"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Mt 10:16). The Jews' persistent, pernicious opposition had corrupted the exercise of Roman justice in Palestine, and only a shrewd and timely appeal to Caesar would extricate innocent Paul from the process. Paul's loyalty to and reliance on the rule of law would certainly endear him to Luke's audience. How they and we should once more marvel at our sovereign Lord's providential working, this time through the shrewd yet innocent Paul. It brings the apostle's witness one step closer to his divinely ordained goal: to bear witness to his Lord in Rome (Acts 19:21; 23:11).
The brief but firm and honorable rule of Porcius Festus began with efficiency and wisdom (A.D. 59-61; Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.182-97; Jewish Wars 2.271). Only three days after setting foot in the province he proceeded to his territory's true capital, Jerusalem, to meet the Jewish leaders.
Luke describes the leaders in general terms as chief priests and Jewish leaders, probably indicating that more than the Sanhedrin was involved. They urgently requested (better "persistently implored") the governor for a favor (the imperfect and present tenses point to importunate repetition): a change of venue for Paul's trial. Such a request was not out of the ordinary (Pliny Epistles 10.81.3-4). Yet it masked a deadly purpose: an ambush to kill him along the way (compare Acts 23:21, 16). They would use treachery to be rid of Paul, as they had with his Lord (Lk 22:2-6; Acts 2:23).
Persistence and deceit are the trademarks of the church's persecutors. Therefore Christians must be "wise as snakes"--realistic, not naive or cynical. Nothing should take them by surprise, and they must try to anticipate all eventualities.
Festus's reply is a reasoned denial. The accused is incarcerated in Caesarea and the judge, the governor, is about to go there shortly; it makes sense for the accusers to go there as well. Festus issues a friendly invitation for the leaders to accompany him to Caesarea.
The soldiers' attempt to restore order in the temple area, the prisoner's transfer after the uncovered plot, and his continued incarceration as Felix's favor to the Jews when he left office were all occasions when military officers and governors acted on purely temporal or self-serving motives (21:32-36; 23:23-35; 24:27). Here too Festus makes a decision simply for his own convenience. But again, God is providentially directing human affairs so that the might of Rome will continue to protect his messenger. All who obey God's call and commit themselves to fulfill his purposes can have the confidence that the same providence protects them until their mission is done.
With customary efficiency Festus convened the court--literally, "sat down on the judgment seat" (bema). "This formality was necessary for his verdict to have legal validity" (Bruce 1988:451). Like predators after their quarry the Jews . . . stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him. But they are unprovable charges (compare 24:13, 19).
Before the bar of blind justice persecution will never prove a case built on lies. Here again the opponents of the gospel will be frustrated (6:10; 19:9-10). But Christians must always be sure they suffer for the right reason--because they are Christians--and that there is no case against them (1 Pet 4:14-16).
Though Festus's subsequent comments reveal that Paul is charged with much more (Acts 25:19), Luke presents Paul's defense as a brief affirmation: I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar. The Jews have indeed consistently charged Paul with teaching and acting against the law (21:28; compare 24:5), the temple (21:28; 24:6) and Caesar (24:5). Paul has stoutly defended himself in each of these areas (law--22:3; 24:14-16; temple--22:17; 24:17-18; Caesar--24:11-13).
In this affirmation Luke capsulizes his conviction about first-century Christianity's two defining relationships. As to Judaism, it has not betrayed its religious roots. It stands in direct continuity with the Old Testament faith in its ethics and worship. The Jews can find no apostasy here. As to the state, Christianity is no revolutionary disrupter of the civil order, though in its own way it will produce a radical transformation of society, one heart at a time.
The next step in a trial featuring unsubstantiated charges and a solid defense should be acquittal. But Luke lets us know that a miscarriage of justice is in the making when he notes that Festus's next question is motivated by a desire to do the Jews a favor, what they have asked for (25:3; compare 24:27). Favoritism takes the blindfold off justice (Lev 19:15; Prov 17:15). Instead of declaring Paul innocent, Festus asks whether he is willing for the trial to be continued but with a change of venue to Jerusalem.
Paul's response and the way Festus later recounts the offer in conversation with Agrippa indicates that Festus's apparently innocent question about change of venue may cloak an inference of change of jurisdiction (25:11, 19-20). He could be implying that the Sanhedrin would be given immediate jurisdiction over this "religious" case and he would ratify whatever decision they take. In that way he promises that Paul will stand trial before me.
In a reverse parallelism construction, which climaxes with his appeal to Caesar, Paul evaluates his present and future judicial dealings with the Roman court and the Jews. He makes his statements turn on a profession of his integrity.
A. I am now standing before Caesar's court, where I ought to be tried.
B. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well.
C. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die.
B. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them.
A. I appeal to Caesar!
Not only does Paul reveal his own integrity, stating that if guilty he will not refuse to undergo the law's full penalty, but he also unmasks the governor's failings. The governor knows Paul's innocence but won't declare an acquittal. The governor has proposed a change of venue which will in some way involve an illegal change of jurisdiction. To "hand Paul over" (charizomai) to the Jewish leaders is indeed to grant the Jews a favor (charis, 25:9). The only way to overcome these failings is for Paul to take the proceedings out of the hands of this lower court. By appealing directly for a trial before the imperial court, which was the right of every Roman citizen, Paul stops the judicial proceedings (Ulpian Digest 48.6.7, cited in Sherwin-White 1963:58).
Paul's shrewdness allows him to overcome the governor's moral failings and the fatal results that they would likely produce. It also enables Paul to retain the initiative of the divine "must" that has ultimate control of his personal destiny (23:11). Again God has providentially so ordered the decisions of individuals and nations that embedded in Roman law is an appeal mechanism that can now be employed by his witness, who was born a Roman citizen. But it requires Paul to exercise faith, courage, integrity and shrewdness.
Festus conferred with his council. It was customary for the governor, even the emperor, to have a body of assessors--higher-ranking military officers, younger civil servants in training and dignitaries from the local population--to help him evaluate court cases. Festus wants to make sure the appeal is in order based on the type of charges that have been brought. So assured, he makes the terse declaration You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go! The might of Rome protects; the might of Rome provides the transport. Paul will bear witness in Rome, possibly before the emperor himself (9:15; 23:11).