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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

A Tale of Two Citizens


"I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.  So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man." Acts 24:15-16

I’m assuming that most of you have heard of Charles Dickens.  Because most people have.  According to a YouGov survey, 92% have.  That puts him 73rd in the most well-known person list.  It’s probably the only time that Mr Dickens has sat in between Tom Cruise and Joanna Lumley!  He was an author.  One of his books is called, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.  What’s it about?  Well, reviews put it something like this, ‘it’s a story of love, sacrifice, and resurrection against the backdrop of tumultuous times - travel between two worlds and witness revolution and redemption’.   But that’s not just Dickens.  That’s the Divine – God’s word.  Describe the bible in nine words? - Love, sacrifice, and resurrection against a backdrop of trouble!


In the Bible we are invited to see two worlds.  One that is now.  Another that is coming.  One’s this earth, where trouble lives.  The other’s ‘a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells’ (2 Peter 3 13).  These two worlds appear in Acts 24.  Acts 24 isn’t a tale of two cities. It’s more a tale of two citizens.  It has two main characters.  Both are Roman citizens.  One’s called Felix.  The other’s called Paul.


The name Felix means ‘happy’.  Using human values, it’s like he should be.  Roman history tells us that his was a rags-to-riches story.  He was born a slave.  Now he’s not just any old citizen – he’s the guv’nor!  He’d successfully climbed the greasy pole of social and political standing by being utterly ruthless.  He appears to hold all the power.  By contrast, Paul’s hands appear empty. 


Felix knows that Paul is innocent, but he keeps him captive for two years anyway.  Paul’s life appears at the mercy of another’s whim.  Felix could do what he wanted.  Paul could do what he was told.  He’s like us.  Sometimes our lives feel like that - like we have no power or control over what’s happening.  We’re stuck in life’s washing machine, with all its dirty laundry.  We can’t reach the control panel.  But others can.  And they’re running a full spin cycle with the setting at max!  But the Bible constantly invites us to take a different view.  In Acts 24, Felix appears to hold all the power and answers to no-one.  But even on a human level, that isn’t true.


Because, at the end of this chapter he leaves his position.  And he left Paul in prison because he ‘wanted to grant a favour to the Jews.’  Why? Again, Roman records fill in the gaps.  Felix had been a cruel governor, and Emperor Nero wanted an explanation.  If you know anything about Nero, that’s absurd!  It would be like being forced to explain why you’ve just been acting, to Leonardo Di Caprio!  Or going to court accused of using foul language, and finding the judge is Gordon Ramsay!  Even so, Felix was recalled to Rome to explain his actions. He’d need important Jewish men on his side, so he offered them this sweetener – Paul stays in prison.


But what happens before that?  Well, these important Jewish men – these religious people – bring charges against Paul to Felix.  They bring a lawyer named Tertullus.  The Greek word translated lawyer is rētōr.  Tertullus was an orator.  Like lawyers were and are.  He was good with words.  And he was a flatterer.  This was common in Roman trials.  Instead of starting by focussing on how good or bad the defendant was, each side would begin by saying how good they thought the judge was!  Tertullus doesn’t break with convention – he walks the way of the world.  What he says about Felix in verse 2 is just an outrageous lie.  ‘Your foresight has brought about reforms’ – kinda true.  Your enemies spoke out against you - your foresight made them vanish!


But contrast this with Paul’s opening.  Paul is no longer tied to human convention.  He breaks with convention.  In Romans 16 18, Paul mentions people who’d created division in church life.  He says, ‘such people are not serving our Lord Christ… by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people.’  Tertullus was good with words.  But they weren’t good words.  They were lies.  Flattery is designed to deceive.  It’s self-serving.  Paul was serving his Lord Christ.  He doesn’t comment on the judge’s character, good or otherwise.  He just acknowledges that he is the appointed judge (v.10).  It’s in keeping with what he writes in Romans 13 1.  Paul tells believers, ‘be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.’  Paul shows due respect, but he doesn’t show flattery.


So, does Tertullus say anything good?  Well, in verse 4 he says, in effect, that he doesn’t want to bore them and he’s going to be brief.  Is that good?  If I stood up this morning and said, ‘I’m not going to bore you and I’m going to be brief’, you’d think, ‘that’s good!’  So, I guess so.  So, what’s bad?  Everything else.


Not only was he prepared to use lies to big-up Felix – he also uses lies to downplay Paul.  In verse 5, he calls him a troublemaker.  In the ESV, this is translated as ‘plague’.  Paul is a plague.  There’s a reason for that translation.  The Greek word here is ‘loimos’.  It appears in Luke 21 11 where Jesus is speaking about the signs which will proceed the end times.  There will be earthquakes, famines and pestilences.  The word translated ‘pestilence’ in Luke’s gospel is this one here translated ‘troublemaker’.  Paul is a pestilence! 


What is a pestilence?  Well, the Oxford dictionary says it’s a fatal epidemic like bubonic plague.  Well, what’s that?  If only we had a more recent epidemic to help us understand… hold on!  Yes, Paul is being accused of being like COVID-19.  Like he’s a super-spreader - going around the world coughing up his Jesus message with reckless abandon.  This Paul just wants everyone to end up in some life lockdown – all their freedoms curtailed. 


That’s often the accusation that the Jesus message gets – ‘you just want to stop me living life the way I want to – to spoil my fun.’  That isn’t the Jesus message.  In John 10 10, Jesus says, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’.  The Christian life is not designed to make life less funner, but to make it more fuller – Jesus brings life, lived in a more complete and whole-some way!


Paul is accused of ‘stirring up riots.’  It’s the same thing that Jesus was accused of in Luke 23 2.  The lies that were thrown at Jesus will often be the lies that are thrown at the people of Jesus.  Don’t be surprised!  Paul is apparently causing trouble all over the world.  Yes, where Paul went there often was trouble.  But Paul wasn’t to blame.  He came with God’s message of peace, through Jesus his Son.  The trouble came when others heard it and didn’t like it.  Tertullus is just using spin!


We all know someone like this – someone who puts a spin on things they say.  They remove the stuff that makes them look bad and emphasise the stuff that makes them look good.  Or they make themselves look better by removing the stuff that makes others look good.  Think about it!  Who did you think of?  DON’T say it out loud – in case it’s me!  Question - Did you think of yourself?  Because we’re all prone to it.  Let’s be honest with ourselves.  It’ll help us be more honest with others.  It’ll help us be more Christ.  Christ didn’t say or do what made him look whole and complete – he lived a life that made us whole and complete!


Paul is linked to Christ in the next accusation.  ‘He is a ringleader… of the Nazarene sect’.  What’s a Nazarene?  It’s someone from Nazareth.  Here, it’s the most famous resident of Nazareth – Jesus himself.  Matthew 2 23 tells us about his life as an infant.  With his parents, Jesus ‘went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.’  And it was an insult.  Nazareth was considered a dump, and everyone knew it.


In John 1 43-51, Jesus met with a man called Philip and said two words to him.  Two words that changed his life.  Jesus said, ‘follow me.’  Philip was so excited that he rushed off and found his mate, Nathanael.  Have you ever experienced this? - something excites you and you pour out the details to a friend and they just shake their head and go, ‘whatever?’  That’s what happened to Philip.  He told his friend that God’s Messiah had come – it’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.  Nathanael said ‘Whatever?’.  Actually, he didn’t.  But that was his attitude.  He said, ‘can anything good come from there?’


We all know areas like that – we’ve probably a place in mind.  A place where people lower down the social ladder live.  We know we wouldn’t want to live there.  We know we wouldn’t want to live a life like theirs – like we know!  Christians, consider this – that’s where Christ lived!  The brokenness of life didn’t put him off.  He brought healing.  Social problems?  He came to deal with our biggest social issue.  Why do we keep falling out with each other?  It’s just a symptom of something bigger– we’ve all fallen out with God.  Jesus came to deal with that – to come where we live.  He wasn’t scared off.  Thank God he wasn’t!


‘Ringleader of the Nazarene sect.’  Paul wasn’t that - that was Jesus.  It was meant to be an insult.  But actually – by linking him to Christ – this was high praise indeed. 


When Paul speaks, he sticks to facts.  In verse 11 he mentions what can easily be verified.  In verse 13 he says, ‘they cannot prove.’  He knows they can’t because it didn’t happen.  It reminds me of the awesome response to false accusation in Nehemiah 6 8 – Nehemiah says, ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head’.  Yes, what you’re saying about me might well have happened… in here (point to head) but it didn’t happen in the real world!


Then Paul details his hope.  It’s easy to think that Paul had an advantage over us.  After all, in the previous chapter, the Lord stood by Paul and gave him detail about his future life.  He was promised that he was going to reach Rome.  We may think we’d feel more secure if we had that kind of detail – We may think, kinda like, ‘if I knew for certain that in three years’ time I’m going to be living-it-large in New York, then I’d be able to cope with the current drudgery of Old Wakefield!’  But really, Rome would have seemed a long way off during Paul’s extended imprisonment.  And Paul’s hope wasn’t in Rome anyway. 


His hope was in a place further afield than Rome.  ‘What did Paul go to Rio de Janeiro?’  No – further than that – better than that.  As verse 15 shows.  Paul’s hope was not in any place on earth, but in the Christ-centred reality that he had a place in heaven.   Jesus said, ‘My Father’s house has many rooms… I am going there to prepare a place for you’ (John 14 2).  Paul’s hope was not in Rome but in ‘resurrection’.  And that hope was not some distant dream.  It impacted his life every day.  As verse 16 shows, ‘So’ – so because of the resurrection – ‘So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.’


Uh Oh!  That sounds like a doing-good-stuff religion?  That was everything that Paul wasn’t, surely?  His confidence was in Christ.  In fact, in Philippians 3 3 he says that his ‘boast (was) in Christ Jesus’ – he had ‘no confidence in’ what he did himself.  He believed that people were restored to rightness with God simply by believing in Jesus – through the good life that Jesus lived.  What’s Paul talking about – striving to live a clear conscience type life himself?


I think it’s a bit like this.  This year is Olympic year – Paris 2024.  Imagine you’re an athlete going to Paris.  It’d require an enormous amount of dedicated training and a restricted lifestyle.  Frequent early nights.  Infrequent Doner Kebabs!  There’d be setbacks on the way – things you get wrong, injuries picked up, and such like.  Until you cross that finish line nothing is guaranteed.  All that discipline and yet it could all come to nothing.  But imagine it was guaranteed.  Imagine that you knew someone who could see the future.  Not just see it but reveal it.  They show you running the next Olympic 100 metre final.  You cross the line in first place.  You now know that you’ve got the prize in hand.  How would that revelation affect you in the lead up to that great future event?


When Paul writes to believers in 1 Corinthians 9 24-27 he uses an Olympic theme to illustrate the Christian life.  He exhorts them to, ‘run in such a way as to get the prize… to get a crown that will last forever.’  But this was a prize that, in Christ, they were already certain to win.  But still his instruction is without doubt – ‘run in such a way as to get’ it.  It’s similar here in Acts 24.  Paul wasn’t striving to keep his conscience clear so that God would accept him.  He was motivated to keep his conscience clear because, in Christ, God had already accepted him.


In verse 21, Paul says, ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today’.  That’s what he’d said in Jerusalem.  His rising to new life in Christ was what’d got people’s backs up there.  It was why they had pursued him here too.  Why was he on trial?  The resurrection.  What was his hope?  The resurrection.  The thing that others judged him for was the thing that would bring his final acquittal.  Paul had little confidence in the various courts here in Acts.  His confidence was in the highest court of all.


Well, I haven’t left much time for Felix.  Probably a good thing!  Pauls’ example we should follow.  Felix? – Nah!  Paul is invited for a chat with Felix, in verse 24.  What does Paul talk about? - ‘faith in Christ Jesus.’  Felix had a vain and empty hope.  Paul held out hope that was anything but.  But Felix resists the gospel call.  In verse 25, Paul talks about some of our themes today - ‘righteousness, self-control and the judgement to come.’  ‘Felix was afraid’.  He stops Paul and asks him to leave.


He could have acted like those Jews that Peter spoke to in Acts 2 on that day of Pentecost.  They were deeply afraid.  They’d crucified God’s Messiah.  Their terror made them ask a question – ‘What shall we do?’  A solution to their wickedness must’ve seemed so out of reach.  But Peter knew that the solution lay within their crime.  Jesus crucified for sin is the answer we all need.  Peter said ‘Repent and be baptised every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’.


Like those at Pentecost, Felix could have used his fear as a step stool to reach faith.  But instead, he kicked it away for a more ‘convenient’ time.  How many put off faith because it’s currently inconvenient – ‘I haven’t got the time - now is too inconvenient.’  And then, how inconvenient - then time is up.  What now?


Felix’s previous wickedness wasn’t the problem.  Yes, he was a cruel, murderous man.  Yes, he imprisoned people without reason, because it suited him.  Yes, he was ruthless and unjust.  Yes, he was a thoroughly nasty piece of work.  But he’s not the only citizen in Acts 24 who’d been like that.  Paul had too.  The difference lay in their response. 


When Paul is confronted by Jesus in Acts 9, his life is changed forever by faith.  The solution to what Paul was, lay in what Jesus was - and is and always will be.  Because of that we will continue with Paul, in future, in Acts.  We leave Felix here.  In verse 26, he’s hoping for a bribe.  His hope is still in vain and empty things.  And then he’s off to Rome to face Nero.  From rags-to-riches-to-rags again.  He could have become forever rich, but it wasn’t convenient.


Oh, that Felix had heeded the words of Psalm 62.  ‘Surely the lowborn are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie.  If weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath.  Do not trust in extortion or put vain hope in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.  One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: ‘Power belongs to you, God, and with you, Lord, is unfailing love’; and, ‘You reward everyone according to what they have done.’’


What have you done?  Are you following Felix?  Or have you found faith and followed Jesus?  If you’ve found faith in Christ, then your reward is certain.  May God’s grace… power us ever onwards to the finish line.  And may we run like we mean it!


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