Another note about Acts 24: Felix resists Paul’s teaching, perhaps for a number of reasons. Luke does seem interested in making a case that Christian faith is no immediate threat to the Empire. He is concerned to help give it a legitimate place in the religious landscape and in the legal system of Rome. But perhaps Felix also understood that they are “anti-imperial” undercurrents in Christian faith. The kind of justice Jesus talked about in describing the kingdom of God would be different from Roman justice. The kind of self-control Jesus encouraged might cut against some of the hedonistic elements of Roman culture. The ultimate values represented in the phrase “coming judgment” might have been significantly different from the values of the empire. Perhaps all this gave Felix pause.
Acts 25:1-12: Festus, Felix’s successor is approached early in his administration about Paul. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted Paul transferred back there, not so justice might be done, but so that a conspiracy to eliminate him might move forward. Festus maintains his authority as the Roman governor. He invites them to come to Caesarea to reiterate the charges against Paul. That happens. Charges, unspecified, are brought. Paul denies them and appeals, as a Roman citizen, to have his case appealed to the emperor. Christians are willing to appeal to the rule of law in order to keep their mission and movement going forward.
Acts 25:13-22: King Agrippa was a Jewish king (Herod Agrippa II) of adjoining territories to those governed by Festus. Bernice was his sister. They come to pay a call on Festus, who brings up Paul’s case. According to Festus, the charges the Jewish leaders brought against Paul surprised him. “Instead they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.” Again, this account serves Luke’s purpose of trying to have the Christian way viewed as a legitimate branch of Judaism and thus a part of Rome’s understanding to give the Jews some autonomy. It is also an interesting insight into how some understood the essence of the Christian way from the outside – it was about a certain Jesus who was asserted to be alive. Agrippa desires to listen to Paul himself.
Acts 25:23-27: Paul’s final defense speech will occur under auspicious circumstances. King Agrippa is the special guest of Festus and the hall is filled with prominent people. Christian faith is to be shared with the lowly and with the powerful.
Acts 26:1-23: This is the climactic speech in these final chapters of Acts. Luke presents this material not only to further the narrative, but to present a model for the Christians of his own time as to how they might present the faith to officials in the empire.
Paul again begins by asserting his Jewish identity and faithfulness to this tradition. He was not an ordinary Jew, but a Pharisee, and a very observant one at that. His belief that Jesus was raised by God is to be seen as a part of the belief-system of the Pharisees that God would indeed raise people from the dead. “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” That question receives a very different response in our day and time, and, as noted when we discussed the resurrection narratives in the gospels, the precise meaning of being raised from the dead is open to some interpretation and faithful Christians disagree about the meaning of this phrase. Even with our disagreements about the specifics, we see that Christian faith is centered in the resurrection.
Paul recounts that out of his sense of faithfulness to his faith, he persecuted those who followed the Christian way. Then as he went to carry out a similar task in Damascus, his life changed dramatically. He had an encounter with a living Jesus who was going to touch his life and send him to testify to what he would experience. In the words of Jesus to Paul, “I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Here again, we are given another formulation of the meaning of Christian faith and life. No single language seems adequate to describe how it is God moves in people’s lives for their betterment, for their healing, for their “salvation.”
Given the power of Paul’s vision, he could not disobey it. Just as he had been faithful to the Jewish faith in which he was brought up, Paul will be faithful to this new vision, which he understood to be coming from the same God he had worshipped and followed for years. In following that vision, Paul went about preaching “that [people] should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance.” That he is even standing there was a testimony to Paul that God had protected him thus far, and Paul reasserts that what he is teaching and preaching is nothing other than what is to be found in the Scriptures of his faith. Of course, the matter is not quite that simple – the early church interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures in light of their experience of Jesus. Of fundamental importance to Paul and Luke is that Jesus is the first to rise from the dead. This is a symbol that God’s kingdom is breaking into the world in a new way. A new light is dawning for the entire world.
Acts 26:24-32: Paul’s speech is interrupted by Festus. He wonders if Paul has lost his mind, if it has become so learned that he risks a kind of insanity. Paul counters that he is but speaking the sober truth and utilizes a well-known Greek turn of phrase, that what he speaks of was not done in a corner. Paul turns his appeal directly to the Jewish king Agrippa. “Do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” For Paul one could be a Christian and believe the Hebrew prophets. Agrippa is not ready to respond to what he perceives to be a quick appeal. His response, in fact, is probably sarcastic. “You would make me a Christian in such a short period of time, with one little speech?” Paul hopes that all will turn toward Jesus, be like him – except, of course, for the chains. Paul is not beyond using a little humor himself! Whatever their reticence with regard to Paul’s appeal for faith in Jesus, Agrippa and Festus conclude that Paul has done nothing to deserve death and or imprisonment. In fact, if he had not appealed to the emperor, Festus would have set him free right then. But of course, then Paul would not have made his way to Rome, and that is where the story really needs to end for Luke.