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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Acts 25


Paul and Porcius Festus: He Appeals To Caesar

Felix was replaced by Porcius Festus, a well-intentioned man, but one who was unable to repair the damage done by Felix in Judaea. He was to be the last procurator to have any good intentions towards Palestine. He was in power for only two years before he then died, and during that time the trouble with the sicarii (the assassins) continued. And another Messianic aspirant arose who led many people into the wilderness promising redemption and deliverance from all evils, who had to be crushed by force. But at least Festus acted for what he thought was the best for all. His good intentions were, however, to Paul’s detriment, for while at first he would not consider Paul being tried in Jerusalem, eventually he was persuaded that it might be a good idea, which although he did not realise it, would have been as good as sentencing him to death. It was this that resulted in Paul’s appeal to Caesar.

Verses 1-3

‘Festus therefore, having come into the province, after three days went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews informed him against Paul, and they besought him, asking a favour against him, that he would send for him to Jerusalem, laying a plot to kill him on the way.’

Once Festus arrived in the province he almost immediately ‘went up’ to Jerusalem from Caesarea in order to bring matters under control there, for it was in Jerusalem that the main political body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin, operated. This resulted in the chief priests and other leaders of the Jews speaking to him of Paul, to Paul’s detriment, and requesting that Paul be sent for and brought to Jerusalem for trial. Time may have passed but they had not forgotten him. You did not call Ananias a ‘whited wall’ in public and get away with it, and while he had possibly by this time been replaced by Ishmael as High Priest, the insult to the High Priesthood still stung. (The expression ‘chief priests’ probably indicates that Ananias was still involved even though he had been deposed as High Priest, by Agrippa II).

This instant approach about Paul might serve to confirm that throughout his imprisonment his influence had continued to be felt throughout Judaea, and that he had thus been brought continually to their minds. Otherwise they would surely not have seen him as of such prime importance that it was one of the first things that they wanted dealt with.

But nor could they forgive the fact that he was a Christian Jew, who was prominent in winning people to the new faith, and for going to the Gentiles. Their continuing purpose was that Paul might be killed at some time while on the way to Jerusalem, for they recognised that really they could produce no case against him. They had already tried and failed. So things had not changed. The cessation of activity had not been due to their dropping their case, but due to their recognition that while Felix was in power they would get nowhere. They now hoped under the new procurator to resolve the matter by getting rid of Paul once and for all.

Verses 1-5

The Jews Plan To Ambush Paul, An Attempt Which Is Thwarted By Festus’ Insistence On Trying Him In Caesarea (25:1-5).

Festus’ first aim on arrival in office was to put things to rights. The result was that almost as soon as he had arrived in Caesarea he went to Jerusalem to meet the men who under his authority had responsibility in Judaea, and whose religious authority stretched even further. It was a wise thing to do, although not so promising for Paul.

Verse 4

‘Howbeit Festus answered, that Paul was kept in charge at Caesarea, and that he himself was about to depart there shortly.’

We do not know whether Festus was a little suspicious about this request or not. He did, however, decline it. He pointed out that Paul was being held in Caesarea, and that he himself would be going there shortly. Even if he did not know about it, God did. Luke wants us to realise that God was still in control. Festus’ reason might well have been that as a new arrival in the province he did not want to be away from Caesarea longer than was necessary in these first few days of his procuratorship. While the cat was away the mice could play. Or it may simply be that he resented being pushed around and wanted to establish his authority.

Verse 5

‘Let those therefore, says he, who are of power among you go down with me, and if there is anything amiss in the man, let them accuse him.’

He pointed out that if they had any charge that they wished to bring against Paul then those in authority could go with him to Caesarea, and they could pursue their case there. If they considered that there was anything amiss with him, that was the place to accuse him of it. Possibly the chief captain, or some other officer, had hinted that all was not quite as it seemed.

Verse 6

‘And when he had tarried among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea, and on the next day he sat on the judgment-seat, and commanded Paul to be brought.’

The matter having now been drawn to his attention Festus, having remained a few more days in Jerusalem, ‘went down’ to Caesarea, and the next day took his place on the seat of judgment and commanded that Paul be brought before him.

Verses 6-12

Paul Appears Before Festus And Is Compelled To Appeal to Caesar. To Rome He Will Go (25:6-12).

Verse 7

‘And when he was come, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood round about him, bringing against him many and grievous charges which they could not prove,’

Present also in the court were the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem for the purpose, who stood around him bringing against Paul ‘many and grievous charges which they could not prove.’ It was, however, a maxim of Roman justice, as of Jewish justice, that a man could not be convicted on accusation alone. There must be evidence and a case must be proved. And Festus was a just man.

We note that this is the third opportunity that Paul has had to speak and witness before prominent Jews. We may assume that not all were proof against his testimony. Even among these men some were being won for Christ.

Verse 8

‘While Paul said in his defence, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar, have I sinned at all.” ’

Paul was therefore given the opportunity to defend himself, and he declared that he was guilty of none of the charges, neither in respect of the Law of the Jews, nor in respect of the Temple, nor with regard to Caesar. Among other things he had clearly been charged with being a man who disregarded local law, who had violated the Temple, and who had been involved in activities against Caesar, none of which, as we know, were true.

Verse 9

‘But Festus, desiring to gain favour with the Jews, answered Paul and said, “Will you go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me?” ’

Festus, however, wished to conciliate the Jews and be seen by the local authorities in a good light, the better to enable him successfully to carry out his duties. Thus, no doubt under continued pressure from them (for after all who did Paul represent?), he suggested that he might consider ‘going up’ to Jerusalem to be tried there before him. He himself would be there to ensure that the trial was fair. This rather favourable treatment of being consulted was no doubt because he was a Roman citizen. Of course Festus was inevitably unaware of why this would cause real problems. He may well have summed up the Jewish leadership, but he probably never considered that they themselves would be involved in an assassination attempt. And he had probably not yet gathered how unscrupulous they were. A fair-minded man always has difficulty in understanding scoundrels.

Verses 10-11

‘But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s judgment-seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you also very well know. If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die, but if none of those things are true of which these accuse me, no man can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” ’

Paul on the other hand was very well aware of what might happen to him once he was in the hands of his one time colleagues. He was under no illusions. He could remember back to what he had done and been himself. Nor did he see a Jerusalem court, even if he got that far, as being anything but set up to prevent justice as far as he was concerned. Every trick, every effort, would be put into proving what was undoubtedly untrue. Only Festus would stand between him and a whole nation which would set out to prove him guilty by any means whatsoever, both fair and foul. And he was not confident that Festus would be able to take the pressure. He had Pilate before him as an example of Roman justice in Jerusalem under pressure.

Indeed, having presented his case to Festus, which should have resulted in his release, he was aware that Festus also was prevaricating. He was clearly too eager to please those over whom he had responsibility, and whose cooperation he would require, and he was putting that before straightforward justice. It was not surprising that he should be like this. He had a province to run which was a political nightmare. But it was not hopeful for Paul or helpful to his confidence.

He pointed out to Festus that it must already be apparent to him that the Jews had nothing tangible against him. They had failed to produce any witnesses or any evidence. There was clearly no case to answer ‘as you also very well know’. His last comment demonstrated what he really thought about the situation. He did not want to be judged on the basis of expediency. He did not want to be ‘given up to them’, which was what Festus was doing. What he wanted was justice. And it seemed that Festus did not want to give him justice.

He had done nothing wrong against the Jews, as the lack of any tangible evidence proved. He had already been put on trial twice before the Jews with nothing having been decided against him. So why then should he once more be judged by a Jewish court? If he had done wrong he was quite willing to be punished for it, but what he wanted was a fair and unbiased trial. Why then could he not be judged where he should be judged, here in Caesarea before a properly set up Roman court? It was, however, apparent that this was not to be allowed to him. He therefore had no alternative but to appeal to Caesar, where he expected to be given the fair treatment that was being refused to him here. This was the implication of his words. From Luke’s point of view they had the advantage that they clearly and unequivocally emphasised Paul’s confidence in true Roman justice and in the emperor. They made clear that Christians were not against the authority of Rome.

Verse 12

‘Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you shall go.” ’

Festus was probably relieved to be saved from a difficult dilemma. On the one had he wanted to be fair. On the other he did not want to offend the Jewish authorities, especially at the beginning of his term in office. But he was also probably a little annoyed. It would be quite clear to him that Paul was doubtful whether he would get justice here. But an appeal to Caesar by a Roman citizen was not something he could refuse. He then covered himself by calling his advisers together and seeking their opinion. A man could not be sent to Caesar unless the crime was serious enough. But there was only one conclusion that they could come to. The Jews were constantly seeking the death penalty, and that hinted at a capital crime. Thus whatever they thought of the idea they could not dismiss an appeal to Caesar.

Nevertheless it must be noted that Festus did have another alternative. He could have ordered Paul’s release. He was not quite as fairminded as he probably liked to think he was. He was too sensitive about offending the Jewish authorities on whom might depend the success of his procuratorship. Had he known that he was going to die within two years he might have made a different decision. We should always ask ourselves, what will my decision look like if I die tomorrow?

Then Festus called Paul in and gave him the decision that had been reached. “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you shall go.” Luke wants us to know that God’s will was going forward (Acts 23:11).

Verse 13

‘Now when certain days were passed, Agrippa the King and Bernice arrived at Caesarea, and saluted Festus.’

An event then occurred that helped to resolve his dilemma, the arrival in state of King Agrippa II with his sister Bernice (Berenice). Agrippa II, son of the Herod Agrippa mentioned in chapter 12, was by this time king over the territory previously ruled by the Tetrarch Philip (Batanaea, Trachonitis and Gaulanitis) together with the Tetrarchy of Lysanius (Abila), and territory in Lebanon which had been ruled by Varus. Further to this Nero had recently allotted to him Tiberius and Tarichea with their surrounding districts, and the city of Julius with fourteen neighbouring villages. In some ways more significantly from Luke’s point of view he was also given authority over the Jerusalem High Priesthood, he could appoint and remove them as he would, and charge over the Temple and its vestments. Thus as well as having a wide area of rule he bore responsibility both for the High Priesthood and the Temple. But he was a rather weak man. On Festus’ appointment he came to see him, bringing his sister Bernice, in order to congratulate him.

Bernice was Agrippa’s sister and very strong minded, but must have been very attractive to men, although not as beautiful as Drusilla her sister, Felix’ wife. She in fact had an incestuous relationship with Agrippa, who was a weak and indolent man, and later a firm relationship with Titus before he became emperor. She was clearly therefore sexually attractive, even to her own brother.

Agrippa was constantly faithful to Rome, but he also tried to keep in favour with the Jews. He insisted, for example, that the kings who wished to marry his sisters were circumcised. He did, however, offend the Jews by adding height to the palace of the Hasmoneans, in which he lived when in Jerusalem, so that he could see into the Temple area and watch the religious activities in the inner courts. There may have been some piety in this but the priests did not like it, and accordingly built a high wall to block his view. Agrippa appealed against this to Festus, but meanwhile the Jews had appealed to Rome, and they won their case. Agrippa was thwarted.

He did not hesitate to intervene in Temple affairs. He gave the Levites who sang the Psalms the right to wear the priestly linen garments, which again the priests did not like, and later at great expense was ready to strengthen the foundations of the Temple, a process only interrupted by its destruction. He also provided road-building work in Jerusalem once the building of the Temple had been completed in order to prevent unemployment. Thus in his own way he was a thoughtful king. He was also completely loyal to Rome. He was thus able at times to ensure that Jewish affairs, and the affairs of his kingdom, were properly looked after. He was a moderating influence at a time of high tension and sought vainly to prevent the final insurrection that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Verses 13-23

Festus Calls On Agrippa’s Assistance In Formulating a Case And Paul Gives His Testimony To Them Both (25:13-26:23).

Festus now condemns himself by admitting that he has no charge to bring against Paul. He is sending him to Caesar to be judged, but he does not know why. He has no case against Paul. This suits Luke’s apologetic purpose but it shows up Roman provincial justice (while exonerating the emperor).

Verse 14

‘And as they tarried there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the King.’

Festus saw Agrippa as a Godsend. Agrippa was seen by the Romans as an expert on Jewish affairs. Who better then to sort out these problems about the charges brought against Paul?

So while Agrippa and Bernice were staying with him ‘many days’ he took the opportunity of laying the case before the king. His words to Agrippa reveal his puzzlement and the dilemma he found himself in. He wanted to behave justly but he could not understand either party. He had been left by his predecessor with a prisoner that he was finding it difficult to make anything of. On the one hand all the Jews could accuse Paul of were religious matters. On the other Paul, for some reason, did not want to be judged in Jerusalem, and thus had appealed to Caesar. And as he did not really understand what the charges were against the man, he did not know what on earth he was going to give Caesar as the reason why he had sent him to him.

We must appreciate that he had not been in his position long enough to understand all the intricacies of current Jewish politics, nor to understand their depth of religious feeling and bigotry. He was a plain, relatively honest man out of his depth.

Verses 15-16

‘Saying, “There is a certain man left a prisoner by Felix, about whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, asking for sentence against him. To whom I answered, that it is not the custom of the Romans to give up any man, before the accused has the accusers face to face, and has had opportunity to make his defence concerning the matter laid against him.”

The facts were these. He had found this prisoner whom Felix had left in chains, but who was a Roman citizen. This had to mean that he had done something wrong. And when he had gone to Jerusalem this had been confirmed by the fact that the Jewish leaders had laid a complaint about this prisoner and had asked that he be condemned, and presumably executed. They had asked ‘for sentence against him’ on capital charges (violating the Temple and disloyalty to Caesar).

He had not, however, been prepared to submit on their word alone and had pointed out that Roman judges did not condemn men without evidence, and without giving the person a fair say. Every man had a right to face his accusers and establish his own defence. All this was altogether admirable.

Verse 17

“When therefore they were come together here, I made no delay, but on the next day sat on the judgment-seat, and commanded the man to be brought.”

So acting on his own words, once these leaders had come to Caesarea he had not delayed but had taken his official seat as Judge, and commanded that the man be brought before him.

Verses 18-19

“Concerning whom, when the accusers stood up, they brought no charge of such evil things as I supposed, but had certain questions against him of their own religion, and of one Jesus, who was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.”

And that was when his dilemma had begun, for instead of charging the man with recognisable crimes and wrongdoing of the kind that he had expected, they had instead charged him with what they saw as religious misdemeanours. It had all been about ‘not observing the Law of Moses’, and ‘violating the Temple’ (although no specific example had been proved by witnesses) and about a man called Jesus, whom the Jews were quite certain was dead, while Paul claimed that He was alive. It was all very strange.

‘And of one Jesus, who was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.’ It is probable that he had not realised the significance of this, that is, that it indicated that He was alive because He had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. (Paul’s testimony would make this clearer). But it went to the heart of the matter. For it was His resurrection and enthronement that declared Who He was and proved His ability to effectively work in the salvation of men and women. It proved His right to rule, and to call men now to come under the Kingly Rule of God, that is, to submit to His rule. And it proved that He had the power to give life, and to provide men with His Holy Spirit, and to forgive their sins.

It was this that Paul was willing to live and die for. It was this that the High Priest and his cronies were afraid of. For if it was true then they had brought about the crucifixion of the Son of God, of Israel’s Messiah, and had proved unfaithful to God, and were even now opposed to His will. If it was true then they had no right to be where they were, for it meant that they were in opposition to all that they were supposed to stand for..

Verses 20-21

“And I, being perplexed how to enquire concerning these things, asked whether he would go to Jerusalem and there be judged of these matters. But when Paul had appealed to be kept for the decision of the emperor, I commanded him to be kept till I should send him to Caesar.”

The result was that perplexed about how to deal with such matters he had asked Paul if he was willing to put himself in the hands of a Jewish court, with Festus himself presiding to ensure fairplay (Acts 25:9), so that these matters could be decided by Jewish experts. This had seemed to him the best solution. Who better to decide such matters? (He was as yet unaware of the intricacies of the Jewish mind, nor of the make up and different beliefs of that court, and the deep divisions within it. Nor of how skilled the chief priests were at obtaining their own way. Nor was he yet aware of the strong national feeling and religious bigotry that existed among the Jews. Nor had he recognised that it would almost have been a case of the accusers also being the judges).

But Paul had not been happy with such a suggestion and had appealed to Caesar to decide the matter, which was his right. Thus he had commanded that he be kept in custody until he was able to send him to Caesar. But now he had the dilemma of what charges he was to ask Caesar to judge him on.

Verse 22

‘And Agrippa said to Festus, “I also could wish to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” says he, ‘You will hear him.” ’

Agrippa, who probably discerned in all this a good deal more than Festus, knew the intricacies of the Jewish court and the perfidy of the chief priests, and knew also something about the Way (Christianity), and so he announced that he would like to hear Paul for himself.

Verse 23

‘So on the next day, when Agrippa was come, and Bernice, with great pomp, and they were entered into the place of hearing with the chief captains and principal men of the city, at the command of Festus Paul was brought in.’

Festus was no doubt pleased to have a ‘Jewish expert’ look at the case who was not prejudiced against the prisoner, and decided to do the whole thing on the proper scale so that the prisoner would be overawed and would thus be more submissive. At the same time it would show full courtesy to the king for his visit. So he called together the principal men of the city, (a mixture of Syrians and Jews, with the Syrians more prominent as we have seen) and the leading military men, including the five chiliarchs (chief captains), and Agrippa and Bernice, all in great state. The examination of Paul was going to be somewhat of a spectacle. Then before that important assembly, in ‘the place of hearing’ (be it noted ostensibly to hear questions of Jewish law), he had Paul brought in. Surely, he must have thought, this would make the man think.

It would seem clear, however, that his concern here was firstly in order to determine on what charges Paul could be sent to Caesar, and secondly in order to demonstrate his own fairness in dealing with the case so that when Paul went to Caesar he would not be able to say that he had not had a fair deal. It may well, of course, be that the case had become something of a cause celebre, especially as local Christians may well have been presenting their own view of things.

We may note that since his first arrest not one word has been said about what the church had done. It is not fair to assume that they had done nothing. It is one of Luke’s silences. While Luke does not mention it, the reason for this may firstly have been because he knows that God’s will is going forward, and secondly possibly because he had had to recognise that it had achieved nothing except possibly better treatment for Paul and a recognition that not all were against him.

So Paul, came in, the chains still on his hands and feet, and stood before that august assembly. The representative of the King stood there a captive in chains, those who were the slaves of sin and under Satan sat in their splendour and caroused. And yet there was only one man in control.

Verse 24

‘And Festus says, “King Agrippa, and all men who are here present with us, you behold this man, about whom all the multitude of the Jews made suit to me, both at Jerusalem and here, crying that he ought not to live any longer.” ’

Festus then presented Paul. He pointed out to Agrippa and all present that here was a man whom all the large numbers of Jews, both in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, had pleaded be put to death as someone who did not deserve to live any longer.

‘Crying that he ought not to live any longer.’ These may either have been professional crowds primed to do this, or crowds aroused by rabble-rousers whenever the case was put to Festus by the Jewish leaders.

Verse 25

“But I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death, and as he himself appealed to the emperor I determined to send him, of whom I have no certain thing to write to my lord. Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and specially before you, king Agrippa, that, after examination had, I may have somewhat to write.”

On the other hand he, Festus, had found that Paul had committed nothing worthy of death. However, the man, as a Roman citizen, had appealed to Caesar, and he had therefore determined to send him. The trouble was that he did not know what to charge him with. So this assembly had been gathered together, especially having the expert on the Jews, Agrippa II in mind, so as to determine what should be included in the charge put before Caesar.

‘My lord.’ This is a unique use in Acts of this term by itself as referring to the emperor. It may indicate Festus’ reaction to the constant use in his presence of ‘the Lord’ as indicating Jesus. As far as he was concerned his lord was the emperor.

Verse 27

“For it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not withal to signify the charges against him.”

Indeed Festus’ previous training had actually demonstrated to him that to send a prisoner to be judged against whom no charges have been made seemed a little unreasonable! (It is possible to think of another word for it).

We must not, however, criticise Festus too much. He had been sent as procurator to a country which was a hotbed of trouble, whose leaders were notorious for complaining to Caesar, whose complaints had contributed to the downfall of the previous procurator, and who were vociferously claiming that Paul was an evil troublemaker. And he was new to the job, and wanted to succeed and keep this hotbed under control. In the light of that we must recognise that he had shown the restraint of an honest, if somewhat wary, man, who found himself in an impasse. What he was looking for was backing and support so that he would be able later to excuse himself if necessary, and a reasonable charge to lay against Paul in sending him to Caesar. Feelings in Judaea were just too high for him to dare to release him.

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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 25". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.