The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 1)

Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.
Acts 24:24 (NIV)

I and my team at work have had many different business engagements over the years with a number of very different companies. I’m glad to say that our team has had several on-going engagements with clients that have lasted 15, 20, and even 25 years and counting. Others engagements have been relatively small projects that lasted a week or a month. The difference between a long engagement and a short one is often dependent the level of person we’re working with within the organization.

If we’re working with the CEO and/or senior executives of a client company, we have the opportunity to positively influence the client’s entire operation along with the  health and well-being of the customer experience for decades. A middle manager, on the other hand, typically has limited means and influence. They usually bring us in for a moment in time to treat a symptom in their service delivery system.

In today’s chapter, we find Paul in the midst of a tectonic shift in his ministry. For years he has traveled the Roman Empire in Judea, Asia Minor, and Greece. He’s been among the people. He’s expanded the number of believers and followers of Jesus. He’s organized them into local groups. He’s provided for himself by keeping his day job as a maker of tents. Paul has been on a grass-roots, boots-on-the-ground, non-stop mission among the common, everyday people in the streets. Now, like Jesus before him, Paul finds himself in the justice system of the Roman Empire being accused by the leaders of the Hebrew religion who want him dead. Unlike Jesus, Paul is a citizen of Rome, and that affords him the ability to appeal his case all the way to Caesar himself.

The first trial Paul faces against the religious leadership of the Jews is before the Roman Procurator, Antonius Felix, who had authority over Judea. Felix, like many Roman regional authorities of the time, was a corrupt official with a reputation for both cruelty and debauchery. The trial, as recorded in today’s chapter, should have ended with Paul’s release. The Jewish leaders had no accusation that should have stood up in Roman court. They did not produce a single corroborating witness willing to be cross-examined, and they had no evidence. Paul’s defense was persuasive and, as a Roman citizen, he should have been released immediately. Felix, however, was in a tough spot politically.

One of the top responsibilities of Roman provincial leadership was keeping the peace. The Jewish leaders bringing charges against Paul had tremendous political and social influence, and Felix knew it. His predecessor, Ventidus Cumanus, failed to respond to a racially motivated murder of a Jew in Samaria. The result was riots and uprising. Cumanus was held responsible by Caesar and exiled. Felix wants to avoid this fate so he decides to appease the Jewish leaders by keeping Paul in prison. But the Jesus movement has been gaining popularity, as well. Tens of thousands of people had become believers and Paul is one of their leaders. So, Felix can’t just have him killed without potentially igniting a backlash.

The compromise Felix came up with was to keep Paul under a relatively comfortable house arrest within the palace. For two years Felix and his wife (the daughter of Herod Agrippa) regularly meet with Paul to have lengthy discussions. Felix, being a corrupt Roman official, is hoping Paul will offer him a bribe to let him go. Paul is on a very different mission, however. He could have easily stolen Peter’s line: “Silver and gold I don’t have, but what I have I give to you.”

This morning as I read, I thought about Paul’s situation in terms of my own experience in business. For years Paul has been working with the front-line workers of the corporate Roman Empire. Now Paul finds himself invited into the executive suite. Paul has the opportunity to influence an influencer. To convert a Roman official, to even make him aware of the Message of Jesus, could have a tremendous ripple effect throughout the Empire. Paul is fulfilling the very mission Jesus spoke of to his disciples: “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” (Matt 10:18)

Convert an Ephesian shopkeeper and you change a life. Convert a Roman official and you might just change an empire (which is exactly what eventually happened two hundred years later with the Roman Emperor Constantine).

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