The Flimsy Case against Paul
Claudius Lysias commanded the Jewish leaders to meet the governor in Caesarea if they wished to state charges against Paul. In a hurry to comply, they arrived in Caesarea only five days after Paul was imprisoned there. Among them was their top man, the high priest Ananias—the one who ordered Paul struck on the mouth. He was accompanied by other key men in leadership as well as by an orator named Tertullus. The orator would act much as a prosecuting attorney in our day. On behalf of the rulers, he would tell of Paul's crimes before the governor Felix, who would sit as judge.
Tertullus began with daring flattery, complimenting Felix in flowery words for achievements that everyone knew he had failed to attain. The orator said that Felix brought quietness to the nation, whereas his administration was marked by fierce repression of Jewish dissidents. He was finally recalled from office when he used heavy-handed methods to stop riots between Jews and gentiles in Caesarea. In Tertullus's carefully crafted speech, the Jewish leadership was signaling to Felix that although he had made himself unpopular in the nation as a whole, they were willing to support him if he would only take their side against Paul.
The three charges stated by the orator were vague. He said that Paul was a "pestilent fellow" and a "mover of sedition." In other words, he provoked civil unrest and violence. Since the Jewish nation was infested with troublemakers who were always forcing the Romans to intervene and restore order, the Jewish leaders calculated that this charge would win a sympathetic hearing. Tertullus said next that Paul was a "ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes," as if Christians were a gang of criminals. The religion of the Jews was a religio licita—that is, the Romans had granted it official toleration and conceded to it certain rights. But the Jewish leaders did not accept that the church had legal standing as well, even though it was an offshoot of their religion. Their spokesman Tertullus called it a "sect," in an attempt to brand it as an illegal movement. To further belittle the followers of Jesus, he referred to them as "Nazarenes," a name with derogatory overtones because Jesus' place of origin did not have a good reputation (John 1:46). It was therefore the name preferred by enemies of the church. The language of the orator's second charge was calculated to arouse in Felix the suspicion that the church was just another political movement trusting in a messiah to overthrow Roman rule. Finally, Tertullus accused Paul of profaning the Temple. As we have noted before, the Romans recognized the right of the Jews to protect the Temple from anything they regarded as defilement.
Next, the orator sought to neutralize the damage done by the report from Claudius Lysias. The captain said that he rescued Paul from a mob acting outside the law. He therefore made the Jewish leaders appear unworthy of the rights Rome granted them. Why might Felix draw this conclusion? Because the furor which the captain found in the Temple compound suggested that the Jewish leaders either could not control their own people, or that they were unconcerned to maintain order as the Romans expected them to do. Tertullus defended the leaders with a bald lie. He said that they arrested Paul in a proper manner and were taking him for judgment when the Romans interfered. With great violence entirely uncalled for, they seized Paul from their hands. Tertullus was saying that if there was a riot, the Romans caused it. The Jewish leaders knew that Felix was sensitive to any charge that the Romans overreacted. His job was in jeopardy because he himself had overreacted in the past.
Paul's Answer to the First Two Charges
Under Roman law, Paul had the privilege of speaking in his own defense. The orator's presentation had served its purpose, but fell far short of Paul's response. In public debate, Paul was never bested.
He too started with words of tribute to Felix. Anything else would have been improper and disrespectful. Yet he avoided flattery. The only good thing he attributed to Felix was his experience as a judge. He implied that because Felix had judged the nation for many years, he was qualified to weigh the accusations against Paul.
He replied to the charges one by one. First, in response to the charge that he was a raiser of sedition, he pointed out that he had gone to Jerusalem only twelve days ago. Since it was now five days after he came to Caesarea, he had spent only about a week in the city. How much mischief could he have planned and performed in such a brief time? In fact, he had done nothing in Jerusalem to cause trouble. He had gone to the city to worship, and while there he had conducted himself with perfect decorum. His accusers never found him arguing with anyone or stirring up strife anywhere, neither in the synagogues nor in the streets.
Second, Paul acknowledged that he was a Christian, but denied that he belonged to an illegal sect. Rather, he faithfully followed a legal religion—the religion of the Jews. In matters of worship and conscience, he had in no way departed from the traditions which he inherited from his Jewish ancestors. He retained all the beliefs of his fathers and lived in perfect obedience to the moral law that his fathers received from God. He insisted that his belief in the resurrection of the dead was by no means a heretical twist of his ancestral religion. Even his enemies held the same belief.
He continued by strongly affirming that his deepest desire was to meet all obligations to God and man that the Jewish religion had taught him. He wished to walk uprightly, so that his conscience would not trouble him with guilt for any offense.
Paul's Answer to the Third Charge
Paul went on to answer the third accusation—that he profaned the Temple. He said that far from having any evil purpose when he came to Jerusalem, he was intent on good deeds. He brought "alms" (that is, money to be distributed among the poor in the city) and offerings (that is, worship offerings). When he was arrested inside the Temple compound, he was doing nothing wrong. He was not haranguing a crowd or engaging others in controversy. He was there simply for private worship. Paul then made the telling argument that if he was truly at fault, why had the leaders failed to produce any eyewitness testimony to his wrongdoing? If any Jews saw him profaning the Temple, they should have come before Felix and presented their evidence. The only testimony that the Jewish leaders themselves could bring against him was that he affirmed before the Sanhedrin his belief in the resurrection of the dead. To hold such a belief was hardly a crime.
Having shown that the case against him had no basis, Paul concluded his defense. He had made it clear to Felix that to judge him guilty would be a travesty of justice, whether under Jewish law or Roman law.
Felix was indeed a good man to hear the case, because he was well-informed about Christianity. Perhaps his acquaintance with the new religion derived from his wife Drusilla, who, as the youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa—the same Herod who beheaded James—had been raised in the midst of the Jewish nation. Moreover, unlike her husband, she was a Jew. Thus, she was familiar with all the customs and affairs of her people. However it happened that Felix came to know the background of the charges against Paul, he perceived that some were false and some exaggerated, and so he sidestepped a verdict that would have satisfied the Jews. He neither found him guilty nor turned him over to the Jews for trial. Rather, he procrastinated. He said he would consider the matter later, after Claudius Lysias came with a fuller account of recent events. In the meantime, he entrusted Paul to the custody of a centurion and commanded that he be kept under house arrest. His friends would be free to visit him and minister to his needs.
A while later, Felix and Drusilla summoned Paul to explain further his faith in Jesus Christ. Although still a teenager, Drusilla was in her second marriage. She left her first husband at age sixteen and married Felix, who already had two wives. Here we have a glimpse of how corrupt the Roman elite had become. Whether Felix and Drusilla wanted to hear Paul out of genuine interest in his message or out of simple curiosity about this man who turned the world upside down, we do not know. Since we know nothing of Drusilla's later history, we can hope that the gospel left her a changed woman. But as we will see, her husband gives us little reason to hope.
Paul preached to them without mincing words. Even though his life was at the mercy of Felix, he boldly declared that God will hold men accountable for their lives and judge their sin. He defined sin as the opposite of righteousness and self-control—forms of virtue which these two hearers were notably lacking. The Holy Spirit brought guilt to the conscience of Felix, at least, for he trembled in fear, and although he sent Paul away, he promised to call him back. And he kept his promise, for in the coming months he brought Paul to speak with him often.
Yet Felix had mixed motives. From the first he thought that if he treated Paul cordially, Paul might get the idea that with a little encouragement, the governor would grant him freedom. The encouragement Felix wanted was a bribe. It is evident that Paul's attempt to quicken a desire for righteousness in Felix's heart made little impression. As time passed, it is likely that the man's sense of guilt subsided while his greed mounted. From Paul's own testimony he knew that the apostle had collected funds in other regions as charity for the poor in Jerusalem. He was hoping that Paul's supporters would raise more funds for Paul's release.
For two more years, Paul waited in Roman custody for Felix to dispose of his case. Although Paul was a Roman citizen, the governor was entitled to hold Paul as long as he pleased, given that Paul had not yet appealed to Caesar. Finally, Felix was removed from office and replaced by Porcius Festus. But even then Paul did not regain his freedom. Felix decided that to please the Jews, he should leave Paul in bonds.
He was seeking their favor because he was leaving office under an indictment that the Jewish leaders brought against him for his handling of riots in Caesarea. The city was a mixture of large Jewish and gentile communities, both striving for dominance. When the ill feeling between them erupted in violent clashes, Felix responded by sending in Roman troops that targeted the Jews, killing or imprisoning many while plundering their wealth. A delegation of Jews then went to Rome and lodged complaints against Felix that won a sympathetic hearing. As a result, higher authorities summoned Felix to face trial in Rome, and he left Caesarea hastily under a cloud of disgrace. The last thing he wanted to do was to antagonize the Jews further by setting Paul free.
Some ambiguity in the historical evidence has left scholars uncertain as to when Festus succeeded Felix, but the most plausible date is AD 60.
The setting of Paul's epistle to the Philippians has always stirred considerable debate. Since Paul speaks of himself in bonds (1:7, 13–14), the epistle is rightly classified with the so-called Prison Epistles. The prevailing view has always been that he wrote it after he went to Rome. The single piece of evidence generally considered decisive in favor of this view is that at the end of the letter, he relays greetings from saints in Caesar's household (4:22). Yet it appears from emerging evidence, although scanty, that the domestic servants in any governor's residence within the empire were also considered members of Caesar's household, since the governor held property and exercised authority only as Caesar's representative. The tentative view we will adopt in this commentary is that Philippians is better connected with Paul's imprisonment in Caesarea.
With Timothy at his side (1:1), he wrote the epistle in response to a great kindness that the Philippian church had shown him. Having heard of Paul's confinement by unjust rulers, they sent him one of their members, Epaphroditus, with a gift as a token of their sympathy. Paul refers to the gift as "things" (4:18), but in the context of the preceding verses (vv. 10–17), there can be little doubt that what they sent him was money. While visiting Paul, Epaphroditus became desperately ill, almost to the point of death, and news of his sickness reached the brethren at Philippi, touching off great distress. When Paul heard of it, he sought to relieve their hearts by sending Epaphroditus, now fully recovered, back to his home church (2:25–30).
The epistle he sent by the hand of Epaphroditus contains four primary messages.
- Above all, he wants the Philippian church to sense his gratitude for all they have given him (1:3–8; 4:10).
- Since they originally sent Epaphroditus not only to provide material help, but also to encourage him at a time when he might have fallen into discouragement, Paul replies to their kindness by reassuring them that he is not discouraged. Despite the great trial of living in bonds, he has not lost his joy in the Lord. Rejoicing is perhaps the most prominent theme of the epistle. He repeatedly urges them to practice it (1:25–26; 2:18, 28; 3:1), recommends it for all believers (4:4), and claims it as his own state of mind (1:4, 18; 2:2, 16–17; 4:1, 10). To protect them from sinking into discouragement themselves as they behold his troubles, he reminds them that even the worst he has endured has been designed by God to accomplish good purposes (1:12).
- Perhaps through Epaphroditus he has heard of friction within the Philippian church. Therefore, he exhorts them in strong language to set aside differences and live at peace. He deals with one particular conflict by naming the individuals responsible and commanding them to stop bickering (4:2–3). Yet in the same church there must have been other divisive currents, because he repeatedly upholds unity, reinforced by a constructive mindset, as the norm for believers (1:27; 3:15–17; 4:5–9). It is in this epistle that we find his famous praise of humility after the example of Christ (2:1–16). He emphasizes humility because he conceives of it as the remedy for strife (2:3).
- Based on his own recent experience, he warns them of a particular dangerous enemy looming outside the church. These are evil workers in the guise of pious disciples of Christ. In the first chapter, he does not identify them (1:15–16), but later he points to them as the "concision" (3:2), referring to those circumcised (3:2–8, 18–19). He must be referring to Judaizers, the same faction of the early church who in years past had bred confusion in Antioch and the Galatian churches as well as in Jerusalem. It appears that they resurfaced in new strength when Paul, the man chiefly responsible for their loss of influence, was arrested in Jerusalem and carried off for trial. They took the opportunity to "preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds" (1:16). Perhaps Paul is warning the Philippians against these false teachers because they were aggressively renewing efforts to spread their doctrines to the Greek world.