Paul had traveled to Jerusalem after a tearful good-bye with the believers in Ephesus. Once in Jerusalem he headed to the Temple to perform a ritual purification (Acts 20:13-21:36). But when recognized by a contingency of Jews from the diaspora a riot breaks out and Paul is brought into the Roman fortress next to the Temple for protection. When it looks like he is going to be tortured as a means of interrogation, Paul reveals that he is a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29) which is a game-changing detail. Paul is eventually shipped to Caesarea (Maritima) in order to be examined by Felix who lets him languish in prison for two years. This is no surprise as the Roman historian Tacitus described Felix as "a man who exercised the prerogatives of a king with the spirit of a slave." Excessive rioting, incompetence and corruption caused his recall in AD 59. He was succeeded by Festus who ships Paul back to Jerusalem for a new trial (Acts 23:12-25:12) but Paul decides to claim a right that all Roman citizens could appeal for- that he be tried in Rome. The star-studded show is about to begin with King Agrippa at the center.
Let's look at the cast of characters who come along with Agrippa to hear the tent-maker from Tarsus. Festus appears to be the most noble of them. He became governor in AD 59 and was perceived to be a prudent and honest ruler. Unfortunately (or oddly to his advantage) he died after 2 years in office with his character and reputation intact. When his path crossed with Paul he did as Roman law required. Paul appealed to Caesar, so off to Rome he would go (Acts 25:12). But since King Agrippa has stopped by Caesarea Maritima while on vacation, why not run the case by him (vv. 13-14)? His full name was Marcus Julius Agrippa II and he was the great grandson of Herod the Great. Throughout his political career he remained steadfastly in Rome's good graces. All seems to be going well until Paul introduces the atoning death of Christ whereupon Festus blurts out that Paul must be mad. Paul denies the accusation and turns the table over to Agrippa, who according to Jewish tradition, had a mother who was deeply interested in the Jewish faith. Did he not believe the prophets as his mother had? It was an extremely uncomfortable moment for the king but he sheepishly deflects by asking a sarcastic question, "Do you really think you can convert me in one speech Paul?" Paul deftly diffuses the tension by saying, "I do hope you will one day be like me, but without these chains." Agrippa did have the ability to free Paul and remarked to Festus that had Paul not appealed to Caesar he may have done just that. For Agrippa it was more important to garner favor from Rome and Festus so he avoided making any kind of decision that might bring controversy.
However, the drama of his personal life provided enough controversy anyway. Bernice who is mentioned in Acts 25:13 and 23 was his sister. She had been married to her uncle Herod of Chalsis but when he died she went to live with Agrippa. Historians Josephus and Juvenal both made note of persistent rumors that the two had an incestuous relationship. In order to put these to rest Bernice was briefly married to King Polemo of Cilicia but she eventually returned to live with her brother. After the Roman war she became the mistress of Titus but public opinion forced them to break off the relationship, not once, but twice. She eventually returned and remained with Agrippa. Bernice appears to be a pawn in many ways but she didn't mind taking advantage of the opulent lifestyle provided by each of her partners. All in all she was like many of the rich and famous of today who search for satisfaction in worldly things only to find there is nothing of substance behind the glitter and glam.
And so were Festus and Agrippa. Whether altruistic or concerned about public opinion those on the red carpet, good or bad, still fall short of God's righteousness and need a Savior just as much as the rest of us. We may not stand before kings and governors as Paul did but we do stand before people who are in need of the Gospel message just as much as they are. Are we prepared as Paul was to give a testimony of how we came to believe what we believe? The outcome is not up to us, but taking the opportunity to do so is (Acts 26:1).
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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