November 13, 2011

Testimony from Prison

We are nearing the end of our journey through the Book of Acts. The early chapters helped us see the lives of the disciples after the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. Men who cowered in the upper room, fearful of arrest, now spoke boldly in the streets and in the Temple. Thousands were converted and believed the Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. This angered the Jewish leaders. Starting with Stephen, many were martyred. Rather than stopping the new ‘sect’ the persecution had the effect of spreading the word across the Roman Empire. Much of that missionary work was accomplished by Saul of Tarsus or Paul as he is better known. He was originally a rabid persecutor of the Believers, and even studied under the famous rabbi Gamaliel (right), but was converted himself by an appearance by the Risen Lord.

Over the past few weeks and months we have seen Paul attempt to convert the Jews in various cities of the Empire. Every time there is resistance and he then preaches to the Gentile community with dramatic results. After 3 missionary journeys from Asia Minor to Greece, Paul returns to Jerusalem where he is arrested. In order to save him from an assassination plot, the tribune Claudius Lysias sends him to Antonius Felix, the Roman Governor in Caesarea. Here is what happens, as told by Hermanus, (fictitious) warden of the prison, to his wife Portia when he returned to Rome. (Acts 24-26)

Jews came to Caesarea after five to press charges against a Roman Jew sent to us by Claudius Lysias, tribune in Jerusalem. I have never seen a worse miscarriage of justice. The Jews brought with them Tertullus, a lawyer versed in the laws of Rome and Caesar. He was, I must say, quite an oily character. His first words were meant to sway Governor Felix to assent to the Jews’ demands.

What did he say, you ask? “Your Excellency, because of you we have long enjoyed peace, and reforms have been made for this people because of your foresight. We welcome this in every way and everywhere with utmost gratitude. But, to detain you no further, I beg you to hear us briefly with your customary graciousness.”

It was not just his words. His endless bowing and nodding and smirking that made me think of a serpent. I wondered if he had already offered the governor a bribe in order to appear in the court. Then he went on to claim that Paul, my prisoner, who I have found to be a model of courtesy and politeness, was an agitator and ringleader of some obscure sect. All the other priests immediately started shouting that he profaned their temple, too. I could see that the governor was disturbed by the uproar they created. Tertullus saw it and quieted the Jews.

After everyone was quiet, our governor turned to the prisoner and gestured for him to make his response. I have to admit that the man was a good speaker. He too started by acknowledging that the governor has been in charge for many years.

His demeanor? There was not the least bit of fear. In fact, he addressed the governor as an equal. Paul said, “As you can find out, it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem.” He insisted he did nothing to disturb the peace of the city and would only admit one thing. It was a rather odd confession. He lifted his chin and announced, ‘According to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience towards God and all people.”

I saw the governor looked at Tertullus and the priests when Paul said that. My prisoner finished his defense by repeating that he was doing a rite of purification in the temple when arrested. At the end he offered a challenge, “Let these men here tell what crime they had found when I stood before the council.”

After that the governor adjourned the hearing, saying, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.” Paul was remanded to my custody but he had some freedom including visits from friends. Days passed and Lysias did not come. I wondered if the governor even sent for him. It was not unknown for men to be kept in prison until a nice sum of money was paid to the governor, even without a trial.

Once the governor and his wife Drucilla had me bring Paul to their chamber. I listened at the door while the man talked about the man Jesus who he claimed had been crucified, yet rose from the dead. A rather preposterous idea, I thought at the time. Some of the other things Paul said were interesting, though. He talked about justice for all people and self control. When he started to warn of coming judgment, the governor sent for me to take him back to the prison.

Once or twice more he had me bring Paul to him. I think he was hoping that the Jew would give him a bribe to be freed. I guess Paul was the only one in the country who did not understand that part of the governor’s justice. This went on for two years, until Antonius Felix was recalled to Rome. Pocius Festus was the new governor, appointed by Emperor Nero.

What was Governor Festus like? He was a diligent leader and he had much to do. Discontent was rampant throughout Palestine. In fact only three days after he arrived at Caesarea, he traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the Jewish leaders. I hear they tried to convince him to bring Paul to Jerusalem so they could ambush him on the way, but the governor was not fooled. He ordered them to come to Caesarea and plead their case again.

In fact the Jews returned to Caesarea with the governor and almost immediately Paul was summoned before the tribunal. It was a raucous scene with the Jews shouting wild accusations. I saw the governor frown, but I sensed he wanted to build a rapport with the temple leaders. Even though Paul stated, “I have in no way committed an offence against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor,” Governor Festus asked if he would go to Jerusalem to be tried.

Then Paul did something that shocked everyone present. “I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal,” he said. “This is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor.”

Of course after that, there was no further trial. The governor replied, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.”

I know he had his doubts about the conclusion of the hearing because when the Jewish tetrarch Agrippa came with his sister Bernice (left) to welcome the governor, he explained the case to them. The man called himself ‘king’, but in reality he had little power even in the province he governed. His grandfather, Herod the Great, had been a king, but after his death the power was stripped away by the emperor, so his sons and grandchildren only governed under the authorization of the Emperor.

Agrippa expressed an interest in hearing Paul, so it was arranged. The audience hall was filled with the cohort of Caesarea and with many of the prominent men of the city. Governor Festus did know how to impress his guests. He claimed that he had Paul brought in so he could determine what sort of explanation or charges to send to Rome since the man had appealed to the Emperor. I smiled to myself when the governor said, “it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.”

Paul’s defense this time was much more detailed than before the Jewish priests. Most of his story I had heard before by listening to his discussions with the friends who visited him. I already knew he was a Pharisee, who are the lawyers of the Jews. I suppose that explains his ability to give a coherent and concise account of himself. He recounted how he had persecuted the followers of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. He explained, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.”

Why did the Jews hate him so much if he was one of them? It was something I had wondered about, but as he spoke, I started to understand that he had split from their doctrine because of this Jesus who he claimed was the Messiah hoped for by the Jews.

He told of something that happened to him on the way to Damascus. It was an amazing story and I saw both Agrippa and Festus leaning forward as he recounted, “I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. I heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

It was a brave thing to say to a Roman governor and Jewish tetrarch. I held my breath to see what response they would have. Governor Festus leaned forward and shook his head, almost in pity. “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!”

Paul smiled sympathetically and replied with a slight bow. “‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. Indeed the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”

Agrippa pulled back as if to refute the claim. Then he leaned forward and asked softly, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?”

I was surprised when Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.”

That a man imprisoned for over two years could still be so confident and calm amazed me and everyone else in the room. In fact, as the governor and king were leaving I overheard them comment to each other, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.”

Since it was decided to send Paul to Rome, I was appointed to be his guard on the way. That is how I have come home to you, my dear wife. I will continue my story another time.

This fictitious centurion was impressed with Paul’s actions and testimony while in prison. Paul did not lose heart, but continued to confess Jesus Christ as Lord even before the authority of Palestine-the governor and king. We should ask ourselves, are people impressed by my actions and testimony of Christ’s action in our life? We may not be called before kings and rulers, but we are witnesses every day of the action of the Holy Spirit in our life. Jesus reminds us "When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:11-12)

Next week we will conclude our study of the Book of Acts and the action of the Holy Spirit in converting souls in the most unexpected situations.

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