Before Festus

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I've been reading recently about a technology journalist who gave up the internet for a year. He called this a response to a 'quarter-life crisis' at 26 despite a successful career he was not where he wanted to be in his life. He was singled and wished he was married. He was writing but couldn't finish the great American novel. Perhaps you can relate to that feeling of your life not being where you should be, life hasn't worked out the way you would have planned it.

As we join Paul at the beginning of Acts 25 you could forgive Paul for thinking the same way. By this point Paul has long given up his status and promising career as a Jewish Pharisee to become a penniless preacher of the Gospel. Now however, Paul finds himself in custody for two years, not for any crime he has committed but as favour to the Jews. In our passage tonight Paul's example shows us how to live when life doesn't seem to be working out as it should. I've got three points for us to pick up from this passage:

1. God hasn't forgotten you so serve him where you are (v1-5)

2. Forget yourself and serve God's purposes wherever he is calling you (v6-12)

3. Forget all else and be a  witness to the risen Lord Jesus (13-22)

1. God hasn't forgotten you so serve him where you are (v1-5)

1Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, 2 where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul. 3 They urgently requested Festus, as a favour to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way.

As chapter 25 begins Paul has been in custody in Caesarea for two years. The Jewish leaders haven't forgotten about him though and, seizing the opportunity of a newly appointed governor being in town, they ask him a favour. They want Paul to be transferred from Caesarea back down to Jerusalem in order that they might try and assassinate Paul, again.

The opposition Paul faces is tenacious and you might forgive Paul for thinking at this point; 'Where did it all go so wrong?'. After the dramatic nocturnal escape from Jerusalem in chapter 23 and Paul's brave, and seemingly convincing, trial appearance in chapter 24 Paul's case has been adjourned for two years in an effort to placate the Jews. What happened to the promise Jesus gave to Paul as he stood near to him in 23.11 saying that Paul would testify about him in Rome just as he had done in Jerusalem? Has God forgotten about Paul? The answer, of course, no. Take a look at v4,5:

4 Festus answered, "Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. 5 Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong."

Festus refuses to transfer Paul and in doing so unwittingly rescues Paul from another assassination plot. Now at first glance Festus' answer seems perfectly pragmatic; Paul's already in custody in Caesarea why don't you come to me rather than me wasting precious Roman taxes on transferring a prisoner back to Jerusalem. Certainly that fits with Festus' self-description to Agrippa later when he portrays himself as a paragon of legal efficiency.

Look a little closer though and we see evidence of God's provision for Paul; Festus offers the Jewish leadership the opportunity to press charges IF Paul has done anything wrong. Festus presumes Paul's innocence rather than bowing to public opinion against Paul which may well have been politically prudent.

Remember too what our Old Testament reading said of Cyrus another pagan ruler:

28... 'He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please'

Isaiah 44.28

God is sovereign. He is in control of everything. Festus appointment as governor is no accident and, whether it was Festus' desire for efficiencies or his willingness not to bow to public pressure which resulted in him refusing  the request to have Paul transferred, we can know that in doing so he was accomplishing exactly what God intended.Paul is where God wanted him to be at that particular time. God has not forgotten him and he has not forgotten his promise to Paul.

However, it's difficult for Paul to see that; Paul is still in prison as he has been for the previous two years. What is he doing? Well we saw last week that Paul is taking the opportunities that God has given him he is speaking boldly about faith in Christ Jesus to Felix and his wife Drusilla. In doing so Paul provides us with a great example of what we can do even when it seems (and that word 'seems' is important) like God's purposes are being frustrated in our lives.

Paul doesn't give up, he doesn't lose heart as we'll see from his bold defence shortly Paul is not laid low by the opposition he faces.

Paul takes advantage of the gospel opportunities he has now. Paul doesn't bribe his way out of prison nor does he, at this stage, use his I'm a Roman citizen get me out of here (or at least to an appeal) get out of jail free card.

Perhaps this evening you are not where you'd like to be in your life - things are not going to plan. Can I tell you that they are going to plan - just not your plan. Now that doesn't mean that there aren't heartaches and pain and disappointment and longing for things to be different in our lives - they are real. But God has not forgotten about you, nothing is wasted and in whatever circumstances you find yourself in there will be gospel opportunities to take hold of.

So if you're a mum with young kids and you feel like the last time you had an adult conversation with someone about anything nevermind about the gospel was in the dim and distant BC (before children) era - consider that your mission field might have moved. But praise God that at least the primary one is now tugging at your heels, watching, listening and learning everyday waiting for you to show them what it looks like to live with Jesus as your friend and Saviour - give yourself fully to that task.

Or if you're single take up Paul's high calling in 1 Corinthians 7 to live with undivided devotion to the LORD and use the freedom from concern for a spouse for the good of others, carefully nurture godly friendships and your own love and knowledge of God. Serve where and when others can't and soon you may not be able to either.

God does not forget us. God was capable of turning the Roman legal system into a vessel for the gospel and he is still capable. He is able to both change our circumstances dramatically and/or change us so dramatically that we might praise him for, and be fruitful in, circumstances we may never have chosen for ourselves.

Paul writes later to the Philippians about another occasion when he was held under house-arrest: 'Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel'. We may live joyfully in any and every circumstance if that is true. That's point one: 'God hasn't forgotten you so serve him where you are'...

2. Forget yourself and serve God's purposes wherever he is calling you (v6-12)

In v7 the Jews restate their case against Paul bringing many serious or 'heavy' charges against him which they are unable to prove. Paul makes his defence and states categorically that he is innocent. Festus offers Paul a trial before him in Jerusalem but Paul refuses and in v11 finally plays his I'm a Roman citizen get me out of here (or at least to an appeal) get out of jail free card. Read with me from v8:

8 Then Paul made his defence: "I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar."

9Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favour, said to Paul, "Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?"

10 Paul answered: "I am now standing before Caesar's court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. 11 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no-one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!"

12 After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: "You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!"

The question we may ask ourselves is; why does Paul appeal to Caesar now and why didn't he do it at any point during the previous two years? We've already been reminded that Rome was where Jesus himself had commissioned Paul to go and testify on his behalf - why hadn't Paul already appealed to Caesar? We have a couple of options:

Paul is in fact guilty and was afraid to go to Rome because that was where the stakes were highest and could face the ultimate sanction - death.

Was Paul was now so worried about what a trial in Jerusalem would mean for him that he finally shows his hand throwing himself on the mercy of the  Roman legal system.

However, when we look at Paul's defence in v8-11 neither of these options really fit. Paul is convinced of his own innocence, he has a clear conscience stating in v8:

"I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar."

Or more literally: against the Jews, against the temple or against Caesar I have not sinned. Paul is convinced of his innocence but more than that he is prepared to die if he has done anything worthy of death v11. Paul seems to have little concern for his own future freedom or even if he lives or dies. No for Paul there is a different motivation for all his actions and that is to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I think the best explanation as to why Paul is yet to appeal to Caesar is that he has had a remarkable opportunity to speak of 'faith in Christ Jesus' as chapter 24.24 puts it to Felix and his wife Drusilla - members of the Roman ruling class. Paul has languished in custody for their sakes and for the sake of witnessing to Jesus Christ in a place that few others would be able/want to. Indeed this would seem to fit very well with Paul's charge given to himself and Barnabas by the Holy Spirit in Acts 13 to preach to the Gentiles.

Now however, Felix has been succeeded and Paul faces the likely prospect of being transferred back to Jerusalem in the opposite direction from his commission to testify of Jesus in Rome. Paul exercised what some have called sanctified common sense. That is; Paul looks at his current situation and asks how can I best fulfill the task  have been given here. I think Paul reasons that the opportunities he has been presented with in relation to Felix and Drusilla are worth delaying his arrival in Rome for. What's more Paul seems to do all this with complete disregard for his own comfort, safety or long-term security. Paul has mission focus.

When would you have appealed to Caesar? Would you have exercised your right as a Roman citizen to access justice at the first occasion or would that decision first pass through a gospel filter? Paul had a direct command to be a witness to Jesus, specifically, in Rome. We don't have that but we do have the command to witness to Jesus to the whole earth, to live seeking his kingdom and his righteousness. When new opportunities arise, when our life circumstances change is that commission part of our thinking?

Take for example when we look to move house are we thinking in terms of gospel ministry? Is this where God wants me to be ministering? How can I obey God's instruction to practise hospitality here? Is God calling us to move and serve him somewhere else? Or are the questions simply how long will my commute be now and what are the ofsted reports of the local schools like? Not that either of those are bad questions, just that they are not the only questions, nor even the first ones for followers of Jesus.

Would you consider living somewhere else for the sake of the Gospel? Might God be calling you to a different living or a different standard of living? Do you need to reconsider the way you are doing what you are doing now in light of Gospel imperatives?

Paul has served God where he has placed him but now the circumstances have changed. Paul however is so free from concern about himself that he is able to choose regardless of whether he lives or dies the place where he can maximally fulfill the charge that God has given him. That's our second point: Forget about yourself and serve God's purposes wherever he is calling you

3. Forget all else and be a  witness to the risen Lord Jesus (13-22)

The final part of our passage  v13-22 functions as a narrative summary of the previous twelve verses; Festus recounts Paul's case before the visiting King Agrippa in order to gain Agrippa's (who was Jewish and appointed the High Priest) advice on what to with Paul. Festus gives an overview of the circumstances of Paul's case in v13-17 making sure to present himself as an efficient and scrupulous adherent to Roman law. The key verses come though in v18-21:

18When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the charges I expected. 19 Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. 20 I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. 21When Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor's decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.

'...and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.' That's what's at the heart of Paul's case and more significantly what's at the heart of Paul's life the question of whether Jesus has really conquered death and therefore whether or not he is truly LORD.

It's this question that has been the theme throughout these past couple of chapters. In 23.6, 24.15 and 21 it is because of his hope in the resurrection of the dead - both the righteous and the wicked that Paul is on trial. Particularly though it is Paul's faith in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that is under the micrscope here. It is his encounter with the risen Lord Jesus that Paul has been consistently  testifying to, not some general theological agreement with the Pharisees that there would be a resurrection but a personal relationship with and certain hope based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It's this claim that is at the heart of Christianity; that Jesus lived the perfect life that we could not live, that he died taking the punishment we deserved and that he rose again for our justification proving for all mankind that Jesus is LORD. Paul himself says that without the certain hope that Jesus is risen Christians are to be pitied more than all men.

And it's this hope that is at the heart of the opposition and persecution that Paul is now facing. Hope in life after death, in a resurrection in general terms caused in fighting among the Saducees and Pharisees but the claim that Jesus Christ has risen and is therefore Lord of all creation and over every man is incendiary. Christ's resurrection means that he cannot be ignored, cannot be palmed off as an optional lifestyle. Jesus is risen and he is LORD or he hasn't and he requires no further inspection.

It's the claim that Jesus is risen and is therefore LORD that underpins everything else. Even the pagan pragmatist Festus seems to understand the centrality of this claim though he has little idea of how to investigate it. Take for example the current debate over same sex marriage. Now I know that we seem to talk about it a lot but that's because the debate isn't really over same sex marriage it's about whether Jesus is LORD. If Jesus is LORD then we are not our own and every part of our lives including our relationships and our sexuality are under his command. If Jesus is LORD and has rescued us from God's rightful wrath at our sin then he can be trusted not just to exercise that command but to do so for our good. However if Jesus is not LORD then someone or something else must take that place. For some societies that might be the state or the family for us it is the autonomous individual whose right to choose how they live is, well the best word is, sacred.

So what I want to say for us that above all else witnessing to the risen Lord Jesus Christ is what our lives should be about both as individuals and as a church. Now there are many other good and useful things which we may involve ourselves in and with but it must not be less than proclaiming Christ Jesus as Lord.

The encouraging thing from this passage is that both Festus and Agrippa are both at the very least highly intrigued by Paul's claims about Jesus. Which is all the more remarkable when you understand who they were.

The exchange here between Festus and Agrippa echoes that of Pilate and Herod during Jesus' own trial and yet there is far more proactive interest in the dead man Jesus who Paul claims to be alive than in the yet to be crucified Jesus on trial before Pilate. Like Pilate, Festus was a pagan, far off from the things of the God of Abraham, Moses and Jacob. As we've seen he was a pragmatist wanting to satisfy the demands of his office and yet he through Agrippa calls something like an ancient version of the Leveson inquiry into Paul's claims. Agrippa himself like Herod is an immoral religious hypocrite; one of his sisters was in fact Drusilla the third wife of the previous governor; Felix and his other sister was Bernice who he had taken as his Queen.

Both of these men though want to know more about Jesus through Paul. A pagan pragmatist and a religious hypocrite are both captured by the claim that Jesus is Lord. Isn't that our experience? People are attracted to Jesus above all else, above all of our good intentions, above all of our warm welcomes and good coffee and comfy seats - all of which are great things but it's Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen again that move people from being observers to becoming disciples of Christ and worshippers of God.

After dropping my children off at nursery on a Thursday I walk past Gateshead Evangelical Church above it's doors are four words in large capital letters: JESUS CHRIST IS LORD. That's a good sign (in two senses). It's the sign that should be hung across the door of each of lives, across the doors of our homes spiritually of not physically. This is our task above all else. Indeed the book of Acts began with this commission to the church:

8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

That is to be our mission too, to witness to the risen Lord Jesus: where we are, wherever God calls us and above all else. Amen.

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