The new governor, Festus, gave a fresh opportunity to the Jews. Morally more respectable than Felix, he knew not God and therefore could not be trusted for man. Faith to him was quite unintelligible, an enthusiasm. But he soon learnt enough of the Jews to make him guilty in his willingness to gratify them in the sacrifice of Paul. Policy is a sad destroyer of conscience.
'Festus, therefore, having come into the province, after three days went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews informed him against Paul; and they besought him, asking a favour that he would send for him to Jerusalem, laying wait to kill him on the way. Howbeit Festus answered that Paul was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself was about to depart [there] shortly. Let them therefore saith he, that are of power [authority] among you go down with me, and if there is anything amiss in the man, let them accuse him' (vers. 1-5).
The providence of God is still in action. On the one hand the Jews sought under colour of favour to have the apostle waylaid on the road to Jerusalem; on the other the governor stood to the dignity of his office, and would not have it lowered. As Paul had already been sent to Caesarea, he declined moving him back to Jerusalem. It is possible that he knew little or nothing of their murderous designs. If so, it was the secret care of God for one unjustly assailed. But rumours would easily get currency as to any such plot. At this time the governor was not prepared to surrender a Roman citizen to the malice of his enemies, especially of a Jewish sort on a religious dispute. The Lord in any case watched over his servant. The accused was in Caesarea, and if anywhere in that land the supreme seat of judicature was there in Roman eyes. The governor by his decision hindered the execution of their plot. He was returning to Caesarea himself shortly: if therefore any wrong was in question, they had their opportunity to come down and accuse the prisoner.
'And when he had tarried among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down unto Caesarea, and on the morrow he sat on the judgment-seat, and commanded Paul to be brought. And when he was come, the Jews that had come from Jerusalem stood round about and laid many and grievous charges which they could not prove; while Paul said in his defence, Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I sinned at all' (vers. 6-8). The case was as plain as could be. The accusations were without proof; the defence was complete. The Jews were simply bitter enemies. The apostle had not transgressed as to any of the many serious charges they had laid to his account.
But Festus was really little better than Felix. The change of judge was only slightly in favour of justice. There was the same selfishness which had counteracted equity before. Impossible to expect the fear of God in a heathen man, though some may have been more depraved and unjust than others.
'But Festus, desiring to gain favour with the Jews, answered Paul and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me?' (ver. 9). So little can man be reckoned on. Festus had refused this very favour to the Jews in Jerusalem; he could scarcely be in the dark as to the reason why Paul had been hurried down to Caesarea. His motive was to curry favour with the Jews. 'But Paul] said, I am standing before Caesar's judgment-seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou also very well knowest' (ver. 10).
The apostle must have had cause for speaking so plainly. 'If then I am a wrong-doer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die. But if none of these things is [true] whereof these accuse me, no man can give me up [or grant me by favour] unto them. I appeal unto Caesar' (ver. 11). It is clear that all the righteousness of the case lay with Paul. He therefore avails himself of his title as a Roman citizen against those who would have infringed Roman law. He agitated no change of law, he sought nothing for himself, he employed no lawyer. The law had already ruled, and he pleaded it before one in office to administer it.
Thus so far the difficulty was terminated. The governor was bound by the appeal. 'Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, Thou hast appealed unto Caesar: unto Caesar shalt thou go' (ver. 12). The king, or emperor, was to hear, no less than subordinate magistrates, and this not by fawning on, or seeking access to, the princes of this world, but as holy sufferers with Christ and for His name (Mat_10:18).
It was Paul's purpose to visit Rome after going to Jerusalem (Act_19:21), and God gave effect to it, for it was God's purpose (Act_23:11). But how different was the way under His hand from the apostle's expectation! He must go a prisoner to Rome. This befell him through his appeal to Caesar - an appeal by no means always granted, as it was evidently liable to abuse. If the guilt were manifest, it was refused: so also if the case were frivolous enough to be unworthy of the emperor's hearing. Paul, whose innocence was unquestionable, while the case was rendered in the highest degree serious through Jewish illwill, appealed when he saw the procurator trifling with justice to gratify the Jews. This decided matters for the present.
But the Spirit of God saw further testimony needed by man, and this was brought about by a visit of distinguished visitors to the Roman governor soon after.
'Now when certain days passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to salute (or, having saluted) Festus. And as they were spending several days there, Festus set Paul's case before the king, saying, There is a certain man left prisoner by Felix, about whom when I was in Jerusalem the chief priests and the elders of the Jews filed information, asking for condemnation against him. Unto whom I answered, that it is no custom for Romans to give up any man before that the accused have the accusers face to face, and have had opportunity of defence concerning the complaint. When therefore they came together here, I made no delay but next day sat on the judgment-seat and commanded the man to be brought; concerning whom when the accusers stood up, they were bringing no charge of such evil things as I supposed, but had certain questions of their own religion, and of one Jesus dead as He is, Whom Paul affirmed to be alive. And I, being perplexed in the inquiry concerning these things, asked whether he would go to Jerusalem and there be judged of these things. But when Paul appealed to be kept for the decision of Augustus, I commanded him to be kept till I should send him unto Caesar. And Agrippa [said] unto Festus, I also should wish to hear the man myself. Tomorrow, saith he, thou shalt hear him' (vers. 13-22).
The royal personage here introduced was son of Herod Agrippa I., whose awful fate was described in Acts 12. Too young to reign at his father's death, he was by Claudius given Chalcis, the principality of his uncle, with certain privileges in Jerusalem; and Philip's old tetrarchy and more were added by the same emperor soon after, with the title of King. Bernice was his elder sister, Drusilla his younger, and each of them famous or infamous in that day with reason too grave. As Felix and Drusilla had a most solemn warning from the prisoner, so now were Agrippa and Bernice with Festus to hear an appeal which leaves no soul as it is found. The truth before the conscience carries with it a responsibility which eternity, not to say the judgment-seat of Christ, will fully manifest. Yet the man involuntarily forced to feel its power can ask, What is truth? and goes out hard and wretched from His presence Who alone can give the adequate answer. But wisdom is justified of all her children; as she learnt, who had been till then a child of folly: Jesus was of God made to her wisdom and every other good she lacked (Luk_7:35-50). Why was it not so with these high estates?
The governor's motive for bringing Paul before Agrippa appears to have been his own doubt what to report to the emperor. Festus was just a man of the world. Of grace, of truth, he had no notion. The invisible and eternal realities were to him only imaginative ideas. Present things, changeable and fleeting as they are, were his life and all. God was in none of his thoughts, apart from the Lord Jesus He remains unknown.
There was another obstacle in his way, even his good opinion of himself, and his endeavour to claim from others the highest character for honesty and honour, energy and prudence. This runs through his speech, as we saw it pervading the self-applauding letter of Claudius Lysias in Act_23:25-30. What is man to be accounted, whose breath is in his nostrils? One look at self in God's presence puts in dust and ashes, as in Job's case when approved of Him, for his three friends were not. How can ye believe, said our Lord (Joh_5:44), receiving as ye do glory one of another, and the glory that is from the only God ye seek not? Where there is no self-judgment, the Saviour is but 'one Jesus', like any child of man. He who so speaks is a sinner ripening for judgment.
What the sentiments of Festus were about the mythological reveries of the Greeks and Romans, bound up with their paganism, we know not. Scepticism, ever the fatal dissolvent of society and the body politic, as it is the reaction from idolatry, was then all but universal among the educated class. It is clear that, with the contempt usual in such men, they never conceived of the truth outside themselves. Above al] appeared the strange tale and great stumbling-block of unbelief, Jesus dead and risen, and this in the midst of the busy heedless world, among a despised and subject race. It is just named incidentally (ver. 19) as a psychological phenomenon in Paul and as singularly rousing the animosity of the Jews, an ever-turbulent race.
Unable to give the emperor any reasonable account of the prisoner who had appealed, Festus states the case to one whom current report declared to be, on the one hand well versed in all Jewish questions, and in some respects the more zealous religiously because he was not of Israelitish lineage, as on the other he was notoriously devoted to the Roman interest. So indeed Agrippa continued throughout the great war that demolished the Jewish polity, their 'place and nation', and throughout a long reign to the first year of Trajan. To hear the case might gratify the curiosity of Herod Agrippa and perhaps also relieve Festus of some perplexity.
The explanation to the king was not unskilful. It was in truth, as he intimated, a matter of Felix left over for him. Paul was a prisoner when Festus entered on his province, who could not therefore be expected to know all from the first. Next, it was certain that the leading Jews were grievously incensed against him, which could not but weigh with a governor of little or no experience locally. Roman self-complacency breaks forth in the assertion of their policy of inflexible and impartial equity: an excellent principle by no means the rule in the provinces, any more than at home, but convenient to lay down by a governor as a cheek on flagrant injustice, which Felix and Festus surely saw in the actual prosecution. Again, who could reproach himself with lack of zeal in the public cause? The Jews had been prompt enough in coming down from Jerusalem to accuse in Caesarea, and the governor had lost not a day in sitting to judge the case, if there had been one according to Roman law. But there was nothing tangible before the court; no infraction of the public peace or propriety, any more than private wrong in violence or corruption. It was absurd to bring before a Roman tribunal such matters as occupied Paul's accusers. Facts there were none; only questions for it of a visionary nature.
It is improbable that even a Roman procurator of JudÂ?a would be so uncourteous as to speak of the views in controversy as a 'superstition', especially in speaking to king Agrippa; any more than that Paul so characterized the Athenians, when he was setting before them Jesus and the resurrection. It seems better therefore to avail ourselves of the better or at least colourless, sense which the word undoubtedly bears in authors of that day still extant. 'Religion' is therefore here chosen, while 'system of worship' has also been suggested in a similar sense.
But when one knows the infinite truth that the Son came to bring God into the world and put sin out of it, how shocking is the dark incredulity that slurs over facts so transcendent in the words, 'one Jesus now dead, whom Paul asserted to be alive'! The vindication of God's moral glory and the display of His love, and the proof of coming judgment, all turn on it. Without it sin reigns in death, and destruction for sinners without exception or hope. There is no kingdom possible of righteousness and peace, only hell filled with the wicked and accursed. Jesus alive from the dead for evermore has changed all.
Nor need we wait to see the glorious results. The Christian sees and walks by faith, not by sight. We rest, not only on a God that cannot lie, but on the fact already accomplished that Jesus died as propitiation for our sins, rose from the dead, and has taken His seat at God's right hand in heaven. We rest on the accomplishment of God's will in Christ's one offering of Himself for sins; and now He sits as truly man on the Father's throne, as He came down from God to become man and bring in new and everlasting glory to God by His death. He therefore is made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption; and we who believe are of God in Him, as once we were only in Adam, heirs of sin and ruin. When the Lord appears again, the results will appear before the universe, and the creation, all the creation that now groans in bondage and corruption will be delivered: for He is the Second man and Last Adam, and we shah reign along with Him in glory.
But the wisdom of the world is folly, which slights the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ, Who came to His own things, and they that were His own received Him not. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. So Festus showed now, as did Agrippa afterward in the same blindness of unbelief which pervaded other princes of this age: for had they known they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. And Christendom is returning to the darkness of heathenism. Never among the baptized did naturalism so govern men's minds; never before did nominal Christians manifest such incredulity in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, or even in creation. If the dead Jesus is alive, He has the keys of death and hades; and where is then philosophy? Where is natural law? What has natural law to do with creating? Still less can it apply to grace reigning through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.
But to return; when Festus mentions Paul's declining to go to Jerusalem and his appealing to Caesar, Agrippa expresses the wish himself to hear; and an audience is fixed for the morrow. This leads to a yet fuller testimony as we shall see, before not a governor only but a king.
The purposed hearing of the apostle before Agrippa wholly differed from that before Felix and Drusilla. This was private, and the apostle availed himself of it in divine love and holy courage to strip the guilty pair of their vain show, and to let them see themselves as God regarded them, as He will judge by and by through our Lord Jesus. Were men not insensate by the wily power of Satan, they would feel how gracious it is of God to send one faithful and able, willing and loving, to tell them the unerring truth, that, believing, they might be saved. But if they hug their sins, it cannot be. True repentance is the inseparable companion of true faith. From both, the enemy finds plausible excuses to hold souls back. Conscience may tremble: but there is no repentance till self is judged before God, and faith alone produces this.
Here it was even more public than the indictment before Felix or Festus. And the appeal to the emperor, though it relieved Festus in the main, embarrassed him in that he had no tangible rational explanation of the case to lay before Nero. Hence when Agrippa expressed the desire in person to hear the accused, Festus gladly caught at it and fixed the next day for the purpose. Agrippa's known familiarity with Jewish affairs was too good to be lost, besides gratifying the wish of so exalted a guest.
'Therefore on the morrow when Agrippa came, and Bernice, with great pomp, and they entered into the audience-chamber with the commanders and the distinguished men of the city, at the command of Festus Paul was brought. And saith Festus, King Agrippa, and all men that are here present with us, ye behold this man about whom all the multitude of the Jews applied to me both in Jerusalem and here, crying out that he ought not to live any longer. But as I found that he had done nothing worthy of death, and as he himself appealed to Augustus, I decided to send him about whom I have nothing certain to write to my lore Wherefore I brought him forth before you, and especially before thee, king Agrippa, so that, after examination had, I may have what I shall write. For it seemeth to me unreasonable in sending a prisoner not also to signify the charges against him' (vers. 23-27).
Our Evangelist as usual presents the scene most graphically; for which reason probably tradition gave out in error that he was a painter, whereas scripture is positive that he was a physician: a fact abundantly confirmed by evidence in both his Gospel and the Acts. The king and the queen are before us with great pomp; military chiefs add to the show, as well as the most distinguished civilians; the governor gives the word of command and the prisoner is brought into the hall of audience. Festus opens the proceedings. It is hardly to be allowed that the courteous Roman meant to insinuate a slur on Bernice when he said, 'King Agrippa, and all men that are here present with us.' Undoubtedly the word is not the general ἄνθρωποι but the precise ἄνδρες expressive of men as distinguished from women (γυναῖκες The truth is however that ἂνδρες is used regularly in addresses as more respectful, though women may be present (cf. Act_1:16; Act_2:14; Act_3:12; Act_13:16; Act_15:7; Act_17:22), and in this sense only is it here employed. Out of courtesy the distinction is ignored for the time. That the queen's presence was implied to be improper is not the thought.
Festus addresses himself directly to the point. 'Ye behold this [person] about whom all the multitude of the Jews applied to me, both in Jerusalem and here, crying out that he ought not to live any longer.' There was no doubt of the general and vehement antipathy of the Jews to the noblest man of their stock and the most honoured servant of the Lord. Their cry in the holy city and elsewhere was that he ought not to live longer. He, the governor, found that Paul had committed nothing which deserved death, but does not explain why he himself had occasioned the appeal to the emperor by the proposal that the prisoner should go to Jerusalem for judgment. Paul knew too that worldly religion is of all things least just and most cruel, and, declining such a change from Caesar's tribunal, appealed to Augustus. To this Festus agreed, as we know, and he repeats, 'I decided to send him.'
But thereon arose a difficulty. What was he to write to send with the appellant: 'About whom I have nothing certain to write to my lord'? This was his main motive for the hearing before Agrippa, versed as he was in Jewish customs and learning and prejudice. 'Wherefore I brought him forth before you, and especially before thee, king Agrippa, so that, after examination had, I may know what I shall write.' The governor naturally considered it senseless, as he adds, to forward a prisoner without signifying the accusation laid to his charge. We shall find however that the issue was a true and fresh testimony to Christ far more than a solution of the governor's perplexity.