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Third Quarter 2018 • July, August, September
COMMENTARY—THE BOOK OF ACTS
Week 12: September 15–21
COMMENTARY ON "Confinement in Caesarea"
Following is a combined commentary on the material included in the Bible Study Guide with references as necessary to the supplemental passages included in the E. G. White Notes for the Sabbath School Lessons.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotes are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
Reading this quarter’s Sabbath School lessons on the book of Acts has reminded me why that book seemed so dull to me as an Adventist. I remember intentionally reading Acts as a young adult, and even though I concentrated and tried hard to track with the accounts, I found the stories boring, and the details all seemed to run together.
Now, looking at the lessons in this quarter’s study of Acts, I remember that old familiar deflated feeling, as if once again this book of history is all but inaccessible and useful only to the extent that I use the main characters as models of Christian behavior.
Thanks to our ongoing Former Adventist Fellowship weekly Bible study through the book of Acts, however, the account of the establishment of the church and its exponential growth in gentile territories has become “real”. This book is not a series of examples; it is a revelation of God’s sovereign protection and power as He brought His body to life through the gospel of the Lord Jesus and the new birth of those who believed.
The Caesarea muddle: Felix, Festus, Agrippa, and their women
This week’s Sabbath School lesson addresses Acts 24, 25, and 26. Acts 24 opens with Paul’s being in Roman custody in the Judean seat of Roman oversight: Caesarea.
After Paul had returned to Jerusalem following his third missionary journey through Asia, Europe, and Greece, he had once again become the object of Jewish rage and was arrested for slanderous accusations that he had defiled the temple.
Ultimately, Paul’s defense of the resurrection split the Jewish leaders between the Pharisees (who believed in a resurrection) and the Sadducees (who did not). This division was heated, but it did not lessen the Jewish rage against Paul who found himself the object of a death threat. Jewish leaders had agreed neither to eat or drink until they had killed him.
Paul, however, was reassured by the Lord:
Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also” (Acts 23:11).
Paul knew he would suffer, but he also knew God would keep his word to him. He would not die in Jerusalem.
Acts 24 opens with Paul’s being brought before the Roman governor Felix to give his defense. The Jews had agreed to bring Paul before the Roman governor in the hope that he would be able to sentence Paul and get him our of their way.
Paul never wasted an opportunity to tell the truth about Jesus. As he defended himself before the Roman governor, he explained that the issue that caused the uproar among the Jews was the question of the resurrection from the dead. He said he had been minding his own business in the temple, but a gang of Jews from Asia came in and stirred up trouble. These accusers, he pointed out, were not there to make their case, but the fallout of their accusations had brought him to the judgment seat.
Nevertheless, he concluded, “For the resurrection of the dead I am on trial before you today.”
Felix, however, had some knowledge about Christianity. Moreover, he had a Jewish wife, Drusilla. Felix put off delivering a judgment, and later he brought Drusilla with him to hear Paul.
Felix, though, was toying with Paul, hoping that he would pay him bribe money. Paul had nt intention of buying his way out of jail, though, and he continued to preach the gospel and the truth about sin and salvation whenever Felix and Drusilla called him to come.
One day, as he was “discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” (Acts 24:25), Paul’s words cut through Felix’s resistance. He became frightened, but he was not willing to humble himself before the God of the truth he had just heard.
Instead, he ordered Paul to leave: “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.”
For two years Felix kept Paul languishing in prison in order to appease the Jews and to win their favor. Finally Felix was succeeded by a new governor, Porcius Festus.
Festus, Agrippa, and Paul
Festus had not been in the province of Judea more than three days before he made his way to Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life and religion. Immediately the Jews came to him with many serious charges against Paul. Festus agreed to see Paul back at Caesarea. The Jews wanted Paul tried by their own council in Jerusalem, and Festus offered Paul the opportunity to go there and be tried by his countrymen.
Paul, however, refused. He told Festus that he was standing “before Caesar’s tribunal” by appearing before Caesar’s agent, Festus, and then he said,
If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:11).
Festus agreed, but before transport to Rome could be arranged, King Agrippa and his sister Berniece arrived in Caesarea, paying their respects to Governor Festus in his new role in Judea.
Berniece was an interesting person. She and Agrippa II were both the children of Agrippa I. When Berniece was 13, she had married Herod of Chalcis, her uncle, and they had two sons. Her husband Herod died somewhat later, and she lived with her brother Agrippa II. Rumors sprang up, however, that they were incestuous, so to quiet the stories, she married another man, Polemon, King of Cilicia. Berniece left Polemon, however, and returned to Agrippa. She then became the mistress of Vespaian’s son Titus, but eventually Titus ignored her. Berniece, then, apparently contented herself to travel and live with her brother.
Both Agrippa and Berniece had been raised within a Jewish framework. They were Herodians, a sect of Hellensitic Jews who had cast their lot with Rome in return for power. Consequently, when Paul spoke to them, they had a knowledge of the prophecies and of Old Testament Scripture. He was not presenting the gospel to people who had no understanding of Judaism and its promises.
Paul recounted his conversion story, and he told Agrippa that Jesus had told him He was sending him to the Gentiles. He quoted Jesus saying He was commissioning him to “open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have beens sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts. 26:18).
Paul emphasized that he was committed to “testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place; that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason off His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23).
Festus, who was also hearing Paul, interrupted him and shouted that Pauls was out of his mind, but Agrippa was moved. In fact, Agrippa uttered that famous response: “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.”
After Paul’s sermon, Agrippa conferred with Festus and admitted that he had nothing to say in accusation against Paul. In fact, he would have released him if Paul hadn’t appealed to Caesar. Because he had, however, they would send him to Rome.
What the Quarterly does with the lesson
This story of Paul preaching to the Roman king and governor in Caesarea, the Roman seat of government in the province of Judah, is a rich study in the faithfulness of God’s apostle being faithful to use every opportunity to preach the crucified and risen Christ. He knew his audiences, and he spoke to what He knew they already knew.
For example, he knew that Felix had understanding both of Judaism and of Christianity. He knew that Festus, the newly-minted governor who succeeded Felix, would be primarily interested in making political connections both with the Jews and with Rome, and he knew that Agrippa and his sister Berniece knew Jewish prophecy and would be equipped to understand how Jesus fulfilled every promise God made concerning the Messiah.
Paul used these three events of his standing before Roman authorities In Judea to preach the true gospel of the Lord Jesus in ways that would cause those men to recognize their sin and their need of a Savior. Moreover, Paul knew that God was sending him to Rome. He knew that returning to Jerusalem to be tried by the Jews would be pointless and would only result in persecution and death attempts, but he knew that he was going to preach in Rome.
The lesson capitalizes on the methods Paul used to persuade his judges that he was not guilty of crimes. The problem with the lesson is that is completely MISSES the amazing substance of the gospel which Paul spoke to those unbelievers!
His main point WASN’T avoiding prison. His main point was to preach the gospel to those people, using his chains as his entrance into audiences with Rome’s authorities in Judea!
In fact, in the first day’s lesson, the author says, “The whole narrative is intended to show that Paul had done nothing worthy of arrest and that he could be released had he not appealed to Caesar.”
That summary is NOT the purpose of the narrative. Rather, the narrative is intended to show how Paul defended himself by claiming scriptural authority. He knew Rome wouldn’t by sympathetic to his Christian arguments, and he knew that the Jews would find ways to refute him. Instead, Paul used his Jewish-Christian reasoning to explain the REAL issue: not that he was innocent primarily, but that he was dedicated to preaching Jesus.
In fact, his appeal to Rome wasn’t primarily about avoiding prison; rather, it was his way of facilitating a trip which he had desired to do for a very long time (see Romans 1:5–15). He had the word of God to him that he would go to Rome and preach, and Paul desired to go. His appeal to Rome was more about the gospel than about avoiding personal hardship. He never avoided personal hardship if it was God’s leading for him. But God’s will was that he would go to Rome at this time, not languish in a Jerusalem jail.
Resurrection and the spirit
Another thing the quarterly does that is completely without scriptural foundation is found in Thursday’s lesson. The author states,
Festus would have had no problem if Paul had spoken about the immortality of the soul, but even the ancient Greco-romans knew that both concepts—immortality and resurrection—do not go along well with one another. Thus, they kept the former and rejected the latter. This is why Paul says elsewhere that the gospel was foolishness to Getniles (1 Cor. 1:23).
In other words, the lesson is arguing against the idea of the human spirit continuing after death. The author sets up a false dichotomy, assuming that the Greeks—and by extension, any logical person—would have known that the idea of a continuing spirit cannot harmonize with the idea of resurrection.
They establish the false foundation that if one believes one has a spirit that continues after death, one cannot believe in the resurrection. Both ideas cannot be true.
The lesson’s smooth argument that these things cannot both be true is actually a false assumption. Moreover, the argument that the gentiles rejected the gospel on the basis that “spirit” was eternal and thus they could not believe the resurrection is a made-up idea.
First, 1 Corinthians 1:23 does not say the gospel is foolish to gentiles because they couldn’t believe in a resurrection within their worldview. It actually says that the idea of Christ—God—being crucified is what seems foolish to them. No gentile had a worldview that accommodated the idea of a god humbling himself to take the shame of crucifixion on behalf of his subjects.
It wasn’t the idea of an eternal spirit and resurrection that caused their reaction to the gospel; it was the idea of a crucified Savior, God who would allow Himself to die to bear human sin.
Second, Adventism completely misses the power of the new birth and the depth of the gospel by suggesting that other people believe in “immortality of the soul”. The Bible doesn’t teach our souls are immortal. It teaches, rather, that we can be made eternally alive through faith in Jesus, and that when we are thus born again, we never die.
Those who do not believe suffer eternal punishment, but that punishment is not “life”. The spirits of unbelievers remain dead, disconnected from the life of God. “DEAD” does not equal “non-existent”. Adventism taught that the two are equivalent, but the Bible does not.
Nevertheless, the lesson reinforces the Adventist view of annihilation and “soul sleep”—nonexistence during death—and suggests that this issue was the “truth” which Festus did not believe and which kept him from embracing the resurrection.
Overall, this week’s Sabbath School lesson eclipsed the powerful gospel preaching of Paul. It ignored the sovereignty of God which directed the timing of these three defenses and of Paul’s appeal to Rome.
To be sure, Paul did defend himself to the Roman authorities, but his defense was not primarily for preserving himself. He spoke clearly in order to give those men opportunities to believe in Christ.
The lesson treats Paul as an example. In fact, it asks in Friday’s lesson, “What can we learn from his example here? How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to see the gospel spread?”
These questions cannot be answered well within an Adventist framework. Adventism teaches “another gospel” which adds to being saved solely by grace on the basis of faith and trust in Jesus.
Adventism’s gospel requires Sabbath, the health message, and the material nature of man/annhilation/soul sleep. Adventism’s “gospel”, however, is not found anywhere in Scripture. Rather, it is described and commanded in the writings of Ellen White and incorporated into official denominational publications.
Adventism cannot properly teach Paul’s Caesarea experience—or any other experience in the book of Acts. Without understanding the true gospel and without being born again through faith in Jesus and the finished work of His propitiation and atonement, the profound reality of Paul’s defenses is almost invisible.
The Sabbath School lesson eclipses what Paul said about Jesus and salvation. The meat and momentum has been stripped out of the account in Acts.
Without the blood of Jesus and the power of the gospel in God’s eternal word, Paul’s experiences with Felix, Festus, and Agrippa (and their women) is just a slow story out the annals of church history.
Within the gospel context of Paul’s apostleship and appointment by God, however, these stories demonstrate that nothing can stop the truth. Nothing can silence God’s people except God’s timing.
Paul was not merely defending himself and proving his innocence; he was exalting the power of God and glorifying the shed blood of Jesus. These passages show God’s faithfulness and protection, and we can know that whatever the Lord asks us to do for Him, He will equip us to do it. Nothing can stop His purposes.