Paul's first trial

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Apostle Paul was kept in detention among the Roman soldiers in Caesarea until the time should come for his first trial before the unscrupulous governor Felix. His accusers were not long in arriving.

Roman law required that causes should be heard speedily and the Apostle's enemies at Jerusalem were not wanting in zeal to attend his trial. Thus, "after five days" (Acts 24:1) the high priest Ananias and certain members of the Sanhedrin appeared. They came for Paul's trial with one of those advocates who practiced in the law courts of the provinces, where the forms of Roman law were imperfectly known, and the Latin language imperfectly understood.

The man whose professional services were engaged on this occasion to accuse Paul was named Tertullus (Acts 24:2). The name is Roman, and there is little doubt that he was an Italian, and spoke on this occasion in Latin. The criminal information was formally laid before the governor. The prisoner was summoned, and Tertullus brought forward the charges against him in a set speech (see Acts 24:2 - 8).

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Tertullus began the trial by loading Felix with unmerited praises, and then proceeded to allege three distinct heads of accusation against Apostle Paul.


Apostle Paul in Prison
Apostle Paul in Prison
Rembrandt, 1627

The first charge leveled against Paul during his first Roman trial was causing factious disturbances among all the Jews throughout the Empire (which was an offence against the Roman Government, and amounted to Majestas or treason against the Emperor).

The second accusation against Paul was being a ringleader of "the sect of the Nazarenes" (which involved heresy against the law of Moses). The third and final charge was an attempt to profane the Temple at Jerusalem (an offence not only against the Jewish, but also against the Roman Law, which protected the Jews in the exercise of their worship).

Tertullus concluded he charges against the Apostle Paul by asserting (with serious deviations from the truth) that Lysias, the commandant of the garrison, had forcibly taken the prisoner away. This was done, he argued, when the Jews were about to judge him by their own ecclesiastical law and had thus improperly brought the matter before Felix.

The drift of this representation was evidently to persuade Felix to give up Apostle Paul to the Jewish courts, in which case his assassination would have been easily accomplished. And the Jews who were present gave a vehement assent to the statements of Tertullus, making no secret of their animosity against Apostle Paul, and asserting that these things were indeed so.

Paul's defense

The governor now made a gesture to the prisoner to signify that he might make his defense. The Jews were silent. The Apostle Paul, after briefly expressing his satisfaction that he had to plead his cause before one so well acquainted with Jewish customs, refuted Tertullus step by step.

Paul stated that on his recent visit to Jerusalem at the festival (and he added that it was only "twelve days" since he had left Caesarea for that purpose), he had caused no disturbance in any part of Jerusalem (Acts 24:11 - 12). In regard to the charge of heresy, Paul stated he had never swerved from his belief in the Law and the Prophets, and that, in conformity with that belief, he held the doctrine of a resurrection, and sought to live conscientiously before the God of his fathers (verses 14 - 16).

In regard to the charge that he profaned the Temple, Paul stated he had been found in it deliberately observing the very strictest ceremonies. The Jews of Asia, he added, who had been his first accusers, ought to have been present as witnesses now (Acts 24:17 - 20). Those who were present knew full well that no other charge was brought home to him before the Sanhedrin, except what related to the belief that he held in common with the Pharisees.

There was all the appearance of truthfulness in Apostle Paul's words. They harmonized entirely with the statement contained in the despatch of Claudius Lysias. Moreover, Felix had resided so long in Caesarea, where the Christian religion had been known for many years (Acts 13:40) and had penetrated even among the troops, that "he had a more accurate knowledge of their religion" (Acts 24:22) than to be easily deceived by the misrepresentations of the Jews. Thus a strong impression was made on the mind of this wicked man.

The response of Felix

Felix, however, was one of those characters which are easily affected by feelings, but always drawn away from right action by the overpowering motive of self-interest. He could not make up his mind to acquit Apostle Paul. He deferred all inquiry into the case for the present. "When Lysias comes down," he said, "I will decide finally between you" (Acts 24:22).

Meanwhile, while waiting for Lysias, Felix placed the Apostle under the charge of the centurion who had brought him to Caesarea, with directions that he should be treated with kindness and consideration. Close confinement was indeed necessary, both to keep him in safety from the Jews, and because he was not yet acquitted. Orders were given that he should have every relaxation which could be permitted in such a case, and that any of his friends should be allowed to visit him, and to minister to his comfort.

We read nothing, however, of Lysias coming to Caesarea or of any further trial proceedings. Some few days afterwards Felix came into the audience-chamber with his wife Drusilla, and prisoner Paul was summoned before them. Drusilla, "being a Jewess" (Acts 24:24), took a lively interest in what Felix told her of Paul, and was curious to hear something of this faith which had "Christ" for its object. Thus the apostle had an opportunity in his bonds of preaching the Gospel, and such an opportunity as he could hardly otherwise have obtained.

In speaking of Christ, Paul spoke of "righteousness and temperance, and judgment to come;" and while he was so discoursing the Bible states, "Felix trembled" (Acts 24:25). Yet still we hear of no decisive result. "Go thy way for this time: when I have a convenient season, I will send for thee," was the response of the conscience-stricken but impenitent sinner.

We are explicitly informed why this governor shut his ears to conviction, and even neglected his official duty, and kept his prisoner in cruel suspense. The Bible says, "He hoped that he might receive from Paul a bribe for his liberation" (Acts 24:26). He was not the only governor of Judea against whom a similar accusation was brought before him.

Felix knew full well how Christians aided one another in distress. He also may have had information about possible funds with which Apostle Paul had recently been entrusted. Because he was ignorant of those principles which make it impossible for a true Christian to tamper, by bribes, with the course of law, he likely thought he had stumbled onto an opportunity to enrich himself. His hopes, however, would ultimately be unfulfilled.

Paul, who was ever ready to claim the protection of the law, would not seek to evade it by dishonorable means. The Christians, who knew how to pray for an Apostle in bonds (Acts 12), would not forget the duty of "rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." Thus Paul, who would be denied a final trial and judgment by Felix, remained in the Praetorium for two years (Acts 24:27).

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