Acts 24 | The Story of Two Trials
The later chapters of Acts show Paul’s journey to Jerusalem, which led to his arrest. Last week, we saw how dangerous it became. Forty men wanted him dead. So, Paul was moved from Jerusalem to Caesarea, and in Acts 24, appeared before the Roman governor, Felix. The Jews hired a lawyer, Tertullus, and made three serious but false accusations. He was tried and imprisoned without receiving a verdict. Then, Paul and Felix have an interesting conversation. Let’s read it now.
24 And after five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus [the Jews’ lawyer]. They laid before the governor their case against Paul. 2 And when he had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him [in the proper court etiquette of the day], saying:
“Since through you we enjoy much peace [which wasn’t true; the Jews had a terrible relationship with him and both parties knew it], and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation, 3 in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude [he’s laying it on thick]. 4 But, to detain you no further, I beg you in your kindness to hear us briefly. 5 For we have found this man a plague [and here are the three accusations against Paul], one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.6 He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him. 8 By examining him yourself you will be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.” [Essentially, “Felix, there is no way you can find him innocent and still be on our side politically.”]
9 The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming that all these things were so. [Furthering the pressure on Felix to comply]
10 And when the governor had nodded to him to speak, Paul replied: [Paul makes his defense now]
“Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation [so he should be aware of the events and relationships], I cheerfully make my defense. 11 You can verify that it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem [hardly enough time to do everything they accused him of], 12 and they did not find me disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd, either in the temple or in the synagogues or in the city. 13 Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me. 14 But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers [he’s a faithful Jew, following God’s word all the way to Jesus], believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, 15 having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. 16 So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man. [he’s following God as best he can, not doing anything else] 17 Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings. 18 While I was doing this, they found me purified in the temple [not defiled or defiling the temple], without any crowd or tumult [not causing a scene]. But some Jews from Asia— 19 they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, should they have anything against me. [His accusers weren’t even present for the hearing, which should lead to doubt their accusations] 20 Or else let these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, 21 other than this one thing that I cried out while standing among them: ‘It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day.’” [Paul admits to only one thing: being a Jewish believer in God]
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.” [He knew there was no case, but didn’t want to decide because it wasn’t politically expedient.] 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, [Drusilla was Felix’s third wife. She was only about 20 years old. He had seduced her and she left her first husband to be with Felix.] 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.” [Felix was alarmed because the three things Paul mentions are the three big sins of his life. He wasn’t righteous in marrying Drusilla. He wasn’t self-controlled in his lust or his desire for fame and money. He wasn’t prepared for the coming judgment because he himself wasn’t just. He was confronted with his sins but was unwilling to repent] 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.
This is God’s word.
Why is this in the Bible? It doesn’t have lots of doctrine. It seems to merely progress the story. Yet 27 verses are spent here. Clearly, God wants to show us something. The Bible says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (1 Timothy 3:16). So, what is profitable here?
This passage is the story of two trails: the obvious one, Paul’s trial in verses 1-23, and the easy-to-miss-one, Felix’s trial in verses 24-27. But this also shows us the reality of two spiritual trials: how we put God on trial, and how God puts us on trial. So, that’s what we’re going to look at today.
1. Trial #1: Us v. God
2. Trial #2: God v. Us
Trial #1: Us v. God
Paul is standing trial, but at the most basic level, it’s not Paul who’s on trial. It’s Jesus. And before you think, “how could they,” realize that this is all of us. We’ve all put Jesus on trial. We all indict God by our sin. We say he’s infringed upon our rights. So, we bring him into the courtroom of our heart and place him in the defendant’s chair, asking him to prove his worth.
From the Garden of Eden, God has been accused. The Devil asked, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’? You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1,4) Adam and Eve said, in effect, “That’s right, God is holding out on us. We’ll show him.” From that day forward, the world has been at war with God, accusing him for the things gone wrong, even though it’s all our fault.
The story of Israel in the Old Testament is an album of the testing of God. One trial after another. Can we trust him? Will he be faithful? Will he protect us? Will he provide for us? Will he be there? In the New Testament, Jesus’ disciples show not much changed. Peter proclaimed him as the Christ only to deny him three times. We try Jesus, and the trials extend to his people.
So, here is Paul, standing trial for being, essentially, a faithful Jew. He looked at the Old Testament and followed it all the way to Jesus. When he looked at the Old Testament and then looked at the gospel message, he didn’t see any contradictions. He saw completion. But the Jews missed it because they wouldn’t accept a gospel of free grace. So, they stood before the Roman governor and instead of proclaiming the good news, they put the good news on trial.
You may have noticed when we read the passage that this sounds an awful lot like the trail Jesus endured at the end of his days: trumped up charges, no evidence, Roman cowards unwilling to take a stand. That’s no accident. Luke is writing it this way on purpose. He means to link Paul’s trial with Jesus’. Because this is really where we all start: putting Jesus on trial.
We try Jesus constantly. How many times have we accused him? If he’s so good, why is this happening to me? If he’s so sovereign, why can’t he stop this? If he’s really there, why isn’t he talking to me? If he’s really God, why doesn’t he fix everything right now?
Our sinful default is exactly the same as Adam and Eve’s. We assume God is holding out on us. We assume he’s against us. We limit him and shrink him down to fit inside our small ideas. And unless God breaks through to us, that’s where we’ll stay until the end of our days: resistant to God and his purposes, and ultimately resistant to God’s people as well. And that’s how Paul got here.
The Jews didn’t know they were resistant to God. But because they failed to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, they persecuted his followers, and in doing so, persecuted God himself. Remember what Jesus said to Paul when he appeared to him on the road to Damascus, “Paul! Paul! Why are you persecuting me?” Paul wasn’t raging his fist at Jesus, seeking to arrest him. He thought Jesus was already dead. But Jesus wasn’t dead. Jesus was alive! And he had been saving people throughout the world. So, for Paul to persecute Jesus’ people was to persecute Jesus. And that’s what these Jews were doing in Acts 24.
Jesus identifies with his people so deeply that to stand against his people is to stand against him. That means we must be very careful what we say about other Christians. It might be that we are wrong in our assumption of God. He might be bigger than we think he is.
The only truly faithful Jew in this passage is Paul. The others’ problem was that they shrunk God to fit inside their worldview. They let their religion dictate their god instead of letting their God dictate their religion. They missed the marvel of the cross because they were looking for the ordinariness of a king. So, they missed the Crucified King that became the Resurrected King, who earned the title King of kings. These Jews from Acts 24 should have modeled the Berean Jews from Acts 17, “receiving the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Let’s not let our thoughts or expectations overrule God’s word. If we do, we may stand against God and his people without even realizing it.
Paul was in this courtroom because he stood for Jesus, and in a world at war with Jesus, his people face hardship. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18) “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20) “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30). There are no neutral parties when it comes to God. There are only those for God and those against God. That’s it. Even now, as we look at this passage, something is happening in every one of us. We’re either softening to God or hardening to him. But the one thing that’s not happening is nothing. Something is going on inside.
So, what’s going on inside you? Where does God stand in the courtroom of your heart?
Now, let’s hear the second case Luke brings before us.
Trail #2: God v. Us
We don’t hear Paul’s verdict because Felix delays and keeps him imprisoned as a favor to the Jews. Instead of a verdict, we see another trial. This time, Paul puts Felix on trial. The judge becomes the defendant. The defendant becomes the prosecutor. And the Lord becomes the judge, because, really, he’s always the judge. We see this in verses 24 and 25. Felix and Drusilla come to Paul and Paul talks about faith in Christ, reasoning about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgement. Felix becomes alarmed because Paul hits home with these sins. So, he sends Paul away, talking to him later only hoping to get a bribe. Don’t miss the implications here. He heard the gospel from the Apostle Paul and had an opportunity to repent but instead chose to ignore. He could have been free of all his sin and gained all God’s righteousness. But all he wanted was a bribe. He didn’t want God.
So, what do you want?
In the gospel, God is offering us something more valuable than the meager sum we can attain in this world. He’s offering us the greatest joy for the longest amount of time for the best price anywhere in the world. He’s offering himself forever.
In the gospel, God takes us to court. He presents the charges against us: Sin. And afterward, asks us how we plea. We have two options: guilty or not-guilty. If we plead not-guilty, we can either defend ourselves in silence and ignorance, like Felix, or in defiance and cross examination, like the Jews. Either way, we’re going to lose because God has all the evidence he needs to convict us. He can call witness after witness. He can submit proof after proof. We may think we are getting away with it now, but one day we will die and stand before him once and for all, and we will have no case to make. No amount of good we did can outweigh the bad we were, and we will be condemned to hell forever because we failed to admit our sin and our need for forgiveness from God.
Now, it would make sense to plead not guilty and fight the case if we were unsure of what the guilty plea meant. But the gospel is God’s news of the trial. It’s the only case we know the outcome of before we step into the courtroom.
If we plead guilty, hoping God will be merciful, something surprising happens. We would never expect this. This is why the gospel is good news. Here’s what happens.
Your sin is a great, big collective felony against God. Your day in court has arrived. You stand before the judge, who happens to be the one against whom you have committed this crime. You have no other option than to plead guilty. You just feel guilty before him. The penalty is death, there is no way around it, but you know it’s just. Now, imagine, before you’ve even begun your defense, the judge leans forward in his chair, looks straight into your eyes, and says that the penalty has been paid and you are free to go.
The gospel says that’s what’s happens because of the work of Jesus on your behalf. Jesus already stood trial on your behalf and was condemn for your sin. He paid the penalty of death that you were owed. You put Jesus on trial by your sin and instead of building a case against you, he stood in your place and took the punishment you deserved. He didn’t look for a way out. Instead, like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter, he opened not his mouth. He lost his voice in his trial so he could speak for you in yours. He endured the silence and paid your penalty before you even realized you needed him to. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Because of him it’s as if you always obeyed.
It turns out God was always there, being faithful to us when we were being unfaithful to him. He was making plans for us before we even knew we needed him. Without your permission, Jesus came down to earth, was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, obeyed the law, fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament, was convicted of a crime he did not commit, and was executed on the cross. This is what the judge is talking about. Your punishment has been paid already. You are free. The banner hanging over your head is no longer “Sinner, condemned”, but “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In that moment, you know your guilt and you accept God’s salvation in repentance and faith.
That’s what Paul was offering Felix. That’s what God is offering us today. The only question remaining is, what will we do with his offer?
Let’s go back to the courtroom. God has just declared you innocent. The courtroom erupts. Some are angry. Some are overjoyed. You are floored. What just happened? You know your own guilt. How can this be? You look up at him with bulging eyes, at a loss for words. You utter a shaky, “thank you.” That’s all you can muster. And then he cracks a smile. It’s a smile unlike any you’ve ever seen. It’s like the smile of a friend who hasn’t seen you in a long time and has no idea what a mess you’ve made of your life. It’s an innocent smile, a pure smile. It is the smile of God for you.
Then, he gets out of his chair and comes down, puts his arm around you, and leads you back to his chambers. He rejoices with you, and there is no indication that he ever plans to let you go. You start to think that maybe he intends to give you your life back, except this time it’s the life you always wanted rather than the mess you made. The relationship feels so warm that it’s as if God has adopted you as his own child, which, you soon find out, he has.
You behold the one who died for you. He's not angry for having to pay your penalty. He’s overjoyed that you’re there. He says you were the joy set before him for which he endured the cross. He welcomes you unlike anyone ever has because only a resurrected Savior could love like this. Nothing hinders his love. This is more than a declaration of innocence. It’s a declaration of righteousness. You have been reconciled to God.
And though you remain on earth, God sends his Holy Spirit to dwell within. You are a new creation in Christ. You are a child of God. You can endure whatever trials you face because the most important trial has already been decided, and no one can overturn God’s verdict. There is no higher court. That’s why Romans 8 says,
Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:33-39)
Paul knew this truth and now as he stands before the Roman governor, he’s offering the same to him. That’s what being set right with God does: it turns us into evangelists in our moments of greatest trial. And here, Paul lives out his calling, preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. But Felix doesn’t take it. Will you?