Paul Before Felix.
Felix gives Paul an opportunity to speak in order to defend himself. Paul’s goal in his defense is to prove that he was not stirring up trouble, that being of the Nazarenes was not a danger, and that he had not desecrated the Temple. He begins refuting their claims by saying, “No more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. Neither in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor in the city itself did they find me carrying on a discussion with anyone or causing a riot. Nor can they prove to you the charges of which they now accuse me” (verses 10-13). Here he addresses the first and last point brought against him, in regard to stirring up trouble and desecrating the temple. Next he tackles his opponents’ claims about the Nazarenes:
“But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Torah and that is written in the Prophets; having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. In view of this, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” (Acts 24:14-16)
Paul’s point to Felix is that the Jewish sect known as the Way or the Nazarenes is not a subversive group, but one that is not very different from mainstream Judaism in practice. Saying that his opponents also cherish a hope in the resurrection may be a jab, because as we have mentioned, Ananias was a Sadducee, and it is likely that his close companions he brought with him were Sadducees as well. It may have also been an attempt to prod them into arguing with Paul about the resurrection, delegitimizing their case in the eyes of Felix as merely a religious quarrel.
The remainder of his defense before Felix consists of how he got to this point, and why the case had been brought here, reiterating that he regarded the temple and the customs of his people with reverence and obedience (verses 17-21).
Upon hearing both sides of the story, Felix can tell that Paul is not in the wrong. Verse 22 tells us that he had “a more exact knowledge about the Way.” Since he was governor of the region, it was his responsibility to know what was going on among the civilians, and so he was familiar with this sect. He would have known that they were peaceful and law-abiding and that they had been unjustly persecuted by some of the religious rulers. Instead of releasing Paul, possibly back into another trap, he decides to keep him in custody, although with a certain measure of freedom (verses 22-23).
While in custody, Paul is summoned before Felix on many occasions to discuss his faith in the Way (verses 24-26). When the touchy topic of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” is brought up, Felix is less interested. In this regard, not much has changed from then until today. For two years Paul is kept in custody under Felix in Caesarea. Then he loses his position as governor due to claims that he used a certain conflict for personal gain. About twenty years later, his wife Drusilla, mentioned in Acts 23:24, along with their son Marcus Antonius Agrippa, died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
Felix is succeeded by Porcius Festus. Immediately the religious leaders who had been opposed to Paul want to know what he is going to do with him. They request a hearing in Jerusalem, but plan to kill Paul as he is on the way there (Acts 25:1-3). Festus decides to hear a preliminary trial at Caesarea in order to determine what the best course of action will be. The tactics of Paul’s enemies have not changed: “After Paul arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove” (Acts 25:7). It is likely that the charges remained the same as they had been previously, as we can tell by Paul’s response: “Paul said in his own defense, ‘I have committed no offense either against the Torah of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar’” (verse 8). His message was clear and straightforward, declaring that he had not transgressed the Torah nor any civil laws worthy of punishment, and his accusers had no proof saying otherwise.
Since Festus was very new to his position, however, he wanted to solidify good relationships with the influential religious leaders, so he encourages Paul to go back to Jerusalem to stand trial before his accusers (verse 9). It is likely that Paul remembered what happened the last time he was supposed to be sent back for trial in Jerusalem, so he is not quick to go along with them. He again proclaims that he has done nothing wrong according to the Torah, but he adds that if he has done something wrong against Roman law, he is willing to be tried. In closing, he appeals to Caesar (verses 10-11).
The appeal to Caesar was a right of a Roman citizen. Just as in our own justice system a person can appeal to a higher court if they feel they are being treated unjustly, it was a similar case in Rome at that time. Perhaps Paul saw it as the only way to keep from being on the wrong end of an injustice, or perhaps he recognized that this was his opportunity to fulfill the words that Yeshua had spoken to him in Acts 23:11.
He did not get his request right away, however. Festus is visited by King Agrippa and his sister Bernice, most likely coming to congratulate him on his new position and to discuss some of the political and diplomatic issues that Festus may face as governor (Acts 25:13). Festus takes advantage of this opportunity and brings up the case with Paul (verses 14-22). Agrippa is intrigued, and so Festus arranges for Paul to give testimony before him amid much celebration and grandeur (verse 23). This would not be a legal trial, but was simply a way for Agrippa to hear Paul and give his opinion on the case. Since Paul had already appealed to Caesar, that was where he was going to go. But for now, he had the audience of a high-ranking Roman leader.
His testimony begins,
In regard to all the things of which I am accused by the Jews, I consider myself fortunate, King Agrippa, that I am about to make my defense before you today; especially because you are an expert in all customs and questions among the Jews; therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently. (Acts 26:2-3)
As part of his duties, Agrippa was in charge of the temple in Jerusalem. He was the one who chose who the high priest would be, as well as handling any managerial issues regarding the temple. Because of this and his other leadership roles in the region, he would have been familiar with many of the intricacies of the Torah.
Paul continues on to explain that he has a history of following the Torah and being a prominent figure within Judaism, “according to the strictest sect of our religion” (verse 5). He again reiterates that the reason he is on trial is because of his hope in the resurrection from the dead, the same hope which he says all of Israel maintain: “The promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews” (verses 6-7). Paul is pointing out the irony of his situation, in that the very hope all of faithful Israel professes is the reason Paul is now being accused by his own countrymen. He wants Agrippa to see that any claims saying he was walking contrary to the Torah or the people of Israel were false. Since Agrippa was familiar with the sectarian conflicts within Judaism, he would have understood where Paul was coming from.
He continues to describe his earlier ways of persecuting the believers:
Not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme. (verses 10-11)
Paul painfully recounts how he used to go through the synagogues rooting out the believers, casting his vote to put some to the death, torturing others until they blasphemed the name of Yeshua. He goes on to tell of his vision on the road to Damascus and how afterward, he began preaching all throughout the world that Jews and Gentiles alike should “repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (verses 19-20). These words are reminiscent of John’s words in Matthew 3:8: “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” as well as the good news that Yeshua and his disciples brought (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15, Luke 8:1).
“For this reason some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to put me to death” (Acts 26:21). This reason is twofold: first, that he was preaching repentance (John 3:20), and second, that he was preaching repentance even to Gentiles (Acts 22:21-22). But Paul knows the truth as revealed to him through the Scriptures, “that the Messiah was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22-23).
Festus ridicules Paul and all his talk about resurrection from the dead. But Paul was primarily directing his testimony toward Agrippa, who had more knowledge of the Scriptures. Paul’s words through the Holy Spirit are so convincing that Agrippa has to balk at his questioning (verses 24-30). Because of his knowledge on these types of matters, he knows that Paul was not teaching anything contrary to the Torah, let alone the government of Rome, and declares that if Paul had not appealed to Caesar he would be a free man (verses 31-32). It was all part of God’s plan, however, so that the message of the Kingdom might spread even further.
Because of his appeal, the Romans need to send Paul to Rome so that he can stand trial before Caesar. On the way there, he experiences many problems and life-threatening situations, but God brings him through it all, saying, “‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar” (Acts 27:24). Paul finally arrives in Rome and is confined by himself.
Three days go by, and Paul is evidently tired of waiting for things to happen. The journey to Rome had taken much longer than Paul had anticipated, and who knows when he would get a chance to testify before Caesar. He takes this opportunity to bring his case before the Jewish community in Rome (Acts 28:17-20). If he can get them on his side, his case may go easier. It turns out that they haven’t heard of him or about the case the religious leaders in Jerusalem had brought against him (verse 21), giving Paul the opportunity to make his own first impression. The only thing they know is that he is a member of the sect known as the Way, and so they are curious what he actually believes (verse 22).
So the Jewish leaders in Rome set a date for people to come hear what Paul has to say. Large crowds come to hear him speak, and Paul boldly proclaims his belief that Yeshua is the Messiah, backing it up with Scripture. This wasn’t just a meet and greet: Paul speaks “from morning until evening” (verse 23). How many of us could debate for Yeshua’s Messiahship for twelve hours straight against a crowd of learned scholars using only the Old Testament as proof, which was the only canonized Scripture during Paul’s time? All of his time spent locked away had not been squandered, but he spent it diving deep into the Torah and the Prophets, finding Yeshua in every verse. This is what is meant when it is said that Yeshua fulfilled the Torah (Matthew 5:17). The Torah is the very word of God, his will and desire, and Yeshua not only perfectly obeyed the legal requirements of the Torah, but He was the Word made flesh (John 1:14).
As with in any case, some of the people believe him, but others do not. They begin to discuss among one another and debate whether the things Paul was saying were true. Could it truly be that the Messiah has already come? Due to their disagreement, they begin to file out of Paul’s presence (verses 24-25). It was getting late, and Paul’s arguments had given them much to think about. The exit flow increases after Paul quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, applying it to them for not believing after all of his arguments.
In the other places Paul went to, he began preaching to the Jewish people, and then when he was rejected by the majority, he announced that he was now going to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). He does the same thing here (Acts 28:28). Now, this is not to say that none of the Jews believed, and it does not indicate that the Jewish people as a whole were now rejected in favor of the Gentiles. But Paul could tell that all who were willing to believe in that place had believed, and anyone who hadn’t was too hardened to accept his message regardless of how convincing his arguments were. One can only believe in Yeshua whose heart is soft and open. Reason alone will not convince anyone, but the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts (John 20:29, 1 Peter 1:8).
The Jews in Rome do not respond quite so harshly to Paul going to the Gentiles as those in Jerusalem did: “When he had spoken these words, the Jews departed, having a great dispute among themselves” (Acts 28:29). The corrupt religious leaders in Jerusalem were not willing to hear anything of what Paul was saying, but the Jews in Rome were more split on the issue. Those who believed were likely reasoning from where Paul left off, but others were having none of it. Even those who disagree with him evidently don’t believe he is saying anything heretical or opposed to their own expression of Judaism, since they don’t try to make it difficult for him to spread his message: “And he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Yeshua the Messiah with all openness, unhindered” (verse 30-31).
It is likely that some of those from among the crowds who had come to hear Paul speak returned to hear more about this Yeshua and the mystery of the Gentiles. The book of Acts ends with Paul preaching the message of the Kingdom, urging Jew and Gentile alike to repent from wickedness and put their faith in Yeshua the Messiah.
But what about Caesar? Even though Paul’s reason for going to Rome was to testify before Caesar, nothing of that trial is spoken of here in Acts. It is clear that he did testify before Caesar, as Acts 27:24 tells us. If his mission was only to go to Rome and testify before the Jewish community there, the angel would not have specifically said that Paul must stand trial before Caesar. Regardless of when or how that took place, it was all spoken of beforehand (Matthew 10:18).
In conclusion, we have seen Paul’s trials tell us a lot about him and his beliefs. We have seen that those who were spreading lies about Paul tried to paint a picture of him as one who broke Torah, abhorred the Temple, and encouraged Jews to forsake these things as well. Paul is clear that this is not who he was, but asserted that he prayed and offered sacrifices in the Temple, lived according to the Torah according to the Pharisaic beliefs, and encouraged both Jews and Gentiles to repent and trust in Yeshua the Messiah. That last point is the reason many of the Jews were opposed to Paul: not because he was actually preaching against Torah-observance, but because he condemned their lawlessness and was teaching that Gentiles could join themselves to Israel without becoming Jewish.
In this study, we have tried to realign who Paul was with our perception of him today. Because of how Paul has been interpreted over the years, his words have also been shifted to mean something he never meant. By examining the most frequently misunderstood passages in their correct context, we feel that a much closer image to the true Paul has been clarified. The Paul so often portrayed in Christianity is one who fought hard against Torah observance and the Jewish people, but as we have seen he was actually a proud observant Jew himself, yearning for the day his countrymen would know the truth. In the meantime, he brought his message to the Gentiles just as God had instructed him.
The message he brought to the Gentiles was a different message than the one he brought to the Jews in regard to things like circumcision, the reason being that Paul wanted to make sure they didn’t place their faith in their race. This didn’t mean that he wanted Gentiles to be Torah illiterate, but he expected that they would learn their role as grafted into Israel alongside the Jewish believers in Yeshua as they studied Torah and worshiped together. Today in Christianity, too often Jews who recognize that Yeshua is the Messiah are forced to give up their beliefs about the Torah in order to be accepted. It would do us well to remember that we as Gentiles are grafted into Israel through the Messiah Yeshua, not the other way around.
While it is true that Gentiles and Jews have different roles in the body of Messiah, we are one body of believers, all saved by faith in Yeshua when we put our trust in Him. The same message applies to each person, regardless of time, location, or ethnicity: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). While Paul’s words are often misapplied in order to proclaim a cheap, easy form of following Yeshua, we see that instead he spread this same message of self-sacrificing repentance (Acts 17:30-31, 26:19-20, Philippians 2:12, 2 Timothy 2:19).
Just as in our time, during Paul’s day some people misunderstood him to mean that Jewish people should forsake circumcision and that the Torah was done away with. Paul proved himself time and again through his testimonies in Jerusalem and Rome that he himself was a Torah-observant Jew, zealous for God and His Torah. Some have claimed that this was just Paul being “all things to all men,” but if this was the case then we would also expect to see Paul engaging in pagan rituals when he went to the Gentiles. We see throughout the New Testament that Paul is not afraid to speak his mind, and we would hardly expect him to compromise on such a key issue as Torah or worshiping at the Temple if he was as adamant against them as some claim.
This study is by no means exhaustive, and the variety of controversies and various beliefs arising from Paul’s teachings would take many volumes to fully address. In these few brief pages, our goal is to bring to light not just a few misapplied verses, but a dangerous worldview that undermines the election and calling of God’s chosen people Israel and the place we as Gentiles share with them in the Messiah. As you further dive into the Scriptures, may your eyes be opened as the Spirit leads and guides you in all truth.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Yeshua the Messiah. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Yeshua the Messiah with incorruptible love. (Ephesians 6:23-24)