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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 24:22-27

Paul Kept in Custody

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 (C)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.

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Last week’s entry covered Paul’s defence in Caesarea before Felix the Roman governor and the Apostle’s Jewish accusers.

Paul clearly demonstrated that not only was he innocent of any crime against the Roman government, but also that the accusations against him were of a theological nature, something on which the Romans would not pass judgement.

Felix, having lived in Caesarea — home to Cornelius, the first Roman convert, and to Philip the Evangelist — knew the tenets of Christianity, ‘the Way’, well (verse 22). He placated everyone by saying that when Claudius Lysias, the Roman tribune of Jerusalem, next went to Caesarea, Felix would decide the case then.

John MacArthur says there is no historical evidence the Felix ever called for Claudius Lysias or that the tribune went of his own accord (emphases mine):

You know that there is no record, ever, that he ever called Claudius Lysias down there? And there’s no record that Claudius Lysias ever came. He just permanently postponed the thing. That’s a coward’s act. Now, he had a knowledge of Christianity. You say, “Where did he get it?” Well, he lived in Caesarea, and Philip lived there, and Philip was an evangelist.

And there were a lot of other Christians, and he was in Judea for nine years, eight or nine years, and so there were tens of thousands of Christians all over the place. He had been very, very familiar with Christianity. Some say he was a friend and an acquaintance of Simon Magus, Simon the Sorcerer, who had been exposed to Christianity, and that Simon Magus had first communicated to him. That’s somewhere in ancient history; we don’t know. But he knew enough, and he knew enough to make a right evaluation that this was not a criminal issue, but a theological one.

He knew enough about Christianity to be responsible; he was like Pilate. He was convinced of the testimony of the accused, but he was afraid of the Jews. So, he postponed the decision until Claudius Lysias could come and add information, and he never called Claudius Lysias. It was a convenient non-decision. It was a nothing. It was a postponement.

Felix wanted to placate the Jews:

He had a lot of Jews on his hands who were very angry, and when you have a lot of very angry Jews uptight, it caused revolutions. And when you were the governor and you had revolutions, you were in real trouble with Rome. Remember Pilate? The ultimate reason that Pilate finally allowed Jesus to be crucified was just because he wanted to pacify the Jews, because he was afraid he’d lose his job if he couldn’t rule well. And Felix is trapped in the same thing. On one hand, his relationship to Roman law and to Rome is at stake …

Luke is telling us that Felix knew what the right answer was; that Felix, having a more perfect knowledge of the Way, knew what he should have done.

Felix did not send Paul to the cells with common criminals but ordered his centurion to allow the Apostle some freedom while in custody (verse 23). No doubt, he returned Paul to the apartment in the palace where he was held before his trial.

Felix also allowed Paul’s friends to visit and attend to his needs. Among those friends were Luke, the author of Acts, and Philip the Evangelist.

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out:

a man’s prison is as it were his own house if he has but his friends about him.

MacArthur says that Paul had just lived through a judgement similar to that which Jesus experienced, albeit without the death penalty of crucifixion:

It’s the record of a man before a pagan judge, being accused by Jewish accusers, who comes off innocent. I mean, let’s face it, folks, it’s just like the case of Christ.

Now we get to Felix and Drusilla, a true human interest story.

Felix sent for Paul so that he and Drusilla, who was Jewish, could hear him speak about ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ (verse 24).

Drusilla was the daughter of Herod Agrippa I, the one who was eaten alive by worms — a divine judgement. She left her husband, the King of Emesa (Syria), for Felix. MacArthur tells us:

Felix saw her when she was married to the king of Emesa, a part of Syria, and he liked her. She was real young, 15 or so, and she was supposed to be this raving beauty, according to the historians. And Felix saw her, and said, you know, “That’s for me,” and seduced her, and stole her away. And so the whole thing was a rotten, immoral, disgusting thing from the beginning. So, there they come, the two of them.

Henry has more about the meeting — and Drusilla:

he desired to have an account of it from Paul, who was so celebrated a preacher of that faith, above the rest. Those that would enlarge their knowledge must discourse with men of their own profession, and those that would be acquainted with any profession should consult those that excel in the knowledge of it; and therefore Felix had a mind to talk with Paul more freely than he could in open court, where he observed Paul upon his guard, concerning the faith of Christ; and this only to satisfy his curiosity, or rather the curiosity of his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess, daughter of Herod Agrippa, that was eaten of worms. Being educated in the Jewish religion, she was more inquisitive concerning the Christian religion, which pretended to be the perfection of that, and desired to hear Paul discourse of it. But it was no great matter what religion she was of; for, whatever it was, she was a reproach and scandal to it-a Jewess, but an adulteress; she was another man’s wife when Felix took her to be his wife, and she lived with him in whoredom and was noted for an impudent woman, yet she desires to hear concerning the faith of Christ. Many are fond of new notions and speculations in religion, and can hear and speak of them with pleasure, who yet hate to come under the power and influence of religion, can be content to have their judgments informed but not their lives reformed.

Paul preached the Good News to the couple, including the Final Judgement, when Felix became alarmed and dismissed Paul, telling him he would send for him again another time (verse 25).

Henry posits that Felix expected to be intrigued, perhaps entertained, by Paul’s discourse, which the Apostle might have personalised for them:

What the account was which Paul gave him of the Christian religion; by the idea he had of it, he expected to be amused with a mystical divinity, but, as Paul represents it to him, he is alarmed with a practical divinity. Paul, being asked concerning the faith in Christ, reasoned (for Paul was always a rational preacher) concerning righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come. It is probable that he mentioned the peculiar doctrines of Christianity concerning the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and his being the Mediator between God and man; but he hastened to his application, in which he designed to come home to the consciences of his hearers

Paul reasoned of righteousness and temperance, to convince Felix of his unrighteousness and intemperance, of which he had been notoriously guilty, that, seeing the odiousness of them, and his obnoxiousness to the wrath of God for them (Ephesians 5:6), he might enquire concerning the faith of Christ, with a resolution to embrace it. [2.] That by the doctrine of Christ is discovered to us the judgment to come, by the sentence of which the everlasting state of all the children of men will be finally and irreversibly determined. Men have their day now, Felix hath his; but God’s day is coming, when everyone shall give account of himself to God, the Judge of all. Paul reasoned concerning this; that is, he showed what reason we have to believe that there is a judgment to come, and what reason we have, in consideration thereof, to be religious.

MacArthur thinks that Paul gave Felix and Drusilla the whole story of Christ’s life as well as the standards of living for believers:

He gave him all the gospel. He told him Jesus was God. He told him Jesus was born of a virgin. He told him Jesus lived a miraculous life. He told him Jesus died on the cross for the deliverance of sin. He told him Jesus rose the third day from the dead. He told him all the facts of the gospel. That’s the content, that’s the faith. That’s what Jude meant when he said, “Contend for the faith,” the embodiment of truth, the content of the gospel. So, Paul detailed the gospel.

Now, that’s exciting. Paul sat down, and Felix heard; Felix and Drusilla listened. And Paul talked about who Christ was, why He came, what He accomplished, the whole gospel. Then he also gave them the back side of it; look at verse 25. “And as he reasoned” – dialogued – he didn’t preach at him, he talked to him, he discussed with him – “of righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come, Felix” – what? – “trembled.” Now, part of the faith, part of the content of the faith, is righteousness, self-control, judgment to come.

Now watch: those three areas must be included in the presentation of the gospel. Righteousness is this: that’s God’s divine ideal, that’s God’s absolute standard. What does God demand? Absolute righteousness. Jesus says, “Be ye holy.” You say, “How holy?” “Even as your Father in Heaven is holy. Be perfect even as God is perfect.” God’s absolute demand is righteousness. The second word is self-control; that’s man’s required response. God has an absolute ideal; you better control yourself to come into conformity to that standard.

So, he told Felix, “Here’s God’s standard, and God demands that you conform to it.” And if you don’t, that’s the third word: judgment to come. That’s the gospel. God’s absolute ideal; you must conform to it or be judged. I’m telling you, this could get very personal to Felix. After Paul presented the ideal of righteousness, and then Paul started shooting down Felix, because Felix had no self-control at all. He was sitting there with a woman that he’d stolen and seduced. His life was a debauchery.

Henry has an excellent analysis of how Felix and Drusilla received Paul’s discourse, referring to the meaning of ‘Felix’ — ‘happy’:

That Paul was willing to take pains, and run hazards, in his work, even where there was little probability of doing good. Felix and Drusilla were such hardened sinners that it was not at all likely they should be brought to repentance by Paul’s preaching, especially under such disadvantages; and yet Paul deals with them as one that did not despair of them. Let the watchman give fair warning, and then they have delivered their own souls, though they should not prevail to deliver the souls they watch for.

3. What impressions Paul’s discourse made upon this great but wicked man: Felix trembled, emphobos genomenos–being put into a fright, or made a terror to himself, a magor-missabib, as Pashur, Jeremiah 20:3,4. Paul never trembled before him, but he was made to tremble before Paul. “If this be so, as Paul says, what will become of me in another world? If the unrighteous and intemperate will be condemned in the judgment to come, I am undone, for ever undone, unless I lead a new course of life.” We do not find that Drusilla trembled, though she was equally guilty, for she was a Jewess, and depended upon the ceremonial law, which she adhered to the observance of, to justify her; but Felix for the present could fasten upon nothing to pacify his conscience, and therefore trembled. See here, (1.) The power of the word of God, when it comes with commission; it is searching, it is startling, it can strike a terror into the heart of the most proud and daring sinner, by setting his sins in order before him, and showing him the terrors of the Lord. (2.) The workings of natural conscience; when it is startled and awakened, it fills the soul with horror and amazement at its own deformity and danger. Those that are themselves the terror of the mighty in the land of the living have hereby been made a terror to themselves. A prospect of the judgment to come is enough to make the stoutest heart to tremble, as when it comes indeed it will make the mighty men and the chief captains to call in vain to rocks and mountains to shelter them.

4. How Felix struggled to get clear of these impressions, and to shake off the terror of his convictions; he did by them as he did by Paul’s prosecutors (Acts 24:25), he deferred them; he said, Go thy way for this time, when I have a convenient season I will call for thee. (1.) He trembled and that was all. Paul’s trembling (Acts 9:6), and the jailer’s (Acts 16:29), ended in their conversion, but this of Felix did not. Many are startled by the word of God who are not effectually changed by it. Many are in fear of the consequences of sin, and yet continue in love and league with sin. (2.) He did not fight against his convictions, nor fly in the face of the word or of the preacher of it, to be revenged on them for making his conscience fly in his face; he did not say to Paul, as Amaziah to the prophet, Forbear, why shouldst thou be smitten? He did not threaten him with a closer confinement, or with death, for touching him (as John Baptist did Herod) in the sore place. But, (3.) He artfully shifted off his convictions by putting off the prosecution of them to another time. He has nothing to object against what Paul has said; it is weighty and worth considering. But, like a sorry debtor, he begs a day; Paul has spent himself, and has tired him and his lady, and therefore, “Go thy way for this time–break off here, business calls me away; but when I have a convenient season, and have nothing else to do, I will call for thee, and hear what thou hast further to say.” Note, [1.] Many lose all the benefit of their convictions for want of striking while the iron is hot. If Felix, now that he trembled, had but asked, as Paul and the jailer did when they trembled, What shall I do? he might have been brought to the faith of Christ, and have been a Felix indeed, happy for ever; but, by dropping his convictions now, he lost them for ever, and himself with them. [2.] In the affairs of our souls, delays are dangerous; nothing is of more fatal consequence than men’s putting off their conversion from time to time. They will repent, and turn to God, but not yet; the matter is adjourned to some more convenient season, when such a business or affair is compassed, when they are so much older; and then convictions cool and wear off, good purposes prove to no purpose, and they are more hardened than ever in their evil way. Felix put off this matter to a more convenient season, but we do not find that this more convenient season ever came; for the devil cozens us of all our time by cozening us of the present time. The present season is, without doubt, the most convenient season. Behold, now is the accepted time. To-day if you will hear his voice.

Note that Felix did not offer to have Paul released on bond. This is because he hoped that Paul would eventually offer him money for his release. Interestingly, Luke tells us that Felix sent for Paul often for private conversations (verse 26).

Felix knew that Paul had brought with him to Jerusalem a financial offering for the church there. He might have thought that Paul kept some aside for himself. Alternatively, perhaps he thought that Paul’s friends in Caesarea might appeal for his release by offering Felix money. Henry posits that this is why Felix sent for him time and time again. Luke does not say that Felix ever trembled again, so it seems that Felix was testing the waters about money.

Quite rightly, Henry takes issue with the Christians in Caesarea for not having purchased Paul’s freedom. They had two years in which to do so:

Though Paul is to be commended that he would not offer money to Felix, nor beg money of the churches (his great and generous soul disdained both), yet I know not whether his friends are to be commended, nay, whether they can be justified, in not doing it for him. They ought to have solicited the governor as pressingly for him as his enemies did against him: and if a gift was necessary to make room for them (as Solomon speaks) and to bring them before great men, they might lawfully have done it. I ought not to bribe a man to do an unjust thing, but, if he will not do me justice without a fee, it is but doing myself justice to give it to him; and, if they might do it, it was a shame they did not do it. I blush for them, that they would let such an eminent and useful man as Paul lie in the jail, when a little money would have fetched him out, and restored him to his usefulness again. The Christians here at Cæsarea, where he now was, had parted with their tears to prevent his going to the prison (Acts 21:13), and could they not find in their hearts to part with their money to help him out?

Then, Henry says that, perhaps it was divine providence that prevented them from doing so:

Yet there might be a providence of God in it; Paul’s bonds must be for the furtherance of the gospel of Christ, and therefore he must continue in bonds. However, this will not excuse Felix, who ought to have released an innocent man, without demanding or accepting any thing for it: the judge that will not do right without a bribe will no doubt do wrong for a bribe.

Perhaps Paul converted some Romans working for Felix during those two years. We do not know.

In any event, Luke tells us that Felix left Paul in prison, even when his successor Porcius Festus arrived (verse 27). This was likely because Felix wanted to placate the Jews.

However, history tells us that Felix’s plan did not prevent his ouster.

It is interesting that history gives us an insight into Felix’s downfall. Felix did not retire quietly to Rome. It was likely that the Jews had forced him out and complained to the Roman emperor, as Henry tells us:

The Jews … accused him to the emperor, and some historians say he was sent bound to Rome by Festus; and, if so, surely his remembering how light he had made of Paul’s bonds would help to make his own chain heavy.

We have seen that God was accomplishing His will through Romans — pagans — allowing Paul to escape a brutal death at the hands of angry Jews in Jerusalem. Many will wonder how He could allow Paul to remain a prisoner for two years in Caesarea, with no letters to write to the Christians in the churches he had established.

MacArthur offers this explanation:

The whole time he’s there, we don’t know of any sermon that he ever preached, or of anything that he ever wrote. Can you imagine the apostle Paul, two years and he doesn’t write something and he doesn’t preach? Now, there may have been times when he wrote something, there may have been times when he preached; we don’t have record of it. You say, “Well, what’s going on here?” Well, you know what I believe? And this is just me; this isn’t anything that’s obvious in the text. It’s just what I think may be a possibility.

I really think this may have been furlough. You know what I mean? He had been chased all over the world long enough. I mean, he needed a rest. Besides, he had so much to accomplish in his lifetime, and he worked so fast. he probably had a few years left over. So, the Lord just said, “Well, you might as well take a couple off.” He’d been all over the Roman world, and it all kind of climaxed in Jerusalem. He was nearly beaten to death, he was slugged in the face, he was clamored after and yanked apart, he was thrown into custody, he was hustled to Caesarea by 470 Roman soldiers, and he went through this trial.

I mean, I just think the guy comes to a place in the service of the Lord where he’s got to stop. And a little key thought just kind of bounces out in verse 23 that made me think this. “He commanded a centurion to keep Paul, let him have liberty, that he should forbid none of his acquaintances to” – what? – “to minister.” Now, the implication is there that they came to minister to him. Well, that’s a nice idea for a change, isn’t it? I’m sure that Luke and Aristarchus were with him, too, so he had some good fellowship, and Philip probably hung around a lot.

And there were probably a lot of believers in the local area of Caesarea who came down during the two years and spent some time with him, and I’m sure he was discipling some people. And I’m also sure that when I get to heaven, I’m going to meet some of Felix’s soldiers. And maybe that centurion’s there. But I’ll tell you, I think it’s a time when God just kind of let him rest. Well, resting from what he’d been through, and getting ready for the worst, which was to come, that finally ended in his execution. God knows.

Whatever the thing is, God knew that Paul needed two years there. And whatever God accomplished, He accomplished within His purpose, not outside of it.

Next time — Acts 25:1-5

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