What Shall I Do with Jesus, Who Is Called the Christ?

Tom Nettles
| Acts 23–26 | February 13, 2018

After Paul had been taken in hand by the Romans in Acts 21, Paul made a speech to the Jews (22:1-21) that caused another riot among them (22:22, 23); when he avoided being whipped as a means of interrogation by revealing his Roman citizenship, he entered into several years of detainment and during that time made a defense of his ministry and manner of life against the false accusations leveled at him.

 

I. He appeared before the chief priests and Jewish council in Jerusalem (23:1-10)

A. When Paul mentioned his “perfectly good conscience” he was struck in the mouth, to which he responded with a strong reprimand of the high priest.

  1. Conscience is an important issue for Paul. Here he means that as far as he was conscious, he had sought throughout his life to be conformed to Scripture as he understood it. He would concede that he had an insufficiently informed conscience in his earlier day that led him to justify himself in his persecution of Christians. He is not, therefore, saying that he was sinless, but is indicating that he has never purposely violated the revealed authority that both he and these Jews held in common.
  2. Upon being struck on the mouth at the command of the high priest, Paul responded with a stern reprimand that he was being treated out of accord with the law by those who ostensibly were concerned about the law’s purity.
  3. When informed that his verbal reprimand was directed at the high priest, Paul conceded his error in the context of not knowing he was high priest. He knew that the law forbad such verbal response to the “ruler of your people.”
  4. Note that at every point, Paul is careful to demonstrate his personal conformity to divine law in the received canon of Scripture. This has been one of the major aspects of his defense as well as his presentation of the gospel to the Jewish community. All of it, both his actions and his message, is a conscientious conformity to Scripture.

B. Paul recognized a major division within the group so he stated that the nature of his offense was a defense of the resurrection from the dead. The text explains why Paul threw this theological grenade in to the assembly. He agreed with the theological conservatism of the Pharisees and was trained within their tradition. His defense of resurrection from the dead per se would draw sympathy from the Pharisees. His views of Law and Gospel, however, would not please them in their misunderstanding of the intent of the law. That seems to have been the most important point of objection in the pre-Christian mind of Paul.

C. He had to be rescued again by the soldiers.

  1. Such an uproar arose from the council on this issue that the soldiers, having already been aware of such a scenario felt that they should make haste to get Paul away in case this turned into a dangerous personal attack on Paul. (23:10)
  2. Seemingly, Paul felt the increased volatility of the situation and knew that it could quickly turn into a murderous hostility toward him, for the Lord appeared to Paul that night, with a message for him to take courage. As he had stated the case for the gospel in Jerusalem, so he will do in Rome. No matter what lay in between or what came afterward, Paul knew that he would make it to Rome and would be given opportunity to set forth the case for the gospel in that context. Probably soon after this, during his imprisonment at Caesarea, Paul wrote his letter to the Romans.

D. Forty Jews committed to a pact to kill Paul. Paul’s nephew learned of this bloody covenant and deceitful conspiracy, revealed it to Paul who made sure that the nephew could tell the commander of this. The commander immediately made plans to transfer Paul under the guard of a few hundred soldiers ready for aggressive action. He took him to Caesarea to Felix the governor and wrote a letter explaining why he sent Paul to him (23:26-30).

 

II. He appeared before Felix in Caesarea in a joint hearing with the Jews (24:1-21).

A. Tertullus reported (1-9) for the Jewish accusers and claimed that Paul had “profaned the temple.” (For the charge in situ see 21:28). This clearly was either a purposeful falsehood or the perpetuating of a false impression they had received from the circumstances of the case. Even if this were the case, it was merely a cloak for a more substantial hostility to the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth that Paul preached.

B. Paul reported.

  1. He denied their charges of causing a riot or profaning the temple (10-13). It is true that his presence caused a riot, but only out of a violent prejudice against him and not from any provocation that he did. He was, in fact, completing a ceremony according the Jewish law that did not violate any principle of the gospel in order to dispel false reports concerning him (21:21-27).
  2. He conceded that he served God according to “the Way which they call a sect.”
  • He believed the Scripture (14b). By this statement he indicated that in order to believe “everything” written in the law and the prophets one must believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah (Compare Luke 24:25-27). One must clearly see this theme as one of the major cords of coherence within the Lucan writings.
  • He believed in the resurrection. He again alluded to their common belief in the resurrection. His certainty of the resurrection of Christ (See 1 Corinthians 15) is the interpretive key to see how Jesus fulfills all the prophecies. He has suffered, but he has risen and will return to judge and take the Messianic throne forever. No prophecy nor any type will be unfulfilled with such a person.
  • He sought to live with blameless conscience. Here again Paul emphasized the issue of conscience. The conscience must be informed by truth and operate through right affections to function fittingly. The writer of Hebrews emphasizes the issue of conscience in its relationship to the necessity of cleansing by a final and effectual sacrifice (Hebrews 9:9, 13, 14). See also Paul’s appeal to conscience in 2 Corinthians 4:2; 5:9-11.
  • He was in Jerusalem to bring alms for the relief of Jews (Jewish Christians). This in itself should show that he had no sinister or destructive intent in his presence in Jerusalem.
  • He asked that the men present report as to what the results of the earlier meeting were. (20) He reported that the only result was their own disagreement over his statement affirming the resurrection.
  • Felix, having some vital information and accurate knowledge about the Way, dismissed the meeting, knowing that the charges were only the offspring of hostility and due to no real threat to the Jews in their worship or way of life. He allowed Paul some latitude of freedom and did not prohibit his friends from visiting him.

 

III. He appeared before Felix and Drusilla alone (24:24-27)

A. Felix sent for Paul for his wife Drusilla, a Jewess, to hear him also. Eventually Felix sent for Paul often for he hoped that Paul would bribe him to achieve a favorable judgment.

B. Paul spoke to them about “Faith in Christ Jesus.” Why not? This was his commission from God and he was now given access to the highest political court in this part of the Roman Empire. In addition, this was not irrelevant to the case he was building in his defense. His view of Jesus and the gospel perfectly coincided with what one would expect from the Old Testament witness. He included three important points in his discussion of “faith in Christ.”

  1. Righteousness concerned the absolute demands of the law as resulting in condemnation for all people. Only the life and death of Jesus could meet the standard of righteousness set forth in the law.
  2. Self-control probably referred to the style of life that would result from a belief of the gospel. If he were in the process of writing Romans at this time, he would talk about one of the points of Romans 8, “If you do by the Spirit mortify the deeds of the flesh, you will live” (Romans 8:13). He also might have in mind what he wrote to the Galatians, “Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish” (Galatians 5:16, 17).
  3. “Judgment to come” would focus on the certainty of the righteous judgment of God, a judgment perfectly conforming to the absolute righteous standards of the Law (Romans 2:5-8), resulting in God’s rendering to every person according to his deeds.
  4. These discussions frightened Felix, as well they might, since his relationship with Drusilla was built on anything but righteousness and self-control. He had stolen her from her first husband whom she married at fourteen years of age. They were both influenced by a Cyprian sorcerer by the name of Simon.
  5. These discussions give a strong witness to the blindness, deceitfulness, and covetousness of the human heart. Felix had the Apostle of Jesus Christ, perhaps the greatest, most consistent, most honest, most holy, most talented, most courageous, most insightful and coherent man who ever lived other than the Son of God himself, and he was interested primarily in a bribe. He was not looking to be informed or changed by Paul’s message, but only to make opportunity for a payoff. What a judgment awaits Felix; he indeed had reason to tremble at the mention of future judgment.

 

IV. He appeared before Festus in Caesarea (25:6-21). Festus had replaced Felix as governor. The Jews had sought to have Paul brought to Jerusalem so they could execute their murderous scheme against him on the way. Festus asked them to come to Caesarea to press their charges there. They did so and leveled “many and serious charges against him which they could not prove.” As Paul began to make his defense, Festus interrupted him and asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem to answer these charges there. Paul replied that the present court was sufficient to make a trial of the case, and, furthermore, Festus himself knew that these charges were not true. In light of what appeared to him as a conspiracy for his execution, as a Roman citizen, he appealed to Caesar. Paul had no more confidence in the justice of Nero than he did of Festus, but such an appeal would ascertain his visit to Rome, a thing that God already had told him would come to pass. Divine sovereignty and promises of God’s uninterrupted presence with us operate in the context of the details of our lives. That Paul went to Rome on the basis of an appeal to Caesar does not diminish in any sense the divine operation of providence in fulfilling the promise.

 

V. He appeared before Agrippa with Bernice and Festus (26:1-29). Bernice was the sister of Drusilla. Festus informed Agrippa of this case, characterizing it as a disagreement over a “dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive” ( 25:19). Agrippa requested the opportunity to hear him. On the appointed day, they entered with all the pomp and splendor that an earthly court could muster, and, “at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in.” After a brief explanation of the charges that led to the appeal to Caesar, including Festus’s opinion that Paul had done nothing worthy of death, Paul was asked to speak.

A. He expressed gratitude that Agrippa would hear his case (26: 2, 3). He stated that Agrippa, as a Jew would have expertise in the issues that led to his arrest.

B. He talked about his manner of life, his training, and how his present message was consistent with that.

  1. Throughout his early life, Paul was trained as a Pharisee as his accusers well knew. Also, Agrippa would know that Paul’s training was according to “the strictest sect of our religion.”
  2. One of the vital points of their theology was confidence in the resurrection of the dead. But on this point alone, he is being accused of being a disruptive and destructive force within Judaism. While Paul sought to confirm their hope as actually having come to pass and now demonstrated empirically as true, they have opposed him. If they were expecting a true historical demonstration of this theology, would it not be most profoundly verified in the ministry of one who is Messiah? Why should it be thought incredible that “God does raise the dead?”

C. In verses 9-11, he talked about his zeal as a persecutor. Paul was not unaware of the offense presented to the Jewish mind about claiming that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. He was of the same mind as his opponents, and even more zealous than they for the extermination of this sect. He shared with them fully their concerns. This, however, did not present any prosecutable offense even as the division into Pharisee, Sadducee, Herodian, or Zealot did.

D. He talked about his vision of Christ that led to his conversion. In verses 12-15, he again gave witness to the experience in which he saw the risen and glorious Jesus of Nazareth. This appearance, obviously, carried with it such evidence as could not be refuted or explained away even by such a rock of opposition as Saul of Tarsus was.

E. He talked about his commission and his obedient execution of it. At that appearance, Jesus commissioned Paul as a “minister and a witness.” This would include several functions.

  1. He would witness to what he had seen at that time, the clear evidence of the resurrection. To this he referred in 1 Corinthians 15:8. Also he would witness to “the things in which I will appear to you.” This included the revelation he would have of the “mystery . . . which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets.” To this Paul also refers in Galatians 1:12-17.
  2. He would be opposed by both Jew and Gentile, even as he was on mission for their salvation, but God would rescue him from both.
  3. In the next verse Paul articulates the gospel in several of its vital components, seeking to set it forth in a way convincing both to Festus and to Herod (verses 18-23).
  • The process of salvation included the necessity of opening eyes from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God (See his development of this in Ephesians 2:1-3).
  • Blessings received included forgiveness of sins, an inheritance from God himself in the company of others who had been set apart to that inheritance by faith in Jesus.
  • In addition to faith, such a union with these blessings also involved true repentance and the performing of deeds fitting for repentance.
  • All that he spoke was consistent with what Moses and the prophets said would take place. Within these things that were included in Moses and the prophets were the suffering of Christ and the resurrection from the dead in order to proclaim light both to Jew and Gentile (See Paul’s discussion in Ephesians 2:13-18).

 

VI. Festus’s interruption and Paul’s reply.

A. Festus interrupted Paul and said that Paul’s feverish attention to so much detail, his attempt to achieve comprehensive learning on these issues had driven him mad. Festus thought that Paul had been mentally damaged by the bright light from heaven and had given himself over to an idiosyncratic interpretation of all the documents with which he was familiar, but that it had separated him from reality (verse 24).

B. Paul denied any mental derangement but professed that all of these assertions were “words of sober truth.”

C. Paul then appealed to Agrippa and his own knowledge of the prophets for a witness that his interpretation was not awry. Word that show the difference between one kind of belief and another kind of belief then gave a sobering effect to the audience with Agrippa: “King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do.” Even as James said, “You believe that God is one? You do well. Even the devils believe and tremble” (James 2:19).

D. Agrippa’s response has been interpreted in a number of ways. Some take an optimistic view that Agrippa was genuinely moved toward affirming the truth of Paul’s witness to the truth. Some interpret it as a rhetorical question: “In such a short time will you really persuade me to become a Christian?” The implied answer is “Such a thing is beyond comprehension.”

E. Paul’s answer does not provide any determination on this except his own confident response that in spite of all his sufferings, he wished that all who heard him had the same knowledge of forgiveness, the same light as to the infinite worthiness of Christ, the same hope of an eternal inheritance.

F. The response again shows how the infinite wonder of salvation and the knowledge of God is passed over by the men of this world, preferring talk about present conditions rather than the reality that all will stand before God in judgment. They could look at issues of worldly imprisonment, judgments, and the possibility of death without a hint of their own souls hovering on the brink of eternity. They had had, like Felix, an astounding opportunity of seeking authoritative instruction concerning their eternal well-being, and could only comment on their opinions about the temporal estate of their prisoner.