Reading: Acts 25:23-26:32
This passage takes place when Felix was recalled to Rome facing accusations of badly handling a riot in Cesarea, and Felix is replaced as governor by Festus. It only takes 3 days for the Sanhedrin to ask Festus to turn Paul over to them for justice because they say that he deserves death. Festus quickly learns that Paul had been held for the past 2 years without charges, so he asks Paul if he is willing to be turned over to the Sanhedrin for trial. Paul, of course, refuses as he already went through the relevant hearings, and the Roman authorities already determined that there were no substantial charges against him. Paul, held for 2 years without charges and asked to do what a hearing said he didn’t have to do appealed to Caesar. Needless to say, none of this was very fair.
Festus consulted with Herod Antipas, King of The Jews, because the situation was not reasonable. Festus said to King Herod that it is not reasonable to send a prisoner without clear charges, and Herod said that he would like to hear Paul’s testimony. When Paul spoke to Herod, he gave an account of his history, how he persecuted the Christians, and how he met Jesus on the road and became a Christian. He really didn’t say anything that would count for evidence in a court of law, because there were no charges against him.
Herod responded to this by saying to Festus that if Paul had not asked to appeal his case before Caesar, then the right thing to do would be to release him immediately, as there was nothing about this situation that justified imprisoning Paul, nor trying him to put him to death. When Paul appealed to Caesar, it was because he had no intention of being tried before a court that already decided the outcome, regardless of whether there was was a crime to charge him with. Paul appealed to Caesar, because he was already held for two years without charges, and asked to submit to the judgment of an authority that had no jurisdiction over him.
I cannot imagine what I would do if I were sent to Herod Antipas II for a non-binding hearing. Herod was serving only in an advisory role, and without charges, there really wasn’t anything that Herod could have said other than “there is no reason to execute, nor even imprison him.” I can imagine that Festus knew full well why Felix was recalled and was more than willing to send somebody who had the type of grievance against his predecessor that showed that Felix mishandled more than one riot. As there were no charges against Paul, there was nothing for Caesar to hear in Rome other than how Felix mistreated his case; and as he was already recalled, this makes Paul a material witness.
So, when Paul testifies, he speaks more like one would speak at a revival meeting than before a court of law. Paul tells what was good news for him so that Herod can hear what it meant for Jesus to meet Paul on the road and offer Paul salvation. Paul meeting Jesus was nothing short of a miracle because if you looked at Paul, he really didn’t see why Jesus was necessary. Paul grew up a good kid, he followed the rules, and he was one of the most religious men in the country.
Paul’s devotion leads him to oppose the people who followed Jesus. There was something about Jesus and this new sect that was seen as a danger to the established order of things. While Jesus was still alive, the Sadducees and Pharisees together decided that Jesus needed to die, in the words of the Chief Priest Caiaphas, so that the nation might be saved. Killing Jesus, however, did not end the dangerous teachings; it wasn’t two months before Peter was every bit as public as Jesus once was, and there were new followers added every day. Paul became one of the people involved in the persecution of this new sect — he watched the belongings of the people who stoned Stephen, and then he chased a good number of the followers of Jesus out of Judea.
Chasing the Jesus followers out of Judea so they became refugees in places such as Syria was not enough; there was still something in their teaching that was so dangerous that Paul thought it important to travel with letters of extradition to bring the refugees back to Jerusalem and face the justice of the council.
While on the way to Damascus, in Syria, Paul met Jesus on the road. Paul was blinded, and he saying he was Jesus and telling him that he would be saved to preach the good news of the forgiveness of sin to both Jews and Gentiles. The voice specifically told Paul that he was to open people’s eyes so that they may turn to the light and be made holy.
Paul continued by telling Herod that he had been obedient to that vision, first sharing his story in Damascus, to ironically the very people he came to drag back to their deaths, and then he traveled the world, sharing the good news with the people of Jerusalem, of Judea, and of modern-day Turkey. Paul then told Herod that this good news that Jesus was raised from the dead — and the hope that we will also be raised from the dead was the dangerous teaching he was arrested for.
Festus at this point said “Paul, you are crazy.” Paul’s answer is that he speaks the sober truth, and then addresses Herod directly and refers Herod to the prophets, saying: “I know you believe the prophets.” Paul was reminding Herod of the messianic prophecies which match Jesus to the point where a common theme in the gospels is: “This fulfills the word of the prophet…” Paul was also reminding Herod that the prophets speak of restoration and resurrection so that the gospel of Christ is the gospel taught and promised by the prophets. Perhaps Paul was also self-identifying as somebody God spoke to, and he was pointing out that his Damascus road experience was just as believable as the way God spoke to Moses, or Elijah, or Isaiah.
What stands out to me is Herod’s response: “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” This makes me think that Paul’s testimony of how God spoke to him and gave him a message to proclaim makes him a prophet — if Paul is a prophet, than his message is something that demands a hearing. As Pharisees in the Sanhedrin asked 2 years ago: “What if his vision on the road to Damascus was the real thing?” If you believe in prophecy, if you believe in miracles, you have to accept that as rare as they are, sometimes they happen.
Reading this, I ask the question, what was good news for Paul? If I put the question in salvation terms, what was Paul saved from? Paul was not somebody who looked like he needed saving. Paul followed the law carefully. Paul was religious. Paul did what was right and avoided what was wrong. There is no doubt that Paul was respected, and gaining the respect of his peers. I’m quite sure that the last thing that Paul was thinking while planning his trip to Damascus was that he needed saving from something.
I might say that Paul was saved from his pride, or his self-righteousness, and given a new perspective when he realized that it is possible to be zealous about the wrong things. People can be passionate, insightful, and even brilliant while being completely wrong. I could also look at this and notice that Paul was passionate about preserving a past that was about to come to an end. Remember, the reason the two major parties worked together against Jesus is that they were afraid of a change that would remove them from power. The thing is, change comes whether we like it or not; perhaps Paul was saved from throwing away his life for something that was futile. Paul specifically mentioned blindness and being led into the light. Being saved from being wrong is really nice, though, even after meeting Jesus we have a lot of things to be wrong about.
I think, what was the biggest thing for Paul was the promise of resurrection. The resurrection of the dead was a pretty important debate in Paul’s time, and he was from the group that believed that the messianic kingdom would include a resurrection. What Paul saw on the road was evidence that this belief was true — just as Christ was raised, he could also look forward to resurrection. Of course, good news is often paired with bad news; the bad news is that if Jesus is establishing the messianic kingdom, the current kingdom isn’t it.
I think that this was good news to Paul — that the messianic kingdom was announced with a resurrection, and that Paul was called to be its prophet, and to prophecy that the good news was not for just one people, but for the whole world. Paul, who was both Jew and Roman, now had a faith that welcomed him no matter his identity. Paul was extremely devout, he worked hard for his faith — and it was good news that instead of futilely fighting against inevitable change and staying faithful to the death of his way of life, he found a calling to something new and fresh that would sweep the entire world. I’m not Paul, so hearing the call to be a prophet would not be good news for me; but when I read Paul’s writing, I am convinced that this was good news for him — even as he knew what he must suffer.
What I do know is that Paul’s message is good news for me — it is good news for all of us. We are those who were far off, those who were excluded from God’s kingdom. Our ancestors are the people who were excluded because they were born in the wrong place. The good news that Paul brings us is that the Kingdom of God has no borders that we can draw on the map. No longer are any of us born in the wrong place, or the wrong parents; Jesus has a place for us.