Christianity on trial
CHRISTIANITY ON TRIAL (ACTS 24)
As Paul goes on trial before Felix, its is not only Paul, but Judaism, Rome and Christianity that are on trial.
Context (Acts 23:23-35)
Prosecution (Acts 24:1-9)
Defence (Acts 24:10-21)
Verdict (Acts 24:22-23)
Result (Acts 24:24-27)
This morning we continue our study through the book of Acts. We will be looking mostly at Acts 24. The narrative portion in Acts 24 is all about Paul before the Roman governor Felix. Most of the chapter revolves around a court case, but it’s not just Paul who is on trial – its Christianity on trial. As the facts are brought to light in this trial, we see what Christianity and the church is really about and what it’s not about. In the events leading up to this trial, we have seen that Rome and Judaism and the church are about to collide and in many ways this trial tells us what the outcome will be of this collision.
So let’s go back to Acts 23 to get the context of the trial.
The Context (23:23-35)
· Paul had come down to Jerusalem with benevolent help from the Gentile churches, but some Jews from Asia had it in for Paul and followed him down to Jerusalem.
· While he was still trying to appease them by taking part in a Jewish Nazarite celebration, he was seized and mobbed.
· The Claudius Lysias, the Roman procurator had basically intervened and rescued him from the crowd and then tried to get to the bottom of what the accusations against Paul had been.
· After he had little success, he had Paul brought before the Jewish counsel called the Sanhedrin, but that too had basically ended in mob violence.
· The Jews hedged a plot to have Paul assassinated, but the proconsul found out and has Paul escorted to Caesarea to appear before the Roman governor Felix and he sends an official document along explaining the situation.
That is the situation that is summarized for Felix in vs 23-30. Of course Lysius leaves out the part about chaining Paul and nearly having him flogged even though he was a Roman citizen, but for the most part he provides an accurate summary of the situation. The main thing we get out of this section is that Paul is innocent.
1) Paul is innocent (29)
Vs 29 this is the second time Paul is being formally acquitted of the charges that have been brought against him. 23:9 the Jewish counsel had concluded, “We find nothing wrong with this man” and now this Roman official can affirm “I find nothing in what this man has done that deserves death or imprisonment.” As the narrative continues Paul will be tried before a higher and higher counsel and at each point will be declared innocent and yet his confinement continues, not because it was right or fair, but because it was expedient to keep him confined. It served people’s personal and political agendas.
As we continue with the narrative we find out that although Paul is innocent, he is being formally charged with a crime whose penalty is imprisonment or execution.
Read 23: 31-35
Paul is Being Formally Charged (31-35)
34: Felix is determining what province Paul is from so that he knows whether he has jurisdiction to try this case.
35: He is going to have a formal hearing, a formal trial, so Felix must allow the prosecution to assemble their case and their witnesses and get down to Caesarea. In 24:1 the chief priest with some elders and a lawyer come down to present their case.
Paul is a volatile figure and Jerusalem is a volatile place and the stakes are high. This is a high profile case and the stakes are high for everyone concerned
· For the church – the Apostle to the Gentiles and the mission to the Gentiles lies in the balance. What will become of the church and its gospel mission?
· For Israel – the future of the nation and their official response to, and relationship to this emerging sect is here being solidified. These events are determining whether Christianity is the fulfilment of Judaism or the death of it. What is Israel’s official response to Christianity going to be?
· For Rome – what is the future of Christianity in the Roman empire, what freedoms will be accorded Christians to worship and preach the gospel? What is the government’s official response to Christianity going to be?
· For the individuals concerned. Felix’s political career could be advanced or ended depending on how he handles this situation. In fact, we know from the end of chpt 24 that Felix is replaced by Festus. What we the text doesn’t tell us, but we know from church history is that Felix lost his position because he handled an uprising between Jews and Gentiles in his region very badly and word got to Rome and he was immediately axed and replaced. So these governors knew how important it was to handle politically volatile situations like this.
· But even more important than Felix’s political carrier is His spiritual condition. Through this trial he will get first hand exposure to the gospel and his response will determine his eternal destiny.
This was a high profile trial where the stakes were high for everyone concerned. We have here the leaders of Judaism, the leaders of Rome and the leader of Christianity each coming into the court room and the facts are put on the table and in many ways these leaders are spokesman for the people that stand behind them. Their position represents the position of Judaism and Christianity and Rome respectively. What will the outcome be when these 3 major powers clash?
Fortunately God inspired Luke to give us a blow by blow account of the trial, so let’s enter the courtroom as the prosecution presents their case…
The PROSECUTION (24:1-9)
So do you get the picture here in vs 1-2. The High Priest along with leading men from the counsel have come down to present their case and they are all lawyered up. Tertullus is probably the best lawyer money could buy and against all of this stands Paul, on his own. He’s going to defend his own case. The odds are already stacked against him from a human standpoint, and the other side don’t play fair…
Court proceeding followed a strict protocol and began with introductory statements. These statements normally tried to gain the favour and approval of the judge and as part of that promised to get to the point and not waste their time, which is exactly what Tertullus does.
But his opening statement is just unbridled flattery. It’s so over the top that there’s hardly a remnant of truth to it:
· Through you we enjoy much peace. Felix’s rule was in fact marked by more unrest than any governor before or after him.
· Reforms are being made for the good of this nation. Felix had tried to make a number of reforms, but most of them were botched and accomplished nothing good.
· He says, “Everywhere and in every way we accept this with gratitude.” Which is a total lie because the Jews hated Felix and were constantly criticizing and opposing him and he was not popular among the Gentile either.
· He didn’t even look for a kernel of truth to build his flattery on but openly said what everyone knew to be the opposite of the truth.
· Of course Luke’s readers would have been aware of this and so they could already tell, just by the opening statement where this trial was heading. The prosecution would stop at nothing to win this case and they certainly wouldn’t let the truth stand in their way.
The formal charges (5-9)
In vs 5-9 they present the formal carges.
5: We have found this man to be a plague among the Jews and throughout the world. In other words he is a national and international pandemic. So Paul beat the Coronavirus to it!
But if we put it that way, we can appreciate better that if this accusation was accepted, how united and determined the whole world would be in trying to stamp this plague out. Look at the lengths our world is going to because it has concluded that a virus poses a personal and national threat. We just can’t leave this disease to spread its sickness freely among our people.
As I mentioned, these leaders represent the official Jewish position on the gospel and the church. Judaism had hardened itself against Christ and crucified him. Now we see that, even after the resurrection, despite all the evidence that God was truly behind this, they continue to harden their hearts and in many ways this does indeed mark the death of Judaism – because they refused the offer of life held out to them in the gospel.
Ironically, over a quarter of countries in the world today would agree with this evaluation of Christianity. They see Christianity as a plague and are doing everything in their power to get rid of it and keep it out of their countries. They don’t allow foreigners in as missionaries and they don’t allow nationals to evangelize. A quarter of the modern world’s countries are literally petrified of Christians, not because we really are trouble makers or political activists, but like Paul, simply because we carry the most powerful message in the world. A message which turns the world upside down wherever it goes.
They make 4 clear and serious accusations against Paul:
1. He stirs up riots. Basically the charge of insurrection which was punishable by death
2. That he is a leader of a sect which basically comes down to the accusation that he was leading a new and unauthorized religious movement which was dangerous and seditious.
3. He profaned the Temple. The other 2 charges were designed to finger Paul as a political threat. This third was is more of a religious nature, but the Romans had given the Jews great freedom in punishing offenses against the Temple and they took any actions against the Temple seriously because if they didn’t, it would spark riots among the Jews.
The charges are very similar to those levelled against Jesus and resulted in his execution and they not only threaten to bring Paul into disrepute and end his life, but threaten to bring the church into disrepute and threaten its gospel witness. So Paul is defending himself, the church and the gospel message at this point. So let’s see how he makes his defence.
The Defence (24:10-21)
Read vs 24:10-21
Paul starts with the same formal introduction, but he has none of the empty flattery that Tertullus used.
· 11: To the charge of stirring up a riot. He points out that he has only been in Jerusalem for 12 days, hardly enough time to stir up an insurrection.
· 12 He was not busy with any kind of trouble making, but as he says in vs 17 he was busy with worship and bringing relief to the poor as one ought to be.
· 13 there are no witnesses which can bear their testimony out. In fact Lysias said in 23:27 that it was the Jews who has seized him and stirred up the crowds against him. So Festus is already sitting with written eye-witness testimony from a reliable, objective source, which contradicts these accusations and the prosecution have in fact no eye-witnesses to back their statements up.
· To the charge of being part of the sect. He pleads guilty as charged in vs 14. But he denies the label sect. Paul doesn’t see Christianity as a branch or offshoot or sect of Judaism, but as the foundation and fulfilment of it.
· 15-16 he can testify that he worships the same God, believes in the same scriptures and holds to the same hope of the resurrection. The resurrection and reign of the messiah is not a new idea but an old one, a thoroughly Jewish one which has been realized in Jesus Christ.
· Again, this is not just about Paul. Luke is clarifying Christianity’s relationship to Judaism for generations to come. Christianity is not a branch or sect, or deviation, or off-shoot, or side-stream from Judaism. It’s more like the sea into which true Judaism flows, the roof of its building, the destination to which Judaism has been journeying.
· Christianity can rightly be described as the “way” in that we follow after the one who called himself “The way, the truth and the life.” The only way by which someone may rightly come to God.
· As to the charge of profaning the Temple in vs 18 he can point out that he was purified and busy worshipping when they seized him without cause.
There is simply no basis for these accusations and no evidence. Paul deals the death blow to the case against him by pointing out that his accusers are not even present. This was against Roman legal proceedings. You couldn’t try a man without his accusers and witnesses being physically present. This wasn’t even a legitimate trial.
And then in vs 21 he comes back to the central point which is the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus and those who have faith in Him. Without this central reality, there is no gospel as he could explain in 1 Cor 15 and we are still dead in our sins and we have no hope of being raised in Him. But if Christ is in fact raised – then he is no mere man, not merely a good teacher, or a great example. Then he is the God-man as He claimed to be.
Christianity is all about Jesus Christ, his death and his resurrection. Our whole case rises or falls on this single historical reality. If Jesus is raised from the death – then he is the way, the only way, the only truth and the only life. Then it is an undeniable reality that nobody will gain access to God but through Him.
If the resurrection is a falsehood then Christianity is a lie and we are still dead in our sins. But if the resurrection of Christ is true – then every other world religion and philosophy and way to God is a dead end because God himself as in fact provided only one way by which we can and must be saved.
Luke is summarizing the message of Acts here as he puts Christianity on trial,
Acts 4:11-12 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
The Verdict (24:22-23)
That should have settled matters. This was really an open and closed case. Despite all the lawyers and flattery and manipulation, the truth of the matter is plain for everyone to see. But truth and justice don’t always prevail in a court of law or the court of public opinion.
Felix puts off making a decision. He is familiar with this sect called “the way” and that puts him in a difficult position.
· On the one hand, there is nothing to these charges and Paul is a Roman citizen. If he finds him guilty without cause or evidence he could land himself in trouble with Rome. This is a high profile case. As Acts goes on, this case will go all the way up to Caesar, the highest court of appeal.
· On the other hand, the Jews will not accept a verdict of “not guilty.” So letting Paul go might get him in trouble with the Jews which would in turn get him in trouble with Rome.
· So when in doubt, do nothing… He puts Paul in a form of protective custody under the pretence of waiting for Lysias, but Lysias has already sent his verdict in writing, he’s not planning on coming, neither does he ever come.
In many ways this verdict represents Rome’s position on Christianity at this point. They neither wanted to support it, not try to end it. They were sort of just ignoring it, hoping it will go away.
You can’t sit on the fence when it comes to the gospel. The gospel is not merely information, it’s an invitation, it calls for a response, it demands a verdict. When we present the gospel to someone we are not done until we stop speaking and quieten down the room and look the person in the eye and say – what is your verdict? What are you going to do with Jesus Christ? He is either the way or He is not, you either follow him or you don’t.
So what happened as a result?
The Result (24:24-27)
In this closing paragraph we see how Christianity really works, what Christianity is really about.
Paul is unjustly tried and then he is unjustly kept in custody for 2 years and even then he is not released because he wouldn’t pay a bribe and it wasn’t politically convenient to release him. A lot of injustice has been committed against Paul and he has suffered much at the hand of it.
Yet when Felix calls for him – Paul is still focussed on his calling – to preach the gospel and he is still desiring this ruler to be saved.
· Vs 24 what did Paul speak about – faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus died, Jesus rose, repent for the forgiveness of your sins.
· Druscilla, his wife was a Jew. Actually he had three wives, all of whom were princesses whom he had married for political advancement. Druscilla had divorced her husband and married Felix for the same reasons. This couple were known for their immorality, for their harsh and impetuous decisions and their greed for material gain and advancement. Paul’s trial had been the perfect example of the kind of ruler he was.
· 25 : Paul holds no punches when he appears before this man. His preaching is aimed at exactly the sin that hinders this couple from accepting Jesus as God’s way. And he warns them of the outcome of their way of life in no uncertain terms. So much so that they silence him and remove him.
· Paul’s not trying to win political points, or gain political favours or secure his freedom; and he is certainly not open to bribery or corruption. He has one Lord, one master he answers to, one message which is the same for all – no matter how high and powerful or lowly and poor.
· 26 Felix sends often for Paul, but his motives are mixed. There is some curiosity, some interest, but there is also some greed, some fleshly desires which are getting in the way. Paul probably picked up on some of these mixed motives with time – but his job wasn’t to judge the motives and intentions of the heart – his job was to preach and leave judgment to God.
See the gospel message cannot be sold, it cannot be watered down to suite the fancies of people or candy coated. We can’t avoid talking about the difficult things and not call sin sin and not call people to repentance and faith in Christ as the only way.
This is Christianity at its highest and purest – whatever you do to me I’ll keep on preaching the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
So this court case has clarified for us what Christianity is all about, its message and its methods.
· In many ways it has clarified the official position of Judaism. They rejected it and tried to eradicate it. But there is no vaccine for this gospel pandemic – it is destined to spread by the power and plan of God to every person in every place.
· What Rome did with Paul here is exactly what they tried to do with the gospel – contain it… But of course Rom 1:16 tells us, the gospel is the dynamite of God – there is no human power or structure that can contain it. Certainly, keeping Paul in prison was not going to imprison the gospel.
· It has clarified what Christianity is all about. We are not political activists or social reformers – we are gospel preachers. We are the bearers of a simple, but inescapable message. Jesus is the way, the only way. And we follow Him in that way whatever the cost.
And this court case has brought us down to the focal point. What its really all about…..
To appreciate the point, we need to step back and put this narrative into the flow of the story. Since Acts 13 there has been this frenzy of gospel activity out from Antioch to the ends of the earth as we’ve trace Paul in 3 expansive missionary journeys. Then in Acts 18,19,20 we have seen Paul making a beeline for Jerusalem, not allowing himself the luxury of making any detours. And we’ve had prophesies and promsies from Christ Himself saying that this straight line sprint has Rome as the finish line. And in the middle of this sprint, we have Christ pushing the pause button as it were and making Paul sit in prison for over 2 years. And Christ was undoubtedely accomplishing many things on many fronts at this point, but as far as the narrative is concerned Paul’s mission comes down to the evangelization of one man and his wife.
· A man who was greedy, immoral and self-centered.
· A man who had unjustly treated Paul and humanly speaking had arrested the progress of the church’s gospel mission.
· A man who seemed to love his sin more than the truth
· A man which, as the text itself highlights, had mixed motives for even listening to the gospel.
· A man who was about to lose his political power, get replaced and be lost from the pages of history.
As far as this inspired account of Paul’s life goes – Jesus has him stop everything else and for 2 years his mission is about evangelizing this one wicked man. Because that is what Christianity is all about….the conversion of individuals to Christ, the saving of unworthy sinners. It about calling people like Felix who, despite the political power and wealth they might have or not have, are to Christ simply people who are lost in their own sin and selfishness and need to be told over and over and over again – Jesus died Jesus rose, repent for the forgiveness of your sins.
Christianity is not about political or social reform, its not about mass conversions or power struggles...
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”(Lk19:10)
Christianity is a revolutionary message and it has been turning the world upside down ever since the first century – but it operates one soul at a time, one heart, one person at a time.
Will you be Christ’s messenger to the people He providentially brings into your life – however sinful and selfish they might be. However much pain and inconvenience they may cause you? Will you be Christ to them and preach Christ to them?