Who Are You Buttering Up?
Acts • Sermon • Submitted
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And after five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus. They laid before the governor their case against Paul. And when he had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying: “Since through you we enjoy much peace, and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation, in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude. But, to detain you no further, I beg you in your kindness to hear us briefly. For we have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.” The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming that all these things were so. And when the governor had nodded to him to speak, Paul replied: “Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense. You can verify that it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem, 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. Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me. But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man. Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings. While I was doing this, they found me purified in the temple, without any crowd or tumult. But some Jews from Asia— they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, should they have anything against me. Or else let these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, 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.’ ” 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.” 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. 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. 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.” At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him. When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.
I have no problem admitting that my interpretation of the number of days since Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem appears to have been off by a few days. Verse 1 tells us that we’re “five days later,” assumedly from where we left off, and then in verse 11, Paul says, “‘…no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem...’” According to my timeline, I was thinking he’d at least be at 15 days, but evidently it hadn’t even been that long. So, if there’s any confusion, please trust the biblical record over me. We’re in Caesarea again, where Paul was moved from Jerusalem for his protection, and he was sent there by Lysias, the Roman commander, to Felix, the Roman governor. We’re back to a courtroom setting, which is where we’ll be for three Sundays as Paul went before Felix, then Festus, and finally Agrippa. That’s where we are, that’s where things are going.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’m sure you’re not the kind of people who have ever done something for your spouse or, as children, you ever did something for your parents that was meant to butter them up for some reason. None of us have ever done that, right? If you were those kind of people, maybe you wanted to buy something that you knew they weren’t exactly crazy about or was a bit pricey, or you wanted your parents to even consider a certain Christmas gift or to let you go to some event with your friends. So, you’d be really nice and obedient, you do your chores, maybe even going above and beyond what was expected of you, you’d listen well and compliment or flatter. You, or I mean those people, try to impress someone in a position of authority to get them on their side, to make them agreeable to their cause.
Yet the time comes to make your case. If you’re in this mindset, you’re already thinking it’s unlikely. Maybe you’ve done enough to put them in a favorable mood, but you can’t be sure what they’ll say. So, you tell your wife or husband, your parents, whoever it might be what you want. You tell them all the advantages to going along with this, how it will really help them, not just you. Likely there’s some exaggeration or wishful thinking, but you’ve got to sell what you’re thinking isn’t just plausible, it’s true. If you’re thinking it sounds like he has some experience with this, ask me some other time about how I convince Christie to go along with ice fishing shacks.
This of course isn’t something that happens just in our homes or with friends and family, it can happen in business, in politics, and as we heard in our passage, in a courtroom. When the Jewish party and their lawyer, Tertullus, went before Felix, there was a lot of flattery. We’re not told how Felix reacted, if he soaked it in or if it made him roll his eyes, or if it succeeded in putting him in a mood of wanting to hear them out. Paul’s opening did recognize and honor the judge, but he moved on rather quickly to try to get to the truth of why they were there, why he was on trial.
Particularly in court, the truth is, or should be, most important. All amount of buttering up or flattering or anything else like that should be pushed aside for the sake of justice. If you have an NIV Study Bible, there’s a footnote on verses 2 and 3 in which some of the known accomplishments of Felix are recognized. Then it says, “But in general his record was not good. He was recalled by Rome two years later because of misrule. His reforms and improvements are hard to identify historically.” Buttering up and the truth don’t seem to have matched up for Felix.
We know the backstory. We know how other trials had gone. So, let’s cut right to the heart of what mattered here: was there anything true about the Jews’ charges against Paul? Verses 5 through 8, “‘We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world.” So, this wasn’t just about Jerusalem a week ago, they wanted to show a pattern of what Paul had been doing everywhere he went. “He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.’” This is an open-and-shut case; the evidence is so obvious. Why would any authority want someone like this around?
To use Derek Thomas’ terms, Paul was accused of being “a political menace,” “a religious heretic,” and having “desecrated the temple.” I won’t read Paul’s whole defense in verses 11 through 21, because we know the truth about Paul apart from his reply; we’ve been following his story. Was he a political menace? No! Had he gone anywhere hoping to instigate riots? Riots had been started typically by Jews who rejected and felt threatened by him. Including these Jews from Asia mentioned in verse 19, we’ve seen other groups leave their cities to try and bring Paul down elsewhere. Had he desecrated the temple by bringing Gentiles in? Paul had obviously ministered to non-Jews, he had brought them along on his journey, but Luke told us back in Acts 21:29 that the Asian Jews “assumed that Paul had brought [Trophimus the Ephesian] into the temple area.” That doesn’t appear to have been the truth or at least provable.
Two out of the three charges don’t hold water. What about the “religious heretic” charge, though? Let’s look at part of his defense, verses 14 through 17: “‘…I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man…I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings…’”
Yes, he was religious, but Paul argued his beliefs did not truthfully commit heresy against the Jewish Scriptures. This is important for us as Christians to not forget. Paul held the Law and Prophets to agree with our faith. We don’t throw out the Old Testament. We don’t view that as irrelevant. Even though there are many laws, which are no longer necessary for us to follow because we’re not under Law, that God set them as part of the sacred covenant calling of his people Israel, can be beneficial for us to understand. So too, the resurrection of the dead by God isn’t a concept that came up only after the first Easter; it was affirmed by Jews previously. Christianity is the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and waiting. Paul didn’t rebuke or charge them, but by rejecting Jesus as the Christ, they were being heretical on our terms. On all three charges that were brought against him, while undoubtedly they had their differences, Paul was not guilty.
Our second point moves us from the courtroom to these private interactions between Paul, governor Felix, and, at least once, his wife, Drusilla. What would Paul preach to people? Verses 24 through 26 tell us “…about faith in Christ Jesus…righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.” We also got this insight that Felix was so afraid from what he heard that he dismissed Paul, but in the future “sent for him frequently and talked with him.”
When we look at, not just Paul’s preaching, but the apostle—big surprise—we hear about Jesus. We hear the real historical events of the crucifixion and resurrection. We hear about what God intended and accomplished. Peter, back in Acts 2, preached, “‘…God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’” What were they to do with that? “…‘Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is…for all who the Lord our God will call.”
We hear Paul giving Timothy “trustworthy sayings that deserve full acceptance.” What did those include? 1 Timothy 1:15, “…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” 1 Timothy 4:10, “…We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” Just before “a trustworthy saying” in 2 Timothy 2:8-9, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained.”
At the heart of Paul’s ministry, of apostolic ministry, of the church’s ministry, of biblical, pastoral ministry still today is Jesus Christ, Savior of sinners who’ve been chosen by God. What we celebrated earlier, when we ate bread and drank juice, that points back to what he did. What changes everything and what must be shared is Jesus the Son of God, coming in our flesh, satisfying God’s eternal decree. This also points ahead to his return and raising us to be with him.
Evidently Felix knew and maybe was growing in his understanding, not just of his wife’s Jewish faith, but also this Christian Way. With that then, Paul also preached what God commands. To people acquainted with the one true God, it is also good to preach about things like “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.” Those are all salvation matters.
To go back to that idea that we started with of buttering people up when we feel our case might not be strong enough, when we feel like maybe we don’t deserve agreement—we cannot butter up the perfect and holy God. We can’t begin to flatter him with the greatness of our ideas or commitment. There’s nothing we can say or do that makes God say, “That’s why I saved them!” No, the reason he saved us is solely because of what Jesus did and his righteousness. Any good and godly thing, any and every loving act that begins to come through our lives is because the Holy Spirit is at work. We, like all of humanity, are unrighteous.
The coming judgment is very real. I only say this partially joking: I kind of wondered if that was going to happen this week when the sky turned yellow. It’s because of the spread of depravity that the just judgment of God is coming, and all people must be ready. That’s why we need Christ, but how can we know if we have him? Your life will no longer be controlled by the sinful nature. With the help of the Holy Spirit, you’ll be able to practice self-control. We’ll live more fully into the Romans 8 Spirit-nature.
We don’t know whether Felix gave his life to Christ, if he repented and converted. Fear is a fitting answer for sinners to the reality of God. He sent Paul out because he was afraid of his message, but it was really God who he was afraid of. We preach the gospel and the whole counsel of God not to scare people as if you could scare people into heaven. No, we preach to those needing to be saved, hoping that God, even in the midst of terror, would provide his grace and give peace.
Paul preached what God gave him, and now to our final point, when would Paul preach? The answer to that is when God gave him the opportunity. The opportunity in this passage and in others throughout Acts was regularly at a trial or hearing, but we also see opportunities in Felix’ bribery attempts. The governor felt if he held Paul long enough, surely Paul would get a hold of some funds and pay his way out. We already know he’s innocent, Lysias knew he was innocent, he had told Felix that; there’s no reason for Paul to be so restricted. But he tried to cash in anyway.
It all seems an appropriate parallel to Joseph in Genesis 50. After all his brothers did to him, which starts back in chapters 37, his brothers hated him, they mocked him, they intended to leave him for dead in a cistern, they sold him off but told his father he was killed. Because of that, he ended up in Egypt, where he was falsely accused and also ended up in jail for 2 years, forgotten about though treated well. All this, Joseph was able to view in a time of famine, when his family came looking for food, not recognizing on their own who he was, “‘…You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God had used all the circumstances to eventually save not just Egyptians, but Joseph’s own family.
We looked last week at the string of not-coincidences Paul had experienced getting to this point. That continues into these regular meetings, one-on-one discipleship with a Roman governor, who happened to have a Jewish woman for a wife. Felix wasn’t a great guy of solid moral character. He didn’t last in this political position. We’re not going to find out any further details of his life in Scripture. But Luke, by the Holy Spirit, saw it as important enough to inform us that they kept meeting, Paul kept preaching, or at least talking to him. He didn’t waste the opportunities.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I know I’ve talked about looking for opportunities to talk to others about Jesus, not being afraid to have those conversations. We know there are plenty of people near and far who do not believe in our God and have not been saved, but there are plenty who likely are saved but have not yet heard. I want to encourage and challenge us again, though. If there are people who come to you, who know of your faith, they’re asking for you to pray for them, they talk to you about things because you’ve shown compassion, will you use those opportunities even as small baby steps to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them?
We did something similar a few weeks ago for the Sunday School At-Home “Do” day, I challenged you to encourage someone with your testimony. This week I want to challenge you to either share about Jesus with someone or ask them if they have questions about Jesus or Christianity. If you’re willing to do that, especially if you’re nervous, pray before you do it and ask God to use you, present an opportunity if it be his will, and commit to praying for them afterwards. Let’s trust that our great God can use unexpected circumstances to reveal the truth of himself to others. Amen.