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Vacillating Verdicts about Jesus
The gospel of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, brings out the most unpredictable responses from people, doesn’t it? Think about all the different reactions and opinions about Jesus out there. Perhaps in your witnessing and evangelism, you’ll meet some who are indifferent; some who are hostile; yet others who joyfully believe. You may have also experienced people who vacillate in their regard for Jesus over several years. It’s not uncommon to have a family member who hates Jesus one day, then is open to Jesus a year later, and then indifferent the next. The verdict about Jesus is never simple, is it? Why is that?
The world will give a lot of reasons for it—but if we’re sticking to the Bible, the answer rests in the evidences for Christ true identity. The evidence and testimony of the risen Christ and his Spirit is painfully personal, and shockingly alarming especially to people who refuse to freely acknowledge their sin, and the Lord’s sovereignty. Deep down, the Bible tells us that—deep down in our souls—people know God’s authority, but they refuse to receive it.
Romans 1 reminds us that the evidence for God and his Christ is painfully evident and clear to all, as he’s written the evidence directly on our hearts and into creation. Paul says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”, Romans 1:19. God has clearly and unmistakably shown all mankind who he is—only, as he said in the previous verse, “by their unrighteousness they suppress the truth”. The verdict of God and his Christ is clear—yet, we don’t like it. So, we suppress the truth and it makes us unpredictable, vascillating people.
It reminds me of the stages of grief—when you’re faced with an unescapable reality that you don’t like, (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression. Those are all ways we suppress the truth, folks, as we handle unsettling evidence before us. Those also happen to be the tall-tale responses to evangelism. (1) denial—“nope, not for me”. (2) anger—“you bigot!”. (3) bargaining—“yeah, I believe in God, but I’m a good person. He’ll accept me despite my wrongs”. (4) depression—you could think of the young Martin Luther, keenly aware of God’s wrath and his guilt, but unwilling to accept that God is gracious, and might accept him.
These are the responses we see in evangelism because the evidence is clear. Paul goes so far to say that in the worst cases of wickedness, “32 Though they [i.e., intuitively] know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”. That’s not just denial. It’s flagarant mockery of the God who has clearly revealed himself and his ways to his creatures. What does Paul say in response? Romans 2:1, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.”
Do you hear that? “Every one of you who judges”. Everyone is a judge of Christ, of Christianity—and, no one is excused from a mistaken judgment. This is bad news to those who willfully reject Christ—but, it’s also alarmingly great news to those who accept Jesus. The same evidences that God placed into his world and his word—concerning his glory and his Christ—both condemns the guilty, but also assures the humble and faithful. God is a God of evidences, confirmations, order, justice—and so, we have our passage this morning. In the story we read, the gospel is on trial by men, and it’s clear to everyone that the verdict is “not guilty”. Paul and the gospel are true. The problem is that sin makes it messy. Sin makes it messy—there’s the trouble. There’s indecision. Yet shining through it all, there’s God’s sovereignty and mercy.
Three Verdicts About One Sovereign God
Everyone judges the gospel—everyone makes a verdict. In our passage this morning, there are three verdicts to Paul and the gospel which we’ll look at. (1) The Jews’ verdict, (2) Paul’s verdict, (3) Festus and Agrippa’s verdict. Let’s walk through these to discern how God’s sovereignty and mercy might shine through our sin which ever complicates a gospel that’s so clear.
1. The Jews’ Verdict of the Gospel
Let’s look at the Jews’ verdict of the gospel. In many ways, their verdict is old news to us, here in Acts 25. They don’t want the gospel. They don’t want Jesus, they don’t want Paul, and they want nothing to do with what Jesus or Paul have said to them. In fact, they do everything they can in order to destroy them. Starting in verse 1 of our passage,
Acts 25:1 Now three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. 2And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews laid out their case against Paul, and they urged him, 3asking as a favor against Paul that he summon him to Jerusalem—because they were planning an ambush to kill him on the way.
This is really shocking, if you think about it. Think about the urgency, here, as the Jews—and even, possibly Festus—sought to settle Paul’s case.
This urgency on the part of the Jews is evidence that the Jews had already made up their minds. Their verdict was pronounced—they wanted the gospel snuffed out, and Paul dead. In fact, they had waited two years for this, after the governor Felix originally put Paul in prison.
Verse 27 of chapter 4 leads into our story this morning, “When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus.” They waited two, long years to hopefully fulfill their verdict with their death sentence. You can imagine the urgency and anticipation, here.
So, in steps Festus as the new governor of this Roman province—and, he takes his seat in Caesarea. Remember, Caesarea was the capital of this province which Jerusalem was a part of—and, it’s where Paul was held in prison. Jerusalem was about 70 miles southeast of Caesarea.
What do you think the Jews are going to do when the new governor comes into town? They’re going to capitalize on his ignorance, and try to seize Paul. It reminds me of how a naughty classroom handles the substitute teacher. A new leader who doesn’t know our history and our rules as well? Well, let the opportunists unite!
So, what did the Jews do? Obviously, they weren’t interested in actually discussing Paul’s case with Festus—to decide his case. Instead, they played the part of the devil. They conceived of a cunning, deceitful plan to get Paul killed.
Their commitment to condemn Paul to death is shown in two places of this passage. In verses 2–3 that we just read, you see that the Jews revived their plot to ambush Paul. This is the second time they have tried this tact. It’s a new governor, so maybe it’ll work this time (right?). Again, it’s the ignorant, new teacher. It’s an opportunity. Just as they plotted when Felix was governor in chapter 23, so also now they tell Festus to bring Paul to Jerusalem for a fair trial—only, they’d plan to ambush and kill Paul on the way. No need for a trial—the man is guilty.
Thankfully, Festus was a good man of Roman order—and, Paul’s proper place to be tried was in Caesarea. So, God providentially used the Roman system protected Paul from this plan, and the Jews were once again forced to have a hearing in Caesarea.
That, of course, brings us to the second place we see the Jews’ commitment to condemn Paul to death. Verses 6–8 tell us a little bit about that hearing which took place, and we’re told two insights. In verse 7, the Jews brought “many and serious charges against [Paul] that they could not prove”. Then, Paul’s response echoes some of the charges they brought against Paul (verse 8) “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense”. That’s a sweeping summary, right there—but it shows us that the Jews explicitly charged Paul of treason against Caesar. This is the first time Casesar explicitly shows up in as one of the Jews’ long-standing charges—they’re desparate. They are pulling out the biggest and baddest accusations that could against Paul, and everyone in the room knew that none of them could be proven.
They were resilient—and, notice that they made the matter personal. They didn’t approach this case of Jesus objectively, to say “let’s weigh the evidences of Paul’s case and assume him innocent until proven guilty”. That’s not how it worked. They sought to kill Paul, not his arguments. They hated Paul—just as they hated Christ—because Paul challenged their authority and freedom. Evangelism, folks, invites personal persecution for this very reason. People will get upset with you, not your message. They’ll go straight to the messenger—to “kill the messenger”, so to speak. Why? Because the Bible says they’re suppressing the truth. They know the truth, but they don’t want to acknowledge it (much less face it). So they suppress it by suppressing the messenger of truth. They kill the messenger that’s troubling them—whether that be Paul, you and me, Jesus, the Spirit, their guilty conscience, their heart. They turn a blind eye, as their verdict is already decided.
Weighing the Evidence of Many Signs and Proofs
Where did their verdict of Paul and the gospel come from, folks—this verdict of capital offense? Think about the evidence these Jews had available to them, to weigh as they decided the case of Christianity. Go back to Jesus, for example. That’s where it all started! Does the story of Nicodemus ring a bell?
John 3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
That’s a shocking statement, coming from Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews”. Nicodemus had status, learning, and respect. Yet he also had some sense to him. He was willing to acknowledge what all of his Jewish peers knew, deep in their souls. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God”. They knew it, yet they rejected him! The signs and miracles which Jesus did were unmistakable signs that he is a messenger from God. “No one can do these signs… unless God is with him.” That’s fact, and the Jews knew it. It was the biggest headache they had to deal with, as they sought to suppress the truth of Jesus and exchange the truth for a lie, for a guilty verdict.
In Matthew 12, after Jesus cast out a demon, we’re told that “all the people”—get that, all the people—“were amazed and said, ‘can this be the Son of David?’” It’s the only logical answer, isn’t it? All the people understood the meaning of the sign—that is, except the Pharisees. Matthew 12:24, “But when the Pharisees heard it, they said ‘it is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”
Ah, yes. The devil is casting out his own demons, and destroying his own kingdom. That makes sense. This, of course, is the logical error which Jesus publicly exposes at that very moment.
Jesus came proclaiming a kingdom of power over sin, death, and the devil. It’s easy to show your power over death and the devil—rise from the dead, or cast a demon out of someone. That’ll do it. That’ll convince any sane person you have power over death and the devil. Yet what about sin? How did Jesus verifiably prove that he has the power to forgive sins?
Once again, he showed it in his miracles. Perhaps you remember how he made this connection when he healed the paralytic. Matthew 9:6, “‘That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic—‘rise, pick up your bed and go home’ And he rose and went home.” Isn’t that awesome? Jesus is making the connection for us—“If I have authority over God’s curse upon human sin, I must therefore have authority over human sin. So, I heal this paralytic wasting away under the curse—as only God can do—so that you may know I have authority to forgive sin as only God can do.” It seems like a case closed, to me. Nicodemus seemed to get it.
It’s a mercy that God has given us—his people—so many conclusive signs and evidences of his power and salvation. God is a God of evidences, confirmations, order, justice. He doesn’t leave us wondering. He doesn’t leave us without clear and external signs or evidences in order to support his word.
Only, the Pharisees and Sadducees made up their mind as soon as they realized that this Jesus of Nazareth challenged their authority—and mind you, with an unrivaled authority that could only come from God.
It’s what we do in our most natural and sinful condition, folks. We suppress the truth, even when God has confirmed the truth with unmistakable signs of his grace. Perhaps his Spirit is hounding you with unmistakable conviction, and you don’t want it. You suppress it and excuse it. It’s our natural instinct, and it leads to death. Thankfully, if we belong to him, the sovereign king will subdue and soften our stubborn hearts to himself.
By the way—the Pharisees didn’t only have Jesus’s signs and miracles to help them in their verdict. They had all the signs and miracles which the risen Lord publicly performed through his Spirit in the church’s early ministry. Paul and Peter’s ministries didn’t simply continue to preach Jesus’s kingdom as Jesus preached, but they continued to powerfully confirm Jesus’s kingdom through the same kinds of miracles Jesus himself performed!
Now, this all shows us the Jews’ verdict to the gospel. It’s a terrifying verdict, in part, because it reveals that even when the gospel is presented with unmistakable proofs, mankind in his sinful nature will declare it false. That’s how far gone we are, folks. That’s why that person you’re witnessing to will not listen, no matter what you say or do.
Where’s the hope? Are all those signs and proofs for nothing, except to further condemn us?
2. Paul’s Verdict of the Gospel
Think about Paul’s verdict of the gospel, in this passage.
You see his verdict of the gospel in the way that he responds to his accusers with patience, confidence, and wisdom. As soon as he was explicitly charged with treason against Caesar, that opened his opportunity to appeal to Caesar, and stay longer in the Roman judicial system which protected him from the Jews’ murderous plans.
But you need to see that his response to his accusers is wholeheartedly informed by his verdict of the gospel—to Jesus, his Lord. I love the way he appeals to Caesar, here. Festus asked him in verse 9 if he wished to go to Jerusalem and be tried before his accusers in Jersualem, under Festus’s protection. Paul’s response is beautiful. Verse 10—
“I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. 11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
Do you hear a man falsely accused, sitting on death row in this passage? Or, do you hear a gospel-saturated, free man in this passage? Paul responded this way because he responded to Jesus and the gospel with faith, not opposition. He received Jesus as his Lord, and he therein found the Lord’s freedom from death and sin. “If then I… have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death”. He says this not simply with confidence that he was innocent—but with confidence that if he did die, he’d be with Jesus! That’s what he says throughout all of his letters! Later on, when he’d write Philippians, he’d famously say
21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
Is that how you face death, or the fear of serious persecution? “It’d be better that I die, for I’ll be with Christ”. That’s nothing short of a radical statement of faith, right there. You don’t say that if you have questions or reservations about your verdict concerning Christ. You only say that if you have absolute confidence that Jesus is alive and offering forgiveness, and if God himself has confirmed with clear signs and evidences before you that you belong to him in both body and soul, in life and in death, prosperity and adversity, sickness and health. You belong to him—so you’re free to die unto him. You need assurance to really believe that, don’t you? God gives you, his people, a host of evidences and confirmations of his grace to that end.
Paul had assurance. He didn’t always—he used to be just like these Jews, you know: persecuting Christians, suppressing the signs and miracles and teachings of Christ. That all changed in a moment. What happened? Jesus showed up to him on a road—and Jesus’s Spirit constrained him and taught him and comforted him. That’s what Jesus does. He reveals himself to his people with his unmistakable revelation and Spirit of grace, so that his people have no choice but to repent and receive him. It’s time to stop suppressing the truth. Hear the word, believe the signs, receive the Spirit, and enjoy the life and peace that Jesus offers to his people.
It’s a radical transformation—Paul actually desired to die, to be with the Lord. Paul fueled his soul with every external and internal confirmation of the gospel, and he was free from all sin, guilt, and fear of death. Except, he had a mission. “to live in the flesh means fruitful labor”, Paul says in Philippians. Thus, he appeals to Caesar so that he might continue his gospel ministry, even from the confinement of his chains. It was fruitful labor, as we’ll continue to see in Acts.
So, we’ve considered the Jews’ verdict of the gospel, as it revealed the human condition to declare the gospel a lie, regardless of the proofs and confirmations God has set into place.
Then, we considered Paul’s verdict of the gospel, as the Lord himself personally revealed himself to Paul. That’s what we need to pray for, folks. May the Lord personally reveal himself to our lost loved ones, with unmistakable proofs and conviction through his Word and Spirit.
What about Festus and Agrippa? What was their verdict—and, what purpose did their verdict serve?
3. Festus’s and Agrippa’s Verdict to the Gospel
I don’t want to spend much time here—but simply to illustrate what I think is the main point in verses 13–26, there.
Festus and Agrippa were Roman officials—Festus, as we’ve seen, is the provincial governor. Agrippa is the regional king. The next line up, I believe, was Caesar—in this case, Nero. At this point in history, Nero hadn’t yet received his notorious reputation. In these earlier years, he was actually understood to be a fair and just Caesar.
That said, they were interested in the gospel as a political matter, given their political position. Yet as God would have, their verdict of the gospel—as they discerned it from Rome’s perspective—would mean something much bigger than they supposed.
The story goes that King Agrippa wanted to pay the new governor Festus a courtesy visit—and, a few days into that visit, Festus brought up the matter of Paul. What ensues are two speeches from Festus which both serve to inadvertently validate Paul and his gospel as innocent of all charges. The first speech is an insight into the initial conversation Festus had with Agrippa, where Paul was brought up in conversation. What Festus said in that conversation was enough to intrigue Agrippa, so that Agrippa asked to see Paul tomorrow (verse 22). In the second speech, Festus brought Paul forward in an incredibly formal hearing, and he introduced Paul with essentially what he said to Agrippa earlier. What did Festus say about Paul in these two little speeches?
In a word, he declared Paul’s innocence multiple times.
In verse 18, after explaining the situation about Paul’s 2 year imprisonment, Festus says “when the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed”.
In verse 20, he said “Being at loss how to investigate these questions, I asked” Paul where he wanted to be further tried (because, you know, he’s basically innocent) …
Then in his second speech at the formal hearing, Festus says in verse 25, despite the Jews’ passionate accuasations, “But I found that he had done nothing deserving of death.”
Verse 26, “But I have nothing definite to write” to the emperor—no definite charges (so Paul’s appeal to Caesar is a bit awkward, in that regard).
Finally in verse 27, “it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not to indicate the charges”.
Do you see the frustration Festus is faced with? Paul is clearly innocent—except, he’s appealed to Caesar, and the Jews would lose their minds if Festus let him go.
But, why all this repetition in Acts, here? In a backhanded way, in God’s providence, Festus is declaring to the world that (1) Christianity was founded upon innocent, honest, peaceful ministers like Paul, and (2) Jesus Christ is a reasonable fulfillment and expression of Judaism which even Rome recognized. It’s amazing how God used the Roman judicial system to confirm this. Again, God is a God of confirmations and order. In fact, we see in verse 19 that Festus saw the matter clearly for what it was. He saw straight through Jews’ charges concerning Paul’s treason, and he recognized the real heart of the debate. Verse 19—"they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. 19Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.”
It’s amazing how clear and simple it is to get to the heart of the gospel, isn’t it? Is Jesus alive, or isn’t he? That’s the debate. That’s the question that everything hinges on. The former governor Felix was troubled by the question (as we saw last week). Here—Festus sees it as an intriguing political case that is ultimately a Jewish question, not a Roman question. As such, he declares that the Christian faith is verifiably and most obviously Jewish in nature. Could it be the fulfillment of Judaism? Sadly, Festus didn’t seem to care.
Hard hearts come in many shapes and sizes, folks—but the one thing they all have in common is that they are hardened against the same thing: Jesus’s resurrection. They all make a verdict that boils down to, “even if he did rise from the dead, I don’t want him.” Some will say this with anger, others with division, others with indifference, or worldly intrigue (among a host of other reactions). Yet, we can trust that like Paul, those who actually encounter the resurrected Jesus—through his Spirit and word—will be free, forgiven of all sin, and hopeful in all things.
So this morning, we’ve considered three verdicts to the gospel, to teach us three different lessons:
The Jews declared Paul and the gospel “guilty of capital crime”—revealing how mankind will always discern the gospel despite what proofs God provides, save his grace.
Paul declared the gospel true, by faith—only because Jesus personally appeared before him to free him from his sin, fear of death, and the curse. The internal evidence and confirmation of the Spirit is the supreme means of grace, folks, that we might be filled with clarity and assurance.
Festus and Agrippa were intrigued by the gospel as a matter of the Jewish faith—and in so doing, they declared Jesus and the gospel as a valid expression of Judaism within the Roman court of law. This, in some ways, is yet another evidence to the validity of the Christian faith—that it is obviously a Jewish matter, rooted in the Jewish faith.
God takes pains to confirm his gospel to his people for our assurance. May he do so powerfully in our hearts through his Spirit so that we might be firm and unwavering in our assurance and commitment to Christ. If he doesn’t, our natural condition is to suppress the truth, and harden our hearts to what is, by faith, most clear and gloriously freeing.