Second Reformed Church

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Providential Passing the Buck" Sermon: Acts 25:13-27

“Providential Passing the Buck”
[Acts 25:13-27]
May 22, 2011 Second Reformed Church

Last week, we saw Paul appear before governor Festus – the new governor of Caesarea. Festus didn’t understand the Jewish religion, but he wanted the Jews to be supportive of his governorship. Yet, he didn’t want to become their puppet. So, when they asked for Paul to be put to death, he called a trial and heard the evidence against Paul – of which there was none. In an attempt to get himself out of this predicament, Festus asked Paul if he wouldn’t like to go back to Jerusalem and be tried by his own people. Paul claimed his rights as a Roman citizen and said if Festus refused to rule on his case, then he appealed to be heard by Caesar, himself. Festus’ gubernatorial council agree this was a good solution. So Paul was sent back to prison to await transfer to Rome to present his case to Nero.

In the meantime, King Agrippa of Chalcis (in Syria) and Queen Bernice, who were both Jews, arrived at Caesarea. Now, King Agrippa was the brother of Drusilla, the wife of Felix, the former governor. Bernice and Drusilla were also sisters. So, yes, Agrippa was married to his elder sister, Bernice.

Bernice achieved quite a notorious reputation for herself throughout her life: as a teenager, she married her uncle, and after his death, she wooed King Polemon of Cilicia, but he abandoned her, so she married her younger brother, Agrippa. After Agrippa’s death, she married Emperor Vespasian, and then his son, Emperor Titus.

Agrippa was the son of Herod Agrippa, whom we met in Acts 12 – the King who dressed like a disco ball and praised himself until God sent worms after him to eat him alive. After Herod Agrippa died, Claudius Caesar thought his sons too young to be crowned as a singular king over Israel, so he divided the kingdoms among his sons. Agrippa received part of Syria – Lebanon, today.

These were the king and queen who stopped by to see the successor of their brother-in-law to the seat of governor. It was a perfect set-up for Festus to pass the buck regarding Paul.

So Festus, being shrewd, greeted the king and queen and told them, “You know, there’s a case I’d like to tell you about – a prisoner that Felix left behind when he was called back to Rome – a Jew by the name of Paul. When I arrived in Jerusalem, all the Jews laid out a case against him and asked that I condemn him to death. I told them that Romans do not give up prisoners before the accused meet face to face with his accusers and have the opportunity to make a defense. So, I invited them to come here, and the very next day I took my seat as tribunal and told them to present their charges against this man.

“Imagine my surprise when they didn’t bring any charges against him that I could rule on – you would have thought this man was the greatest terrorist to have every lived the way they reacted. But their whole case was built on some points of their religion – in which I’m not well versed. You see, they say this Jesus is dead, and Paul says He is alive.”

Notice: Festus got the point – as Paul kept saying – he was on trial about the resurrection of the dead, and specifically the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That is the key to Christianity. If Jesus did not physically rise from the dead, Christianity is a myth, at best, and, at worst, a blasphemous heresy. Are we are getting the picture of how important the Physical Resurrection of Jesus is to Christianity?

Festus continued, “Since I was at a loss as to how to deal with this situation, I offered Paul the chance to go back to Jerusalem to have his case tried among his own people. But Paul is a Roman citizen, and he appealed to have his case tried by Caesar, himself, so, what could I do?”

Notice how shrewd Festus was: most of what he said was true, but it was slanted to make him look good and also to endear Agrippa to him and to get Agrippa to offer him help – a way out of taking responsibility for Paul.

Still Agrippa bit: “I would like to hear him myself.”

The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp – they wanted everyone to see them and “ooh” and “aah.” The military and all the prominent men of the city were enlisted to be part of the celebration that King Agrippa had come and would examine a prisoner before them.

Let us notice that Agrippa learned nothing from his father: Herod had gone to address the people of Caesarea, and the writers of the day said that he was dressed in reflective material so, when the sun hit his clothes, his appearance was blinding to the crowd, and the crowd cried out, “The voice of a god, and not a man ” And Herod was pleased and accepted their praise and worship. So God sent an angel to strike him down, and then he was attacked by worms and died a slow and painful death.

Agrippa was in the very same town where his father had been killed by God for his pride, and here he was – flaunting his marriage to his sister – not seeking justice for Paul – but for the opportunity for the crowd to see him and praise him. He had learned nothing.

He arrived with his wife, dressed in their finest robes, hailed by the crowds which had been gathered from the cream of the crop – those who only dared to speak well to his face – and they brought Paul out to him.

For the sake of the public and to put Agrippa up on a pedestal, Festus announced what was happening, “King Agrippa, and all who are present, see the man who all the Jews of the world have petitioned me to have put to death. But in Rome, we require evidence, and I have found nothing to convict this man of the death penalty. Besides which, he is a Roman citizen, and he has appealed to trial by Caesar, so to Caesar he will go. But, since I have nothing to write to accompany him to Caesar, O Great King, my lord, I appeal to you, O Wise King, that you might hear him, and after examining him, you might put down some words that we might deliver with him to Caesar. For it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not to indicate the charges against him.”

Festus buttered up Agrippa. What the law required was that Festus free Paul the moment the Sanhedrin had no evidence of anything. But Festus folded, making a weak offer of a Jewish trial – which was illegal for him to do, in the hopes that Festus would not be held responsible for Paul. Now that that hadn’t worked, he worked to pass the buck to Agrippa, appealing to him as King and being wise in rendering decisions. And that’s what Agrippa wanted – he wanted the limelight – he wanted to be praised by the people, so he jumped at the chance to “wow” them with his views on Paul.

Did you get the understatement of Festus’ final words? “For it seems to me unreasonable, in sending a prisoner, not to indicate the charges against him.” The word that is translated “unreasonable” can also be translated “irrational” or “absurd” – which it certainly was. The law said that a Roman citizen could appeal his case to the Emperor, if the case was serious enough. To send a case to Caesar with no evidence and no charges was to have Caesar throw the case out and possibly have you put to death.

But now, the buck had been passed to Agrippa.

So, what is all this? Good luck? Chance occurrences?

Paul returned to Jerusalem to complete the vow he had made to God. While he was in the Temple, it just so happened that the Jews from Ephesus arrived and tried to kill him. But it just so happened that a Roman, Claudius Lysias, intervened to keep the peace. And it just so happened that Paul was a Roman citizen, so he averted being tortured by Lysias. (During the night, Jesus came to Paul and told him not to worry – that Jesus would make sure that he arrived safely in Rome to preach the Gospel to Caesar.) And it just so happened that when another plot to kill Paul was made, Lysias sent Paul to Felix, governor of Caesarea. And it just so happened that Felix was an unethical person and kept Paul in prison when he was deposed from office. And it just so happened that the new governor, Festus, was a more honest man than Felix and upheld Roman law, but didn’t know what to do with Paul, so he tried to pass the buck to the Sanhedrin. But it just so happened that Romans were allowed to call for Caesar himself to judge their case, so Paul was kept safe from the Jews. And it just so happened that King Agrippa came to Caesarea and Festus passed the buck of what to do with Paul to him.

Was this really all luck?

Jesus promised Paul that he would preach the Gospel to Caesar in Rome. Paul freely chose to go to Jerusalem to fulfill his vow. The Jews freely chose to follow Paul and try to kill him. Lysias freely chose to protect Paul and to send him to Felix. Felix freely chose to manipulate the system and leave Paul in prison. Festus freely chose to given Paul a Roman trial and then to cop-out and not give a verdict. And Agrippa freely chose to take on the burden of Paul after being buttered up.

Have you ever looked back on your life and see that things have happened for a reason? Maybe you don’t understand why everything has happened to you, but you can look back and say, “ok,” that’s why I did this – that’s why I did that – it was preparing me for whatever.

I initially went to college to do something with chemistry – probably neurochemistry. But I took a required course in philosophy and fell in love with the science and declared a major in philosophy. I didn’t know what I would do or where I would go with it. But it turns out that philosophy is an excellent background for going into theology and the ministry, so my choosing that field better prepared me for being called to the ministry. Can we not all look back and say, “OK, I didn’t understand what was happening then, but that prepared me for this.”

Brothers and sisters, the point we ought to get this morning is that there is no such thing as chance or luck – everything occurs by the Providence of God. We saw last week that God preserved Paul from the Jews to make sure that God’s Plan would come to pass just as He said it would. Jesus visited Paul when he was being held by Claudius Lysias because Jesus knew that Paul wouldn’t understand everything that happened to him between then and appearing before Caesar, so Jesus encouraged Paul to trust and follow Jesus.

Hannah sang, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world” (I Samuel 2:6-8, ESV).

David confessed, “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Your is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted head over all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand is power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all” (I Chronicles 29:11-12, ESV).

Job said, “[The Lord] makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and he leads them away. He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth and makes them wander in a pathless waste. They grope in the dark without light, and he makes them stagger like a drunken man” (Job 12:23-25, ESV).

Solomon wrote, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21, ESV).

We will remember the testimony of Gamaliel from the book of Acts, “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you are not able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God ” (Acts 5:38-39, ESV).

And we remember the testimony of King Nebuchanezzar from last week, “[God’s] dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:34b-35, ESV).

It was God’s Providence that Paul would return to Jerusalem to keep his vow. It was God’s Providence that the Jews followed Paul and tried to kill him and that Paul was born a Roman citizen and that Claudius Lysias would intercede and send Paul to Felix, who would pass him off on Festus, who would pass him off on Agrippa. All of these people chose what they would do – good or evil – but it was all according to the Providence of God, and God made sure it would occur.

That’s why the apostles so often say, “if the Lord wills.” Because we can choose, but unless God wills, it will not occur. James wrote, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance, and such boasting is evil” (James 4:13-16, ESV).

If we love God, this should help us to be less anxious about life. As Jesus said, “Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ Or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:31-34, ESV).

Let us pray:
Almighty God of Providence, Sovereign Ruler of All, we thank You for revealing to us that You rule over the whole world and are bringing everything to pass as You will. Help us to recognize Your Providence in all things. Help us to trust in You and to seek You in times of anxiety. Forgive us for thinking that Your Plan will fail if we don’t do this or that, and forgive us for doubting that You love us and will provide for us and bring us to the end for which You have created us, bringing us into Your Kingdom with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.


Babu G. Ranganathan said...

Please read and share the article below. Thank you!


Babu G. Ranganathan said...

Please read and share the article below. Thank you!


Jeff said...

Thanks. The "Pass the Buck" thoughts helped me in my own sermon on this passage which will be posted tomorrow at

Jeff said...

Here's the link: