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Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 25:13-22

Paul Before Agrippa and Bernice

13 Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus. 14 And as they stayed there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying, “There is a man left prisoner by Felix, 15 and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16 I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. 17 So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. 18 When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. 19 Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. 20 Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. 21 But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.” 22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” said he, “you will hear him.”

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Last week’s entry was about Paul’s plea to be heard before ‘Caesar’ — meaning the emperor Nero — in Rome rather than by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin wanted to murder him for two years.

John MacArthur has an excellent summary of Paul’s story thus far (emphases mine):

… the only thing that stands out in the text is, that the man hasn’t done anything. He has not blasphemed God by desecrating the Temple, as he was accused. He has not defied Israel by disobeying the Mosaic Law. He has not defied Rome, by being an insurrectionist and creating riots against the government. He has not done any of those things, and all of those courts, both Jewish and Roman, have attested to the fact that he has not, done those things.

But, you see, he has been retained as a prisoner, because the Roman Governors don’t have the courage to release him because they know the Jews want him dead, and they’re afraid of the Jews, if they let him go. They’re afraid that they will pressured, that there will be riots by the Jews, and they will have a hard time coping with them, so acquiesced to the Jews’ wishes, by keeping Paul and prisoner, and they play footsie with the desire of the Jews to execute him. They know he’s innocent, but they don’t let him go because they’re afraid of the Jews – it’s, blackmail is what it is. That’s an old story, with Roman Governors. The Jews did it, to all of them.

And so, we see in the situation here, that Paul should have been should have released; he’s proven innocent on four occasions, but they still have him there, in prison, in Caesarea, because they know the Jews want him dead, and they think they might be pacified if the just keep him incarcerated. But Paul, you know, realizes this just can’t go on like this, and here realizes his life is in danger, so he knows he’s not gonna get any justice in Caesarea. And he’s never gonna get off the hook, in Caesarea, so he has the only the recourse possible left to him, and that is that, which any Roman citizen had, who was brought before a Court, anywhere in the world, he appealed to Caesar.

There is also a divine aspect to Paul’s desire in reaching Rome, because our Lord appeared to him in Jerusalem and told him that Rome was where he would go (Acts 23:11):

11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”

There was one problem. Festus had to send a criminal report in order for Paul to be heard in Nero’s court. As none of the Sanhedrin’s false allegations could be substantiated, Festus had no content for such a report.

Meanwhile, as Festus was the new governor, Herod Agrippa II — the last of the Herods and the son of Herod Agrippa I, eaten alive by worms — came to visit with his consort Bernice (verse 13).

There have been many women named Bernice, but in reading this Bernice’s story, one wonders how the name became so popular. Bernice was Agrippa II’s sister — and his companion in every sense of the word.

Matthew Henry says that Agrippa II was the great-grandson of Herod the Great, who was in power when Jesus was born. Also, although he was Jewish by religion, he was not so via blood lines:

The Jewish writers speak of him, and (as Dr. Lightfoot tells us) among other things relate this story of him, “That reading the law publicly, in the latter end of the year of release, as was enjoined, the king, when he came to those words (Deuteronomy 17:15), Thou shalt not set a stranger king over thee, who is not of thy brethren, the tears ran down his cheeks, for he was not of the seed of Israel, which the congregation observing, cried out, Be of good comfort, king Agrippa, thou art our brother; for he was of their religion, though not of their blood.”

MacArthur explains that the Romans did not give Agrippa II much territory over which to rule. In fact, he was quite Roman, but, because he was king, had power over religious appointments and Jewish ceremonial worship:

Festus was, if anything the superior to Herod. Even though Herod was the King, he was only a vassal King. He was to the land, what Queen Elizabeth is to England; it’s sort of Pomp and Circumstances, and not a whole lot else. The Roman Government had subjugated all of Israel’s own authority, and this man was just a puppet thing. In fact, he was reared, for most of his life, in Rome. It wasn’t till the time that his father died and after, that he was given some territory to rule in Israel, that he left Rome. He spent the last days of life in Rome, and died there. So, he was really Roman oriented and Roman, in allegiance, though he was Jewish. And, of course, as a King, was in charge of the appointment of Priests and the operation of the ceremonies of Jewish worship. So, he was very, very familiar with this

He was reared in Rome, he lived in Rome, until his father died in 44 A.D. Claudius, the Emperor of Rome wanted to appoint him to the Kingdom that his father had, but everybody told him, he was too young – he was only 17. So, they waited another six years, till he was 23, and then they gave him only a part of the territory.

A little later, when he matured, and when was 27, they gave him a little more of the territory, and he really ruled a very small – relatively smaller. You have Northern Palestine and Galilee, just a little section, up there. And he strictly a vassal King – he was Jewish in nationality, he Roman in perspective. I think it very interesting that he established his Capital at Caesarea Philippi, which is a different Caesarea, than the one that is – this location, at this text. Caesarea Philippi was north, and he changed the name of it, to Neronius in order to fascinate Nero

As for Bernice, she was Drusilla’s — Felix’s wife’s — sister. Felix was Festus’s predecessor, who had been sent back to Rome in disgrace because the Jews in Jerusalem complained to the emperor about him.

When discussing Bernice, Henry warns us against saying that people were better in the old days. Bernice had been married to her own uncle, another Herod, and, after his death, went back to her brother Agrippa II. Then, she married the king of Cilicia, got divorced and returned once more to Agrippa II:

She was his own sister, now a widow, the widow of his uncle Herod, king of Chalcis, after whose death she lived with this brother of hers, who was suspected to be too familiar with her, and, after she was a second time married to Polemon king of Cilicia, she got to be divorced from him, and returned to her brother king Agrippa. Juvenal (Sat. 6) speaks of a diamond ring which Agrippa gave to Bernice, his incestuous sister:

Berenices
In digito factus pretiosior; hunc dedit olim
Barbarus incestæ, dedit hunc Agrippa sorori.

That far-famed gem which on the finger glow’d
Of Bernice (dearer thence), bestowed
By an incestuous brother.–GIFFORD.

And both Tacitus and Suetonius speak of a criminal intimacy afterwards between her and Titus Vespasian. Drusilla, the wife of Felix, was another sister. Such lewd people were the great people generally in those times! Say not that the former days were better.

MacArthur says that Bernice kept returning to her brother, because her reputation was so bad that no other man wanted her:

Historian Josephus, tells – and he is the major Historian of that era, and reliable – that they lived in incest. And it became very common knowledge, this debauched situation. Bernice got around, and every once in awhile she’d had an interlude with a lover, but would always come back, because the lover would always dump her, sooner or later because of this terrible incest that kept perpetuating. In fact, the son Vespasian, Titus – the one who really was so instrumental in part of the destruction of Jerusalem, took Bernice as his lover. But when he got her back to Rome, the talk around Rome was so bad, he dumped her, and she went right back into the incest with Agrippa. And they lived in it, until they died, and they lived to a very old [age], and lived in Rome.

We will see that St Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit to write Acts, never mentions Agrippa without adding ‘and Bernice’.

MacArthur cites Dr Harry Ironside, a famous Bible scholar of the 20th century, who had this to say about the infamous couple:

Doctor Ironside said, “If Agrippa dies unsaved, we may be that God links Bernice with him, still. And when Agrippa stands, eventually, at the Great White Throne, Bernice will be there, too.” In other words, Bernice represents sin, that sin, that evil thing in his life from which he never could be separated, in time or eternity, unless he would judge the sin and get right with God. Surely, there is something intensely solemn here. Oh, the awfulness of sin, how it clings. It’s a vivid illustration, isn’t it? – And, Bernice.

Agrippa and Bernice stayed at the Roman governor’s palace — incidentally, Agrippa I’s — for several days, during which time Festus brought Paul into the conversation. Festus explained that Paul was a holdover prisoner from Felix’s time (verse 14). He went on to describe his meeting with the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (verse 15).

Festus explained that he told the Jews they would have to bring charges about Paul and that the Apostle was allowed to defend himself against the accusations (verses 16, 17).

Festus intimated that he had imagined Paul had done something very wrong indeed until his accusers could not substantiate any of their accusations (verse 18).

Then, Festus brought Jesus into the conversation, as the main point of contention between Paul and the Jews (verse 19). To Festus, Jesus was some sort of religious figure, but he did not understand the implications of Paul saying that He rose from the dead and the Jews denying the Resurrection. Festus thought there was a dispute only about a man still being alive or dead.

Festus told Agrippa II that he gave Paul the opportunity to be tried in Jerusalem again (verse 20), but that Paul had appealed to Caesar instead (verse 21).

The passage ends with Agrippa telling Festus he would like to hear from Paul personally, and the Roman governor agreed to the request (verse 22).

MacArthur says that Agrippa worded his request in such a way that implied he knew something of Paul — and of Jesus:

… just a little footnote, “Agrippa, I would also hear the man myself,” is an imperfect, and it gives the idea of a continuous action. It may be, that he had continuously wished to hear this man, having heard about him. There’s no doubt in my mind, that he had heard about it, and that had been a constant wish to hear him. It was a curiosity with Agrippa.

The story continues next week.

Next time — Acts 25:23-27

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