A Pastor’s Commentary
Studies in Acts
The Benevolence of Discipline Acts 25:1 -22
The word “discipline” is a much-misunderstood word in the Christian world. With it may come
memories of punishment – being sent to your room, being grounded, or, in later life, possibly even job discrimination. And more significant are our own feelings of failure and wrongdoing which come with such memories. But actually, the biblical uses of the word “discipline’ include much more than punishment and correction. Listen to what Jesus said in John 15:1 and 2:
I am the true vine and My Father is the vinedresser. (2) “every branch in me that does not bear He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
Remember that Jesus’ original hearers were fruit growers, so these verses about cutting and pruning would not have sounded as harsh to the fruit growers as they do to us. Pruning limbs involves cutting, and that brings pain this kind of discipline comes, not because we have done anything wrong, and not because God is cruel, but because God has a deep care for our ongoing growth and maturity. And this is the kind of work that we are going to find God doing in Paul’s life as we look at chapter 25. But before we look at the chapter, let’s get straight in our thinking this matter of God’s loving discipline, because there are many Christians who misunderstand it. One key to handling this kind of discipline is having a correct view of God. Some people have a view of God which C. S. Lewis called “our grandfather in heaven.” This view says that God is “a elderly, out of touch grandfather or uncle who likes to see young people enjoying themselves, and whose plan for the universe is simply that it might be said at the end of the day that “a good time was had by all.” Discipline and testing are jarring to people who hold that view of God. They feel cheated and angry because they aren’t getting the happiness they feel God owes them. Other people swing to the opposite extreme, and view God as a scowling school teacher ready to rap their knuckles if they swerve an inch from the straight and narrow. To those people, discipline and testing are just to be expected and endured with bitter toleration.
What is your view of God? Do you see him as someone who “owes” you perpetual happiness; as someone who is looking for ways to make you unhappy; or as someone who loves you and wants to prepare you for a thorough enjoyment of Him in this life and in heaven? Keep that in mind as we look at Paul’s difficult time of discipline in this chapter. As we come to the chapter Paul is under house arrest and has been for two years according to chapter 24, verse 27. He had been brought to Caesarea to save his neck from the rebellious, unbelieving Jews who had had him on trial in Jerusalem on a trumped-up charge designed to try to get rid of him. During the trial, a murder plot was discovered, so he was taken to Caesarea. There the Roman regional governor, Felix, heard his case, without doing anything about it – but kept Paul under house arrest while he decided what to do. After two years he left office still without having done anything about Paul! But “to please the Jews” he left Paul under house arrest. The last verse of chapter 24 tells us that a he new governor, Festus, came into office with Paul still there.
Out of that background, then, chapter 25 opens with a petition from the Jews that is described in verses 1 through 5:
Now when Festus had come to the province, after three days he went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem (2)Then the high priest and the chief men of the Jews informed him against Paul; and they petitioned him. (3) asking a favor against him; that he would summon him to Jerusalem.
Probably Festus’ trip to Jerusalem was part of getting acquainted with his new territory as regional governor, but the Jews see in it an opportunity. Here he is, two years under arrest and his escape and his defense before Felix, but the Jews are still bitterly determined to see him dead! At this point they only ask Festus to bring Paul back to Jerusalem, but their real purpose is in the next phrase. The plan behind the petition is in verse 3b:
While they lay in wait along the road to kill him.
But, surprisingly, enough, Felix doesn’t go along with their plan. In verses 4 and 5 we see his postponement of the petition.
But Festus answered that Paul should be kept in Caesarea, and that he himself was going there shortly. (5) “Therefore, he said, let those who have authority among you go down with me and accuse this man, to see if there is any fault in him.”
We don’t know why Festus declined their original plan, because verse 9 is going to say that “he wanted to do the Jews a favor.” But at the very least this shows “the hand of God in the glove of history. And since it is apparently the best deal they can get, the Jews eagerly take him up on his offer for some of them to come back to Caesarea. In the next few verses, then, we hear the plea from Paul. The setting for the plea is in verses 6 through 9. First the charges are aired in verses 6 and 7:
And when he had remained among them more than ten days, he went down to Caesarea. And the next day, sitting on the judgment seat, he commanded that Paul be brought in (7) When he had come, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood about and laid many serious complaints against Paul, which they could not prove.
Even though he waited ten days to go back to Caesarea, when he got there, Festus’ first order of business was to send for Paul. Notice again, however, the Jews either didn’t understand, or didn’t care about the Roman laws of evidence. But eventually Paul gets his chance, so in verse 8 we find the claim by Paul
(8) While he answered for himself, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all.
Here is Paul’s entire defense. – all he can do is just keep repeating it. But maybe even as he spoke he could see by the look on Festus’ face that he was toying with a way to use Paul for his own advantage. So in verse 9, Festus offers a challenge to Paul.
(9)But Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favor, answered Paul and said “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and there be judged before me concerning these things?
Just like Felix before him, Festus was trying to use Paul for his own political advantage. He knew that if he could turn Paul over to the Jews they would owe him a favor in return. Festus didn’t care about Paul as a person or about the facts of the case, he was only interested in developing his own career. Why would God let something like this happen? So that Paul could feel the “pruning shears” of unfair treatment. And through this experience Paul developed courage and confidence as detailed in the next verses:
The statement of the plea which Paul makes is in verses 10 and 11.
(10) So Paul said, “I stand at Caesar’s judgement seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know. (11) “For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
As a Roman citizen, Paul had the right to ask that Caesar hear his case. So courageously confronting the governor, and much to the dismay of the Jews, Paul exercises that right. And the first line of the next verse indicates that this threw Festus off balance for a moment – he had to “confer with the council.” But the ultimate settlement of the plea is given in verse 12. So with those words and the sound of the gavel, Paul’s trial is over. But the next step was probably not what Paul expected – and it shows the confusion within the ranks of the Roman hierarchy.
The presentation to Agrippa is described in verses 13 through 22. The first thing that happens is the arrival of the king, as described in verse 13.
And after some days King Agrippa and Berniece came to Caesarea to greet Festus.
From the context it appears that King Agrippa just happened along. And in a sense that was probably true – these Roman “royal bureaucrats” amused themselves by, among other things, traveling around visiting each other. So this visit was really a part of God’s sovereign provision for Paul. And it is interesting how God can use almost any kind of tool – Agrippa and Berniece were living together as husband and wife! But their visit gave Festus an opportunity to bring up the matter of Paul – probably partly for its entertainment value and partly for advice. And the nature of his report to Agrippa demonstrates how ill equipped he is to judge Paul’s case.
In verses 14 through 21 we see the recounting of Paul’s case to the king:
When they had been there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying: There is a certain man left a prisoner by Felix, (15) about whom the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, when I was in Jerusalem asking for a judgement against him. (16)” To them I answered,“ It is not the custom of the Romans to deliver to destruction before the accused meets the accusers face to face and has opportunity to answer for himself the charges against him(17)”therefore when they had come together, without any delay the next day I sat on the judgement seat and commanded the man to be brought in. When the accusers stood up they brought no accusation of such things as I supposed (19)but had some questions against a certain Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed was still alive (20) And because I was uncertain about such questions, I asked whether he was willing to go to Jerusalem and there be judged concerning these matters (21)But when Paul appealed reserved for the decision of Augustus I commanded him to be kept till I could send him to Caesar.”(22) Then Agrippa said to Festus, I also would like to hear the man myself. “Tomorrow, he said, You shall hear him.”
Isn’t it interesting how simplistically Festus summarizes this matter which, for Paul was truly a matter of life and death? For Paul, the resurrection of Christ was the issue that had turned his life completely around. But for Festus it was a matter of “a certain Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.” This shows the gravity of the situation here: Festus was completely ignorant of Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ, and yet he was going to have a hand in deciding Paul’s fate! And what kind of justice Paul could Paul expect from the morally corrupt Agrippa and Berniece?
But in spite of all that in verse 22 we see the acceptance of the case by Agrippa.
(22)Then Agrippa said, “I also would like to hear the man myself.” Tomorrow, he said, you shall hear him.
The rest of the chapter really goes better with chapter 26, the trial, before Agrippa, so we will discuss it when we get there. But think about how Paul must be feeling by this time: He has been through a lengthy and unnecessary delay of his trial, repeated false accusations, unfair exploitation for political purposes, and continued uncertainty. He had no control over the accuracy of the decisions being made about him. instead, like some court jester, he would be called upon to perform at the whim and convenience of his captors.
Many of us can identify with Paul in one way or another in this ordeal – we have been through some, if not all, of these kinds of things (and maybe some are going through some of them right now.) But Paul made it through, and we can too. It is a matter of remembering that it is a part of our father’s “pruning” process. And that process always includes at least three things: It removes impurities from our lives, it brings maturity and stability into our lives, and, above all, it proves our father cares (“remember, “whom the Lord loves He disciplines”)