A Study of Acts 25 and 26
Many years ago, Katrina and I were watching a James Bond movie, one that starred Pierce Brosnan as Bond. I don’t remember the movie or anything about it except one thing. Bond and his girlfriend were in a very bad situation in a marketplace in Thailand or somewhere, and they were completely surrounded. There was no way out. The girl looked at him and said, “James, we’re trapped!” He glanced at her and then back at the opposition and, with determination, he said something—one word. But I didn’t hear it. I said, “Katrina, what did he say?” She said, “He said ‘Never.’”
I don’t know what that little bit of dialogue has stayed with me, but I do think it represents a Christian truth. As children of God through Jesus Christ, even when we are surrounded on every side, we are never trapped. And that’s the lesson I want us to see today in Acts 25 and 26.
If you’ve been following our Bible studies in Acts, you know Paul was seized in Jerusalem in Acts 21 and had been moved to Caesarea for his own safety. He was housed in the palace of the governor, and he was confined there for two years while Felix and his young and beautiful wife, Drusilla, governed Palestine. Paul was a prisoner, but the charges against him were vague. What he did during this time we don’t know, but I suspect he used it to rest, pray, study, share the Gospel whenever he could, and encourage Luke in the writing of the Third Gospel, which I believe happened during this time.
Finally Governor Felix was recalled to Rome because of complaints about his leadership and brutality, and a new governor was appointed named Festus.
Felix had made a mess of things. Law and order had broken down. Violence was increasing. Travel was dangerous. Mobs were controlling parts of the country. Jerusalem was rebellious, and Festus was appointed to replace Felix and regain order.
We know very little about this man, Porcius Festus. Josephus mentions him and says he was governor of Judea for two or three years, and that he did a lot to rid the land of armed groups of bandits, but that he died in office in A.D. 61 or 62 of natural causes, of an illness of some sort. He didn’t live long enough to change the trajectory of history very much in Palestine.
Bible Study: The problem was that the new governor Festus was inexperienced in Jewish affairs, so three days after arriving in Caesarea, he traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Jewish leaders. This story is told at the beginning of Acts, chapter 25. While Festus was in discussions with these leaders, they brought up the long-delayed case of the apostle. To ingratiate himself with the Jews, Festus agreed to reopen the case. He stayed in Jerusalem for over a week, but as soon as he returned to Caesarea, he convened the Roman court and ordered that Paul be brought to him.
Verse 7 says: When Paul came in, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him. They brought many serious charges against him, but they could not prove them.
Paul was literally surrounded by his enemies, but he wasn’t a man easily intimidated, especially because of his relationship with Christ; he simply denied the charges made against him. In verse 8, he said, “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.”
Verse 9 continues: Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?” Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”
This is the third time in the book of Acts when Paul exerted his rights as an official Roman citizen. Paul refused to be handed over to the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin or to have his Roman trial conducted in Jerusalem. He knew the dangers that would pose. So he appealed to Caesar, and by law that stopped his proceedings.
Verse 12 says: After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”
The Caesar to whom Paul appealed was none other than Emperor Nero, but this was near the beginning of the young emperor’s reign and his cruel insanity wasn’t yet as apparent.
Well, all of this put Festus in the middle of a difficult Jewish problem, just at a time when he was trying to reduce tensions in Palestine. He had to send Paul on judicial appeal to Rome, but on what charges? He needed advice from someone who knew more about the Jewish issues than he did, so he decided to consult someone named King Agrippa.
Agrippa was the great grandson of Herod the Great, and he was the Roman official in charge of the northern area of Palestine. His capital was at Baneas, which he called Caesarea Philippi. It was north of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of Mount Hermon. When I lead trips to Israel, we often drive up there, because the biblical history is very rich. This is also at the headwaters of the Jordan River. Agrippa was also given custodial responsibility over the temple in Jerusalem, which his great grandfather had rebuilt, and the rebuilding process was still going on.
Agrippa and his sister Bernice came to visit Festus and welcome him into their region. There were widespread rumors that Agrippa and Bernice had an incestuous relationship. Those rumors exist to this day. Agrippa never married and his sister never married successfully. They kept ending up back together. Whenever I get frustrated with our political leaders today, I think of the kinds of characters Paul had to put up with.
At any rate, Agrippa and Bernice came to pay their regards to Festus in his new position, and they stayed several days.
Verse 14 says: Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges. When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. But when Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.”
All this was an interesting topic to Agrippa, so he said he would like to meet Paul.
The story continues at verse 23: The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24 Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. 27 For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.”
Now once again Paul speaks on his own behalf before a legal proceeding. But he does not view this simply as a legal defense. He views this as an evangelistic opportunity. Whenever we’re in a situation where we feel we’re on the defensive, we should look around to see how we can share the Gospel. Paul presents his presentation in chapter 26 and verse 2:
“King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies.
As opposed to Governor Festus who was in over his head. Paul continued in verse 4:
“The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
This is one of the greatest questions of logic and philosophy that has ever been posed. This is one of my favorite sentences from the apostle Paul: Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
In other words….
- If there is a God who possesses all the essential elements necessary for being God—if He is omnipotent, eternal, self-existent, all-sufficient, unchangeable and unchanging—why wouldn’t it be logical to assume He could bring the dead to life?
- If there is a God who designed and brought into being the entire cosmos, out of nothing and from nothing, why is it so inconceivable that He could raise Jesus from the dead?
- If there is a God who took a handful of dirt and fashioned it into a human being, breathed His breath into it, and created a living soul, why would we doubt He could raise the dead?
- If there is a God who reigns over the seen and the unseen, who is Lord of the dead and the living, who loves His creation and wants His people to be with Him forever, why should any of us consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
Paul went on to share the story of his conversion on the Damascus Road. It’s interesting to me that during his missionary journeys, Paul preached the Gospel. But during his time of imprisonment, he was more likely to share the Gospel by giving his testimony. But just when Paul was getting wound up, Festus interrupted him.
Verse 24 says: At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” 25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable.”
Notice those two words. The Gospel is not only true; it is reasonable. It is intellectually logical. It is coherent. Believing in Christianity is not a blind faith based on unreasonable assumptions. It is a logical faith based on historical events, and those events correspond perfectly to an intellectual framework that gives them meaning. The theology and doctrine of Christianity is not a fabricated assortment of odd beliefs. It’s a cohesive explanation for historical events that have changed history and have the power to change our lives.
Festus had little understanding of these things, but Agrippa was very knowledgeable. So Paul continued in verse 26:
The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.
I love that phrase. Christianity is not a secret religion or based on hidden mysteries. It is as public as the call of Abraham, the land of Israel, the predictions of the prophets, the birth of Jesus, the death and resurrection of the Messiah, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. What God has done, He has done publicly and openly in this world.
Sounding just like an evangelist, Paul posed the question straight to Agrippa:
“27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” 28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” 29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
What a gospel presentation! But Agrippa missed the greatest opportunity of his life. He got up and left. Verse 30 continues:
30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
I don’t think Paul second-guessed his decision. It’s not likely he would have been set free, because Festus didn’t have the political leverage with the Jews to do that. All of this was proceeding according to God’s plan.
Now here’s the point I want to make. Paul was encircled by problems, which had been going on for two or three years. And in his hearing before Governor Festus, he was literally surrounded by his enemies. Acts 25:7 says: When Paul came in, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him.
Does it ever seem you are surrounded by problems and burdens? You don’t just have one adversity in front of you. You have them all around you. Many times I like to reflect on stories like this in light of the book of Psalms. The word “surround” is used nineteen times in the book of Psalms. Sometimes it speaks of times when, like Paul, we are surrounded by enemies and problems.
- In Psalm 17, the Psalmist talked about his mortal enemies who surrounded him.
- In Psalm 22, he said he was surrounded by evil like being surrounded by a herd of threatening bulls. In the same chapter, he said he felt he was surrounded by a pack of mad dogs. Imagine that image!
- Psalm 40:12 says, “For troubles without number surround me.”
We have quite a bit of that kind of imagery. But the word is also used in another way.
- Psalm 5:12 says: “Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.”
- Psalm 32:7 says, “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.”
- In the same Psalm, we read, “The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in Him.”
- And my favorite surrounding verse is Psalm 125:2: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forever.”
We can use this picturesque language to our advantage. When you feel surrounded by difficulty and critics and problems, remember that the invisible and invincible presence of the hovering God surrounds you even closer, even tighter. Are we surrounded? Yes. Are we trapped? Never.
There’s a very interesting visualization given in the second chapter of the prophet Zechariah. At that time, a returning remnant was trying to repopulate and rebuild Jerusalem, but they were surrounded by enemies. But the Lord said about Jerusalem: “And I myself will be a wall of fire around it, and I will be its glory within” (Zechariah 2:5).
I read the story of a missionary in China who was often in very dangerous places, but she felt God had given her this verse and she took it seriously. She said, “The Lord Himself is a wall of fire around me and the glory in my heart.” And her exploits are amazing.
We’re also surrounded by the angels. Psalm 34:7 says, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.”
We’re also surrounded by blessings, by mercy, by grace. Psalm 139 says, “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.”
Let me close with Psalm 125, part of which I quoted earlier. It has been a comfort to me many times when I’ve felt surrounded and trapped.
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people both now and forever.