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Setting the Stage for Rome

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Acts 25–26

It must have seemed like an endless cycle to the apostle Paul—charges brought, hearings held, decisions delayed. Yet at every step he had opportunities to speak, and he took advantage of each one to boldly proclaim Jesus Christ. There is much we can learn from his example.


We now sail into a rather dramatic series of events in the life and ministry of the apostle Paul. Here in chapters 25 and 26 of the book of Acts, Paul is going to stand before two of the most influential men in this part of the world. And we are going to be reminded that behind the throne of human rulers is the sovereign throne of almighty God.

The first man is Governor Festus who arrives in Caesarea as the replacement for Governor Felix. Almost as soon as he has unpacked his bags and set up his official office, Festus heads fifty-five miles south to the city of Jerusalem. He ends up hearing from religious leaders there who demand that the apostle Paul be brought from Caesarea to Jerusalem to stand trial. Acts 25:3 informs us, though, “They were planning an ambush to kill [Paul] on the way.”

God moves in the governor’s heart to reject their request. Festus tells these religious leaders that if they want to bring formal charges against Paul, they can come up to Caesarea.

Once Festus returns to Caesarea, he personally listens to the charges against Paul and then to Paul’s defense. Later, in verses 18-19, he will admit that he found nothing worthy of punishment—that this was just a religious dispute concerning the resurrection of Jesus.

In verse 9, we read this:

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?”

He is a pretty clever politician. He knows Paul has not done anything illegal, but he wants his approval ratings to go up in his new office. He does not want to anger the Jewish leadership at the beginning of his administration. He has just finished hanging artwork in his office and putting family pictures out on his desk. He doesn’t want any rotten tomatoes thrown at him so soon in office. So, he just casually suggests to Paul that this religious matter be moved to Jerusalem.

Well, Paul knows that will be a death sentence. He knows the Sanhedrin will not change their mind; and he already knows there are plots out there to ambush him and kill him. Governor Festus cannot provide protection from hired assassins.

So, in verse 11, Paul simply says to Governor Festus, “I appeal to Caesar.” As a Roman citizen, Paul has the right to appeal his case directly to the emperor. What this means is that the current proceedings come to a halt, and Paul will soon be sent to Rome for a final verdict.

But do not miss this truth: The Lord is directing these events so that His promise will be fulfilled to Paul—a promise made back in Acts 23:11, when Jesus told Paul, “As you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”

Now Paul is not out of the hot seat just yet. Some unexpected people happen to arrive in Caesarea—King Herod Agrippa II and his sister Bernice.

This king is the son of Herod Agrippa I, the man who executed the apostle James back in Acts 12; and he is the great-grandson of Herod the Great, who massacred the children of Bethlehem in an effort to kill the Messiah. Herod Agrippa II comes from a family the devil has used to try to murder the Messiah and stamp out the church.

And he is just like his father and grandfather, interested only in power and prestige. He is also immoral, as it is public knowledge he is living with his sister Bernice in an incestuous relationship.

After Agrippa and Bernice arrive, Governor Festus tells them all that has happened to Paul (verses 13-21). Festus asks for advice; yes, he is going to fulfill Paul’s request to stand trial in Rome, but Festus is not sure what he should write to the emperor regarding Paul.

So, Agrippa volunteers, essentially saying, “Look, let me hear from Paul, then I’ll give you my opinion.” Verse 23 continues the account:

On the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city.

These are the power players in this part of the world. These are the celebrities and the dignitaries of the political and military world. But Paul knows who is really in charge here. These might be the rulers, but God overrules the rulers. God is in charge.

This brings us to chapter 26, where Paul presents his defense. He starts out by giving his testimony, as usual. He describes his past, saying in verse 5, “According to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.” In other words, “I followed the law. I believed the Scriptures, which teach the resurrection of the dead. And this is the central charge against me.”

Paul then goes on to recount his persecution of Jesus’ followers, saying, “I punished them often in all the synagogues . . . I persecuted them even to foreign cities” (verse 11).

Next, in verses 12-18, Paul once again describes his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. And he repeats the assignment given to him by the Lord:

“I am sending you [to the Gentiles] to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (verses 17-18)

This is brilliant. Paul is telling his story but also giving the gospel to the king and this audience: We are all sinners, and if we want to be forgiven, there is only one way—through faith in Christ.

Paul continues in his defense. Frankly, he is preaching quite a sermon to this audience of power players. Note his words here in verses 22-23:

“[I am] saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and [be] the first to rise from the dead.”

The governor interrupts him at this point, saying, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you [insane]” (verse 24).

Now I have never had anyone interrupt one of my sermons by hollering, “You’re insane.” They are usually kind enough to wait until after the sermon!

Paul counters in verse 25 that he is speaking “true and rational words.” Then he expresses his belief that Agrippa, who is well-versed in Judaism, understands that his message is consistent with the Scriptures. He directly addresses the king, saying, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (verse 27).

Essentially Paul is saying, “I know you respect the prophets, and they spoke of this coming Messiah. He has changed my life, and He can change yours too.”

Agrippa responds, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (verse 28). Some take Agrippa’s reply as suggesting Paul was almost successful in persuading him to follow Christ. I believe he is actually saying here, rather mockingly, “Paul, do you really think that in such a short time, you can persuade me to become a Christian?”

With that, this hearing is over. And in the final verses of chapter 26, Agrippa and Festus agree that Paul is innocent and ought to be released. But since he has appealed to Caesar, he will be sent to Caesar, in Rome.

Let me tell you, beloved, Paul’s example here is worth imitating. He is not intimidated by the pomp and circumstance of these powerful people. He knows he belongs to the all-powerful King of glory. He consistently, boldly proclaims the truth that Jesus is alive.

And by the way, Paul really does nothing more than what you and I can do today. Let’s tell people about when we came to faith in Christ—that He changed our lives, and He can change their lives as well.

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