Festus takes over as governor from Felix and inherits Paul as an unindicted prisoner of Rome. Festus hears the charges against Paul from the Jewish leaders – presumably the same charges they laid out before Felix – and hears Paul’s defense – basically the same defense he gave to Felix – and concludes he cannot decide Paul’s fate on his own. He then invites King Agrippa – a Jew – to hear Paul and decide if there are any charges that Felix perhaps missed. As the chapter ends, Paul prepares to makes his defense before Festus and Agrippa amid great pomp and in front of all the leading men of Caesarea.
Festus arrives in Caesarea to take over as governor of the Syrian province after Felix is recalled to Rome. Three days after he arrives, he goes to Jerusalem to discuss current matters with the Jewish leaders. He obviously knows his relationship with the Jews in Jerusalem is key to the peace of the province. His trip there so soon after taking office shows the importance he places on their goodwill and contentment.
It has been over two years since Paul was taken to Caesarea by the Romans and kept in custody there. Nevertheless, the Jewish leadership is still fervent in its desire to convict and execute him. The Jews take up Paul’s case with Festus as one of the first orders of business for the new governor. They ask Festus to grant a favor to them and have Paul brought to Jerusalem for trial. What they do not mention is that they plan to set an ambush to kill him on the way. Their hatred for his preaching and for him personally has not diminished during his absence.
Festus responds wisely to the Jews. Though he is apparently familiar with Paul’s situation (he knows Paul is in custody in Caesarea – vs 4), he has not heard Paul’s defense and may be wary of the Jew’s motives for wanting to bring Paul to Jerusalem. He also likely does not want to grant the Jews jurisdiction over a prisoner he has yet to examine. He tells the Jews that he will go back to Caesarea soon and that the influential men among them should travel with him to bring the charges against Paul in person there.
Festus stays in Jerusalem not more than eight or ten days and then travels back to Caesarea, apparently with the Jews who want to prosecute Paul. The day after he arrives (Festus’ actions since becoming governor show that he is definitely not a procrastinator – unlike Felix who effectively put off a decision on Paul for the last two years of his administration), he convenes a hearing and brings in Paul to face his accusers.
The Jews gather around Paul and bring many and serious charges against him which they cannot prove. They apparently bring up the same issues they laid before Felix. “Paul stirs up the Jews all around the world,” “Paul preaches against the Law” and “Paul defiled the temple.” Paul speaks in his own defense and denies everything. He says he has committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar (the last is a response to the charge that he stirs up dissension among the Jews throughout the world – this could be seen by Rome as sedition).
After hearing Paul’s defense, Festus asks if he would be willing to travel to Jerusalem and stand trial before Festus there (he asks instead of commands because Paul is a Roman citizen). On its face this is an odd request. What is the point of going to Jerusalem to stand trial before the same judge and against the same accusers as are here in Caesarea now? Festus will later justify this request by saying he did not feel qualified to rule on what are primarily religious issues and so sought to move the trial to Jerusalem to get help from the Jewish religious leaders in the city (vs. 20). While there is likely some truth to that explanation, the text says his real motivation is to do a favor for the Jews. He knows that if he takes Paul to Jerusalem – as the Jewish leaders originally asked him to do – he will score points with his most volatile constituency (which is a change of heart from his response to the Jews in vss. 4-5, but perhaps now that he has heard from both sides he feels more comfortable making a purely political decision).
Paul clearly understands the implications of Festus’ request. He answers Festus and says that he stands before Caesar’s tribunal which is where he should stand and be tried (a little bit of a rebuke to Festus). Since he has done no wrong to the Jews – which Festus knows to be the case – he cannot be handed over to them (the Jews have no proof that he has violated Jewish Law so he cannot be transferred to their jurisdiction – he rightly belongs under Roman jurisdiction). Paul goes on to say that if he has done anything worthy of death he is willing to face the consequences. However, he is not willing to risk his life as a favor to the Jews. Implicit in Paul’s remarks is his assumption that to be handed over to the Jews is to agree to be executed. He knows he stands no chance of a fair trial in Jerusalem and may also suspect that his odds of reaching Jerusalem safely are small (based on his knowledge of the ambush his nephew foiled two years ago – 23:16).
Paul ends his remarks by playing his trump card. He appeals to Caesar. This is an interesting request. Remember that no ruling or even formal indictment has been issued. That means his appeal is actually an appeal of the whole judicial process. He is not appealing a verdict; he is appealing the trial itself. What this says is that he no longer trusts Festus to give him a fair hearing. He now sees that Festus wants to placate the Jews and perhaps fears that if he does not take the trial to Rome and a different judge that his life is in danger. He may also assume that even if Festus does not hand him over to the Sanhedrin he will stay in limbo as the governor cannot find reasons to charge him but will not release him because of the political implications. From Paul’s standpoint he has no choice but to appeal to Caesar. He will later make it clear that he feels forced to appeal in light of the current circumstances (28:19).
Festus does not have to grant Paul’s request. Under the law he can refuse Paul and keep him under his own jurisdiction. However, he may see Paul’s appeal as a gift. By sending Paul to Rome he takes himself out of the decision. He does not have to either prosecute an innocent man or anger the Jews by releasing him (his status as a brand new governor likely figures into his actions in a major way – who wants to begin an administration by infuriating the most important and volatile constituency?). He does have the issue of how to explain the charges he is sending Paul to Rome to face, but at least he does not have to be the one to decide his fate. After conferring with his council he tells Paul, “You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go.”
An interesting fact about Paul’s decision to appeal to Caesar is that the man who is emperor at this time is Nero. That means Paul thinks he stands a better chance of a fair trial before Nero than before Festus and the Jews. To be fair, this is during the early years of Nero’s rule – he rules from 54-68 AD and it is currently around 59 AD – and is likely before his lunacy has fully showed itself.
Several days after the hearing, two distinguished guests arrive at the governor’s residence in Caesarea to welcome Festus to the area. The guests are King Agrippa (actually Agrippa II) and his sister Bernice. Agrippa is the son of Agrippa I and the great grandson of Herod the Great (the first Herod and the man who tried to kill baby Jesus in Bethlehem). He is also the brother of Drusilla (the wife of Felix). Agrippa’s aunt was Herodias, who instructed her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Agrippa I (Agrippa’s father) was the king who killed James, the brother of John, and imprisoned Peter with the intention of killing him also (12:1-3). Agrippa II is a Jew and is king over a small section of northern Palestine (he was a teenager when his father died and he was considered too young to take over his father’s position and rule), but has been granted authority over the temple and the appointment of the high priest in Jerusalem. This authority gives him a broad understanding of Jewish Law.
Agrippa travels with his sister Bernice who is also rumored to be his mistress (it is notable that he travels with his sister and not a wife). She is not married currently but has been twice. The first marriage – which was to her uncle – ended with his death. The second – which she entered into likely with the intention of quelling the rumors regarding her relationship with her brother – ended when she left her husband and returned to her brother’s house. Agrippa and Bernice are relatively young – both in their early thirties. Luke does not comment at all on Agrippa and Bernice’s relationship (he does not even mention that they are brother and sister) and nothing is said about it by either Festus or Paul (or at least nothing is recorded). If their situation is commonly known, it apparently has no effect on the respect paid to them in Caesarea. Luke stays silent likely because it has no bearing on Paul’s situation.
After Agrippa and Bernice have been with Festus for many days (how fun would it be to have a man and his sister/mistress – both of whom from the family of Herod – as house guests for many days?), Festus decides to tell Agrippa about Paul and see what he has to say (the fact that Agrippa is a Jew himself and interacts with the priests in Jerusalem makes him the perfect person to consult on Paul’s case). He explains that Paul was a prisoner Felix left to Festus, and that the Jews asked Festus about him immediately after he took office. He describes the hearing he convened wherein the Jews laid out their charges against Paul. He says that he was surprised at the manner of the accusations as he expected political charges that would make Paul a criminal in the eyes of Rome. Instead, all the Jews brought were points of disagreement with Paul about their own religion and about a certain dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive (Festus does not have the knowledge of Christianity that Felix had – 24:22 – but he has picked up that the dispute is basically about the life and death – and life – of Jesus).
Festus goes on to tell Agrippa that since he did not know anything about the religious issues raised at the hearing he wanted to take Paul to Jerusalem to stand trial, presumably so he could use the Jewish authorities as advisers on their law. He does not mention that he also wanted to take Paul to Jerusalem as a favor to the Jews, nor does he mention that Paul vehemently refused to go. Just like Claudius Lysias – 23:26-30 – he presents his actions in the best possible light.
Festus ends his story by explaining that Paul’s appeal to Caesar changed everything. Now there is no reason to take him to Jerusalem and no reason to further the proceedings. Paul has appealed to Caesar and so will be kept in custody until he goes to Rome. Interestingly, the way Festus phrases it makes it sound like Paul requested to be kept in custody (vs 21), when in fact he simply appealed his case to Caesar. Paul surely would not have objected to being declared innocent and released. Festus knows, however, that releasing him poses all kinds of problems for him and so looks at Paul’s appeal as a request for custody until he can be transferred (this will figure into Agrippa’s words about the impossibility of Paul’s release in light of his appeal in 26:32).
After hearing Festus’ story and probably understanding the implications of the religious dispute between Paul and the Jews better than Festus, Agrippa tells Festus he would like to hear from Paul for himself. Agrippa likely knows who Jesus was and may not consider the religious points of disagreement as unimportant as does Festus. Festus promises Agrippa that he will arrange for Paul to speak before him tomorrow.
The next day Festus pulls out all the stops for Paul’s appearance before Agrippa. He arranges a very formal and elaborate ceremony to bring Paul to the king. Agrippa and Bernice come into the auditorium amid great pomp accompanied by the commanders and the prominent men of the city. Everyone who is anyone in Caesarea is gathered to hear Paul. Festus obviously wants to make a show of his authority and position to his new friend Agrippa.
After everyone is gathered, Festus orders Paul to be brought in. Imagine this scene from Paul’s perspective. He is brought into the auditorium (nothing in the text as to what this building is or how large it is) and stands before an audience made up of the most powerful people in the area. He probably knows few of the men gathered. He may not even know exactly why he has been called. And yet he is about to be asked to testify on his own behalf with no questioning at all. This is the perfect illustration of Christ’s words to His disciples in Matt 10:19 – “But when they deliver you up, do not become anxious about how or what you will speak; for it shall be given you in that hour what you are to speak.” In an environment that any normal person would find wrenchingly intimidating, Paul will begin by saying how fortunate he is to give his defense to such a crowd (26:2). This is the power of the Spirit.
Festus begins the proceedings by explaining a problem he now has since granting Paul’s appeal to Caesar. He does not know what to send with Paul to explain the charges against him or the reason for his hearing before the emperor. As part of the appeal process, Festus must send with Paul a letter explaining all the details of his situation. Without this letter Festus could be charged for sending a prisoner to Rome without cause. He does not feel that Paul is guilty of anything the Jews have charged him with so he hopes that Agrippa, with his knowledge of Jewish law and his familiarity with their customs, will be able to help him know what to write.
Interestingly, he says these things after bringing Paul into the room so presumably Paul hears his remarks. Perhaps now that Paul is going to Rome and Festus no longer has to judge his case, he feels he can speak freely. Also, since the Jewish authorities are not in the room he does not have to worry about any political fallout.
His final statement before Paul speaks shows the ridiculousness of Paul’s situation. Festus says that it seems absurd to send a prisoner to Rome without indicating the charges against him. What could also be said is that it is absurd to imprison someone for years on end without being able to come up with any charges against him. Festus realizes the foolishness of what he is about to do by sending Paul to Caesar without charge. But it apparently does not occur to him that his actions in continuing Paul’s imprisonment are absurd on an even more fundamental level.
The dignitaries are gathered and Festus has explained the purpose of the assembly. Now the crowd waits for Paul to speak.
One question could come from studying this passage. Why? Why does God have Paul go through all of this? Why have Paul stay in limbo in Caesarea for over two years and go through three different hearings – and several audiences with Felix – instead of just moving events in a way that gets him to Rome sooner? What is served by taking the most effective evangelist of all time and planting him on the sidelines through the inaction of indecisive and cowardly bureaucrats?
There is no way to fully answer these questions. But consider what occurs during these years:
- Luke likely works on the manuscript that becomes Acts.
- Paul continues to see friends and likely ministers to them and through them (no evidence that he writes any epistles at this time – they seem to be written during his imprisonment in Rome).
- Felix, Festus, and Agrippa – all powerful and influential rulers in the area – hear the gospel (in some cases more than once) – men Paul would typically have no access to.
- All the prominent men of Caesarea along with the Roman commanders stationed there also hear the gospel – men Paul would typically have no access to.