Let’s turn in our Bibles to Acts 24. The book of Acts is a book of history about the beginning and spread of Christianity in the middle of the 1st century. And so throughout the book you find numerous examples of conversion. But at the end of Acts 24 you find an example of non-conversion, a case of procrastination. For me it’s a powerful little story when you bring yourself into the scene and think of who these people were and what Paul talked to them about and their response to it.
Let’s first get a little context. In the first part of the chapter Paul is on trial in Caesarea before governor Felix. He’s there on the trumped up charges that you can see in v5-6. The prosecution against Paul said to governor Felix, “We have found this man a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. And he even tried to desecrate the temple; and then we arrested him.” Then at v10 governor Felix gives Paul a chance to defend himself. And Paul does a good job explaining that their accusations are unfounded and without proof and he explains what he was really doing at Jerusalem temple. And governor Felix seems to know that Paul has not done anything worthy of punishment. But the governor is in a bit of predicament. He knows he should release Paul, but he wants the Jews to like him. And so what he does is just puts off settling the case for later. He says you can see in v22, “When Lysias the commander [who was a key witness in ordeal] comes down, I will decide your case.” And so he just leaves Paul in custody.
Now, let’s read from v24 to the end of the chapter. “But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.” 26 At the same time too, he was hoping that money would be given him by Paul; therefore he also used to send for him quite often and converse with him. 27 But after two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, and wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned.”
Let me introduce you to these characters Felix and Drusilla. We know a bit about them from ancient secular writings.
Felix was actually born a slave in the household Antonia. Antonia was the mother of Claudius who became an emperor of Rome. Antonia became fond of Felix and his brother Pallas, and so when they got older she freed them. Well, Felix’s brother Pallas had become good friends with Claudius and so when Claudius became emperor he gave Pallas a position of power and authority in the Roman Empire. And then Pallas helped his brother Felix also rise in power in the empire. Felix became governor of Judea. His name, Felix, means happy. “Mr. Happy” we might call him, though he was not a particularly happy fella. The 1st century Roman historian Tacitus said of Felix that “with every kind of cruelty and lust, he exercised the authority of a king with the temper of a slave.” He is spoken of in history as a very selfish, cruel, corrupt, greedy fella. He would often take bribes. You can see an indication of that in v 26. He kept Paul in prison though he knew he was innocent to see if he could get some money out him. Either he didn’t know how poor Paul was, or maybe he thought Paul could acquire money if he wanted to from all of his Christian friends who loved him so much. He thought he might be able to get his hands on some of that if he kept Paul in prison. Some historians tell us that it was because of Felix and his ruthless rule that the Jews rebelled and that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
And sitting by his side was his match in self-centeredness and unbridled lust…
She was quite a bit younger than Felix. She was his third wife. He had seduced her from her first husband, who was a king of some other area, because of her beauty. The 1st century writer Josephus says that “she indeed exceeded all other women in beauty.” (Antiquities XX, vii, 2). He took her from her first husband when she was only 16 years old. At this time she was only about 19 or 20, but she was old in the ways of the world. She was a Jewess, as Luke calls her, and a member of the infamous Herod family. Her father, Herod Agrippa I, was the man who had the apostle James put to death with a sword and imprisoned the apostle Peter. Her great-uncle, Herod Antipas, is the one that had John the Baptist beheaded and mocked Jesus to His face. Her great-grandfather, known as Herod the Great, was the one who issued the decree that all the little boys 2 years and under in the Bethlehem area were to be killed hoping that would do away with Jesus. And historians say that she took after the character of her family. They say that she was as rotten inwardly as she was fair outwardly.
They send for Paul.
So you might wonder why would this ungodly couple send for the preacher, for Paul? You’d like to think that at least one of them was yearning for a relationship with God and searching for the truth about God. But it may have been more like they were discussing what they were going to do for the evening, and one of them said, “Well, since there’s not much going on, why don’t we bring Paul up? I hear he’s got some things to say. And you know he seems to have a dramatic impact everywhere he goes and speaks. We’ve got him down here in the basement. Why don’t we just let him up and let him do his thing? It could be interesting. It could be amusing.” So they send for Paul.
Petty soon they hear chains clanging through the hall ways as Paul is being escorted to them. He comes before them, and he’s not all that pleasant to look at. Short, stocky, bald-headed, bow-legged, uni-brow and a big nose, according to a description in a 2nd century writing (The Acts of Paul and Thecla). His clothes are old and dirty and ragged, and probably smells like the prison. He’s about 60 years old at the time, maybe late 50s, but he looks like 80. He looks pretty rough. He’d been beaten dozens of times. 5 times he’d received from the Jews 39 lashes. 3 times he’d been beaten with rods, once he was stoned. 3 times he was shipwrecked. He was well acquainted with hunger and thirst and cold and labor and sleep deprivation and just hardships of all sorts (II Cor 11:23-29). I imagine Paul respectfully bowed to the luxuriously dressed governor and the beautiful woman at his side.
And then I imagine they said something like, “Paul, tell us what you Christians believe.” Or, “Paul, explain to us these ideas with which you seem to stir up about every town you ever enter, and why do persist to preach this stuff. I mean look at what it’s done to you!”
And so it says at the end of v24, if you translate it literally, they heard him speak about…
“The in Christ Jesus faith”
It has the article in the original text, “the faith”. “The faith” is a phrase in the book of Acts that refers basically to just the gospel (Acts 6:7; 13:8; 14:22). It’s what Christians believe in.
From what I see about Paul’s preaching in the book Acts, I imagine that he may have started with the expectation of the Jews of this descendant of David who would become the king of all kings and who would be the Savior of His people, because of the prophecies of the ancient Scriptures. Drusilla was a Jewess. She’d be familiar with the prophecies and this hope of the Jews. Felix, being her husband and governor of Judea, would also be familiar with this Jewish hope. They referred to this coming one in Hebrew as, “the Messiah,” in Greek as, “the Christ”, and if they spoke English they would have called Him, “the Anointed,” and they referred to this coming one as “the Son of God”. Maybe Paul reminded them of some of the prophecies and why the Jews were expecting this Messiah.
Then maybe he moved to the testimony of the prophet John who came preaching a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins in wilderness of Judea. Some were wondering if He might be the Messiah, but he was telling people, “I am not Him.” Rather he said that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'” And he would say, “After me is coming one of whom I am unworthy to even untie the thong of His sandals.”
Then came Jesus, a descendant of David, anointed with the Holy Spirit, performing all kinds of wonders and signs and miracles, displaying power over every disease and every handicap that would be healed in a moment at His command, and over the wind and the sea that would obey Him, over the fish in the sea that would come and fill a fishing net at His call, and over food and drink that would change and multiply according to His will, and even over the demons who would leave people at His order, and even over death that would release whoever Jesus called to life.
And yet this Jesus was not what we were expecting of the Messiah. Jesus was from too insignificant of a family, too ordinary looking, too meek and gentle, too merciful and peaceful to be the great warlord kind of King we were expecting. And He taught loving your enemies and He wasn’t about to lead us in war against the Romans as we were expecting. And He didn’t teach like any of our Scribes or Rabbis. The chief priests and the scribes and leaders of the Jews decided He was a deceiver and that He had to go and delivered Him over to Pilate to be crucified. But we Jews had missed something in the Scriptures about the Messiah. We’d missed that the Messiah had to suffer and die to make atonement for our sins. We’d missed that it was of the Messiah that Isaiah wrote “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening of our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away… He was cut off out of the land of the living For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due.”
And not only that, but we’d also missed in the Scriptures that the Messiah would then be raised from the dead; that David wasn’t talking about himself in Psalm 16:10 when he said, “You will not abandon My soul to Hades; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay,” because the soul of David is still in Hades, and his flesh has undergone decay. David as a prophet looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ. The tomb of Jesus was empty early Sunday morning after His burial on Friday. And He appeared to a number of women and to 2 men on the road to Emmaus. And He appeared to Cephas [to Peter], then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James [his brother], then to all the apostles [again]; and last of all… He appeared to me also when I was a persecutor of Him and His people. That’s why I sacrifice my life to preach these things. It’s because I saw Him and this is the work He gave me to do.
And another thing we missed about the Messiah was that He would not rule the world from an earthly throne, but as David wrote, Psalm 110, “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’”
And the salvation He gives to all those who will have Him as their Lord is not salvation from the Romans and earthly temporary problems, but it is salvation from our sins and from Satan and from death and hell.
And Paul could have left it at that. It probably would have been in his earthly best interest to just leave it at that. These people have the authority to release him from prison. And yet Paul ventured into the subjects that were probably not going to gain him their favor, subjects that likely would anger them, but subjects that they needed to hear about if they were really going to become disciples of Jesus. He sort of went from preaching to meddling. v25 says that Paul talked to this couple about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.
To a couple whose names were synonymous with injustice and cruelty, Paul talked about righteousness, right living before God, obedience to the will of God in other words.
He talked to them about the same kind of stuff that Jesus talked about in the sermon on the mount. The sermon on the mount is about righteousness. You remember what Jesus said about it?… which I think would have been the same sort of truths Paul would have shared with Felix and Drusilla. Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now, the Lord will forgive all kinds and all amounts of sin when we come to Him in repentance and we appeal to Him for His salvation in baptism. But then He requires that our righteousness, our obedience to the will of God, surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus explained, “When there’s tension between you and a brother, the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees is you don’t kill him. You’ve got to surpass that. You must not be one to hold a grudge against your brother and certainly not one to heap insults on him like ‘You good-for-nothing’ or ‘You moron’. And if you’ve hurt your brother, if your brother has something against you, then you don’t bother to come worship God until you’ve first tried to make things right with that brother. When it comes to purity and fidelity, the Scribes and Pharisees say ‘Just don’t actually sleep with somebody else’s wife or husband.’ But I tell you that’s not going to cut it. You need to keep your hands and your eyes on your own spouse. The Scribes and Pharisees think they can just divorce their wives whenever they feel like it as long as they give her all the paper work she needs. But I say to you that unless she’s sexually unfaithful to you, you’re not permitted to send her away. When it comes to honesty, the Scribes and the Pharisees will at least keep their vows to the Lord. But you have to surpass that. Whenever you say ‘Yes’ it needs to be a yes. And whenever you say ‘No’ it needs to be a no. When people wrong you, the Scribes and Pharisees think they can return an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, you leave all vengeance up to God and you repay wrong done to you with kindness to them. When it comes to love for other others, the Scribes and Pharisees says ‘Love your neighbor and hate you enemy’. But that’s unlike your Father in heaven who causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain for the righteous and the unrighteous. You need to imitate the Father and love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And you know the Scribes and the Pharisees give and pray and fast when other people are watching them. But you be one who gives when only God is going to know about it, and who prays when only God is going to know you’re praying. And when you fast you keep it between you and God. And let’s talk about money. The Scribes and Pharisees think that you can serve God and wealth at the same time, that you can heap wealth and extravagance upon yourself and ignore people around you who are hungry and inadequately clothed and needing medical attention and at the same time be a servant of God. I tell you that you cannot do it. You don’t worry about what you’re going to eat and what you’re going to drink and what you’re going to wear for clothing and stockpile for yourself when there’s those who need what you have. You seek first His kingdom and His righteousness above all other concerns and God will take care of you, like He feeds the birds and clothes the lilies of the field. And when it comes to judging people, the Scribes and Pharisees think that they can criticize and condemn anyone who doesn’t agree and conform to all of their opinions, their interpretations, and their traditions. But I tell you, you really don’t want to be critical and condemning of people when don’t have a clear plain word from God that’s critical of what they’re doing, because God will judge you like you judge people. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return. It might sound difficult to live this way.” But Jesus said, “I promise you, you keeping asking for God’s help and He’ll give it to you, you keep on seeking His righteousness and His kingdom and He’ll help you find it, you keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you. God will help you, you can live this way. Now, let me sum up what I’m saying about how you treat other people. You simply treat other people the same way you want them to treat you. And don’t think that if you’re just like most people you’ll be alright. I tell you most people are traveling a big wide road that leads to destruction. It’s a narrow road that leads to life and few find it. And don’t think if you’re just following what your friendly educated harmless looking preacher says you’ll be fine. Unless he leads you to live the way I’m telling you that you need to live He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And don’t think that just because you call me “Lord, Lord” that you will enter the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ You must actually do the will of My Father who is in heaven. So you’ve got 2 options. You can take these words of Mine and really try to live by them, and if you do that it’s building the house of your life on a rock solid foundation and when the storm of judgment comes your life will stand the test. Or you can just let these words of Mine go right over your head and go on living how you want and that’s like building the house of your life on sand and when the storm of judgment comes your life will not stand the test, it will end up in destruction.”
Now, I don’t know if Paul shared with Felix and Drusilla Jesus’ sermon on the mount. But I think Paul did share with them those same sort of truths because he talked to them about righteousness, about obedience to the will of God.
And secondly in v25 it says that Paul talked to them about…
What a topic for a couple whose whole lives have been marked by unbridled lusts, self-control… which of course is a main ingredient in living righteously, because often our passions and our desires are in conflict with the will of the Lord. Self-control means saying “No” to self and “Yes” to the Lord, “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
Maybe Paul worded it like he did in II Corinthians 5:14. The love of Christ is what controls us, not self, because He died for us and He died for us that we might live for Him. Or maybe he used the language of I Corinthians 9:24ff and compared us with the athletes who compete in the games. They exercise self-control in many ways. They don’t eat whatever they feel like. They don’t skip their workout whenever they don’t feel like going. When they’re training and they’re muscles are burning and they’re tried and they don’t want to run another lap, they just do it anyway. And they do it for a perishable wreath and just some moments of glory. Like that, we exercise self-control when we’re angry, when we have impure sexual desires, when we’re around alcohol, in the use of our tongue, in the use of our money and our time, and not just because of what Lord has done for us, but also because of what He’s offering us in the future, an imperishable wreath and glory that will never end.
And though it would probably give him a better chance of getting out of prison, Paul wasn’t going to water down the truth or withhold truth from Felix and Drusilla that they needed to hear while he had opportunity to share it with them. And so thirdly in v25 it says he talked to them about…
The Judgment to Come
What a topic for two people who lived for the present moment, for the here and now, the judgment to come.
Or else they would probably look at Paul and think, “Yeah, we see where all this trusting Jesus and righteous, self-controlled living has gotten you, Paul. Look at you! You stand before us in chains and rags and covered in scars. But we have lived as we pleased, and we sit on thrones in royal robes!” And so Paul had to explain to them that God doesn’t settle all the accounts in this life.
Maybe he described the day for them as Jesus has told us it will be, that it will be like it was in the days of Noah. “You remember Drusilla the story of Noah from synagogue class as a kid? People were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, expecting life to go on like it always had, when it happened. Noah entered the ark and suddenly the flood gates of the sky were opened and the fountains of the great deep burst forth and they were all destroyed in the flood. Jesus said it will be a day like that. It will seem like just a normal day, people will have their plans for next day. But like a thief in the night, suddenly the Lord will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God. All the tribes of the earth will mourn as they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory and with thousands of the holy angels with Him. All who are in the tombs, the righteous and the wicked, the great and the small, will hear His voice and come forth. And the Lord will know everything about each one of us, like our lives are written in a book that He opens and reads entirely when He looks at us. The Lord will know those who came repentance and were faithful and those who were not through all the ages of time. He will separate us like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the wicked. He will say to the righteous, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ And He will say to the rest, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.'”
Felix became frightened.
Which is somewhat good in that it means Felix could see that what Paul was saying wasn’t unreasonable, it made sense, it was logical, had good evidence to support it, and that he knew that he was a sinful man. And so for a moment he was starting get a sense that He is accountable to God for how he lives and that unless he makes some serious changes in his life he’s in big trouble.
But there shouldn’t have been just fear in his heart. The gospel is good news. Yes, it has demands. Yes, it calls for repentance. But the gospel says God loves you and Christ died in your place, and God wants to fully pardon you and give you eternal life. If it doesn’t bring joy to your heart, if it’s not good news to you, if it just scares you, probably it’s because you’re unwilling to obey God at the moment.
So Felix doesn’t want to hear anymore, because it’s just making him uncomfortable, because he’s unwilling to submit his life to the Lord. And so he stops Paul and he says,
“Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.”
I can think of a number of people, half a dozen or so off the top of my head, that I’ve shared the gospel with that have given me the same sort of response. Not that they’ve stopped me and told me to go away, but they said something like, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. That makes sense. I understand. I see what I need to do. But I’m just not ready to do that at this time. I’ve got this and that going on. It’s not a good time for me. But someday… I will someday.” And yet not a one of them has called me up and said they were ready now to become a Christian, not one of them has found a convenient time to become a Christian. I don’t think it ever really becomes convenient.
Jesus warned about that very response to the gospel. Luke 12:42-48, He gave a parable to illustrate the foolishness of procrastination when it comes to doing the will of the Lord in our lives. He said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. [Think about if the Lord finds you just conducting yourself on His earth and handling His stuff the way that He commanded you to. He will give you all His possessions!] But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ [In other words, ‘I’ve got plenty of time. I’ll get ready later.’] and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers. And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” He’s saying you have no idea how much time you have. And if you have been taught His will, you’ll be held all the more accountable for obedience.
So when Paul still needed to be baptized, the disciple the Lord sent to him, Ananias, said to him, “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” (Acts 22:16).
When the readers of the Hebrew letter needed to repent again and get back to following the Lord like they had been formerly, the Hebrew writer quoted from Psalm 95, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…”
We’ve heard the word of God this morning. Today is the day to not harden our hearts. Today is the day to submit to the will of God in our lives whatever that is for us.
– James Williams