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"Don't call me, I'll call you" is not only a way to dismiss telemarketers and door-to-door solicitors. Modern-day Felixes treat the gospel with the same indifference. Paul's trial witness before Felix at Caesarea helps us understand the reasons for and the hazards of putting off saying yes to Jesus.
Shortly after Paul's removal to Caesarea, the Sadducean contingent of the Sanhedrin, the high priest Ananias . . . with some of the elders, arrives to bring charges before the governor. After Paul is called in by the crier at the beginning of the court session, Tertullus presents the Jews' case. He was probably a Hellenistic Jew who served as the Sanhedrin's expert legal counsel in Roman affairs.
Tertullus's exordium with its extensive captatio benevolentiae (it takes up half the speech as Luke reports it, vv. 2-4) curries the judge's favor with conventional flowery rhetoric. First is an appreciative assessment of Felix's tenure in office. In fact, the governor's rule brought anything but a long period of peace, and there is no record of many improvements, reforms. Felix did maintain a tense peace through an ongoing series of search-and-destroy missions against hoodlum terrorists (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.253, 264-65; Jewish Antiquities 20.160-61). Yet this fanned the fires of Jewish political rebellion into fiercer and fiercer flame. Second, Tertullus curries favor by declaring his intent to move to the charges directly and deal with them briefly, depending on Felix's kindness to hear him.
Moving from general to specific, Tertullus carefully clothes the charges in mainly political terms so that they may be viewed as violations of Roman law. He begins with empirewide insurrection. The lawyer labels Paul a troublemaker (literally, "plague-spot") and accuses him of stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. Whether the implication is general insurrection (Latin seditio) or simply disrupting Jewish communities, this charge is serious (compare Lk 23:2; Acts 17:6-7). Emperor Claudius's letter to the Alexandrines (November 10, A.D. 41) uses similar language. He warns the Jews that if they persist in suspicious activities, he "will by all means take vengeance on them as fomenters of what is a general plague [nosos] infecting the whole world" (Greek Papyri in the British Museum [P. Lond.] 1912, line 99).
Tertullus next charges disruptive heresy, which may carry with it the implication of fomenting theologically motivated civil unrest. He uses a contemptuous nickname for Christians, Nazarene (compare Jn 1:46; nosrim in the Talmud [for example, Ta`anit 27b]; Williams 1985:397), and labels them a sect--no more than an unauthorized minority movement within Judaism--and Paul their ringleader. Felix had to constantly deal with civil uprisings from such movements (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.253-65).
The temple defilement charge is cautiously stated as an attempted desecration. Does this show that the Jewish leaders know they have a weak case? They have witnessed no defilement, and the Asian Jews are not present to give testimony (Acts 24:19). Such testimony in any case would have been perjured. Has Tertullus also turned this into a political charge, since the Romans had given the Jews permission to impose the death penalty on any who defiled the temple (Josephus Jewish Wars 6.124-26)? Tertullus is at least justifying the Jews' initiative in Paul's arrest. He is confident that the judge's cross-examination of the defendant will verify the accusations. As the enemies of the righteous one surround him to attack (Ps 3:6 [7 LXX]), so the Jews joined in the accusation against Paul.
This full formulation of charges reveals several characteristics of persecutors' words. They will be broad, exaggerated, unsubstantiated, untruthful allegations. Double entendre and a trimming of charges will be used to fit what can barely be proved. Should we expect any less from those in the kingdom of the "father of lies" (Jn 8:44; Acts 26:18)?
With a nod, a gesture befitting his rank (NIV translates it more generally, motioned), Felix indicates that Paul may take up his defense. His exordium with its captatio benevolentiae is respectful, affirming, within the bounds of truth, and brief. Paul gladly makes his defense because Felix's long tenure in Palestine has provided experience, knowledge and insight on Jewish affairs. Felix may well have spent a decade already in Palestine, first as administrator of Samaria under Cumanus (A.D. 48-52) and then as governor from A.D. 52 to the time of Paul's trial, A.D. 58 (Tacitus Annals 12.54; Josephus Jewish Wars 2.247; Jewish Antiquities 20.137). Paul's introduction models the bold, yet respectful, demeanor that Peter counsels us all to adopt when we stand before civil authorities and are required to "give the reason for the hope" that is within us (1 Pet 3:15-16).
Paul's answer to the insurrection charge (Acts 24:11-13) is framed in terms of his recent activity in Jerusalem, since this only is within the governor's jurisdiction. Motive, method, opportunity and proof of the alleged crime do not exist. As to motive, whether to celebrate Pentecost (20:16), render account of his stewardship thus far or rededicate himself to the next phase of ministry, Paul went up to Jerusalem to complete a spiritual pilgrimage, to worship (compare 8:27), not to start a "holy war." While on an earlier visit he had engaged in debate and witness to non-Christian Jews, this time he evidently confined himself to the Christian community (9:28-30/22:18; 21:17-26). His method of operation did not include arguing . . . at the temple, or stirring up a crowd for insurrection (epistasis; 2 Macc 6:3). In fact, if anyone could be accused of stirring up a crowd and inciting the city to riot, it was Paul's initial accusers (Acts 21:27-28, 30, 34-35). He lacked opportunity to orchestrate a revolt, since he had arrived in Jerusalem only twelve days before he was arrested. Besides, no proof of the charges can be now offered.
Paul's solid defense teaches us that though proclaiming a controversial message may spark an uproar, messengers themselves must always be peace-loving, circumspect and law-abiding.
As Paul answers the heresy charge, he reveals the uniqueness of Christianity vis-a-vis first-century Judaism. All Paul did in his life as a service of worship to God, he did as a follower of "the Way." Both the Dead Sea Scroll community and the New Testament church via John the Baptist's ministry used as their mandate Isaiah 40:3, "prepare the way for the LORD" (Lk 3:3-6; 1QS 8:13-16). Christianity, or the lifestyle it commended, became known as "the Way" (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4, 22; compare 1QS 9:16-21). The Dead Sea Scroll community prepared "the way for the LORD" through the study of the law, but Jesus' teaching set his followers on a more eschatologically imminent, ethically radical, profoundly personal and dynamically evangelistic "way" (Lk 14:25-33; Jn 14:6; Acts 1:8; Pathrapankal 1979:537-38).
Paul also emphasizes the Christian's continuity with Old Testament Jewish faith. He worships the same God, the God of our fathers (3:13; 5:30; 7:32/Ex 3:6). He does so with the same belief. He believes all that is written according to the Law and in the Prophets (Lk 24:25-27, 44; Acts 26:22). His worship involves the same hope, . . . that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (Is 26:19; Dan 12:2; 1 Enoch 51:1-2). And his worship has the same aim: to live with conscience clear before God and man, no conscious record of misdeeds, in light of the coming judgment at the final resurrection (Acts 23:1).
For Jewish seekers and believers in any age, Paul's confession gives an encouragement that Christianity is, in the end, not a betrayal but the fulfillment of the Old Testament faith. The challenge is that this fulfillment will radically transform the Jewishness of those who step onto the "Way" inaugurated by Messiah Jesus.
Paul answers the temple defilement charge by emphasizing the purpose and propriety of his visit and pointing out that the eyewitness accusers of this alleged violation are not present (24:17-19). Paul's purpose was that of any pious pilgrim: to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. A person with such a purpose would hardly have temple defilement in his plans. In fact, his propriety--he was ceremonially clean, at least concluding his purification on his return from Gentile lands (21:26-27), and orderly, for he assembled no crowd or any disturbance--demonstrates this. The lack of eyewitness accusers to this most specific and immediately life-threatening of charges (see comment at 21:30) is an essential point in Paul's defense. He is relying on the time-honored Roman judicial principle that before any verdict, accusers must face the accused in person and there must be opportunity for a defense (25:16; Appian Roman History: Civil Wars 3.54). Converts from Judaism and nominal Christianity do well to emulate Paul's pursuit of the true worship of God through respect for and constructive engagement with his religious past.
One "crime" Paul will own up to: his shout before the Sanhedrin, It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today (23:6). The witnesses are present, but for two reasons this is no "crime." To the Romans Paul's statement is a matter of theology, irrelevant to their jurisprudence. To first-century normative Judaism, it is not heresy to confess hope in messianic salvation inaugurated through the resurrection of the dead (24:14-15). To see these hopes finding their initial and crucial fulfillment in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is, of course, another matter.
Paul's introduction of the resurrection issue is not only good legal-defense strategy but also good evangelism. To speak of the final accounting before God and the eternal destiny that flows from it is to point out one of the certainties of human existence. Many may run from it, following alternate paths of personal eschatology--reincarnation or immediate annihilation. But all will have to face judgment. The resurrection of Jesus--proof of coming judgment, promise of eternal salvation--must be at the heart of all "good news" preaching (17:30-31; 26:23; Lk 24:46-47).
Luke gives two reasons that Felix delays his verdict: his thorough acquaintance with Christianity and his desire to hear the testimony of Claudius Lycias, the only independent witness to any civil disturbances. Whether from Drusilla or from his decadelong tenure in Palestine, Felix knew "the Way," the opposition to it from the Jewish leaders-and increasingly from the people--and the potential for civil unrest that its very presence seemed to create.
Since Felix already has all the facts, are truth and justice compromised by his delay (Krodel 1986:442)? There may still be confusion over discrepancies among the testimonies of Tertullus, Paul and Claudius Lysias. Felix may want to interrogate the tribune in order to get to the bottom of the matter (Bruce 1988:446; Sherwin-White 1963:53). At the very least Felix protects himself from further civil unrest sparked by Paul's being at large and does the Sanhedrin a favor. And providentially, in protective custody Paul is kept from the hands of Jews intent on his death.
Paul's circumstances in custody include some measure of freedom and access to his friends (at least his traveling companions [Krodel 1986:442]; possibly also Christians of Caesarea [Haenchen 1971:656]). They take care of him, communicating with him, maybe even bringing food. These details serve as silent witness to Paul's innocence, for he is being treated as a Roman citizen simply detained for trial.
The judicial delay leads to gospel declaration (vv. 22-25). After several days, Felix and his Jewish wife Drusilla come to the section of the palace where the prisoners are kept and send for Paul.
Drusilla, one of the three daughters of Agrippa I (12:1-23), was born A.D. 38 and promised at a young age to Epiphanes, the son of Antiochus king of Commagene, if he would become a Jewish proselyte (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 19.354-55; 20.139-40). He refused to do so. So after the death of Agrippa I (A.D. 44), Drusilla's brother Agrippa II (Acts 25:13--26:32) gave her in marriage to Azizus, King of Emesa, a small domain on the Orontes. Azizus did consent to be circumcised. Enter Felix, whom Tacitus said indulged in "every kind of barbarity and lust" (Histories 5.9). Captivated by Drusilla's beauty, he wooed her away from Azizus with the aid of a Cyprian Jew named Atomus, who pretended to be a magician. Drusilla married Felix as much to escape the enmity of her sister Bernice, who abused her because of her beauty, as in response to his amorous spell (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.139-44). Felix was thrice married (Suetonius Claudius 28). This Drusilla replaced another Drusilla, granddaughter of Antony and Cleopatra. The couple would have been known to some in Luke's Roman audience, since they repaired to Rome after Felix was removed from his procuratorship in A.D. 59.
To such a dissolute couple Paul preaches faith in Christ [Messiah] Jesus (Acts 3:20; 5:42; 17:3; 18:5; 20:21). Given Felix's and Drusilla's past, it is not surprising that Paul focuses on matters that are foundational to a call to repentance: righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come (Jn 16:8-11). The couple, indeed, need to understand God's standard, their accountability and the reality of a final reckoning. In brief, they must face the bad news of their lost spiritual condition before they can grasp and embrace the good news.
Neither has pursued righteousness, "right conduct before God which follows the will of God and is pleasing to him" (Schrenk 1964:198; Lk 1:75; compare Acts 13:10). Self-control, whether in regard to sex, money or power, is foreign to them. While Drusilla would know of the judgment to come from her Jewish upbringing (see 24:15), Felix, a Roman freedman, knows of it only in a different form, probably being "vaguely persuaded that souls went down from the tomb to some deep places where they received rewards and punishments" (Cumont 1959:86).
In an age when the majority view all moral values as relative, the Christian witness needs to find a way to speak of God's righteousness again in such a way that it raises a standard for all. In a time when sin is viewed as alternative lifestyles, psychosocial dysfunctions, addictions or even disease, the gospel witness needs to find a way to speak meaningfully of responsible moral self-control. In an age of anxiety when humans know "something is wrong," though they have rejected the moral categories--absolutes, sin and guilt--that would enable them to know "someone is wrong," the Christian witness must learn how to declare a judgment to come in terms that make sense. Unless this happens, repentance will be impossible and the salvation rescue will appear unnecessary and hence irrelevant.
Paul always preached for a decision, and under the conviction of the Holy Spirit Felix knows this message is for him. It fills him with fear. He is startled, terrified, at the prospect of the last day (Lk 24:5, 37; Acts 10:4). But this does not lead to humble faith. Felix uses procrastination to stay in control of his own destiny. He will determine when and to what extent these matters are considered in the future.
How often does fear hide behind a busy schedule? How many have fooled themselves into thinking that by not deciding they have truly "kept all the options open" and at a convenient time in the future they will give the claims of Christ the serious attention they deserve? Actually indecision is a decision--a choice to remain where we are, outside God's saving grace, with the condemnation of the judgment to come our only prospect (Jn 3:18, 36).
But Felix's procrastination is more than a coping strategy. It also expresses his greed. Following common provincial administrative practice, he demands gold--seeks a bribe--from Paul in exchange for his release (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.215; Jewish Wars 2.273). He is evidently willing to trade hope of life eternal later for hope of money now (24:15, 26). Jesus warned of the unevenness of such a trade (Lk 9:25; compare 8:14).
Felix's desire for glory led him to trade the approval of fellow human beings for justice. He left office under a cloud. A Jewish delegation's complaint to the emperor about his ruthless suppression of a dispute between Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea led to his removal (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.182; Jewish Wars 2.266-70).
As he leaves, he curries the Jews' favor by leaving Paul in prison. Paul's plight, clearly a miscarriage of justice and unworthy of a Roman citizen, nevertheless continues to provide the protection that is needed if Paul is ever to experience the divine promise--witness in Rome.
Felix's profligate life warns us all not to let sex, money or power put us into a "don't call me, I'll call you" stance toward the gospel.