We have followed Paul step by step as he answered the charge of sedition, first on the temple stairs in Jerusalem, then before the chief captain himself, and later, before Felix. As Acts 25 opens he is still in the prison at Caesarea, but Felix has been displaced by Festus. Felix was a man of most immoral character, but Festus was a Roman governor of a rather different type. He was, in a sense, high-minded, a man who studied philosophy, but one who had no faith in anything beyond this world. He tested everything by human reason and was not prepared to believe in anything concerning which he could not rationalize.
This man was scarcely in office—only three days—when he went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, and the high priest and other leaders of the people informed him of their charges against Paul. They pleaded with him that he would send for Paul to come to Jerusalem, because they secretly plotted to kill him on the way. What a corrupt thing religion is when it leaves God out! These men were the religious leaders of the people, yet they sought in this nefarious way to destroy the apostle Paul. Their own plans were flagrantly contrary to the law, yet they pretended that they wanted to judge him in accordance with the law.
However, Festus, fortunately for Paul, answered that the apostle should be kept at Caesarea and that he himself would return there shortly. Then he added, “If you have anything against the man, send your accusers down and I will hear them at my judgment seat.” So we read in verse six: “And when he had tarried among them more than ten days, he went down unto Caesarea; and the next day sitting on the judgment seat commanded Paul to be brought.”
One notices the energetic way in which this man Festus does things. He is the very opposite of Felix. Felix, the procrastinator, always put things off, always said: “Tomorrow, some other day, some other time; when I have a more convenient season.” But Festus dealt promptly with the matters that came before him, befitting one to whom it was given to dispense Roman justice. “And when he was come, the Jews which came down from Jerusalem stood round about, and laid many and grievous complaints against Paul.”
But Paul was a man who had nothing to fear. He had always made it a point to have a clear conscience before God and before men. He could stand at the judgment seat of Festus and say, “There is absolutely no charge of criminal action of any kind that can be proven against me.” Not one of their charges could be sustained. But Festus in this respect was a little bit like Felix. Wanting to please the Jews, he asked Paul if he would be willing to stand trial before him in Jerusalem.
However, Paul recognized that he had certain rights as a Roman citizen, and he insisted on the recognition of those rights. An appeal to Caesar was the right of every Roman citizen, but it evidently took Festus by surprise. He hardly expected this poor missionary, this almost friendless man (from his standpoint), to insist on facing the great Caesar himself. So without realizing for the moment that he had no actual charges to prefer against him, he said, “Unto Caesar shalt thou go.” Later, the incongruity of allowing a man’s case to be appealed to a higher court when he had not been condemned in a lower one came home to him with power, and that leads us to the next step in this drama.
In verse 13 we read: “And after certain days King Agrippa and Bernice came unto Caesarea to salute Festus.” I ask your attention to the words—
and Bernice. You will notice that you have them a number of times in this section of the Acts. Here in verse 13 when they come before Festus; again in verse 23 when they sit on the judgment seat; and then again in Acts 26:30 as they leave the palace after hearing Paul’s defense. Why does the Spirit of God three times bring in this woman’s name like this? She was not sitting in judgment on Paul She had no authority to pronounce on his case, and yet when king Agrippa is referred to, her name is also mentioned.
Who was Bernice? She was the sister of Agrippa, and lived in an incestuous relationship with her own brother. God recognized the seriousness of their sin, the wickedness of their life. She is attached to Agrippa, and when his name is mentioned God adds, “and Bernice.” If Agrippa died unsaved, we may be sure God links Bernice with him still; and when Agrippa stands eventually at the judgment of the great white throne, Bernice will stand there with him! It is a terrible thing to sin against God, to trample God’s truth under foot. Sin once embraced will be with you forever unless you find deliverance through the atoning blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
When Agrippa hears the words, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels,” Bernice will be there too. So far as we can tell, both lived and died in their sins and they will go out into everlasting fire as “Agrippa and Bernice.” Surely there is an intensely solemn lesson here!
After many days had passed Festus approached the king about the problem of what to do with Paul. Festus had taken it for granted that Paul must have been guilty of some very grave crime, either against the Jews themselves or against the Roman Empire. But when he had listened to the trivial things the Jews were charging against him, he was amazed that reasonable people would expect a Roman governor to pay any attention to their foolish religious quarrels. He may have said to Agrippa: “It was one of the most absurd things you ever heard of. I thought that as they stood before my judgment seat they would charge the man with some very, very grave crime. Instead they talked of trivialities of their own Jewish faith. Then they thrust forth the silly idea that this man Paul was going through the country talking about a man named Jesus who was dead. Everybody knows he had died; everybody knows he was crucified. But their charge against Paul was that he preached that this Jesus who was dead is now alive.”
I think I can see the lips curl as Festus, the rationalist, looked inquiringly into the face of Agrippa as if to add, “Did you ever hear the like? All this fuss about a man who is dead, simply because Paul imagines he is alive again, something that nobody of course believes!”
It was a very small thing to Festus—this story of one Jesus who was dead, but whom Paul affirmed to be alive. Festus did not realize it, but the resurrection of Christ is the greatest matter that the world has ever been called on to face. That story about the resurrection of Jesus was to be declared throughout the world. It was to overthrow the paganism of Rome, to make men over, and eventually to bring in a new heaven and a new earth. And yet it seemed such a trivial thing to this philosophic Roman.
Now Agrippa was one thoroughly conversant with the Jewish religion, and doubtless he had heard a great deal about this new Christian movement. Certainly he seemed to have a genuine desire to hear what Paul had to say for himself. We are told that on the morrow “Agrippa was come, and Bernice.” Then Festus introduced the subject of Paul and his dilemma.
You see, it is customary in law that if a lower court passes on a man’s case and condemns him, he may appeal to a higher court and then all that has proceeded in the lower court is presented for the examination of the higher court. Yet Paul had not been condemned by any court, and in order that he might have a fair hearing he appealed to the highest court of the land—Caesar himself—and Festus did not know what charges to bring against him. He said:
Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and specially before thee, O king Agrippa, that, after examination had, I might have somewhat to write. For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him (Acts 25:26-27).
I am sure we all recognize the logic of the stand that Festus took.
As I bring this chapter to a close, I want to drive home a question to each reader as the Spirit of God may enable me. This One, Jesus which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive, what does He mean to you today? Do you know Him as the One who was crucified on Calvary’s cross, the One who was buried, but was raised again for our justification? Have you trusted Him for yourself? If not, why not?