Paul continues to go deeper and deeper into the Roman judicial system as what begins as simply a way to protect him from a riot turns into an imprisonment lasting several years. The Romans move him from Jerusalem once it becomes clear he is not safe there and take him to the provincial capital of Caesarea. There he defends himself in a hearing before the governor and in several audiences with him thereafter. What becomes evident is that he is actually not guilty of anything under either Roman or Jewish law. However, he remains imprisoned for political reasons totally outside of his control or concern. The end result is that he must trust his fate to God who continues to orchestrate events so that he eventually testifies to the gospel in Rome.
The day after Paul’s hearing before the Sanhedrin that ended so violently (9-10), a group of more than 40 Jewish men take a vow to not eat or drink until they kill Paul. They apparently are aware of what happened at the council and are so angry that Paul was not convicted that they have decided to take matters into their own hands. They go to the chief priests and the elders (the chief priests are Sadducees so it could be that this plot is kept from the Pharisees who defended Paul at the hearing) and tell them of their vow. They instruct the priests to contact the Roman commander and ask for Paul to be brought to them again with the intent that the Jews will kill him as he is being transported to the hearing.
This shows the depth of the Jewish hatred of Paul’s ministry and also how zealously people can pursue evil when they think they are acting righteously. They are willing to execute Paul outside of the Law and risk their lives all in the name of religious purity. They are likely convinced that killing Paul is in accordance with God’s will and is necessary for stamping out blasphemy. Ironically, if this is the case, they are just like Paul was before Damascus.
In what is obviously God’s providential protection of Paul, Paul’s nephew hears about the plot. Nothing is said as to how he hears this and no background is given as to how much of Paul’s family is in Jerusalem. We just know that somehow he finds out and comes to the Roman barracks and tells Paul. Paul sends him to the commander where he repeats his story for him. The commander sends him away with instructions not to tell anyone that he has passed along the information.
The commander orders a very large contingent to take Paul out of the city during the night (they leave at 9:00 PM). After all he has seen with Paul and the Jews (mobs trying to kill him, the Sanhedrin trying to kill him, now this vigilante group vowing to kill him), he apparently feels it is time to just get him out of Jerusalem. There are too many threats to track and he will not be able to either release him or move him without immediately endangering his life (and the lives of the soldiers). He orders 200 soldiers and 70 horsemen and 200 spearmen to escort Paul to the provincial capital of Caesarea where he can stand trial before Felix the governor. The force that goes with Paul may be up to half of the Roman contingent in Jerusalem. The commander takes no chances that Paul will not reach Felix safely.
Claudius Lysias sends a letter to Felix along with Paul. In the letter he briefly outlines the history of Paul’s arrest and notes that the charges against him are nebulous and seem to be regarding Jewish law and are not deserving of death or imprisonment. He also explains that there is a plot against Paul in Jerusalem and therefore Lysias is sending him to Felix with instructions for his accusers to bring charges against him to Caesarea. The letter is very well written in that it gives a good explanation of Paul’s situation and does it concisely. However, notice the commander’s spin about when he found out about Paul’s Roman citizenship. He says at the end of verse 27 – “…I came upon them with the troops and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman.” The truth is that he did not find out Paul was a Roman until after he rescued him and brought him to the barracks to be scourged (22:24-29). Here he tells Felix he rescued him because he was a Roman. There is something both amusing and refreshing in how this story shows that for as long as there have been humans we have been spinning explanations to make ourselves look as good as possible. What he says is not exactly an outright lie, but it certainly presents him in the best light to his ultimate boss.
The military contingent delivers Paul to Felix in Caesarea safely (presumably the 40 men who took the vow to kill Paul are let out of it and do not actually starve to death). Felix asks what province Paul is from to establish if he falls under Felix’s jurisdiction. Finding out Paul is from Cilicia – which falls under his authority – he orders him kept at the governor’s residence and tells him he will give him a hearing after his accusers come from Jerusalem.
After five days Ananias and some other members of the Sanhedrin come to Caesarea along with an attorney named Tertullus. Felix convenes the hearing and Tertullus takes the floor to lay out the case against Paul (prosecution always goes first in Roman trials). He begins by flattering Felix in his opening remarks (exordium) and – based on a historical understanding of Felix’s rule [Revolutionaries had escalated under Felix’s corrupt and repressive administration, bringing neither peace nor reforms – Craig S Keener, The Bible Background Commentary – New Testament; 394. Felix had the least peaceful term of any Roman administrator up until his time, was hated by the Jews, and was noted more for his bribe taking than his benevolence – ESV Study Bible, note on Acts 24:2] – makes statements about Felix that are largely false (although the Sadducees who are in power in Jerusalem and who benefit from Rome’s policies may in fact appreciate Felix with all thankfulness). He concludes his opening – “But, that I may not weary you any further” – by telling Felix that he could go on and on with the compliments but does not want to weary him and take away from the purpose of the trial.
Tertullus’ opening seems to really lay it on thick but it may be more than flattery. It could be that he highlights the positives about Felix so he can directly contrast them with the charges he is about to make against Paul. Felix has attained much peace and through his providence (foresight) reforms are being carried out. This sets a nice backdrop to charging Paul with stirring up dissension and heading up a sect of followers committed to the teachings of an executed criminal.
The charges Tertullus makes against Paul seem somewhat mild on the surface but are in fact very serious as they carry with them political implications against the state. He says Paul is a real pest (a plague or public menace) who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world. This is the most serious charge from Rome’s standpoint – anyone who stirs up dissension could cause a revolt against the empire. From a certain perspective there actually is some truth to this charge. Paul has traveled extensively so it is not too much of a stretch to say he has been throughout the world. He also does tend to stir things up wherever he goes, although the reason for this is the opposition of the Jews – the same people who accuse him here. The second accusation is that Paul is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. This charge further amplifies the first and could be a way to identify Paul with a man who in Felix’s mind was executed for some of the same things being laid out here. The last charge is that Paul tried to desecrate the temple. It is interesting that Tertullus admits there is no proof that Paul actually did desecrate the temple – he simply says he tried, presumably by attempting to bring Trophimus into the inner courts (21:29). He says this caused the Jews to arrest Paul which technically is not true as the mob simply grabbed him and tried to beat him to death (Felix likely knows this is false since he has Claudius Lysias’ letter).
Tertullus ends his statement by urging Felix to examine Paul himself to prove that what the Jews say is true. At this point the other Jews begin to testify in support of Tertullus’ words. They perhaps are disappointed when Felix declines the opportunity to cross-examine Paul and instead turns the floor over to him.
Paul now makes his defense. [As an aside, how fun would it be to witness this trial and listen to Tertullus – someone paid to be an orator – and Paul both make their points?] He also opens with a complimentary statement to Felix but does not flatter him nearly as much as did Tertullus. He says he will cheerfully make his defense, making it obvious that he does not feel he has been harmed by the prosecution and also that he is confident of his innocence. He responds to the prosecution one point at a time.
He says that all he did was come to Jerusalem twelve days ago to worship and in that time no one has found him carrying on a discussion with anyone or causing a riot. He has done nothing in the last twelve days that justifies the accusations of the Jews. As to the charge that he has stirred up dissension throughout the world, the Jews have no proof of this at all.
However, he is a follower of the Way (he says nothing about the Nazarenes) – which the Jews call a sect – but believes that it is in accordance with the Law and the Prophets. He also has a hope in God – just like the Jews gathered here before Felix. He effectively goes along with the charge that he is a leader of the Christians, but states it in a way that shows it is an outgrowth of Jewish beliefs and is in no way a seditious sect. They are not a band of Nazarenes carrying on the teachings of a revolutionary – they are followers of the same God the Jews follow but are carrying out the ultimate expression of the Law and Prophets.
Note the portion of his defense in verses 14-16. This is a wonderful explanation of how to live with eternity always in mind. Remember that he speaks as a believer. He says he has a hope in God that there will be a resurrection of the righteous and the wicked. In view of that hope, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men. We are to be motivated by God’s love in the gospel to serve Him but we should also be motivated by the thought that we will someday face Him. We will give an account of our lives one day and that should inspire us to continually live righteously during our time on earth. A continual focus on eternity will also inform our perspective on a sin-cursed world and enable us to live righteously in the face of unjust treatment and painful circumstances.
Paul responds to the charge of defiling the temple by explaining that he came to Jerusalem to bring alms to the people and present offerings in the temple. It was in the act of presenting offerings without any crowd or uproar that the Jews found him. He was as far away from defiling the temple as possible in that he was actually undergoing a purification rite. There was no problem until some Jews from Asia – who should be here to speak on their own behalf if they have anything against Paul – caused a riot on trumped up charges.
Paul concludes by challenging the Jews to explain to Felix what he was charged with when he appeared before the full Sanhedrin. His only possible crime was to believe in the resurrection and state as much. He has not stirred up dissension, he has not defiled the temple. He has simply preached the resurrection of the dead and served the God of our fathers.
Felix decides not to make a ruling now. This no doubt disappoints the Jews who hope to have the death sentence pronounced on Paul. He instead says he will decide the case after Lysias the commander comes down from Jerusalem (with the assumption that Lysias will not be biased one way or the other and can give an objective testimony – nothing in the text mentions if this ever happens). He orders Paul to be kept in custody – the fact that no one can come up with any real charges apparently has no bearing on Paul’s imprisonment – but to be given some freedom and be allowed to receive any of his friends.
It is interesting that the text says Felix decides not to make a ruling because he has a more exact knowledge about the Way. This seems to mean he understands Christianity better than Ananias and the other accusers and thus he knows Paul and his followers are not the rabble rousers the Jews say they are. It apparently is not enough to make him release Paul (he may worry about the political implications of releasing a man accused of sedition and also does not want to blatantly act against the Jews), but it is enough to put the Jews off and make no ruling regarding Paul’s guilt at all. It is within his authority to imprison Paul for as long as he likes without making a final ruling.
Some days after the hearing, Felix visits Paul along with his wife Drusilla. Drusilla is Jewish and was married before (to Azizas, king of Emesa) but Felix manipulated her divorce so he could have her. She is the youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa I and the sister of Agrippa II (who will also come to Caesarea and hear Paul – 25:13). It is perhaps because of Drusilla that Felix asks Paul to tell him about faith in Christ Jesus.
Paul testifies to the gospel and discusses righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come. The subjects scare Felix – justifiably, based on what we know about him – and he sends Paul away. He tells him, “Go away for the present, and when I find time, I will summon you.” The gospel is effective and convicts Felix of his present state. He becomes very uncomfortable and fearful, but instead of repenting and believing he decides to end the presentation so he no longer has to think about it. This actually is a very sad scene. Felix is close to salvation because he understands the implications of what he hears. But he is ultimately blinded by the world and by all that he would have to give up to believe.
Over the next TWO YEARS Felix sends for Paul periodically hoping that Paul will bribe him for his freedom (this may imply that Felix knows Paul has access to wealth). He is ultimately disappointed and eventually succeeded as governor by Porcius Festus [Felix is recalled to Rome after mishandling a dispute between the Jews and Syrians over control of Caesarea – his solution to the problem is to put down the dispute militarily and in the process kill many Jews (and plunder their property) – it could be that with that as the backdrop to his leaving Caesarea it is not a good time to offend the Jews further by releasing Paul]. This means Paul is imprisoned for two years without any official charge or resolution to his trial (and no end in sight as there is no sentence). He is simply imprisoned because corrupt Jews brought false charges against him to a corrupt governor who is hoping for a bribe and does not want to offend the corrupt Jews. This is yet another opportunity for Paul to become embittered because of the injustice of his situation (it is one thing to be imprisoned, but being imprisoned in limbo with absolutely no way to know how long it will go on would be maddening), but notice there is nothing in the text that implies that to be the case. Instead we can assume that he keeps trusting his fate to the One who judges righteously. As he will tell Philemon (Philemon 1), he is a prisoner of Jesus Christ, not of Rome.