A New Governor

Acts 25:1-5

Festus, the governor who succeeded Felix, is a shadowy player on the Roman stage. History outside the Book of Acts offers no information about him beyond a few words in Josephus, telling that he put down an insurrection during his brief time in office before his death. The figure Luke portrays builds an alliance with Jewish leaders that is stronger than his predecessor's.

The first move Festus made, only three days after taking his new position, was to go to Jerusalem and engage these leaders in discussion of issues hanging in the balance. After the trouble they caused Felix, Festus was determined to keep them on his side. The chief favor they sought was for Festus to handle their accusations against Paul by conducting his trial in Jerusalem. Their plan, if Festus yielded to their request and brought Paul up from Caesarea, was to have their agents ambush the convoy and kill Paul. But Festus refused to transfer him. He knew that he might incur the disapproval of higher authorities if, in dealing with a Roman citizen, he compelled the man to stand trial elsewhere than at a judgment seat recognized as a branch of Caesar's court. So, he demanded that the leaders come down to Caesarea and there make their case against Paul.

A New Trial

Acts 25:6-8

After more than ten days, Festus returned to Caesarea, taking with him a group of leaders desirous of accusing Paul. The next day, Festus sat in his judgment seat and summoned the prisoner to face his accusers. The Jews then stood around Paul and leveled charge after charge against him. The charges were both "many and grievous," no doubt calling for the death penalty. Luke does not tell us what the charges were, but we may surmise that many were well-worn lies, no doubt including the old charges that Paul and his Christian followers were disloyal to Rome and were continually fanning civil disturbances. When allowed to speak in his own defense, Paul brushed aside all the accusations as fabricated. He insisted that he had never committed a wrong against Rome, the Jews, or the Jewish Temple.

The Verdict

Acts 25:9-12

Festus now showed that he was going to pay more respect to Jewish wishes than Felix had done. To avoid complaints that could cut short his governorship, he would practice accommodation. He therefore asked Paul whether he would be willing to transfer proceedings to Jerusalem. Perhaps he hoped that Paul would welcome the change in venue because it would give him another opportunity to make Christians of his own people, the Jews. To make the proposal more attractive, he named himself as the judge Paul would face. He probably calculated that the prospect of a Roman judge would help Paul view the trial as impartial.

In asking for Paul's consent to be tried in Jerusalem, Festus was giving the prisoner a choice he was legally entitled to make. Otherwise he would not have put the question to Paul. Paul had the right to decide whether his trial would be conducted in a city other than its proper venue, Caesarea.

Delving Deeper

Roman law

Although modern scholars have done considerable work to reconstruct Roman legal codes and procedures, our knowledge is still imperfect. The most authoritative analysis of Paul's trials in Caesarea comes from A. N. Sherwin-White. But despite the yeoman's work that he and others have done, many questions have not been fully resolved.

One vexing uncertainty is exactly what kind of trial Paul would have faced in Jerusalem. So far as we can tell, no trial conducted by Festus had any significance or validity in the Roman legal system unless he presided from his judgment seat in Caesarea. Even the first hearing could not get underway until he physically sat down in the right chair (v. 6). Yet the Sanhedrin did have the right to administer justice as defined by Jewish law, although within certain boundaries set by Roman overlords. Festus evidently believed that he was entitled to offer himself as judge in a trial conducted under auspices of the Sanhedrin—that, as rightful judge in a higher court, he could refit himself as a proper judge in a lower court. Yet why did he imagine himself competent in such a role? Later on, he confessed that he was wholly ignorant of certain issues raised by the charges against Paul, since these had to do with Jewish religious beliefs. Perhaps he expected to limit the trial to charges dealing with Paul's conduct in Jerusalem.

As Paul viewed the options before him, he knew perfectly well that returning to Jerusalem would spell disaster. It was doubtful that he would be given adequate protection to thwart attempts on his life. It was even more doubtful that he could expect justice. In Jerusalem, Festus would be surrounded by clamorous Jewish leaders that he was anxious to please. He would see many incentives to rule against Paul. It would be especially easy to decide that Paul and his Christian allies had provoked civil disturbances.

What remaining option did Paul have? We surmise that he might have insisted on being tried in Caesarea, but he could see that Festus would not be an impartial judge. He would slant the proceedings and issue a ruling to serve his own agenda, which was to gain Jewish favor. If the ruling called for capital punishment, Paul could then appeal to a higher court. But it would be harder to win the sympathy of a judge in Rome if he had already been declared guilty by a lower judge. Therefore, his best option was to circumvent any trial in Caesarea by exercising his right to lodge an appeal immediately. In other words, Paul could escape a trial before Festus only by appealing to Caesar.

Doubtless another reason for the appeal carried strong weight. In Jerusalem, the Lord had revealed to Paul that his life would be delivered from danger there so that he might "bear witness . . . in Rome" (Acts 23:11). Paul therefore knew that choosing the path to Rome would serve God's purposes and win God's approval.

Paul worded his appeal in dramatic words rebuking the court for its unjust ruling. He bluntly accused Festus of wrongdoing in three respects: first, in his attempt to try Paul not at Caesar's judgment seat in Caesarea, but in Jerusalem; second, in his failure to exonerate Paul of many baseless charges; third, in his lack of any excuse for a wrong judgment, for he knew perfectly well that the charges were in fact baseless. In essence, Paul was accusing Festus of perverting justice for political reasons.

Festus withheld his reply until he had discussed Paul's case with his advisers. What did they need to discuss? At a later time in the empire's history, the central courts became so overburdened with cases that the right of appeal was limited to cases involving serious or extraordinary charges. There is some evidence that a universal right of appeal was already waning in the 50's, when Paul languished under arrest in Caesarea. But it is unlikely that retaining jurisdiction over Paul was a possibility weighed by Festus and his advisers. The case of a Christian evangelist whose work had unsettled a wide swath of Roman society had larger ramifications. Festus might well have antagonized higher authorities if he excluded them from final judgment. Besides, the charges against Paul clearly fell within the realm of a higher court.

But several questions did require heads-together consultation among the judge's team. Should they simply release Paul? Or should they deliver him a counterproposal to hold the trial in Caesarea? But they must have quickly agreed that there was no legal room for either of these responses to Paul's appeal. It was considered an act of serious dishonor to Caesar to resolve a case that had been formally committed to his judgment. Reaching a just verdict had become the business of Caesar’s court, and Festus no longer retained any role as judge.

Yet an appeal to Caesar did not require Festus to send the prisoner to Caesar immediately. It was entirely appropriate to delay shipping him off if the governor felt that the case warranted further investigation. When dealing with the cloudy charges overhanging Paul's case, Festus and his council may well have discussed what further information they needed to gather in order to provide Roman authorities with a full picture of evidence.

The final verdict was that if Paul wanted Caesar to judge him, then to Caesar he would go. Festus was doubtless relieved to resign all further responsibility for the case. He had already achieved his purpose, which was to make himself popular with the Jewish leaders.

Getting Practical

Divine sovereignty

In forcing Paul to make his appeal to Caesar, Festus behaved unjustly. He should have dismissed the complaints against Paul as unfounded and released him. When Festus appears before God in judgment, he will not escape punishment for his improper handling of Paul's case. Yet although his decision to hold Paul in custody was wrong, God let it stand, because He had already declared that Paul must bear witness to Christ in Rome (Acts 23:11). Festus's action was therefore according to God's sovereign will. God was able to use even an unjust decision to accomplish His purposes.

The story of how Paul went to Rome is therefore an illustration of an important principle—that the rulings of a person in authority, even though he is wicked and fails to do right, conform to God's will (Prov. 21:1). If an evil man is in control, Scripture does not forbid us from lawfully removing him from power if we can, nor does it forbid us from escaping from his jurisdiction if we can, but while we remain under his authority, we must submit to his commands, accepting them as from God. Although they appear wrong to us, we can be confident that God will bring good from them. In the end, they will bring glory to God. We must maintain an attitude of submission even if, as Festus treated Paul, the ruler punishes us for our faith. Then God will be glorified through our suffering. One way or another, the result will be that He receives the glory.

We must add a caution, however. As we have seen earlier in the Book of Acts, the requirement to submit to a ruler does not extend to rulings that would force us to disobey God. Then we must obey God rather than man.

Regal Visitors

Acts 25:13-22

A decision by Festus to investigate Paul's case further is likely why the apostle was still being held in Caesarea when, "after certain days," a neighboring ruler, Agrippa II, came to visit the governor. Perhaps he came by invitation to help Festus complete his review of Paul's case before sending it to a higher court. This Agrippa, who was king over territories to the north of Judea, belonged to the family of Herods. Like Drusilla, wife of Felix, he was a child of Herod Agrippa I, the ruler who beheaded James and tried to kill Peter. Agrippa came to see Festus in the company of Berenice, his younger sister and older sister of Drusilla. Berenice had been married twice, and it was rumored that her relationship with her brother was improper. It is of course shameful to speak of the wickedness men do, but the sordid lives of these elite Romans give us some insight on why they reacted to Paul as they did.

After Agrippa and Berenice spent many days with Festus, the governor confided to them that he had a difficult case to settle. He reviewed the proceedings against Paul, justifying his own decisions along the way. He said that while he was in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders wanted him to deliver Paul into their custody so that they might put him to death for a capital offense, but he refused, explaining that because Paul was a Roman citizen, no Roman magistrate or governor could release him for execution without first granting him a trial where he could face his accusers and answer their charges against him. In recognition of Paul's rights, Festus had brought him and the Jewish leaders together before his judgment seat in Caesarea. But there he was wholly surprised to find that the charges revolved about religious matters. He saw that the chief point at issue between Paul and his accusers was whether a certain Jesus had risen from the dead. Festus viewed all the claims of Paul and counterclaims of Jewish leaders with scorn, going so far as to characterize Jewish religious beliefs as mere superstition. Once he heard both sides, he found it impossible to reach a verdict, because he "doubted of such manner of questions." In other words, he was perplexed how to resolve questions that he viewed as foolish and that lay wholly outside his jurisdiction and competence. So, he decided to ask Paul whether he would be willing to stand trial in Jerusalem before fellow Jews who understood the issues under dispute.

To close his summary of the case, Festus shared with Agrippa and Berenice its current state. He said that Paul, adamantly opposed to a trial in Jerusalem, had appealed to Caesar, and that he, Festus, had consented. He was now retaining Paul in custody until it was convenient to send him on to Rome.

Agrippa responded by asking if he could hear Paul speak. No doubt the main reason was that he thought he could give better advice if he sized up the man accused. But in his request we also see pronounced curiosity. Paul was famous as the champion of a new religion who had "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). So, Agrippa may have wanted to hear Paul because he, like the Athenians, was always interested in hearing or telling some new thing (Acts 17:21). But from his reaction when he actually heard Paul, we may surmise that his curiosity had a deeper source—a gnawing disquiet in his soul.

Festus replied that Agrippa could hear Paul the next day.

Another Hearing

Acts 25:23-27

At the appointed time, quite a large crowd assembled. Not only did Agrippa and Berenice arrive in all their royal splendor and take seats before the throng, but also many distinguished citizens came. These included the "chief captains"—that is, the highest ranking officers—in the local contingent of the Roman army. Like Claudius Lysias in Jerusalem, each was a chiliarch, or military tribune, commanding a force known as a cohort. History informs us that five cohorts were stationed in Caesarea. Besides the five officers, the guests included the principal men of the city, most of whom were probably gentiles. It may come as a surprise to some readers that Paul's examination before the rulers was turned into a state occasion, marked by great pomp before a gathering of many dignitaries. The importance attached to Paul's appearance before the rulers shows that Paul was a famous man, whose imprisonment had attracted a great deal of public attention.

Festus opened the hearing by summarizing the facts of the case, going over much the same ground he had covered the day before when speaking privately to Agrippa. He described Paul as a man that the whole Jewish nation hated bitterly, to the extent that they would not accept any remedy except his death. But he gave as his own judgment that the man was guiltless of any capital crime. Without relating the circumstances that pressured Paul to appeal to Caesar, Festus merely recalled his decision to honor the prisoner's appeal and send him to Rome. Yet there was a difficulty, and he hoped that Agrippa might offer advice on how to overcome it. The difficulty was that Festus did not know what to say about Paul in his report to the authorities in Rome. He felt that he should send along with Paul a statement of charges against him, but he did not know what charges to state, since he had done nothing worthy of death under Roman law. He concluded with words that are so self-evident that they verge on being funny: "For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him" (v. 27). Yes, so the obvious question is, why had Festus proposed to try Paul in Jerusalem instead of dismissing the charges against him? Luke, in this account designed to read by judges in Rome, cannot help but point out the travesty of justice that Paul suffered in the court of Festus.

After Festus had introduced the proceeding, Agrippa took charge and invited Paul to speak for himself.

Getting Practical

Persecution as a divine tool

Much as we dislike persecution, it is powerfully effective in bringing Christianity to public notice. All the great and mighty wanted to attend Paul's defense before Festus and Agrippa. We surmise that his imprisonment had become a major news story throughout the region. With widespread discussion of his case, there was likely also much discussion of his message. Many may have considered the gospel who otherwise might have remained indifferent.

Likewise, when persecution falls upon us, we must trust God that He will use it to promote His kingdom. At such times, it is important that we retain a good spirit, that we keep a face full of confidence, and that we provide a bold and stirring defense of our faith in God (1 Pet. 3:15). The world will watch us closely to see if our faith is rooted deeply enough to sustain us, as faith in a real God would do, and if we allow the Holy Spirit to perfect our testimony in the midst of trial, our faith will put in the hearts of the watching world both a conviction of sin and a longing for the peace of God, and some will turn to Christ. We all know that we should be witnesses for Christ, but sometimes we forget that our best opportunities may come only with persecution. Therefore, we should welcome persecution, not in the sense that we gloss over the evil in suffering, but in the sense that we see beyond the suffering to the good that God intends in all things that happen to us.

Further Reading

Lessons on Acts 1-14 appear not only on this website, but also in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.