarify the charges. But in reality the charges were very clear as we have already seen, the problem was the lack of evidence. 27 he says it is so unreasonable to send a prisoner to Rome without clear charges, but what is even more unreasonable is to send him to Rome without evidence or witnesses to back up the charges that have been made. So this whole trial is taking place under false pretexts.
There is nothing reasonable or just about what is taking place. There is no searching for the truth or carefully weighing of evidence because the hearts of the people concerned are hardened, their minds dulled, their judgment is biased, their thinking is clouded by sin. Bitterness, hatred, fear of man, self-righteousness and pride are some of the reasons we have seen for why men hear the gospel but do not hear it with the faith to embrace it.
But this text hasn’t been inspired primarily to teach us why men reject the gospel, but to remind Christians that we need to keep preaching it. To encourage us to keep doing what Paul keeps doing here, to proclaim this simple message, “Jesus died, Jesus rose, repent for the forgiveness of your sins.”
To appreciate what this text is here for, we need to again step back and consider the flow of the narrative.
So if I’ve lulled you to sleep, wake up for a minute, this part is worth understanding, especially for us in our current context.
Jesus, the ruler of the universe, has told us what the world will be like in the last days. The world is going to continue in turmoil.
· There will be political turmoil. Nations rising against nations, wars and political coups.
· There will be geological turmoil – earthquakes and Tsunamis
· There will be economic turmoil – famines
· There will be biological turmoil – pestilence and disease and cancer
· There will be spiritual turmoil – terrors and great signs from heaven
· There will be religious turmoil – They will persecute you.
So there is all this chaos that will continue all around and it’s a chaos that is going to impact believers deeply and personally. We can’t think there is going to be famine and pestilence and wars and believers won’t suffer hardship. In addition to this general turmoil there is the specific, targeting of believers in order to try get us to renounce our faith and silence our witness.
Christians will even be brought before kings and governors and tried as criminals – why? Why would Christ leave us in such a broken world, to suffer such hardships and why would Christ allow us to be persecuted and falsely accused and to suffer at the hands of injustice?
Vs 13 this will be your opportunity to bear witness.
God is working in the midst of all this turmoil to put his people in the right place at the right time to bear witness to Christ.
Vs 15 you will have Christ’s supernatural power to speak with boldness and clarity in the midst of this chaos and confusion. Vs 18 you will be supernaturally sustained and protected. But 19, you job is to bear witness until I take you home.
So the book of Acts is the second volume Luke wrote to show us the outworking of this prophesy. The key verse is Acts 1:8, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
Acts is all about this ever expanding gospel witness which is supernaturally sustained amidst political, geological, biological, spiritual and religious turmoil.
· Acts 3 Peter bears witness, Acts 4 he’s thrown into jail
· Acts 6 Stephen bears witness, Acts 7 he’s martyred.
· Acts 8 the church is persecuted and scattered out of Jerusalem but as they go, they do the one thing God has called them to do, which is “bear witness” and the gospel comes to Samaria
· Acts 10-11 the first Gentiles hear the gospel, Acts 12 James is killed and Peter is imprisoned
I hope you can see the pattern – the church, despite itself, is sustained by Christ in the midst of continuous turmoil to bear witness to Him.
· Just before the gospel outreach to the Gentiles begins in Acts 13, we have this showdown between Herod and Peter in Acts 12
· Acts 12:1-5
· King Herod, not the same Herod who tried and killed Jesus, but from the same dynasty, spearheads the next wave of persecution against the church in order to gain political favour with the Jews.
· Peter is supernaturally rescued, but in 12:23-24 God puts Herod to death and the Word of the Lord continues to spread and bear fruit.
Can you see the pattern, the trajectory, the path that Luke has laid out for us? God will supernaturally sustain his witnesses in the midst of growing turmoil according to Christ’s plan and promise.
· It comes back to this theme that he has been developing right through the book of Luke into Acts. As God sustained Jesus to fulfil His ministry, so Christ sustained Peter and Paul and He will sustain you amidst violent persecutions and political, social, economic, biological and religious turmoil so that you can bear witness to Him….
· The church of the first century was entering into hostile territory and the focus of persecution would shift from the Jews to the Romans and from Romans to Roman Emperors and they would do everything in their power to stomp out the church. So the church needed this revelation from God to know that He would sustain them so that they could bear witness.
So as we come to Acts 25 we must remember where the narrative has come from and where it is going. It has come from relatively sporadic persecution in individual towns in and its heading toward national, sustained and state supported persecution at the highest level. With each trial Christianity’s public profile grows and its opposition grows.
And as the persecution rises to the highest levels of society, what else happens? So does the church’s gospel witness. Christ moves Paul from bearing witness in small local synagogues through to bearing witness before the highest Jewish counsel, through to bearing witness before Roman Governors and Jewish kings and ultimately the most powerful man of his day and at every point – what do we find Paul doing faithfully – doing what he was called to do, to bear witness.
How does the book of Acts end? Paul is still in prison, but the gospel is not….
Why is this passage here? To tell us that trials will come our way, turmoil will characterize life in this fallen world, men will harden their hearts and close their ears to the gospel and treat us unjustly. But we are to continue to entrust ourselves to God and preach the gospel. God will supernaturally sustain us in the midst of geographic and economic and political and social and religious and biological turmoil – so that we can bear witness to Christ. And as long as we do that, nothing and nobody can stand in our way.