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"Hearing, Not Responding”

MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 11, 2011 FROM ACTS 24:22-27

          This week, we conclude the courtroom scene that we began last week as Luke records it in Acts 24.  Paul has been charged with several crimes by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and his case has reached the governor of Judea, Felix.  He hears a lawyer for the Jews make his case against Paul and Paul’s defense against those charges.  Paul concludes his case by denying any guilt of the crimes of which he has been accused and for which the prosecution has produced no witnesses.  He argues before Felix that his gospel message does not contradict the message of the Jewish leaders (as they had claimed), but is instead the fulfillment of their message. This fulfillment is manifest in the resurrection inaugurated by Jesus.  Luke picks the narrative up from there beginning with verse 22. 22 But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off, saying, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.” 23 Then he gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody but have some liberty, and that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs. 24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” 26 At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him. 27 When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.”

When you come to a narrative text in the Bible like those in Acts, it’s important to discover which character(s) is the author’s main focus.  We know that ultimately all Bible stories point to God, but God is not necessarily the explicit focus of every narrative.  In our text this morning, Luke’s main focus is transparent—Felix, the governor of Judea.  We know that because in these six verses Luke mentions him by name five times. Paul is mentioned by name three times but each time he is mentioned, it’s with reference to Felix.  In verse 24 Luke records, “Felix…sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus.  Paul is the one Felix sent for.  In verse 26 Paul is the one Felix hopes will give him a bribe and in verse 27 Paul is the one Felix left in prison.  In each of those verses, the emphasis is on Felix.  As we look more closely at the text, we discover that Luke wants us to see how Felix responds to the gospel Paul preaches.  This fits with Luke’s overarching purpose for this section of the letter which is to display God’s faithfulness in fulfilling the prophecy Jesus made about Paul at his conversion--that he would carry “his name before Gentiles and kings.”

So let’s focus on Felix as he responds to the gospel.  Felix was a former slave belonging to the family of Emperor Claudius Caesar.  He came to power in Judea thanks to the influence of his brother Pallas, who was very influential in Rome.  As we said last week, Felix was brutal to any Jew or Jewish group who resisted Rome and the Jews hated him.  In verse 24 we meet his wife Drusilla who would have been about 20 years old at this time.  She was the daughter of Herod Agrippa I who was eaten by worms in Acts chapter 12.  Drusilla was Felix’s third wife and the marriage was tainted by additional scandal because Felix seduced her away from her first husband.  Felix is a scoundrel on many fronts and Rome finally removed him from power because of his heavy handed treatment of the Jews.  Now, what Does God reveal about Felix’ response to the gospel?  I find four responses in the text.

First, verse 22 says “But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way…”  That tells us that Felix knew well the strong connection between Judaism and the beliefs of this large group of Christ-followers.  We can assume that he came to this understanding because as a Judean governor during this period, one of the major developments in his realm would be this Jesus sect that claimed to follow a resurrected Messiah.  The intermittent conflicts and persecution leveled on the believers by the Jews in Judea could scarcely have escaped Felix’ attention.  His wife’s Jewish background might also have contributed to his knowledge of the early church.  The first response Felix has to the gospel predates this narrative and is: he is generally familiar with the message of the gospel.   Felix is not someone Paul would need to start with at square one.  There was a base of knowledge that he could build on.

 A second way Felix responds to the gospel is found in verse 24.  24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus.”   Notice, it is Felix who initiates this interaction.  This is one of the rare times in Acts when Paul is actually invited to share the gospel with someone.  Luke reveals the same truth in verse 26 where he writes that Felix “…sent for him [Paul] often and conversed with him. A second truth about Felix’s response is: He is curious with respect to the truth of the gospel.  Luke clearly wants us to see that Felix had an interest in the gospel—he found something compelling about it.  He sent for Paul OFTEN and conversed with him.  We must also see that in sending for Paul Felix’s’ motives were mixed.  He also “…hoped that money would be given him by Paul.  There may have been some wealthy people who visited Paul and perhaps Felix thought he could cash in here. Still, the way Luke words it, he communicates that although Felix’ intentions were not completely pure, neither were his requests to hear Paul ONLY about getting a bribe.  This Roman governor shows a genuine interest in the gospel. We know from verse 25 that in these many meetings, Paul would reason with Felix.  That is—he would through logical argument try to persuade him to believe in Jesus.  We also know that Felix was not hearing a watered down gospel.  As we’ll see, the message Paul brought to Felix was not a user-friendly one.  Yet even with the bold, clear and personal challenge of the message, he spoke often with Paul about it.

Related to that is another way in which Felix responds to gospel in verse 25.  Speaking of Paul, Luke writes, “25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”   Here we see from Felix that he is alarmed by the content of the gospel.   The word translated “alarmed” is “emphobos from which we get our word “phobia.”  In other words, Felix was afraid, terrified, trembling—all those are legitimate translations of this word.  Luke says that Paul preached “…about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment…” to Felix.  When Paul preached righteousness to Felix, this probably doesn’t refer to the righteousness of Christ that he imputes to a person when he believes on Jesus.  Paul obviously preached that declared righteousness of Christ to Felix at some point because in verse 24 Luke says that when Felix first summons Paul, he speaks to him about “faith in Jesus Christ.”  Clearly, Paul preached the message of faith in Christ which implies justification by grace through faith--that those who trust in Christ are declared legally righteous--approved by God through their faith and not works.

When Paul preaches righteousness—in light of the context, he is probably preaching the righteous requirement of God that he demands from anyone who would escape his just condemnation for their sin. Paul calls Felix to be righteous--to be perfect—without sin—perfectly holy just as God is holy.  Paul also preached “self-control” to Felix and Drusilla.  Felix was the product of a morally debauched culture—especially among Roman political leadership.  As we heard, he seduced his wife away from her first husband and she was his third wife.  We also know that couldn’t control his temper with respect to those Jews who would cross him.  In addition to his sexual and emotional lack of control, he was morally corrupt—hoping for bribes from Paul.  Of the scores of moral qualities that Felix lacked, among the most prominently absent was self-control.  In Felix, the Bible and first century historians paint a picture of a man who is out of control.  Paul is not preaching abstract truths to Felix.  He is personally confronting him with sins that by God’s grace will cause him to see his guilt before a holy God.  When Paul comes preaching to Felix God’s righteous standard for him was a life of self-control, he doubtless felt inadequate.  At the very least, Felix is aware that he is a sinner before a holy God.

Any possible doubt on that score is completely removed when Paul preaches the third part of his message in this first encounter with Paul which is “the coming judgment.”  Here is doubtless where the ‘teeth” of the message sink into Felix’ soul.  Again, up to this point, all that we can say for certain about Felix’ response to the message was that he was by this time quite sure that this God of Paul’s was not pleased with him or the way he was living his life.  Here however Paul boldly declares to this man who had the power of life and death over him that he was liable to the eternal retribution of God.  God requires moral perfection in righteousness as seen in a life of self-control.  Because Felix did not meet this standard, he will one day stand before God and receive eternal judgment for his rebellion against him.  Paul’s message does not leave Felix with the impression that his life was slightly out of sync with the Hebrew God, he was in rebellion against the One who could and would sentence him to eternal condemnation.  Here Felix is confronted with the frightening fact that the wages of his sin is death—eternal death.   

This explains Felix’s alarm and it also gives us insight into whether Felix believed Paul.  The fact that Felix was afraid indicated that he not only understood the message, but he believed it at some level.  I have no fear of a god I do not believe in—the wrath of Thor or Zeus don’t frighten me.  You don’t fear the judgment of a mythical god.  Felix’ fear in response to the message of God’s judgment on him as an unrighteous, out-of-control sinner indicates that he believed it.  We must hear that Felix has some belief in the message here and that alone can explain his fear.  We know he was afraid, not only because Luke explicitly tells us, but because when Paul applies the truth to him his fear prompts him to tell Paul, “Go away for the present.  When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”  Felix is feeling enough discomfort from the message that he will hear no more from Paul.  This verse also tells us that even though he was afraid, he still wanted to hear from Paul.  Although as we said, he also wanted a bribe from him, Luke does not give us the freedom here to say that this is the ONLY reason he kept sending for Paul.  Even though he was scared by the message, for some reason he wanted to keep hearing about Jesus. Felix’s removal of Paul from his presence tells us that, in addition to his other responses to the gospel, he is self-protective and controlling.

Felix is in control of this situation—at least he thinks he is--and so, as the one with the authority here, he has Paul escorted out when he starts to feel the heat.  If the message makes him afraid, he just silences the messenger.  He protects himself from it and the fear it brings him.  Only when HE, Felix wants to hear the message, will he summon Paul and based on what we have seen from Paul so far in Acts, when he was summoned to speak to Felix, he wasn’t exchanging recipes with him.  He was giving him the gospel because that’s what Paul did.  Felix wanted to hear the gospel when it was convenient for him—on his own terms and he controlled the situation so that would occur.

This practice of self-protection and his attempts to control the message of the gospel did not die with Felix.  They are still being practiced by sinners.  Now, a person can just turn off the television or the radio when the gospel is presented—they can walk away or shout you down.  Often, instead of ejecting the messenger as Felix did, people control the message by limiting their exposure to a user-friendly version of it that will not make them uncomfortable.  Tragically, unbiblical, imbalanced gospel presentations are easy to find today in America.  These are messages where sin—if it is mentioned at all, is only lightly glossed over.  These messages are more likely to discuss a sinner’s feelings of guilt rather than declare the sinner stands guilty of cosmic treason against the Lord of the universe by his continual rebellion against him. These “gospel-lite” messages are very popular, but not effective in saving sinners. 

As we close, let’s think about a crucial truth in response to what Luke reveals here about Felix. First: we must distinguish between faith and saving faith in Christ.  In Felix, Luke reveals to us a man who on some level believes in Christ.  He listened to Paul often, and notwithstanding his corrupt financial interests, found the gospel message compelling on some level. He is also scared at the prospect of his own judgment—so much so that he erects barriers to becoming alarmed by the message.  I can’t help imagining how many North American evangelists would have handled Felix when he noticed the governor was frightened at the prospect of his own well-deserved judgment.  Many today would have told Felix. “Felix, I can see you have been impacted by my message—there is sweat on your forehead; your skin is pale.  You are obviously under the conviction of the Spirit.  Well, Felix if you don’t want to go to hell—if you don’t want to face the judgment Paul told you about —all you need to do is ask Jesus to come into your heart—pray this prayer—make a decision for Jesus and he will forgive you.  Just say the prayer and you are in the kingdom and this prospect of fearful judgment will be eliminatedyou’ll be saved by the blood of Jesus.”  Then (and I will admit to some cynicism here but please indulge me so that I can make the point), if Felix prays the prayer, the evangelist would encourage this new Christian celebrity to give his celebrity testimony of faith in Christ as soon and as publicly as possible to encourage even more people to pray the prayer—even though Felix—like so many today who “believe,” is never even close to being genuinely converted. 

James 2:14 says, “14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”  James implies that there is a kind of faith that does not save—a faith that is absent any works that confirm that God has done a saving work in your heart.  Saving faith is a gift from God and it results in a changed heart that leads to a transformed life that includes good works.  The works do not produce the changed heart—they come in response to a heart that God has changed through the gospel.  We must distinguish between faiththat Felix had on some level, and saving faith that produces far more than just being afraid at the prospect of hell and making the decision to make Jesus your fire insurance. Just because someone is willing to hear the message and even if they feel fear, that is no sure sign that God is at work in their heart.  The great evangelist C.H. Spurgeon goes even further and said something that will be scarcely understood today. Listen carefully. “I have heard it often asserted that if you believe that Jesus Christ died for you, you will be saved.  My dear hearer, do not be deluded by such an idea... Do not get that into your head or it will ruin you …Do not say, “I believe that Jesus Christ died for me,” and because of that feel that you are saved.  You may believe that Jesus Christ died for you….That is not saving faith…  pray you to remember that the genuine faith that saves the soul has for its main element—trust—absolute rest of the whole soul—on the Lord Jesus Christ to save me and relying, as I am, wholly and alone on him, I am saved…” [1]

The fact that Spurgeon here doesn’t make sense to many evangelicals is testimony to how far things have eroded in our understanding of the gospel.  What Spurgeon is saying is just because a person has an intellectual belief  that Jesus Christ died for them--that does not save them.  There’s a huge difference between having a belief about Christ and believing in Christ. The message of the Word is not that if you believe that Jesus died for you, you are saved, but that “…everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.  There is a world of difference between on the one hand, believing that Jesus’ death is for you and on the other, in your desperate condition as a sinner, looking in faith to Christ alone to save you.  To state that you have a belief that Jesus died for you is simply to make a spiritual assertion.  That is very different from a person to whom God has revealed both their sin and his anger at their sin and in response to that work of God, they cry out in faith to Jesus as their only hope of being rescued from certain judgment.  Think of it this way--if you fall into an icy lake and you see a fishing boat 20 feet away, it’s one thing to assert the belief as you are going down for the third time, “You know, I bet God put them here for my benefitthey are here for me.”  Will that belief get you rescued?  No, it’s as you see your life pass before your eyes and with your last ounce of energy you cry out to them as your only hope, “Help, save me!” that you will be saved.  In the first instance, you are simply mentally connecting that you have a need and they can do something about it.  In the second instance, in an act of faith rooted in the awareness of your desperate need, you cry out for them to rescue you from certain death.  

There are far too many in the church today who can assert, “I believe Jesus died for me” and far too few who have seen their grievous need of forgiveness before a holy, sin-hating God and by God’s grace actively reached out in faith to Christ as their only hope for salvation.  In the first case, the result is a person with little gratitude to God because in the end, their relationship with God is rooted in a spiritual belief wherein they connect their often vague sense of need with God’s ability to meet it. They have no experience of God’s rescue from sin.  In the second case, the Holy Spirit has made their hearts alive to their tremendous need for forgiveness and has given them the faith to cry out to Jesus as their only hope of salvation.  The first scenario produces what is perhaps a very nice person who knows some theology and may go to church and serve in some capacity and when they die—they go to hell in their unbelief.  The second scenario produces a person who has been miraculously, savingly touched by God and as a result is a worshipper who lives in awe of his saving love.  They have a personal relationship with the God who in his great mercy, reached down and pulled them from the pit.  When they were absolutely circling the drain, Jesus brought them out of death to life. 

Where are you this morning?  Are you a person who simply has a belief that Jesus died for you?  If so, that would explain your consistent lukewarmness—even indifference to God.  That’s not a faith that will save you and it will not make you a worshipper of God.  Or, by God’s saving grace has God revealed your sin to you and from that grave understanding you have of yourself standing as a sinner before a holy God who hates your sin—have your cried out to him in faith?  That is saving faith and it produces works that come from a heart of worship for Jesus as your personal Savior. 

Felix may very well have believed at some point that Jesus died for him, but as far as we know he is in torment as we speak.  Believers on the other hand see their devastating need before a holy God and by God’s grace cry out to Jesus in faith to save them.  May God give us the grace to do far more than simply have a belief that Jesus’ death answers our need, but instead see our desperate condition as a sinner before a holy God and savingly cry out in faith for him to rescue us from his judgment as we believe on Christ for his glory and our joy.


[1] C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) Sermons, vol. 58, 583-4 as quoted in Ian Murray’s The Invitation System, Banner of Truth Trust, 1967, p. 34.

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