It is a terrible experience to be falsely accused, to be misrepresented, to be maligned, to be slandered. There are few worse feelings in the world than having one’s motives impugned. Being falsely accused is no doubt one of the most painful realities that we face in life. But, as Christians, we should not be surprised when it occurs.
The psalmists wrote of it (69:1-4, 7-12). Job spoke of it (12:1-4; 16:1-4; 19:1-3, 19-20; 27:1-6). Jesus warned us of this reality (Matthew 5:10-12; 10:16-26). Peter wrote of it (1 Peter 2:11-12ff). There is no indication that Paul was surprised by it—and he lived most of his ministry in the face of false accusation. So many of his letters make reference to it. The book of Acts contains numerous examples of it—including the passage we look at in this study, which records the first of his defences before Roman officials.
In the section of Acts we have been considering in recent studies, we have seen Paul’s defences before Roman and Jewish officials. Luke’s records of these defences will continue through chapter 26, after which his eventual voyage to Rome on appeal to Caesar is recorded (chapters 27—28). The event that sparked all of this is recorded in 21:26-36, where Paul was arrested in the temple, being accused of trying to take a Gentile into the temple precinct. Luke appears to have a definite, threefold reason for this record.
First, he wanted to highlight that biblical Christianity was by no means a threat to Judaism. Christians did not aim at political subversion, but rather wanted good for all. Of course, most nations consider what the Bible defines as good to be a threat, and the Jewish nation was no different.
Second, Luke wanted to highlight the wicked apostasy of the nation of Israel, which, by extension, highlights the glory of the new covenant church—the faithful church, that is.
Third, Luke intended to highlight how the Christian should respond when mistreated for his faith in Jesus Christ. There is much to glean from this text as we consider the response of Paul to mistreatment.
Paul the Prisoner
First, we consider Paul as a prisoner of Rome.
And he called for two centurions, saying, “Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” He wrote a letter in the following manner:
To the most excellent governor Felix:
This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them. Coming with the troops I rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman.
And when I wanted to know the reason they accused him, I brought him before their council.
I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him deserving of death or chains.
And when it was told me that the Jews lay in wait for the man, I sent him immediately to you, and also commanded his accusers to state before you the charges against him.
Then the soldiers, as they were commanded, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. The next day they left the horsemen to go on with him, and returned to the barracks. When they came to Caesarea and had delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him. And when the governor had read it, he asked what province he was from. And when he understood that he was from Cilicia, he said, “I will hear you when your accusers also have come.” And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s Praetorium.
It was one of the centurions in this chapter that first called Paul “the prisoner” (v. 18), but it eventually became a favourite term of Paul for himself (Ephesians 3:1; 4:1; Philemon 1). The major different, of course, is that while the centurion considered him to be a prisoner of Rome, Paul considered himself to be a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
Paul would spend about two years imprisoned in Caesarea, about one hundred kilometres from Judah. This would be a time of perhaps some of his most effective shepherding ministry. Much of his letter writing took place during this imprisonment (see Philippians 1:12-14). Clearly, God’s hand is all over this scene. As we will see, Paul learned—and we need to learn—to trust Him and to wait patiently on Him.
Our text begins with Claudius Lysias preparing a guard for Paul numbering some 470 soldiers. You will remember that there were “more than forty” who had conspired to kill Paul (v. 13). Claudius Lysias appointed ten times the amount of men to guard Paul than those who had committed to kill him!
The guard was to escort Paul to Caesarea “at the third hour of the night,” or 9:00 PM. Historians tell us that the gates at this time of night would be shut and would only be opened for soldiers. Lysias wisely realised that this strategy would cut off the conspirators from Paul.
The plan was to send Paul to the custody of “governor Felix,” a ruthless, lustful scoundrel, whom, according to Tacitus, “exercised the power of a king with the mind of a slave.”1 Barclay adds, “He was completely unscrupulous and was capable of hiring thugs to murder his own closest supporters. It was to face a man like that that Paul went to Caesarea.”2
“According to Josephus, his use of brigands to assassinate objects of his dislike brought on a period of lawlessness that led up to the war with Rome.”3 The destruction of Jerusalem, predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24, was marching nearer.
Verses 25-30 record the letter that Lysias sent to Felix. It is clear that Lysias was seeking to butter Felix up, for there was nothing “excellent” about the governor. Nine of the main words used in the letter are in the first person singular. This was a somewhat self-serving spin on the facts! Lysias claimed that he had swooped in with his troops to rescue Paul when he learned that he was a Roman citizen. Of course, this wasn’t quite how it had happened—and he conveniently neglected to mention his intention to scourge the prisoner—but it made Lysias look good.
It is interesting that Lysias considered Paul to be completely innocent of all charges. He “had nothing against him deserving of death or chains.” Roman law upheld the Jewish intent to execute any Jew who brought a Gentile into the temple court, and so the fact that Paul was innocent indicates that Lysias believed his story. He knew that Paul had not tried to take Trophimus into the temple.
Lysias’ closing word is instructive: “Farewell.” In contemporary parlance, we might render this: “Cheers! I’m glad to be free of this!” It was now Felix’s problem, as far as Lysias was concerned.
The guard did as Lysias had commanded and brought Paul safely to Antipatris, a military outpost near Caesarea, built by Herod the Great. The apostle was now on safe soil. We would imagine that the conspiring Jews eventually broke their avowed fast (v. 12), for they never again saw Paul.
There is a sense of ominousness about the fact that “they presented Paul” to Felix. He was in trouble with the Jews, and now stood before a ruthless Roman governor. As Stott notes, “The combined might of Jerusalem and Rome was overwhelming. If a solitary dissident like Paul were to set himself against them, the outcome would be inevitable. His chances of survival would resemble those of a butterfly before a steamroller. He would be crushed, utterly obliterated from the face of the earth.”4 As it turned out, however, the apostle found himself well-treated.
Paul the Accused
In the second scene before us, we find Paul the accused.
Now after five days Ananias the high priest came down with the elders and a certain orator named Tertullus. These gave evidence to the governor against Paul. And when he was called upon, Tertullus began his accusation, saying: “Seeing that through you we enjoy great peace, and prosperity is being brought to this nation by your foresight, “we accept it always and in all places, most noble Felix, with all thankfulness. “Nevertheless, not to be tedious to you any further, I beg you to hear, by your courtesy, a few words from us. “For we have found this man a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. “He even tried to profane the temple, and we seized him, and wanted to judge him according to our law. “But the commander Lysias came by and with great violence took him out of our hands, “commanding his accusers to come to you. By examining him yourself you may ascertain all these things of which we accuse him.” And the Jews also assented, maintaining that these things were so.
In this text, we find a clear case of malevolent slander. As Barclay notes, “The charge was that most dangerous of things—a series of half-truths and of twisted facts which were worse than lies.”5 This was nothing less than a theological issue masquerading as a political concern. Erdman notes, “What is here emphasized is not only the villainy of the assassins, but the utter degradation of the national council and thus the hopeless apostasy of the Jewish nation.”6 Luke here contrasts the innocence of Paul with the shameless ignominy of the Jewish leaders.
Five days after Paul arrived in Caesarea, “Ananias the high priest came down with the elders and a certain orator named Tertullus.” The term “came down,” says Phillips, “pictures a flock of vultures descending on the prey.”7 The scene that unfolds is somewhat reminiscent of the trial of Jesus. Truly, the sheep were without shepherds. Paul’s greatest enemies—like ours—were the religious.
Tertullus was not exactly the epitome of an upstanding legal professional. His testimony was a complete misrepresentation of the facts. He was wise in the ways of the world, however, for he knew that flattery (vv. 2-3) was his best chance of maligning Paul. Tertullus’ strategy—having begun with flattery—was to paint a picture of Paul as a leader in political sedition. He “knew that the governors were unwilling to convict on purely religious charges and therefore tried to give a political twist to the religious charge.”8 Consider some of the false charges levelled against the apostle.
First, he was accused of being a “plague” (v. 5)—a scourge. This is a pejorative term, implying that he was nothing more than a trouble-maker. The accusation came from the Jewish religious leaders, implying that Paul was in some way deliberately seeking to make trouble for the Jewish nation. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the real burden of his heart for the Jews:
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh. . . . Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.
(Romans 9:1-3; 10:1)
The truth is, trouble followed Paul wherever he went, but he was not the cause of it. But when you upset the status quo, you will be called a trouble-maker. This has been true of men throughout history (Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr.), and it remains true today. When you point out sin, you invite a world of trouble.
I have a dear friend who pastors a church in another country. He recently called me and told me of a situation unfolding in his church. The church had disciplined some unrepentant members, who are now threatening a lawsuit against the church. The church did what was right, but now it is being slandered. That is par for the course.
The fact is, we should get used to this in the postmodern world. The world does not like the message the church preaches, and so it often resorts to misrepresenting the church with ad hominem attacks.
Second, Paul was accused of being “a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world” (v. 5). They accused him of being seditious. Again, this was not entirely true. While division certainly occurred, it was the gospel that divided, not Paul himself. As he preached in synagogues, some believed, some did not. Even the Council was divided in its opinion (23:6-7). But it was the Word of God that was responsible for this division.
The Word divides. It divided light from darkness, water from dry land, etc. in Genesis 1. The Word is a sword, “piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
But while the Word divides, it is actually the false that is the real culprit. Falsehood will not submit to the truth.
Again, let’s face it: This is a reality to which we must simply grow accustomed. We have been “separated to the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1), and Jesus said it quite plainly:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to “set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”; and “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.
Third, Paul was accused of being sectarian. Tertullus referred to him as “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (v. 5). Note that they would not even use the word “Christ” or “Christian,” though the disciples were already known in some circles as “Christians” (see 11:26). They would not speak of Jesus as “Christ” or “Messiah” because they wanted to separate Christianity entirely from Judaism.
Of course, what they intended as an insult was in fact a great compliment. Nazareth and Galilee were frequently looked down upon by the Jews. Nathaniel found it hard to believe that Messiah would come from Nazareth (John 1:46) and the religious Jews mocked the idea that Messiah would arise out of Galilee (John 7:41), even suggesting that no prophet had ever come from that region (John 7:52), though in fact Jonah had. Even in Acts, the Jews continued to refer to Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth.” And so, while they no doubt intended the term “Nazarene” as a slur against Paul, the apostle no doubt was happy to be associated with his Saviour.
Part of the Tertullus’ design was to prove that Paul was in some way a threat to political stability. Perhaps he hoped that the term “Nazarene” would bring to Felix’s mind that Jesus had been accused of sedition, and actually crucified, so that if Paul was a follower of Jesus he was likewise a threat to the Roman Empire. If he could prove that Paul was a political threat, or even that Christianity, unlike Judaism, was an illegal religion, they would be well on their way to securing his execution.
Fourth, these Jews accused Paul of being sacrilegious. “He even tried,” claimed Tertullus, “to profane the temple” (v. 6). This was simply a return to the original, trumped-up charge of him bringing a Gentile into the Jewish court (21:26-28), an offence that even the Romans recognized as a capital one. But this was outright slander.
Once again, however, Paul was simply following in the steps of his Master (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:56-58). We must likewise be content to be maligned as Jesus was. Ad hominems are the order of the day.
Having presented its case, the prosecution rested in vv. 7-9. Again, Tertullus reconstructed a little of the history of the situation, pretending as though the Jews had been quite reasonable in their case again Paul until Lysias violently came and took him from them. They attempted to subtly shift the blame and to hide their attempted, murderous assault and conspiracy. All the Jews who had come with him offered their lying, deceitful amen, and assured Felix that he had their unwavering trust.
Paul the Defendant
In vv. 10-21, we read of Paul’s defence against the charges brought against him.
Then Paul, after the governor had nodded to him to speak, answered: “Inasmuch as I know that you have been for many years a judge of this nation, I do the more cheerfully answer for myself, because you may ascertain that it is no more than twelve days since I went up to Jerusalem to worship. And they neither found me in the temple disputing with anyone nor inciting the crowd, either in the synagogues or in the city. Nor can they prove the things of which they now accuse me. But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets. I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust. This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men. Now after many years I came to bring alms and offerings to my nation, in the midst of which some Jews from Asia found me purified in the temple, neither with a mob nor with tumult. They ought to have been here before you to object if they had anything against me. Or else let those who are here themselves say if they found any wrongdoing in me while I stood before the council, unless it is for this one statement which I cried out, standing among them, ‘Concerning the resurrection of the dead I am being judged by you this day.’”
The innocence of Paul is as clear as the evil of the accusers. His main concern seems to be to disprove that Christianity is a sect. In all this, we see that is self-defence was gospel-centred and gospel-motivated.
Paul waited for a signal from Felix to answer his critics, and when he received the nod he began, “Inasmuch as I know that you have been for many years a judge of this nation, I do the more cheerfully answer for myself.” He realised that Felix was familiar with Judaism and with the religious scene.
Based on his familiarity with the Jewish religion, Felix would realise that but twelve days had passed since Paul had gone to Jerusalem to worship. Twelve days—five of which had been spent in Caesarea—was hardly sufficient time for him to cause all the trouble of which he was accused. It wouldn’t take much for Felix to realise that the charges were false. Besides, the Jews could accuse all they wanted, but they could offer no evidence to support their claims. As a Roman citizen, Paul would surely be given the benefit of the doubt.
Paul then countered the Jewish argument that Christianity was a sect. They spoke of “the sect of the Nazarenes,” while he spoke simply of “the Way.” Not wanting Felix to think that Christianity was some other religion—and potentially an illegal one—he countered that his faith was perfectly consistent with all that had been written in the Law and the Prophets. He worshipped the God of Israel, revered the Scriptures of Israel, and shared the hope and the doctrine of Israel. Nothing about Christianity contradicted anything that had been revealed to Israel of old. Indeed, Christianity was the ultimate expression of Judaism. Stott summarises,
He was not an innovator, therefore, but loyal to the ancestral faith. Nor was he a sectarian or heretical deviant, for he stood squarely in mainstream Judaism. His worship, faith, hope and goal were no different from theirs.9
But Paul did have something to confess: His faith in God’s Word, unlike his opponents, had led him to Christ. This is often the core of the matter. Jewish tradition had replaced the truth of God’s Word, as our tradition so often does today. That is usually the source of conflict. There are all sorts of intramural debates today—lordship salvation, eschatology, ecclesiology, soteriology, etc.—and usually the disagreement boils down to tradition replacing truth.
In short, as MacArthur notes, “to be a Christian, Paul insisted, was not to forsake worshipping the true God but to be devoted to Him.”10
In vv. 17-21, Paul boldly proclaimed his innocence. Far from seeking to stir trouble with the Jews, he had actually come to Jerusalem bringing material relief to his Jewish brothers in Jerusalem. His persecution had contributed formerly to their poverty, but now he was seeking to relieve some of their pressure. He had already noted that his accuser could not prove what they claimed (v. 13), but in vv. 18-19 he again appeals to the fact that no eyewitnesses of his supposed sedition had come to blame him. The one thing they could potentially accuse him of was his proclamation of the resurrection, but that was a truth that the Jews ought to have affirmed anyway, even if the Romans mocked it. Belief in the resurrection was not a crime!
We can see quite clearly that Paul’s defence was a bold one. He was not ashamed of the gospel, and so he upheld the truth of the gospel in his defence. When you are on the side of truth, boldness is the result.
Paul the Preacher
In the final section of our text (vv. 22-27) we see Paul the preacher. This is a wonderful example of God’s providence and of a Christian’s boldness.
But when Felix heard these things, having more accurate knowledge of the Way, he adjourned the proceedings and said, “When Lysias the commander comes down, I will make a decision on your case.” So he commanded the centurion to keep Paul and to let him have liberty, and told him not to forbid any of his friends to provide for or visit him. And after some days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come, Felix was afraid and answered, “Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you.” Meanwhile he also hoped that money would be given him by Paul, that he might release him. Therefore he sent for him more often and conversed with him. But after two years Porcius Festus succeeded Felix; and Felix, wanting to do the Jews a favour, left Paul bound.
We are introduced in this section to Felix’s wife, Drusilla. In fact, she was his third wife, whom he had seduced at age sixteen from her husband.11 She was the daughter of Herod Agrippa I (see Acts 12), and was Jewish. Luke says that he had “more accurate knowledge of the Way.” We can assume that he had learned about Judaism from Drusilla.
Felix was kind to Paul—but greedy too, hoping that Paul would bribe him. William Ramsay suggested that Paul came from a wealthy family, and that Felix knew of this. Perhaps—or perhaps, having heard of the material relief that Paul had brought to the Jewish church (v. 17), he expected that Paul might use some of that wealth to buy his way out of trouble.
Regardless, we must again be impressed by Paul’s boldness. When interviewed by Felix and Drusilla, he preached what they needed to hear. “He reasoned,” writes Luke, “about righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come.” He knew that they needed the bad news before they would be ready to hear the good news, and he was not ashamed to let them know the bad news. He refused to compromise.
Sadly, despite his fear, Felix was not sufficiently moved. As Phillips says, “For Felix it was his moment of decision. Eternity swung in the balance. But he let the moment pass and made the common excuse: ‘Some other time.’”12
As we draw our consideration of this text to a close, I want to highlight five matters of application.
First, be prepared: Faithfulness to Jesus will eventually result in you being misunderstood and misrepresented. But when it happens, remember that you are in good company (Matthew 5:11-12)! Don’t hesitate to give an honest defence. Let your defence be Christ-centred and Christ-motivated. In the meantime, live in such a way that you have a defence, and then boldly respond to opportunities to proclaim Christ and the gospel. After all, God is your defence.
Second, learn to lean on God’s providence and promises. From a human standpoint, this was a tense situation. Who knew how it would turn out? In fact, Paul did—for God had already promised him that he would arrive safely in Rome (23:11). Paul knew God’s promises and was thus assured of God’s care.
Third, realise that the church is not a political threat to a nation—particularly if that nation is committed to the rule of just law. Scripture time and again exhorts Christians to submit to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Christians ought to be a country’s best citizens, not its greatest threat!
Fourth, learn to let God be your defence. There is a time to speak, and there is a time to remain silent, but regardless of the circumstances, we must always, like Jesus, rely ultimately on God to vindicate us (see 1 Peter 2:23-25).
Finally, let us note with sadness the tragedy of missed opportunity. Felix was on the cusp of submitting to Christ, but found that it was not “convenient” for him to do so. To such, the writer of Hebrews offers a strong caution: “For if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgement, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26-27).
Paul had a wonderful testimony of Christlikeness when he was falsely accused. By God’s grace, may we share his testimony.
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 355. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 184. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 375. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 358. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 185. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 171. ↩
- John Phillips, Exploring Acts, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 2:225. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 379. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 361. ↩
- John F. MacArthur Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Moody Press: Chicago, 1994), 2:307. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 363. ↩
- Phillips, Exploring Acts, 2:232. ↩