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"To Caesar You Shall Go”

MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 29, 2012 FROM ACTS 25:1-12

Read Acts 25:1-12

This morning we return to our series of messages from the book of Acts. It’s been a few weeks, so let’s review the context for the passage we heard read a few minutes ago.  To get a wide-angle lens perspective, let’s go back about 25 years in the story when, in Acts chapter nine, Saul of Tarsus is miraculously converted on the Damascus Road and is called as an apostle of Jesus Christ.  Jesus tells a man named Ananias in 9:15 that Paul was a “... chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”  That promise Jesus gives to Ananias sets the table for the rest of the book and is really an extension of Acts 1:8 where Jesus promises the apostles, “8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The book of Acts is the historical account of God’s fulfillment of that promise.  For the first nine chapters, the gospel went to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.  In chapter ten, the first Gentile is saved, but the mission to the Gentiles greatly accelerates through the ministry of Saul of Tarsus who, after his conversion became Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.

As the narrative of Paul’s missionary exploits unfolds, one of the constants is the incessant opposition to the gospel.  Much of the story of Paul’s missionary journeys is a testimony of God’s providential work through Paul’s circumstances to advance the spread of the gospel in the midst of tremendous opposition.  From the time in Damascus immediately following his conversion where he is lowered over a wall, the enemy has his sights continuously trained on Paul and whoever accompanies him as he plants Christ-honoring churches.  In chapter 13 at Pisidian Antioch he is persecuted and, along with Barnabas, is driven from the city.  In chapter 14 in Iconium, the Jews try to stone him.   At Lystra, Paul is stoned and left for dead before miraculously reviving and moving on.  At Philippi in chapter 16, he is attacked by crowds and viciously beaten with rods.  In chapter 17 at Thessalonica a mob sets out to harm him but couldn’t find him.  In chapter 20, those who oppose the gospel hatch a plan to kill him that ultimately fails.  In chapter 23, days after he enters Jerusalem, the opposition is so violent; Roman soldiers are compelled to drag him away to their barracks for protection.  Shortly after that, more than 40 Jews make a futile vow to kill Paul, depriving themselves of all food until they succeed.   In chapter 24, he is tried on false charges by the Roman governor Felix and, although there is no evidence to convict him, as a favor to the Jews, Felix keeps him in prison for two years at Caesarea.

In the midst of those outward circumstances, there is much unseen activity in the spiritual realm behind the circumstances.  The implicit theme behind all these accounts is the faithfulness of God in using Paul’s circumstances to protect him and thus enable him to bear the gospel message to gentiles and kings.  Beyond that, God had also later promised Paul that he would go to Rome to bear the message of the gospel there in the capital of the empire.  As we come to chapter 25 this morning, we once again see the clear presence of God’s hand as, in this case, he providentially works through the circumstances of Paul’s life that would one day place him before the emperor of the Roman Empire.

Today, I want us to walk through this narrative verse by verse, making some explanation that by God’s grace will help us see God’s hand behind these circumstances. As we follow Luke’s account, we want to note the major developments or important incidents that are expressions of God’s providential working to move Paul from a prison in Caesarea to Rome, preaching to the most powerful man on the planet.  We want to do this because we trust by God’s grace it will be encouraging, but also to remind us to read every narrative in the Bible through the correct lenses.  The correct lens is one that is focused on God and his glorious work to accomplish his purposes.  For Paul to preach the gospel to Caesar would have been unlikely if there would have been no opposition to his message, but (from a human point of view) the opposition marshaled against him placed his very survival in doubt, much less his preaching before Caesar.

As we pick up the story in chapter 25, we are introduced to a new character in this drama—the newly minted governor of Judea, Festus.  We know very little of Festus from the historical accounts, other than that he was the governor of Judea beginning in A.D. 59.  Festus replaces Governor Felix, who we know from first century historians, was called back to Rome to be disciplined for his incompetence in handling a dispute between some Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea. Verse one tells us, “Now three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea.  It would make sense that a new governor in Judea would, at his earliest convenience travel to Jerusalem to acquaint himself with the Jewish leadership that held such influence across his province.  Verse two continues, “2 And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews laid out their case against Paul, and they urged him, 3 asking as a favor against Paul that he summon him to Jerusalem—because they were planning an ambush to kill him on the way.” 

This would be the first major development—the Jews attempt to use Festus to place Paul in their hands.  You’ll notice the Jews waste no time in speaking with Festus about Paul, which is especially interesting because Paul has been in a prison in Caesarea for two years.  Luke wants us to know that the Jews’ sense of alarm over Paul’s ministry had not faded during those two years.  For the new governor to hear of Paul on his first encounter with the Jewish leadership and be asked to unwittingly facilitate their plot to murder him indicates that Paul remained a dangerous person in the eyes of the Jewish leadership.  He is obviously very much a threat to them.  Paul would need a legal hearing before this new governor to acquaint him with his case and the Jews wanted the trial moved from Caesarea, where Paul was in prison, to Jerusalem for the purpose of ambushing him on the way.  Again, the intensity of the Jewish opposition is astonishing.  They were willing to manipulate their newly installed Roman governor into putting Paul in a place where they could kill him.  This is reckless because the governor would be absolutely incensed when he discovered that these Jews had, in their first interaction with him, used him as their stooge to bring about the violent death of a Roman citizen.  This is audacious!  The message Luke wants us to hear is transparent:  the Jewish leaders REALLY want Paul dead and are willing to take some significant risks to eliminate him.

Again, if Festus would have granted this favor and it resulted in Paul’s death, in human terms, Paul would never get to Rome or preach before Caesar as had been promised. So what does God do to show his faithfulness to his promise?  Verse four says, “4 Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself intended to go there shortly. 5 “So,” said he, “let the men of authority among you go down with me, and if there is anything wrong about the man, let them bring charges against him.” 6 After he stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea. And the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought.”  Festus gently brushes aside the Jews’ loaded request, stating here that Paul was in Caesarea and that is where he will be tried.  He invited the Jewish authorities to come and make their case against Paul in Caesarea, not Jerusalem thus causing yet one more plot to kill Paul to crash and burn in the face of God’s sovereign protection of him.  Luke’s record here tells us that from the time Festus arrived in Judea, only two weeks elapse before Paul is standing before him defending himself against the Jews.  For two years, Paul sits in prison with zero movement in his case and here in the span of two weeks all these things transpire to put him back in a Roman court.

This reveals a well-established truth about God’s providence.  That is—God’s will for us is often worked out in this world in what appear to be sudden bursts in the midst of seeming inactivity.  This a familiar pattern to many of us.  For many things we wait and wait on God.  Months, years, in some cases decades elapse as we continue to pray for God to move in a certain area of our circumstances.  Then, when it seems that God has permanently forgotten us, he moves so rapidly to answer our prayers, it almost makes our heads spin.  For years--nothing (or, so it would seem) occurs, and then in a flash, the obstacles that had been in place for years seem to fall almost in unison.  The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire is a well-known example.  For years, communist religious oppression reigned behind the iron curtain while the persecuted church prayed and prayed to no apparent avail.  And then, after 70 years of seeming inactivity on God’s part, in only a matter of months—so many of the seemingly indestructible communist strongholds collapsed in on themselves.  For years, nothing.  And then—in what seemed like an instant by comparison—the flood gates burst and a torrent of new religious liberty comes raging out of Eastern Europe. 

If you’re right now waiting on God for something—maybe it’s the salvation of a loved one, a spiritual breakthrough of some sort, a change in your circumstance that at one time you really believed was God’s will for you but it’s been so long, doubt has crept in, don’t despair.  Whatever it is, by this time tomorrow, it can happen.  Paul didn’t give up on God in that prison and in God’s sovereign timing; he liberated him just when it would most serve his purposes.  In verse seven, we come to another move of God’s sovereign hand or a “major development.”  Luke writes, “7 When he had arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him that they could not prove.”   Here, Festus hears the Jews’ empty charges against Paul.  Luke doesn’t record the specific charges, though Paul alludes to them in verse eight.  What we DO know is that the Jews—as had been the case two years earlier, had no evidence to support their charges.  This particular work of God’s providence is not so much manifest in what happened, but in what didn’t happen that probably should have happened.  What I mean by that is this.  For Festus, this is the first time he has heard this case—something of a preliminary hearing and the Jews produce no evidence to support their charges.  At this point, this case against a Roman citizen probably should have been thrown out.  Why would Paul even need to mount a defense when the charges leveled against him are clearly not provable?  We know his innocence was self-evident because in verse 10 he says to Festus, “...To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well.  This isn’t manipulation by Paul—as if he is trying to convince Festus there is no case when there really is.  The truth—as both Paul and Festus know is--there is no weight to the accusations of the Jews.  This is his word against theirs.  No compelling evidence exists, but for whatever reason, Festus decides not to dismiss this illegitimate case. We can now see that if Festus had summarily thrown out the case, there would have been no need for Paul to appeal to Caesar.  Again, on a purely human level, if Paul never appeals to Caesar, he doesn’t reach Rome and preach to Caesar.  Get it?

This points to another truth about life under a sovereign God.  That is—God works his plan not only through what happens, but what (humanly speaking) should have happened, but didn’t.  A dramatic example of this would be for instance, the woman who worked on the 105th floor of one of the Twin Towers, but who in God’s providence calls in sick for work on 9/11.  That’s no accident—a happy twist of fate for her.  That is God intervening to prevent something from happening for his sovereign purposes that “should” have happened.  Perhaps this has happened to you recently.  At the very least, it should tell us that when God keeps us from something that in our minds should have happened, (whether pleasant or unpleasant) there’s no need to wonder why--God’s better purpose for us is providentially being worked out. 

After the Jews leveled their charges against Paul, Luke continues in verse eight, “8 Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.  This is where Luke uses Paul’s defense to tell us the charges against Paul.  As they had done before, the Jews charged him with crimes against the temple, violation of Old Testament Law and a crime against Caesar.  From his trial before Felix, we know they charged him with sedition, that is--threatening the peace of Rome by stirring up riots among the Jews. That charge was the only one that mattered to Rome.  As we know from the trial of Jesus, questions about Jewish laws and the temple were not a concern for the Roman courts.  The basic question then is—was Paul guilty of stirring of riots among the Jews?  There was no evidence presented to prove that charge

Verse nine reveals another important development—a pivot point in the story.  After Paul’s defense, Luke writes, “9 But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?”  Here, Festus attempts to move the trial to Jerusalem.  Earlier, Festus had refused the Jews’ request to bring Paul to Jerusalem to try him, presumably by Jewish courts.  To do that would have violated Roman law, which guaranteed that Roman citizens must be tried within the Roman legal system.  But here, Festus asks Paul if he is willing to have the trial moved from Caesarea to Jerusalem.  The difference here is that, while Festus could not allow Paul to be tried by the Jewish courts, he could allow a Roman trial to occur in Jerusalem.  This would be what we would today call a simple change of venue.  Luke tells us Festus’ motivation was his desire to do the Jews a favor.  Here, Luke reveals that Festus is not only a Roman judge; he is also a political animal.  He knew that if he is to advance in Roman politics, he must rule the Jews well and the Jews in Palestine had proven to be a very UNruly people.  They hated Rome and frequently clashed with them.  About 11 years after this trial in AD 70, the Jews finally revolted against Rome and the wrath of the empire was poured out on Jerusalem with many Jewish casualties, one of them being the temple, which was destroyed.

Festus tries to ingratiate himself to these unruly Jews by meeting them half way on this question of a Jerusalem trial.  At least two influences are working on Festus here.  On the one hand, he must obey Roman law and give Paul a trial before a Roman judge because Paul was a Roman citizen. On the other; he wanted to curry favor with the Jews who want Paul tried in Jerusalem.  He walks this tightrope by asking Paul, not ordering him to have his Roman trial in Jerusalem in the hopes that at least the Jews will see that he is trying to play ball with them.  In the midst of this political maneuvering, the sovereign hand of God is clearly seen.  First, by ordaining the Roman law that forbade a trial by the Jews.  It seems clear that what kept Festus from doing the Jews a favor and ordering a trial in Jerusalem, was this Roman law concerning Roman citizens.  We know from Romans 13 that laws are put in place by God.  Romans 13:1 says, “1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  This Law that was set in place by God prevented Festus from acting in his political best interest and moving the trial to Jerusalem.  So, he asks Paul if there could be a change of venue to Jerusalem which would have played into the hands of the Jews who, unbeknownst to him, wanted to kill Paul.

Paul’s response in verse 10 is pointed.  But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried…”  He knew that he was on trial for alleged crimes against Rome and there was no justification for him to be tried in Jerusalem—a place where Paul was hated and would be vulnerable to the Jews.  Verse 11 relates the climactic development in this narrative.  11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”   Here, Paul appeals to Caesar.  Again, here is another example of Roman law being Paul’s friend because the law said that if a Roman citizen has reason to believe a lower tribunal could not hear his case impartially, or there were other indicators of incompetence on the local level, the citizen was free to appeal to the supreme tribunal, Caesar.  Whether Paul appealed to Caesar solely for his own legal protection, or because he saw this as his chance to get to Rome or both, we cannot know.  What we DO know is this appeal places him in a position to preach to the Roman Emperor, Nero.  Although Nero is infamous for his tortuous treatment of believers at the end of his reign, during this--the early part of his rule, he was actually considered a reasoned and effective ruler.

So Paul will go to Rome to fulfill God’s promises that he will preach to the emperor of the Roman Empire.  What’s more, in the providence of God, another unexpected development occurs.  That is: King Agrippa and his wife Bernice unexpectedly pass through Caesarea.  King Agrippa was a local ruler who reigned over several minor gentile territories in the area.  And, in God’s providence, Festus and Agrippa meet and Festus tells him the story of Paul’s trial.  Agrippa, in God’s providence becomes curious about Paul and his testimony and he wants to hear from Paul.  This gave Paul a completely unexpected opportunity to preach to yet another “king” and in so doing glorify God by one more time fulfilling one of his sovereign purposes for Paul’s life.  This points to one final application about God’s sovereign providence in our lives and that is:  God’s providential will for us is often more extravagant than we can imagine.  There is absolutely no indication anywhere in this text that Paul was expecting the chance to preach to yet another ruler.  He knows he needs to preach to Caesar and that meant a trip to Rome, but Agrippa’s close proximity to Paul and his interest in him, Paul could not have anticipated.  In one of God’s sovereign “coincidences,” God throws Agrippa in as a “bonus,” if you will.

Many here know that God’s providential working in our circumstances, though very difficult at times, is also filled with these kinds of unexpected extravagances.  Why does God do this kind of thing?  Because it’s who God is!  This is simply an expression of his character.  Paul says in Ephesians 3:20, “20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,”  In Ephesians chapter one, Paul says that God doesn’t simply give us his grace, he lavishes it upon us.  We’re talking about a God who, in his divine extravagance, created not just one or two species of sparrows, but 140 species of sparrows!  It’s in God’s nature to be extravagant and this unexpected “extra” he throws Paul is only consistent with his glorious nature.  So, Paul will preach to King Agrippa and then go to Rome and preach to Nero in fulfillment of the promise Jesus made at his conversion some 26 years earlier.  BUT, that could not have happened unless Paul appealed to Caesar, which could not have happened unless Festus attempted in trying to curry favor with the Jews and suggested a change of venue to Jerusalem, which in turn would not have happened if the Jews had not earlier asked Festus to release Paul for trial before the Sanhedrin so they could murder him, which would not have happened if Paul’s case didn’t require another trial because Festus was a new governor and unfamiliar with his case, which would not have happened had Felix not kept Paul in prison for two years for no good earthly reason until Felix was demoted back to Rome for incompetence.

What’s even more amazing is—this is only tracing one line of God’s providential work resulting in Paul moving from a prison in Caesarea to preaching before the Roman Emperor.  At the same time this was all working out, God was also working out his providential will in ALL the lives of those involved in this set of circumstances and probably in several more areas in Paul’s life and ministry that aren’t mentioned.  Oh, what a glorious God we serve!  Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen
.”

Also, don’t miss the fact that God’s providential working necessarily includes the sins of many people—in particular, the Jews’ desire to kill Paul.  Ultimately, it was their continuing desire to prosecute this case and their plan to kill Paul that led to the events resulting in him being sent to Rome.  There’s a lesson there as well and that is—God uses sinful and painful things in our lives to work out his will for us.  I don’t just mean that he sanctifies us through trials—though that’s certainly true.  The point is that God often uses other people’s sins against us to accomplish his will in our lives.  This is true not only with Paul, but in the lives of many of his people, most notably Joseph, whose brothers sinned so grievously against him, but as Joseph told them after he had been used by God to avert a famine crisis, “20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” 

This is such a comfort to us because people in and out of the church sin against us and it hurts.  Our temptation is to become bitter and do all sorts of sinful and juvenile things in response.  If however, we see that God redeems bad things into good things, we can by faith praise him even for the bad things.  Paul in Ephesians 5:20 says being filled or controlled by the Holy Spirit is manifest in us by our “20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,”   If we believe that God redeems the painful trials in our lives, then we can by faith thank him for them because he is in it for our good.  God’s providential working in our lives is such a comfort and encouragement for us who live in a sinful world and what a powerful example of God’s providence we see here in Acts 25.  May God give us the grace to trust in him whose sovereign hand is tracing his good will for us in the midst of our circumstances.

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