Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
A Glance at the Big Picture, then Onto Secondary Matters
This morning, we’re going to do something that I don’t typically do in a sermon. More or less, we’re going to ignore the main, big-picture application of this passage in order to consider a secondary theme and application that runs through this passage. I’m doing this because the main point of this passage, in many ways, is the same main point of many passages here, at the end of Acts. As we get closer to the end of Acts, we’re going to keep seeing passages about Paul on trial—and, these passages are largely designed to give us assurance us that the Christian church (1) was founded by innocent ministers like Paul, and (2) the Christian church’s faith in Jesus was recognized as a valid Jewish faith by the Roman authorities.
That’s what this last section in Acts is seeking to show us—and, just so we don’t completely ignore the greater point this morning, take a moment to think about how awesome that is. God literally used the Roman court system to prove in the court of law that (1) Paul wasn’t a hoax, and that (2) Jesus is a reasonable, recognizable fulfillment of the Jewish faith. Festus, near the end of the passage we read, didn’t immediately believe the Jews’ charges which we read (and we’ll consider in a moment). In fact, most pastors and commentators say Festus didn’t believe them. That’s why he kept Paul in prison for two years—he didn’t want to send Paul to his death, but he also didn’t want the Jews to lose their minds when he released Paul. If you look at the last verse we read (verse 27), we learn that “desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison”. So, Felix desired to do the Jews a favor—and, at the very least, that favor was to keep them from rioting. Felix couldn’t let Paul die, for he was innocent. Felix couldn’t let Paul go, for the Jews would lose their minds. So, Felix did nothing. If only Paul were guilty, Felix’s job would have been much easier. Instead, Paul was stuck in prison for 2 years. Why? Because our faith, brothers and sisters, is a credible faith that was proclaimed by credible men like Paul. Even the Roman system, early on, acknowledged Jesus Christ as a credible fulfillment and expression of the Jewish faith.
That’s the greater, over-arching, main point of this passage, for our reassurance. It’s also the main point of many passages at the end of Acts, here—and, I don’t want to preach the same sermon 3 or 4 times as we continue to see Paul’s trials illustrate this very point.
Onto the Secondary Matter: The Conscience
So, having explained that—we’re going to look at this passage through a different lens—with an eye toward a theme that I see weaving its way throughout this passage. You see it peak its head in verse 16, when Paul appeals to his conscience, “16 So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” That was, in some ways, Paul’s highest appeal in his defense. “My conscience is clean. Search me all you want, I’m innocent before God and man”. Paul made the same appeal to his conscience in chapter 23 verse 1. So, this keeps coming up. In fact, he uses his conscience as a testimony to his love and charity toward the Corinthians. First Corinthians 1:12,
For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity…
So, Paul seems to place a great value on his conscience—and, as we’ll see, this passage is seeping with lessons on the conscience for us, this morning.
But before we press into learning about the conscience from this story, let’s just define what the conscience is, real quick. What are we talking about?
What is the Conscience?
Your conscience is, in part (as one man put it) your consciousness of what’s right and wrong. That’s part of your conscience. It’s your internal consciousness—or awareness—of what you perceive to be morally right and wrong. This is a very subjective, internal matter—and, that’s why different people have their consciences pricked by different things. If you perceive something to be wrong (even if it’s not), then your conscience will trouble or warn you of the matter.
Although, it’s not just your general, moral awareness. It’s not merely some part of your mind that decides what’s right or wrong—as though you read a book and say with your mind “this book is a bad book, full of lies”. Your mind can do that, but your conscience takes it a step further.
Let’s say the author of that same book asks you, “how did you like my book?”. What happens then? I imagine your conscience will be put on high alert. The temptation to lie (and save yourself from an awkward conversation) might be strong, there. Then, let’s say you do lie. You say “it was good” (phew, I don’t have to tell someone their book was awful). You’re free, right?
Not so fast. Your conscience, deep down in your soul, speaks up—and it speaks to you. It pricks you with unrelenting misery. It’s a really strange thing, the conscience is. It almost works independently of your soul, doesn’t it? I think that’s where the old “shoulder angel” imagery comes from. It’s like an independent judge within you that is keenly measuring you up to your own standards. If you’re in the wrong, your conscience will plague you, almost as if it operates independently of your will. That’s why we often talk about willfully fighting, or suppressing our conscience. It almost functions independently of our wills—yet, it’s part of our will. It’s the gift of self-judgment that God gave us, as he made us moral creatures in his image. Some have called it our sixth sense, akin to touching something with your finger. If you touch something hot with your finger, your finger senses the danger and sends an involuntary reaction to protect you. The same is true with the conscience. If you dabble in something you consciously understand as evil—your conscience will send in involuntary reaction against it to your soul. Instead of feeling a burning sensation on your finger, your soul burns with guilt, self-pity, and even paranoia (“is someone going to discover me?”). That’s your conscience speaking—and, it makes you aggravated. People with a guilty conscience often become short, easily distressed, paranoid, untrusting, cagey. These are all things to avoid.
Yet, senses also signal pleasure, don’t they? If you touch something like a hot cup of coffee in a cold morning, you get pleasure. So also with the conscience. Your conscience has the power to praise you and free you. Imagine the freedom and happiness of a clear conscience—free from guilt and paranoia, no matter what situation you’re in. “My conscience bears me witness before God and men that I’m innocent.” That’s what Paul said. That was the most fundamental, freeing experience he had running through his veins as he was on trial through this long imprisonment.
Are We Conscious of Our Conscience?
So here’s the question. Is that you? Are you conscious of your conscience, this morning? Is your conscience a tool deep in your soul that is freeing to you, and helpful to you in your Christian walk, as it was for Paul? Or perhaps you’re here this morning with a plagued conscience—you have a few things in your past or present that are troubling you, and you’re not sure how to rectify the situation. You’re not sure how to free yourself from the troubled conscience—you’re agitated by it, and stuck.
Three Examples of the Conscience
I bring up this matter of conscience this morning because I don’t merely see Paul’s conscience shining through in this passage. As we’ll see, this passage offers two other examples for us on the matter of conscience. The Jews accusing Paul didn’t have a conscience. They were not conscious of their conscience—their conscience was “seared”, to use a Biblical term. Yet ironically, the governor Felix was conscious of his conscience, and his conscience deeply troubled him when he spoke to Paul. His conscience “alarmed” him when he was listening to Paul in verse 25. So, being troubled, he kept Paul at a distance. It’s fascinating how this all unfolds. Paul was the only one on trial, here—and yet, he was the only one who appeared free. He was the most collected. He was the only one not troubled with rage (the Jews) or fear (Felix). Why is that? It’s the power of the conscience—and, I trust all of us this morning desire that freedom which Paul had with a most happy and free conscience.
What we’re going to do this morning is look at those three examples of the conscience, and learn from them, as they ultimately drive us to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Case of the Jews: A Seared Conscience
So first, the let’s consider Jews’ conscience in this story. If you look at the first two verses of our passage, there in Acts 24, you’ll see that “the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus. They laid before the governor their case against Paul.” So, this is a formal hearing at the governor’s courthouse, if you will. Essentially what we have seen is the local Roman government in Judea couldn’t handle the conflict between Paul and the Jews, so it was brought up to the regional governor who was Felix in Caesarea. You might say this is would be like our Mayor in Amsterdam saying “I can’t solve this, let’s go to governor Hochul in Albany”.
So, the leaders of the Jews made their way to the capital—to Caesarea—to make their case against Paul. They specifically elected a man named Tertullus. Tertullus was a well-known, accomplished attorney. He knew the law, and he knew how to turn any case to his favor. Verse 2—
Since through you we enjoy much peace, and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation, 3 in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude…
Isn’t that beautiful—a Jewish man, enlisted by the highest ranks of the Jewish temple, saying to a Roman official “through you we enjoy much peace… and by your foresight, most excellent Felix…”? What do you call this? It’s flattery. It’s over-the-top, obnoxious, manipulative flattery. Tertullus basically said “through your reforms, you have brought the pax romana to Jerusalem, and we accept it with all gratitude”. It’s a massive lie. The Jews despised their Roman occupation and dreamed of a day when they’d be freed from it. Tax collectors were shamed and rejected in Israel because they received Roman money and accommodation—and yet here, Tertullus is saying “in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude”. Can you imagine any godly saint from the Old Testament speaking this way of another nations’ king who held Israel captive?
If you read the historical accounts of Felix’s governance, by the way, you’ll see just how double-tongued Tertullus was in this statement. The historical accounts talk of Felix as a most cruel governor whose actions fueled the fire for the sort of Jewish instability and rebellion that led to the fall of Jerusalem only a few decades later. R. C. Sproul points out that it was Nero, of all people, who pulled Felix out of the governor’s seat—and, the reason was because he was both too ineffective, and too brutal.
Yet, Tertullus could say this without skipping a heartbeat. He could say it before God; before his most esteemed Jewish high priest and religious peers, and before the governor himself. Does he have a conscience before God, at all? Keep reading.
4 But, to detain you no further, I beg you in your kindness to hear us briefly. 5 For we have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him.
So, after praising and acknowledging Felix for his reforms which brought the pax romana to Jerusalem, Tertullus essentially tries to stir the pot by saying “and this Paul is ruining your peace and order”. He charged Paul with three charges—(1) stirring up riots among the Jews, (2) leading a “sect of the Nazarenes, and (3) profaning the temple. Those are all charges that would tickle a Roman leaders’ ears. Rome’s biggest concern was keeping the riots and disorder at bay. It was a big deal to disturb the pax romana. So, the first charge appealed to Paul as a man of political discord. As for the detail about Paul leading a “sect of the Nazarenes”—that was a charge of treason, provided the sect sought to overthrow Caesar. Only a few years earlier, Felix himself disbanded an anarchist sect of Jews led by an Egyptian (cf. 21:38). Then as for the third charge (regarding Paul allegedly profaning the temple)—Rome held a special accommodation for Jews and their temple, allowing for the death penalty if the temple were profaned.
So—those were the charges. They were worthy of death, and absolutely none of them could be proven. Yet, Tertullus told the matter in a way that all the Jews listening in could say “yes! we saw this happen!”. Verse 6 is most obvious. Tertullus says “he even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him.” Is that what happened when the Jews seized him? Was Paul walking into the temple with a gentile, with clear intent to profane the temple? That’s not at all what happened. Paul was walking about the temple cleansing himself in honor of the temple, when he was spotted. Yet this story sounds better, and jogs close enough to the charges they had been saying—"he profanes the temple”—and now“we caught him in the act! We saw it!”. Nope. It’s all a lie.
Then Tertullus says in verse 8, “By examining him yourself, you will be able to find out from him about everything which we accuse him”. I almost wonder if this was Tertullus inviting Festus into their game. Tertullus didn’t say, “now, let Paul defend himself”. Tertullus was saying, “Now, you question him like a good prosecuting attorney, and you’ll hear what you need to hear. Catch him in his words and you can trust we’ll stop being a thorn in your side”. It’s at this juncture when we’re told in verse 9, “The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming that all these things were so.” This was putting the pressure on, so to speak.
They’re like hissing vipers, aren’t they? What leads a group to such a fearless disregard for truth? This is the sort of person who you might say, “do you have a soul at all? Is there no moral compass, or fear of God in you?”. We might even say—“have you no conscience?”
The Condition of Humanity?
The Bible describes this condition in so many ways, and applies it to all humanity. Psalm 36:1 comes to mind—
Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart;
there is no fear of God before his eyes.
That’s a terrifying verse, right there. The Psalmist (David) says that there is a condition of the human heart wherein, deep down in your soul where the conscience is—there’s no speech but transgression, sin, lies. That’s deep in the heart. What’s the cause of such a condition? “There is no fear of God before his eyes”. The conscience can’t prick you if you have no fear. Your heartless—callous! The Psalmist continues—
2 For he flatters himself in his own eyes, that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
3 The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit; he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
4 He plots trouble while on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good;
he does not reject evil.
Sound familiar? It certainly sounds like these Jews plotting deceit against Paul. It’s certainly an ugly picture—especially coming out of the leaders of Israel. Yet, this is the same Israel who plotted our Lord’s death.
It’s an ugly condition. Elsewhere it’s called a hard heart. Blind eyes. Spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1). It’s not just these Jews in this story who are plagued with this—and, it’s not just those dirty and lying politicians today. It’s all humanity, folks. This is the human condition, apart from God’s grace. If God does not intervene with his grace, there is no fear of God (or much less evil) before our eyes. Paul quotes this in Romans 3 in order to describe man’s natural condition under sin’s dominion.
As for this story, there literally was no fear of God or fear of evil in these Jewish men. They praised and gave thanks to a wicked Roman governor who suppressed them, in order to get what they wanted! This is Israel, we’re talking about—a nation uniquely called to give thanks and praise to God alone!
Yet beyond this, these men willfully lied in order to get a man killed—and, the lies were so obvious that even these Roman officials saw right through them. What a shame to a people who bore the name of Yahweh on their shoulders.
As we navigate the waters of the conscience, this morning, these men are examples of what Paul calls a seared conscience (in 1 Timothy 4:2). They didn’t have conviction, or righteousness, speaking to their hearts. They had no fear of evil—no paranoid conscience. In Old Testament terms, again, “transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart”—that is, sin speaks to the wicked heart, not righteousness. Not conviction or fear or paranoia. That little voice deep in your soul speaks sin, because there is no fear of God before your eyes. If that’s your situation—tit’s a terrifying place to be, and it only leads to destruction and God’s wrath. A tall-tale sign of a seared conscience is the ability to lie and not be bothered by it at all. That’s the example Paul gives of a seared conscience in 1 Timothy 4:2, and it’s what we see in our passage today.
Now, before I paint an utterly depraved picture of humanity, it’s worth positing a quick caveat at this point. God has instilled within us—even in our sinful condition (before trusting in Jesus)—a general conscience that pricks us when we sin. We call it a part of God’s common grace wherein he uses various means, like the conscience, to restrain evil on his world. Thankfully not everyone has a seemingly seared conscience, as these Jewish accusers had. Most people pause with a certain fear, and say “I can’t do that in good conscience”—even people who do not fear God and his Christ.
Paul talks of this in Romans 2:15, where he says that God has written his law upon the hearts of all mankind. This is why some men who do not fear God still fear God’s law. They still pause, even before an innocent fib. God gave them a conscience, and they haven’t seared it. They haven’t ignored it. That’s a mercy—and, we’ll talk about this more when we consider the governor Felix’s conscience. It actually has deep implications for our Christian witness.
So, we’ve seen the lying, seared conscience of Paul’s Jewish accusers. It filled them with rage, deceit, and ungodly passion for death. What’s Paul up to through all this?
The Case of Paul: A Happy Conscience
Paul has his mind on the gospel—the same gospel that is driving these Jews to rage. I love it. He’s ruthless with the gospel, and he’s ruthless with the gospel because he’s free in the gospel. I love verse 10—
Paul replied, “Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense.
Paul doesn’t flatter Felix. No need for that—his hope doesn’t rest in Felix. In fact—as the man on trial for capital punishment, he says “I cheerfully make my defense”. It’s possible that there was a taste of subtle flattery or respect in this statement (the kind you always give to a king). Paul may have been saying “I cheerfully present my case to you (knowing you’ll judge rightly in my favor)”—although, I fully trust Paul’s heart was genuine. Paul has nothing to hide. In verses 11–13, he very simply walks through his ongoing in Jerusalem as being quiet and respectful. He’s not stirring up riots.
Then in verses 14–15, he clarifies their charge that he’s the leader of a dangerous sect. Verse 14—
But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.
So there, Paul is giving some credence to their charge that he’s part of a Jewish sect—although, it’s a sect that fully coheres with the Jewish faith. It’s a sect that Rome ought to recognize because it is faithful Judaism that believes in a hope, a resurrection, and a judgment against sin. This is when Paul brings up his conscience (verse 16)
"So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”
Paul is a consistent man, who has never wavered in his belief and commitment to God.
It’s at this point, then, that Paul finishes his defense by clarifying how the Jews actually found him. He wasn’t trying to defile the temple when they found him. He was purified, peacefully minding his own business when they found him. The only thing he ever did to stir up the Jews was to remind them that his trial stands or falls on whether the dead are raised—and more specifically, whether Jesus was raised. Remember that statement? “It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial today”. That divisive statement, he’ll fess up to, as we see in verse 21.
There’s absolutely no deviation from the truth, here. There isn’t even concealing what might appear to be condemning details. He fesses up to he fact that he is, indeed, a leader of “what they call a sect”—only, he sets straight their lie. He fesses up that he was in the temple—only, he sets straight their lie. He even fesses up one small detail that could be used against him—“you know, I did make that one divisive statement about the resurrection which caused the Jews to get in a tizzy”. Why would he expose that statement? He has nothing to hide.
Three Lessons on a Clear Conscience
There are three lessons about a clear conscience that we can learn from Paul, here.
First, a clear conscience is hard work. This is simple, ethical wisdom, folks. It’s hard work to keep a clear conscience. It’s hard work to always tell the truth. In our home, we have a saying which we say in a call-and-response fashion: “Tell the truth… even when it hurts”. Paul said he “always takes pains” to have a clear conscience. When the conscience is pricked, let a fear of God drive you to remedy the wrong—to apologize, to pay back what you owe, or any such thing. Usually, your conscience will tell you exactly what you need to do. A clear conscience is hard work.
Second lesson: A clear conscience is freeing. It’s worth the hard work. And, I’ll say at this point—it begins with a proper fear of God. A reverence of his goodness, and a terror of his wrath. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”, so the Proverb goes. I can say from personal experience, my conscience has driven me to do some of the craziest things—not out of some obscure moral obligation, but out of a fear of God. “If I don’t do this—even to my own immediate harm—God will smite me. I’ll ruin my conscience, and be driven to despair.” Have you ever felt that sort of fear? In the moment, it doesn’t feel freeing at all. It’s constraining you to obedience—and, might I say, to the gospel. A properly trained conscience will say “there’s only two choices here: God’s wrath, or God’s grace that’s immediately available through Jesus Christ”. Jesus is always worth it, folks.
Then, the third lesson: A clear conscience is available. It’s hard work, and it’s freeing. Those are both true. Yet at the most fundamental level of the Christian’s faith—a clear conscience is always available. Perhaps you’re the sort of person that’s plagued with an overly sensitive conscience. You’re constantly questioning yourself, and overthinking things. The little voice inside you is constantly saying “guilty, guilty, unacceptable”. No amount of conscience-keeping work will free you. Some people struggle with that—sometimes it’s a perennial thing that comes and goes. This is where the gospel comes in.
The author of Hebrews has a lot to say about this. For example, we learn in Hebrews 9:14 that “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, [purifies] our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Then again, in Hebrews 10:22, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evilconscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
Do you hear the invitation that the Lord is speaking, in those verses? Jesus is literally commanding us to draw near to him with consciences that are cleansed not by our good works, but by his blood. When you’re conscience says “guilty! fear God and don’t approach him! You’re not worthy of him!”, Hebrews is telling us to subdue that conscience to Jesus and the gospel, that it might say “Sinner? Yes, but cleansed and accepted by the blood of Jesus. Approach the Lord through faith and repentance.”
Paul’s conscience was all of that. He worked hard to keep it clear before God and man, and that was freeing to him. He was the most calm and confident person in that courtroom, even though he was the one on trial. Yet, he also knew that deep down, his conscience wasn’t simply saying “you got this Paul, you’ve done nothing wrong.” His conscience was saying, “by faith, through Jesus, you’re accepted even by God. If they declare you guilty and worthy of death, so be it. To live is Christ and to die is gain”. That’s the power of a happy, cleansed conscience. It’s the power of the gospel.
So, we’ve seen the Jews’ seared conscience, and we’ve seen Paul’s clear conscience. What about the governor Felix?
The Case of Felix: A Suppressed Conscience
Felix is a most interesting case. As I mentioned before, the fact that he didn’t declare Paul guilty when the Jews were pressuring him leads most to believe that Felix favored Paul, but feared what the Jews would do if he let Paul go. So, Felix kept Paul in custody, and struck up some conversations with Paul. Verse 24—
24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus.
Stop there, and think about that for a moment. Felix sent for Paul—and, the only reason was to hear Paul tell the gospel. You have to think Felix was intrigued. We learn in that verse that he married a woman named Drusilla, “who was Jewish” (verse 24). Most say Felix had religious—even Jewish—leanings or curiosities. He had a religious curiosity and appreciation for the Jewish faith. This is probably why he wanted to hear from Paul. As Paul spoke about “faith in Christ Jesus” we’re told specifically in verse 25—
25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”
What do you call that? That’s a paranoid, pricked conscience. This is what I was talking about earlier—many may not adequately fear God, but they fear his law. They fear a god, somewhere out there, and what god might do to them if they disobey that law they have planted in their hearts. Only, they refuse to obey.
This is what we must appeal to when we are witnessing to our neighbors and friends and family. Unless someone is so far gone that they have seared their conscience, then you can likely find a way to prick the conscience that God has given every soul on this planet. It was Paul reasoning about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” that got Felix uneasy. Paul struck a nerve somewhere in that talk. He made contact, and Felix was in the prime position to receive the gospel by faith and enjoy the blessings of a conscience cleansed by Jesus. Instead, Felix walked. “Go away”, he said. That’s the classic line of a disobedient, pricked conscience. “Go away, stop talking”—we say it to our conscience, to the Holy Spirit, or even to a brother speaking truth. It’s frightening words. Yet, Paul had done his work, the rest was up to God.
So there it is. We have seen the Jews’ seared conscience, Paul’s clear and cleansed conscience, and Felix’s troubled conscience. Through these three examples, I do pray you might understand the power of a happy conscience—a conscience cleansed by Jesus and tended to with a healthy fear of God. It’s a safeguard from all kinds of wickedness, as it powerfully drives you to Christ for forgiveness, cleansing, and repentance. Let’s pray.
 I believe Andy Naselli said this. I’ve heard Andy Naselli speak on the conscience a lot, although I couldn’t find exactly where he said this.