Acts 24:1-27

Text Comment


The world is not so different. The Jews came to present their charges but they needed a lawyer to be sure they were framed and presented in the right way.


This was flattery, not honesty. Jewish/Roman relations had deteriorated during Felix’s governorship.


The term had been applied to Jesus (2:22) but is used of Christians only here in the NT. It was probably a slur (Jn. 1:46: "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?")


Now the charge is subtly different: he tried to profane the temple, but we stopped him.


Paul must defend himself; hasn’t a lawyer and, as the event unfolds, we are probably to assume he wouldn’t have wanted one, because he was less interested in defending himself in the strict sense, than in making a case for and bearing witness to the gospel.


Felix could easily verify Paul’s account if he wished. 12 days was hardly time to prepare some significant unrest in Jerusalem. What is more, Paul wasn’t involved even in evangelism in Jerusalem that time, he was there to worship. He would have left the preaching to the leaders of the church in the capital. Once again: the Christian Jews were still worshipping in the temple, even, in fact in the synagogues where they hadn’t, as yet, been made positively unwelcome.


He admits that there is a religious/theological division among the Jews. Note: Paul’s belief, with the rest of the NT, that what we call the OT was a Christian book. Of course, they would not have called it the OT; they would have called it simply the Scripture.


The general resurrection and judgment. Preparation for his discourse on this theme (24:25).


The multiple motivation of a Christian.


The fact that Paul apparently had access to some money may have led Felix to believe he was able to pay a bribe. Note v. 26.


Roman law did not like men who made accusations but failed to carry them through in court.


He ought to have released Paul, but, in the providence of God, he did not. But, he was to be treated in a manner appropriate for a Roman citizen who had not been convicted of any crime.


Like Pilate, Felix was more interested in currying the favor of those who were in a position to make him look good with his superiors and was willing to treat unjustly a single unpopular man to advance his own interests.

I want to spend some time this evening thinking with you about v. 25 and how Paul turned his defense before Felix into an occasion to defend and explain the gospel. We have seen Paul once before speaking to a pagan audience and noted how his approach differed on that occasion from his typical practice with Jews. Where he would argue from the Scripture with the latter, he used other arguments with the Gentiles. They were unfamiliar with the Bible and had no reason to respect its authority, so to Gentiles Paul argued after the fashion that has come to be known as "Christian apologetics" or the making of arguments in defense of and in proof of the gospel.

What Paul did here is something akin to what G.K. Chesterton did in The Everlasting Man, or C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, or Francis Schaeffer in The God who is There. In each case, these apologists suited their argument to the audience they were trying to reach. It was not use simply quoting the Bible as the Bible had no authority for such folk. They had first to gain a hearing for the message, give reasons why someone ought to pay attention to it. (You have the same problem in the West today. In France, for example, EE has been used but it has been discovered that the typical French citizen is unimpressed with the fundamental assumption of the EE approach: viz. that everyone thinks that the Bible should be taken seriously in what it says. The EE approach assumes a confidence in the Bible that French folk don’t have. Apologetics are needed to gain a hearing for the biblical message.)

You and I, more and more, face a similar problem. According to some recent data, whereas in the 1960s 65% of Americans believed the Bible to be true, today that figure has dropped to 32%. What is perhaps even more telling is that, in one survey, fully 67% of Americans say that there isn’t any such thing as truth! 70% say there are no moral absolutes. (A significant portion of those folk, by the way, also say they are born again. Go figure!) What good does it do for us to say, "The Bible says…" if the people we are speaking to don’t believe the Bible to be true?

Well, Paul, apparently faced a similar problem. Felix was a Gentile, his character ill-disposed him to care about Jewish theology, he was no student of the Hebrew Scriptures, and was little interested in knowing what they contained. What is more, he was, as Paul would have known and most others familiar with the political world of Syria and Judea in those days, a cruel and avaricious man.

Drusilla, Felix’ third wife, was the daughter of Herod Agrippa. Felix was her second husband. He had persuaded her, with the help of a Cypriot magician, to leave her first husband while she was still in her teens. Indeed, she wasn’t quite 20 years of age when these events in Acts 24 took place. (Interestingly Drusilla bore Felix a son who was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79.) Both Felix and Drusilla needed to hear the gospel but what was the way in, how could Paul best gain a hearing for the truth? It was "faith in Jesus Christ" that Paul was talking about, as we read in v. 24, but he did so by discussing the subjects of "righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come."

Apparently, what Paul gave to Felix and Drusilla was some form of what, in Christian apologetics, is referred to as "the moral argument." We don’t know how Paul framed his argument, but it is striking that v. 25 reads as it does, seeming to suggest that it was not a biblical exposition that Paul gave Felix and his wife, but rather an argument about morality and divine judgment. These were used as a way to proclaim faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the argument was so telling — and so obviously touched a nerve — that Felix grew uncomfortable, nervous, and interrupted Paul in the middle of his argument.

Combine this information with Paul’s method in Athens and one gathers something of Paul’s approach when his audience does not share with him a confidence in the divine authority of the Bible. He argues from reality and from the moral condition of human life. Dr. Schaeffer did this in his work among the disaffected youth who came to him and who had no confidence left, if ever they had any, in the Bible of the Christians. Ravi Zacharias used a similar form of argument in his magnificent lectures at Harvard a few years ago. C.S. Lewis was the past master of this form of argument. Here is Lewis discoursing on righteousness, self-control, and the judgment in Mere Christianity.

"First, …human beings, all over the earth, have his curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, …they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the law of nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in." [21]

"[When I was an atheist] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. but how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line…. Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning." [45-46]

"[In] morality…man goes beyond anything that can be "given" in the facts of experience. And it has one characteristic too remarkable to be ignored. The moralities accepted among men may differ — though not…so widely as is often claimed — but they all agree in prescribing a behaviour which their adherents fail to practise. All men alike stand condemned, not by alien codes of ethics, but by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt." [Problem of Pain, 21-22]

Dr. Schaeffer made the same argument in a somewhat different way. He pointed out that all that would be required to damn anyone would be to hand a little tape recorder around his neck and demonstrate how often he condemned others for violating standards he violated himself. We are inescapably moral in our judgments, but utterly fail to live up to that morality we confess. And in his particularly winning way, he would point out that it is morality, after all, that makes life bearable and, finally, beautiful. That there is such a thing as "good" is essential to human happiness and to any sense of the meaning of life. Yet how can there be such a thing as "good" in a world that consists of nothing but accidents? There is no such thing as "ought" in a world without God, yet "ought" is essential to human significance and happiness and every human being knows it and believes it, whatever he may say when standing on his feet in debate.

Richard Rorty, the professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, is the doyen of the post-modernists, the really serious relativists, who argue that there is no such thing as truth, no ultimate reality accessible to everyone, everything is ultimately shaped by the perspective of the one who is looking at it, etc. He loves to say it in the most bald and provocative way. According to him, anyone who thinks he or she can locate reality is "a real live metaphysical prig," and, unfortunately, he says, "there are to be sure such dudes left."

But, Rorty is a moral absolutist if ever there was one. He refers contemptuously to people who believe in biblical morality as "the people who think that hounding gays out of the military promotes family values." We are, that is, we evangelicals are, in his view "the same honest, decent, blinkered, disastrous people who voted for Hitler in 1933." [In Johnson, Reason in the Balance, 123] Where does this moral outrage come from? It comes up out of Rorty’s heart and it shapes his life and his mission as profoundly as the moral vision shapes the life of every other human being. And the fact that he has spun out a philosophy that purports to prove that it is impossible to make moral judgments of any real authority because based on any absolute standard no more prevents him than anyone else from making moral judgments and condemning others as deeply wrong because they do not share his moral vision. Indeed, Rorty’s views are genuinely dangerous. For he denies others the right to construct a moral vision, arguing that such a thing cannot exist, but is viciously willing to impose his moral vision on those who do not agree with him. Only in the University would such a vacuous argument be taken seriously and only in the contemporary University would so few people be troubled by the obviously self-defeating character of this philosophy. For Rorty’s views are nonsense, that is, nonsense in the technical sense of the world. His is the assertion of an absolute truth that there are no absolute truths; that one can know without the distortion of perspective that all objective reality is distorted by perspective.

It is a very contemporary form of that same hypocrisy and that same profound philosophical inconsistency that was a hallmark of existentialism in the 1950s and 1960s. Sartre, for example, argued vehemently against objective values but demanded that we aspire to live "authentically," by which he meant that we affirm our own freedom and create our own meaning. But if "authentic existence" is not an objective value, if it cannot be proved superior to any other value or way of life, why should we admire it or aspire to it? And if it is an objective virtue, then Sartre was wrong in his denial of such absolutes. When he himself joined the communist party, many of his own disciples felt that he had betrayed his principles, by behaving as though moral relativism is not in fact the principle that honest men and women should live by.

It is Trotsky all over again. He felt it was right for him to kill the Czar’s children, but it was not right for Stalin to kill Trotsky’s children.

I read to you last week the argument of Alvin Plantinga, who is a much more substantial thinker than Richard Rorty, but not nearly so popular in our day, a day that wishes for someone to justify the general opinion that no one is in a position to pass judgment on our views or our behavior but that we are still free and capable to pass judgment on theirs! Plantinga’s point, in other words, is that naturalistic morality is cheap. It refuses to face the real consequences of its principles, namely, that if there is no law-giver and, therefore, no real "ought" in human existence; if everything is simply matter and energy colliding accidentally through the ages, then there is no meaningful difference "morally" between Hitler and Rorty, between Mother Teresa and Ted Bundy, between Martin Luther King and the Ku Klux Klan. You cannot defend an "ought" with naturalism and relativism. You might be able to argue that one view better promotes happiness or is economically more efficient. But, of course, that is hard to argue — whose happiness and why should I worry about someone else’s happiness — and, in any case, no one wants to reduce these issues such pedestrian levels. Everyone is passionate about what he or she thinks is right and wrong.

As long ago as Immanuel Kant, the father of relativism, it was acknowledged that without God and without a judgment "right" and "wrong" were meaningless terms. If one is not rewarded and the other punished, what does it mean to say that one is right and the other is wrong. If no one in the universe will ever confirm that one thing agrees with some absolute standard of human behavior and another does not, what do such terms right and wrong indicate. Finally, all that is left is a personal preference, with no standard by which to choose between the various preferences that people have. If all that ever happens to Mother Teresa’s body is that it returns to dust and there is no such thing as a soul, and if Hitler suffers exactly the same fate, and soon everyone else will as well until the sun fails and human life is extinguished, who is to say that Hitler wasn’t a more successful human being for the power he exercised and for the fact that his name is found in many more books and articles and will be for centuries to come?

But no one takes that view of the matter — no one! Not a single human being. Skinheads believe that they are right and the civil rights crowd are wrong. And that, this being so, the country ought to make different decisions. Richard Rorty has nothing but scorn for someone who still believes homosexuality is sinful and wishes that such people be excluded from the decision making process for the republic. Naturalistic scientists think those who don’t believe in evolution are dangerous and ought not to be allowed access to the education of the nation’s children!

There is a place to begin — we are all decidedly and irretrievably moral absolutists — our philosophy notwithstanding. Why? Where did this come from? How do we account for this fact? What reasonable explanation for this phenomenon exists apart from the existence of a personal lawgiver and our having been made in his image?

And then, like Paul, you can go on to the matter of "self-control." Fact is, we all violate our moral code all the time. We are always condemning others for what we do ourselves. We all have a higher view of ourselves than others do.

Take, for example, pride. We all hate pride, we all say we hate people who think too well of themselves. But, I heard on the radio the other day the results of a new survey about parenting in the USA. 97% of American fathers living with their children believe that they are better parents to their children than their parents were to them. What of the mothers? 98% of them think themselves superior to their parents as a parent! That is a truly amazing statistic, given the state of American children and families today! But, there is nothing unusual about it. In a previous survey we learned that 90% of American divorcees think that the divorce was the fault of the other spouse. 90% of American business managers rate their performance "superior." 86% of employees rate themselves "better than average." 70% of American high school seniors (of more than a million surveyed) rated their leadership ability above average and only 2% below; in regard to getting along with others 25% rated themselves in the top 1% and zero rated themselves below average!

We believe in right and wrong; we violate the standards we believe in, so we are all conscious of guilt. Why, unless there is such a thing as the judgment? Unless there is a judge? Unless there are such absolute things as reward and punishment? We may deny that there is — many do today; we may erect elaborate systems of belief to console ourselves — but we cannot escape, we do not escape the moral dimension of our life, the reality of guilt, or the fear of judgment.

All of this rests in the human soul and the human experience, whether one is a Felix or a Drusilla or an Athenian philosopher. Paul knew that and cast his argument accordingly. And it worked, at least, it troubled Felix. He had no answer and so he chose to turn away from the argument.

It is an argument that we should make, all of us, more boldly and more often than we do. We too should discourse often and get comfortable talking about "Righteousness, self-control, and the judgment." Every human being believes in some form of these things, and his or her behavior betrays those beliefs. That is why we need a Savior. What better way to consider faith in Jesus Christ!