WHAT’S THE PROBLEM HERE?
Written by Doug Ponder on March 10, 2013
Injustice on Parade
When you read the sweeping episode of Paul’s trial before Felix, you can’t help but notice the signs of injustice everywhere.
First, there were the Jews who vowed not to eat or drink anything until they had killed Paul (23:12), and all this without having first found Paul guilty of anything. People who tried this in our society today would be punished severely for attempted murder.
Next, we have the letter from Claudius Lysias, the Roman tribune. If you look closely, you’ll notice that he has carefully rearranged the events of Paul’s capture and imprisonment. He didn’t want anyone to know that he almost tortured a Roman citizen without a fair trial, for that might have meant losing his job, or even his life. Instead, he tells the story in such a way that he seems like the hero, rushing to the rescue of a fellow Roman citizen! (23:26-30)
Once Paul is put on trial in Caesarea, the injustice keeps on coming. Tertullus, the spokesman for the Jewish accusers, stoops to groveling and flattery of Governor Felix. But his words weren’t just flattery; they were completely false accounts of life under Felix’s reign, spoken only in the hopes of winning Felix over to his side. (24:2-8)
Despite Paul’s ability to refute the cases brought against him (24:10-21), Felix delays making a decision about the case, and throws Paul in prison for two years, hoping to gain favor from the Jews and money in the form of a bribe from Paul (24:22-27).
The depth and breadth of corruption and injustice lead us to wonder, “What’s the problem here?” That is to say, “What is wrong in the world? And how can what is wrong be made right?”
Three Kinds of Responses
We shouldn’t overlook the simple but important fact that all of these characters lived in the same world, but they responded to the world’s brokenness in differing ways. Each person or group of people acted as they did because of what they wanted. In other words, their desires directed what they did.
Claudis Lysias resorted to lying and deceit because of his desire to keep his job and save his own skin. He didn’t care that lies and deception are part of what’s wrong with the world. He saw deception as a chance to better himself.
Felix was no better. His entire life had been one of indulging in the brokenness of the world to position himself for advancement. Though he was born a slave, he rose to his current position of status through flattery, bribes, and corruption of all kinds. He used people like stepping stones to get where he wanted to go, which is why he married three times, each time trading in his former wife like a used vehicle. His wickedness was curtailed only by what he could get away with.
People like Claudias Lysias and Felix are what we might call parasites. Parasites, as you may remember from biology class, live by attaching themselves to a host organism. Their goal is to take from it, to benefit from it, to use it to their own advantage. In other words, people who are like parasites are not concerned with changing the world; they just want to take what they need in order to get what they want.
But there is another group of people in this story. We can call them accusers. Unlike parasites, accusers do want to see the world changed. The problem is that accusers point the finger at others, not themselves. They blame other people for what’s wrong. The world is not as it should be, and somebody else is always the reason why.
The obvious examples of accusers in this story are the Jewish leaders who make the vow to kill Paul and the spokesman at Paul’s trial before Felix. The Jews who made the vow to kill Paul are like the angry mob in the previous chapter who said, “Rid the earth of this fellow!” They believed that people like Paul were what was wrong with the world, and so they wanted him dead.
The spokesman at the trial was an accuser, too. His flattery was aimed at pitting one of his enemies, the Roman governor Felix, against a slightly more hated enemy, the apostle Paul. In other words, this man had taken the approach of saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But Felix was only his “friend” as long as he did what the spokesman wanted him to do, and that was find Paul guilty so that he’d be punished or killed.
Above all, accusers believe that the real problem in the world are people who disagree with them. This is the reason why Steven had been killed earlier (Acts 7), and Peter had been imprisoned and beaten (Acts 12). Now it was Paul the accusers were after. But they wouldn’t have stopped once they killed him. There will always be someone else for an accuser to blame for the world’s problems.
But Paul was different than these two groups. Because of his life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus, he realized that he was part of what is wrong with the world, and that he himself needed to be made reconciled to God through Jesus.
If we want to label the perspective of Paul in this story, we could call him repentant. Unlike the parasites, who want nothing to change, and unlike the accusers, who blame everyone but themselves, the repentant have confessed their part in the brokenness of the world and their need for forgiveness and for rescue, looked to Jesus in faith, and now live as people who want to turn from sin. Their lives are being changed because their desires are being changed. The more they acknowledge their need for Jesus, the more they want him and the less they want to do the kinds of things he died to sort out.
Whom Do We Resemble?
The question for us is this: When we look at the world in all of its brokenness, how do we respond?
Like Felix and Claudius Lysias, do you see opportunity for self-advancement, for pleasure, or for selfish living? Are you living to get ahead, not matter what the cost? Do you buck the rules and do as you please? Do you always “look out for number one”?
If so, you should know that Jesus bore God’s judgment against the sins that you are committing against him, against others, and against God’s world. Moreover, Jesus is coming again to get rid of all those things completely. That’s why Paul spoke to Felix about righteousness, self-control, and the future judgment (24:25). Paul was warning him about the destructiveness of falling in love with all the parts of the world that God will change, remove, or destroy forever.
God is not changing the world and judging sin because he wants to spoil our fun. God is for the world, and therefore against sin. But if you make your home in the gutter, down with all the pollution and corruption of the world, then when Jesus comes to sweep all that way, you’ll be swept away with it.
Or, the Jewish leaders, do you think that what is wrong with the world are other people? Do you say things like, “How dare they believe differently than me!” Do you think the world would be a better place if everyone believed what you do and lived as you live?
If so, you need to know that Jesus did not come to rescue people who go on thinking that they don’t really need to be rescued. He came to rescue the sick, not those who think they are well. He came to rescue those who acknowledged their need for him, not those who spend their lives trying to diminish their need for him. And that’s just what you do, if you think that by avoiding the thinking and the behavior of certain people that you will make God love you and accept you. Your “perfect world” is a world where everyone looks like you, but look nothing like Jesus. You have missed the entire point of the gospel.
Or, like Paul, do you begin by looking for faults in yourself instead of looking for faults in other people? Do you believe that what’s wrong with the world can only be made right through the work of Jesus on your behalf? Do you trust him to rescue you? Do you want to do what he says?
If so, you need to know that you will never outgrow your need for Jesus. Repentant people are not those who reach a place where they never mess up. They are those who realize that no matter how many times they mess up, they don’t want to live as parasites or accusers forever. This means when you do mess up, for example, you confess that as sin. You don’t hide it to act like you’re perfect. You freely acknowledge that Jesus came to rescue broken people like yourself.
The means that the rest of your life is one of confession, faith, and repentance, and the best context for that is among other people who are doing the same. That’s what the church is. It’s not a group of people who are better than others. The church is a group of people who don’t want to live as parasites or accusers anymore, and know they need Jesus’ forgiveness and transforming grace in order to change.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.