Friday of Week 7 of Easter – First Reading

Commentary on Acts 25:13-21

We are now moving rather quickly to the end of Acts.  We have to finish between today and tomorrow, which is the end of the Easter season.  Next week we will return to what is called “Ordinary Time”.

After Paul was rescued from the uproar in the Sanhedrin, a group of Jews were determined to assassinate Paul and were concocting a plot to bring it about.  However, Paul’s nephew got wind of it and passed the information to the Romans.  So Paul was taken away from Jerusalem and sent under heavy guard to Governor Felix in Caesarea to await formal charges from his Jewish accusers. 

Both the Jews and Paul presented their case to Felix in the most flattering terms.  Felix was rather sympathetic to Paul and was apparently aware of Christian beliefs.  He kept Paul in custody for a further two years because he liked discussing religion, until Paul began to tell him about moral behaviour and the judgement to come.  Feeling somewhat uneasy (about his own behavior!), he postponed further meetings indefinitely.  He also hoped for a bribe from Paul to expedite his release (apparently not expecting Paul to practise what he preached!).

The next governor, Festus, was more favourable to the Jews.  He again allowed them to come up to Caesarea to confront Paul in court.  Knowing what the Jews wanted, Festus asked Paul if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem to be tried.  Paul knew that was tantamount to a death sentence (indeed the Jews planned to murder him on the way), so he played his final trump card. As a Roman citizen, he appealed for a Roman trial. The governor now had no choice. He said:

I ordered him to be held until I could send him to the emperor.

We now enter today’s reading.  We see King Agrippa and his sister Bernice come to pay a courtesy visit to Festus in Caesarea.  It was customary for rulers to pay a complimentary visit to a new ruler at the time of his appointment.  It was to the advantage of each that they get along (we might compare the relationship of Herod Antipas with Pontius Pilate. See especially Luke 23:6-12).

Agrippa and Bernice were an interesting couple to say the least. Agrippa, Bernice and Drusilla were children of King Herod Agrippa I.  Herod Agrippa II was 17 years old at the death of his father in AD 44 (Acts 12:23).  Being too young to succeed his father, he was replaced by Roman procurators.  Eight years later, however, a gradual extension of territorial authority began.  Ultimately he ruled over territory north and northeast of the Sea of Galilee, over several Galilean cities and over some cities in Perea.  At the Jewish revolt, when Jerusalem fell, he was on the side of the Romans.  He died about AD 100 – the last of the Herods.

According to the New International Version Bible, Bernice:

“…when only 13, married her uncle, Herod of Chalcis, and had two sons.  When Herod died, she lived with her brother, Agrippa II.  To silence rumours that she was living in incest with her brother, she married Polemon, king of Cilicia, but left him soon to return to Agrippa.  She became the mistress of the emperor Vespasian’s son Titus but was later ignored by him.”

Titus, as emperor, was responsible for the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70.  The memory of that event is recorded on the sculptural reliefs of the Arch of Titus still standing in the Roman Forum.

The governor now took the opportunity for Paul to present his case to the king, who was a Jew.  The governor gives a slightly distorted account of the proceedings held in his presence with the Jews from Jerusalem.  In reply to the Jews’ demand to have Paul surrendered to them, Festus said that it was not in accordance with Roman law to hand someone over before he had a chance to speak in his own defence.

However, when the trial began in Festus’ presence, none of the charges he expected were brought forward.  Instead they were arguing about matters concerning their own religion and there was talk of a Jesus who had died but whom Paul was claiming to be alive.  Festus wanted the Jews to deal with this issue themselves but, because Paul had appealed to Rome, he had to be remanded in custody until he could be sent to Caesar.  The emperor in question was Nero who reigned (if that is the appropriate word) from AD 54-68.

While every stage in this story can be understood as taking place in response to the various actions of the participants, the incidents can also be seen as factors which were to bring Paul to the heart of the empire in Rome. Rome would in time become the centre of Christ’s Kingdom on earth. It is the fulfilment of the words of Jesus to the Apostles before his ascension:

…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Once again, we see the finger of God behind every action of every person in the story.  His finger is in our life stories too.  Can we see that?  And where will we find him in today’s experiences?

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