The Flimsy Case against Paul

Acts 24:1-9

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.

Getting Practical

A lie-infested world

The record of legal proceedings against Paul is a record of lies. Claudius Lysias lied to his superior. Tertullus's speech was a pack of lies. Of course, we live in a world where men lie habitually without a troubled conscience—not completely untroubled or else lie detector tests would not work. Two important features of lying stand out from the accounts of Paul's long ordeal after he was arrested.

  1. The usual reason people lie is to protect or promote themselves. That was the motive behind the captain's lie. The same motive explains why gossip may spread like a foul odor even when it is not true. Upon hearing that someone has fallen into sin or suffered another kind of failure, many people are quick to pass on the appetizing information to others. Why? Because it boosts self-esteem. The news that another person has feet of clay makes them feel either superior or less ashamed of their own feet of clay.
  2. Many liars think they are telling the truth. Claudius Lysias knew full well that he was lying, but the high priest and his friends may have thought they were presenting a fair case against Paul—that he was truly a pestilent fellow and the ringleader of an illegal sect. Perhaps they even thought that he did desecrate the Temple.

If people believe their own lies, they do not readily respond to the Holy Spirit as He seeks to show them that they are liars. All around us we see that people are becoming less capable of separating truth from falsehood. Here is one important reason that so many today are resistant to the gospel. They really believe the lie that it is their right to live as they please. The growing power and prevalence of lies fulfill prophecy. The Bible says that as history wears on, lies will infest society more and more, and that much of this lying will take the form of self-deception (2 Tim. 3:13).

Getting Practical

Fate of the plotters

Speaking of liars, we cannot help but remember the gang of conspirators—over forty in number—who vowed not to eat or drink until they killed Paul. They "bound themselves under a great curse" (Acts 23:12–13). Doubtless they called upon God to ruin them with some terrible retribution if they took nourishment before they accomplished the murder. Well, Paul escaped. What happened to the forty? Did any of them ever eat or drink again? You can be sure that one by one, they conveniently forgot the vow. It would hardly be realistic to expect self-sacrificing truthfulness in men who hated God's truth. But from God's perspective, their sin was not failure to starve themselves. A promise to do wrong should never be kept. Rather, their sin was to refrain from wrong only because it became impossible. You can be sure that before God, they will still be judged as murderers. We must always remember that God holds us guilty not only of sins we commit, but also of sins we attempt without success.

Paul's Answer to the First Two Charges

Acts 24:10-16

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 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.

Delving Deeper


To bolster Paul's claim that he was in Jerusalem only a brief time, Luke gives us a day-by-day record of events. In Paul's reference to twelve days since going up to worship, he apparently excludes the day of arrival, since the next was the first when worship was possible. These are the twelve days:

1/ day of his meeting with James (Acts 21:18),
2-5/ four days of purification, the fourth reckoned as toward the end of seven days (Acts 21:26–27),
5/ day of tumult (Acts 21:27),
6/ day before the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:30) 7/ day of plot (Acts 23:12),
8/ day of arrival in Caesarea (Acts 23:31-32),
9-11/ three intervening days,
12/ day of trial after five days, reckoning inclusively (Acts 24:1).

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.

Getting Practical

Growth even in the greatest

It is instructive to compare Paul's words before the Sanhedrin with his words before Felix. To the Sanhedrin he said, "I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day" (Acts 23:1), but to Felix he said, "Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men" (Acts 24:16). Notice the subtle revision. In the first statement he claimed to be perfect. In the second he said that he was trying to be perfect. The first, clearly a proud exaggeration, got him into trouble. The second, profiting from his earlier mistake, gave an accurate picture of himself. He made no pretense of perfection, but merely expressed the heart's desire of any godly man to be perfect like Christ.

Paul's Answer to the Third Charge

Acts 24:17-21

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.

Judgment Rendered

Acts 24:22-27

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.

Getting Practical

Evil in bribery

Giving money to a judge to secure a favorable ruling is, as we said, a bribe, which Scripture condemns, laying guilt both on the giver (Ps. 26:10; Prov. 17:23; Isa. 33:15) and the receiver (Exod. 23:8; Amos 5:12). If the church had purchased Paul's release, it would have rewarded Felix for a corrupt practice and made him more inclined in the future to set a price on justice.

Paul's choice to stay in long bondage rather than escape through compromise of a moral principle was meant as an example for Christians under persecution ever since. Many have, and many will, come to the same crossroads, with the path of imprisonment avoidable only by taking the path of bribery. The right path is always to follow Paul.

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.

Getting Practical

Inconspicuous forms of ministry

Why did God allow history's most successful evangelist to sit in confinement for two whole years, unable to carry on his work? The great Puritan preacher John Bunyan doubtless asked much the same question about himself while he sat almost twelve years in jail. Yet during his stay in prison, he wrote Pilgrim's Progress, which has been a blessing to far more people than he could have ever reached through personal ministry.

One possible reason for Paul's long imprisonment is that it gave his companion Luke an opportunity to do all the research and investigation needed as underpinning for his Gospel and for his accounts of the early church. He recalls this preliminary work in the preface to his Gospel (Luke 1:1–3).

It is not at all unlikely that even though authorship of both Acts and Luke is correctly assigned to Luke, he wrote them under Paul's supervision. Paul was not only Luke's spiritual mentor; he was also a chief apostle. Therefore, Luke would naturally view Paul as a higher authority to consult for guidance and editorial feedback on his work. We can imagine that during the two years of Paul's incarceration, there was between the two men a continual passing back and forth of Luke's manuscripts. Here then was another constructive and vitally important use of Paul's two years in jail.

A probable further use was to allow Paul himself to do some writing. We will, in the following discussion, argue that Caesarea is the likely setting of his epistle to the Philippians.

Also in our lives, when God sets us aside and we feel useless in the work of the Kingdom, we must assume that God is reserving us for a quiet work of great importance. If not a ministry of writing or other visible outreach, it may be a ministry of prayer, or of attention to our own spiritual needs. God's will for us at such a time may be to learn more of Christ and become a better replica of His character. God may view our growth in Christlikeness as having priority over everything else.

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.

  1. Above all, he wants the Philippian church to sense his gratitude for all they have given him (1:3–8; 4:10).
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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 earlier 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.

Delving Deeper

The case for setting Philippians in Caesarea

We can cite a fairly long list of reasons.

  1. Early in the letter, he says, "But I wish you to know, brethren, that the things concerning me rather have turned out to the advancement of the glad tidings, so as my bonds to have become manifest in Christ to the whole praetorium and to all the rest" (Phil. 1:13). The place where Paul was confined in Caesarea was known as the praetorium (Acts 23:35), translated "judgment hall," a reference to the governor's residence. J. B. Lightfoot, author of one of the most highly respected commentaries on Philippians, denies that any praetorium existed in Rome. Favoring Rome as the setting of Philippians, he argues that the term was also used for the whole Praetorian Guard, the elite force of soldiers who provided security for the emperor and enforced his rule in the imperial capital. Yet elsewhere in the New Testament, "praetorium" is always the name of a building housing Roman authority (Matt. 27:27; Mark 15:16; John 18:28, 33; 19:9).
  2. The warning in Philippians against false teachers who pose as believers is likely, as we said, pointing to Judaizers. The region where they were most numerous was surely Judea, which had always been their stronghold (Acts 15:1). Surely it was there, in the vicinity of Caesarea, that the activity of Judaizers would have been noticeable and troublesome. We have no evidence that they were a significant presence in Rome, nor that they ever reached that city.
  3. Twice in Philippians Paul speaks of giving a "defense" (Phil. 1:7, 17), the word apologia, which likely signifies a defense in court. In Caesarea, Paul defended himself at the very beginning of his imprisonment, but in Rome, not until after he wrote Second Timothy (2 Tim. 4:16; again, apologia). Thus, if Philippians originated in Rome, it must have been a companion piece to Second Timothy, although possibly coming later. Yet his outlook in the two epistles is altogether different. In Philippians he is hopeful of release soon (Phil. 1:23–26; 2:24), but in Second Timothy he sees death as imminent (2 Tim. 4:6–8). Not only because of the contrast between these epistles, but also for other reasons, his optimism in Philippians fits Caesarea better than Rome. As we have seen, Felix was always dangling before him the possibility of release.
  4. In Caesarea he had many local supporters. The church in that city was strong, and many thriving bodies of believers were nearby (Acts 8:40; 9:32–43; 10; 21:8–15). Although Roman believers warmly welcomed Paul when he arrived in their city (Acts 28:15), he later complained that local support was weak (2 Tim. 4:16). Therefore, since in Philippians he can praise local brethren for their vocal support (Phil. 1:14), and at the close of the epistle he can relay greetings from a whole body of saints (Phil. 4:22), the more probable setting is Caesarea.
  5. In Philippians, he also relays greetings from Caesar's household (Phil. 4:22). It is possible that he had some contact with Caesar's household in Rome, but it is doubtful that they regularly attended him while he was under house arrest. If he eventually moved to a more secure prison, he would have had even less occasion to interact with them. But in Caesarea, he abode in the governor's residence, where all domestic servants were considered members of Caesar's household. They would have been constantly moving about him and serving his needs.
  6. Lightfoot has argued at length that Philippians is most similar in style to Romans. Many of the same phrases and sentiments occur in both. Except perhaps for Titus, Philippians was the next epistle after Romans if Paul wrote it in Caesarea, not Rome.
  7. Philippians implies a previous imprisonment long enough to allow four trips: news of Paul's plight going to the Philippian church, the coming of Epaphroditus to Paul, news going back to the church of their representative's grave illness, and news of their reaction returning to Paul. The addition of preceding and intervening events to the story requires a fairly extended time scale, probably overlong if Paul was in Rome. From Philippi, a trip to Caesarea was somewhat quicker.
  8. As we will show, the evidence strongly suggests that Timothy did not accompany Paul to Rome, yet he was with the apostle when Paul wrote Philippians (Phil. 2:19).

Delving Still Deeper

Paul's hope of release

An admittedly strong objection to connecting Philippians with Caesarea is that the writer expresses confidence that he will be released soon (Phil. 2:24), yet he left Caesarea as a prisoner facing trial in Rome. Therefore, a popular theory is that Philippians was written in Rome shortly before a Roman court dismissed charges against him and gave him his freedom, allowing another season of ministry.

The counterview we favor is that in several Philippian texts where Paul looks hopefully into the future, he is simply giving a true picture of his own human feelings. He wants his release, he is praying for it, he believes that it would be best for the churches, and he trusts God that it will come to pass.

To the Philippian church he says, "I trust in the Lord that I also myself will come shortly" (Phil. 2:24). Could a divinely inspired author speak these words if events lying ahead would never allow his return to Philippi? Yes, he could. By "trust," he undoubtedly means that he is praying with strong faith that God will grant his desire. Since his desire will in fact never be fulfilled, is he lying or speaking in error? Of course not. Implicit in what he says is acknowledgement that God might dictate a better outcome. The faith energizing a believer's prayers might lift him to a high plane of certainty that God's answer will be, yes, but still he is not claiming omniscience. He still wants God's wisdom to prevail even if it requires Him to answer, no.

The proof of our interpretation is that Paul says explicitly that God might overrule his own desires. He says that he may or may not be able to revisit Philippi (Phil. 1:27) and that the verdict to be rendered by the present judge of his case is uncertain (Phil. 2:23).

But Paul also says, "And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith; That your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again" (Phil. 1:25–26). Could a divinely inspired author speak these words if the knowledge he claimed proved to be false? No, he could not, because calling it knowledge cannot be distinguished from calling it truth. Thus, if it proved to be false, the speaker is not inerrant.

Yet what exactly does Paul know? He knows only that he will not die soon. He will remain alive so that his ministry will continue to bless "you all," presumably the whole body of believers. The text we have quoted was a correct statement in Caesarea, for his confinement there would not end with his execution. He still had several years of life remaining.

In our English translation he adds that one reason God will spare him will be to allow another visit to Philippi. But here our English translation of Paul's words is misleading. "My coming to you again" indicates travel, whereas the actual meaning is, "my renewed presence with you [all]." He is looking forward to survival, not travel.

In Caesarea, Paul was in constant danger of falling prey to assassins. The Jewish leaders had conspired against his life (Acts 25:2–3). The fanatical zealots who vowed to kill him (Acts 23:12–15) were still at large. Who knows what plot they might have devised to penetrate the praetorium and stab him to death? Yet God assured his heart of coming deliverance. He would at the proper time escape from Judea, land of his enemies. That would be, in a dramatic sense, a renewal of his presence in the church.