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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Pomp and Circumstances


 

"Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus whom Paul claimed was alive." Acts 25:19


In 1976, Leo Sayer, released a song titled, ‘You make me feel like dancing’.  Nearly half a century later, it’s still regularly broadcast on the radio.  It’s got an age-old theme.  Someone has grabbed Leo’s heart.  They’ve brought sunshine and rainbows.  He can’t escape their influence.  He says, ‘You got the better of me.  Just snap your fingers and I'm walkin’.’  He feels like dancin’!  He’s a-movin’ and a-shakin’ to the rhythm of someone else.

 

Now, ‘movers and shakers’ – that’s an expression we use.  According to the Collins Dictionary, ‘the movers and shakers in a place or area of activity are the people with most power or influence.’  In Acts 25, we’re introduced to three such people.  Verse 23 has all their names - Agrippa, Bernice and Festus.  How do we know that they’re movers and shakers?  Because they ‘came with great pomp’.  But more of that later!  Because verse 23 contains another name - Paul.  He doesn’t appear to have any power or influence.  He’s now been in prison for two years. 

 

In Acts 24, Paul was put there by the Roman governor, Felix.  He’d imprisoned Paul as ‘a favour to the Jews.’  Felix was a cruel ruler.  He was now being recalled to Rome to explain himself.  He needed those Jews – the religious elite - on his side to back him up.  He’d had power – so Paul’d had prison.

 

But who really held the power?  That’s what Acts constantly asks us to ask.  Right from the start.  In chapter 1, verse 8, we have the final words of the risen Jesus, before he returned to heaven.  Jesus said to his followers, ‘you will receive power’!  ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

 

Jesus does, as Jesus says.  Despite all the odds.  Despite all the power that appeared to be held elsewhere.  Despite fierce opposition.  Despite the initial reluctance of the early church to get really going.  Despite everything, the saving message about Jesus had now travelled far and wide.  Paul was greatly used to spread God’s truth that Jesus is the only way to get to God.  But now Paul’s life was stalled.  For two years his freedom was taken.  His life appeared on hold.  But was it?  It’s so important that we get this right.  Because Paul’s life has lessons for ours.  And we don’t want to get them wrong.

 

It's so easy to think that Paul could’ve been more productive had he not been captive.  We can question Paul’s decision making.  Other Christians already had.  We can even question Paul’s God and wonder if there wasn’t a better way.  We’ve already seen what Paul achieved when movin’.  Why not let him continue movin’!  But, as Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us, ‘there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’  Paul’s life was now in a different season.

 

Recently, I had lovely discussion with some of the young people here.  I was asked what my favourite season was.  I love summer so much that my favourite season is spring!  Bear with me, I said!  Spring has the new growth.  Spring has the increasing daylight and growing warmth.  Spring has the promise of summer but not one summer’s day is yet used up!  It’s awesome.  But I also know that spring and summer aren’t everything.  They don’t have Autumn’s leafy colour and leafy crunch.  They don’t have the majesty of winter’s deep, white, untouched snow.  And all the seasons are all necessary.  Animal and plant life depend upon them all following on in due course.  New growth in spring doesn’t just happen because of spring.  New growth needs the dying back of autumn and winter first.

 

Every season is valuable.  It’s so with the different seasons of life.  It’s true of our faith-life.  Look at Paul.  What did he do while in prison.  We might think we’re not told.  But God’s word has clues.  We don’t need to speculate, like ‘well he probably picked up the local newspaper and a pen and did the sudoku and then the crossword.’  Paul did write while in prison.  We’ll shortly reach the end of Acts, which finishes with Paul still imprisoned in Rome.  During that season of restriction, his letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon were all written.  Paul may or may not have done the crossword in prison.  But he did write a whole lot of cross-words - words about the cross of Jesus his Saviour.  And what that cross should mean to all who believe in him.

 

Paul lost his freedom.  But during that time, he wrote some of the most freeing words that humankind has ever read.  But my instinct, my plan, would see Paul not having to endure that season of life.  But then I’d rob the church of Christ of some of the best words ever.  Better stick with God’s plan.  Better go with his instinct.  Because it’s way better!

 

In one of those letters, Philippians 1 12-14, Paul writes about the effect that his captivity had on others.  People were moved by it – shaken and stirred by it!  Despite looking powerless, Paul’s life influenced others.  He wanted others to know.  Pauls says, ‘I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.’

 

It had affected everyone – unbelievers and believers.  Paul is saying that loads of unbelievers who had heard about his chains had consequently heard about his Jesus.  Paul is saying that loads of believers had previously been a bit shaky.  They feared speaking up about Jesus because of the prospect of opposition.  Now they’d seen the power of Jesus in action. They’d seen how productive Paul had been come what may.  And they were more ready to say about their own lives – ‘come what may.’

 

Do these things speak to us?  Our lives go through changes.  Actual prison - the iron-bars-and-porridge type - may not be our experience.  But we can have our freedoms restricted in other ways.  What about ill health – struggling physically – struggling mentally?  Or plans that just don’t go good.  That can put the brakes on us.  Oh yes it can!  Can it put the brakes on Christ.  That’s a different matter entirely.  When we feel stalled – not moving forward – let’s trust the great mover and shaker of heaven and earth to move us in the way that seems right to him.

 

Last year I had a season of ill health.  I grumbled.  I struggled with it.  I’d have had done with it quicker than you can read Philemon.  But when I look back, and when I look back honestly, I can see that season of dieback was vital to moving into to a season of new things.  Your experience will not exactly match mine.  But can you trust that there’s reason in your season?!  We live in a world of sin and decay.  Our lives get broken by life’s brokenness.  Plans, prospects, life purpose, can all get shattered.  But through the power of Christ’s cross, what can’t break is this – we have a God who works in all these things.  He ‘works’ ‘in all things’for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to… his purpose (Romans 8 28).

 

So Acts 25.  It starts with a new season.   Power changes hands.  And, suddenly, there are other changes.  Felix is replaced by Festus.  They are very different.  The inaction of that old governor left Paul stuck in prison for two years without trial.  Felix wasn’t concerned how his lack of action affected others.  But compare with Festus.  He’s on it from day one – well day three at least!  That’s what verse 1 tells us.  There’s more movin’ and shakin’ in Paul’s case, in Festus’s first three days, than in the past 730!   Festus is fast as!

 

Roman records back up this view of Festus.  By human standards, he’s a good man.  He believed in the rule of law and the rights of citizens.  At this point in time, he was 70 years old.  But he had more drive than I had at 21, when I got my first car!  He’s quickly up to speed.  In verse 2, the religious leaders present their charges against Paul.  They request that he’s brought to Jerusalem.  Not because that’s the best place to have a fair trial.  But because on route they’ll have the best chance of doing away with him.

 

Theirs is a religion of disconnect.  God is there on their lips.  But he’s missing from their hearts.  First, they’ll assassinate Paul’s character.  Failing that, they’ll assassinate him.  If our religion makes us liars and haters, there’s something wrong with our religion.  How can we be different?  How can we be connected to God’s way?  The only way that we can be connected to God is through Jesus.  We need to fix our eyes on him.  How did Christ deal with us - his enemies?  He didn’t shut us down by assassinating our characters or wishing us dead.  He didn’t do what he did, to bring peace to his own life.  He did what he did to bring peace to ours.  ‘While we were still his enemies’ he died for us.  At the cross, Christ was assassinated for our character.  Death to his life.  Peace to ours.  ‘Our friendship with God was restored’ (see Romans 5 10 NLT).

 

But these opponents of Paul have a religion without Christ.  Festus hears them out and then we see God’s providence.  Paul stays in protective custody safe from threat of ambush.  In life, we can be so easily ambushed by what we don’t see around the corner.  It’s a source of worry for many of us.  But don’t worry.  Our God - he’s never ambushed! 

 

The court is convened in verse 6.  Then in verse 7 we read this about Paul’s opponents – ‘They brought many serious charges against him, but they could not prove them.’  Like ill-prepared holiday makers - they have no case!

 

Festus is a good man.  His humility is striking.  When Paul appeals to Caesar in verse 11, Festus doesn’t even know if that’s a thing.  But he finds out.  He ‘conferred with’ people who knew.  He gets counsel from ‘his council’!  Then, later, in verse 20, he admits that he ‘was at a loss how to investigate’ this matter.  He doesn’t have much understanding of Jewish matters.  Why would he?  He’s only just got there.  He’s Johnny-come-lately - the new kid in town – admittedly, a 70-year-old kid!  But King Agrippa does have a thorough knowledge of Jewish affairs.  So, in verse 23 onwards, Festus seeks Agrippa’s advice. 

 

But for all his good, Festus is a compromised man.  Verse 9 shows us this.  This is why Paul is forced into playing his trump card of appeal to Caesar.  Because Festus is now suggesting that Paul goes back into the lion’s den – Jerusalem.  Why does he do this?  He was ‘wishing to do the Jews a favour’.  That sounds like previous bad guy.  This good man is being pressured to behave in a way that isn’t so good.  But we must consider the circumstances. These were troubled times.  This was a troubled place to be a Roman governor.  It’s AD59.  In just a few years the Jewish revolt against Rome would begin and soon end with the destruction of much of Jerusalem.  The murmurings of rebellion were already being felt. Festus needs these Jewish leaders onside for good reason – they can help to quell the rising discontent of the masses.  Festus is compromised.

 

Festus is being moved and shaken by this world’s moving and shaking.  Everyone is.  So much of the time.  Even good, morally minded people make bad decisions because of the various pressures that surround them.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this.  It shouldn’t trouble us as much as it often does.  But God’s word isn’t so much asking Christ’s people to monitor and modify the behaviour of unbelievers around them.  But it is always asking us to present them with the truth of Jesus.  Only the truth of Jesus can bring about real and lasting change.  Only God, through his Son, and the working of his Spirit, can really move hearts and minds.

 

Paul didn’t fail to bring Jesus to the table.  Festus, in this chapter and in the next struggles to get the rising again of Jesus.  In fact, in chapter 26, he calls it ‘insane’.  He doesn’t believe it.  But he has heard it.  He knows that this is the heart of the matter.  In verse 19 here, he identifies it correctly.  This episode is all about ‘a dead man named Jesus whom Paul claimed was alive’.  Paul had got the message across.  The message of a man who died on a cross for sin.  A man who was now alive again forever.  Like Festus, like everyone, Paul was also moved and shaken by something.  But Paul was now moved by the beat of his Saviour’s love for the lost.  What Leo Sayer said in his song, Paul could say about Jesus – ‘You got the better of me.’  He was influenced by the rhythm of Jesus.  He was heavily influenced by Christ.

 

We’re all influenced by something or someone.  People would have us believe that ‘influencers’ are a new thing.  Invented by the invention of social media.  Ha ha!  Not so.  Here in Acts 25 we’re presented with the influencers of that day.  Yes, it’s time to return to verse 23 – ‘The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city.’  These were the influential.  These were the movers and shakers of that region.  These ‘came with great pomp.’  This has always happened.  Why does humankind do this?  It’s designed to convey.  It’s meant to tell us who in the room is important, and who is not – pomp!

 

But the Bible has something to say too.  Something to influence the thinking of believers in Jesus.  That word – pomp - in the original Greek of the New Testament is this – ‘phantasia’.  It’s laugh out loud funny.  Pomp! - it’s just fantasy – just an illusion.  Influencers then, and influencers now, have the power to affect decisions of others.  Because of their status they can influence what we buy, or what we buy into.  It’s like we see their success and we think that if we do what they do, then we’ll have some!  But Acts says ‘whoa! - don’t be so easily influenced.’  It presents to us those who humankind calls important – the haves, rather than the have nots.  And then it asks a question – is this real – or is this what’s insane? 

 

Who is it that the Acts account believes is the important person in the room?  It’s not those with celebrity status.  It’s not the powerful but the prisoner.  It’s not those that just appear to have, but the man who really does.  Not those with apparently everything but the man with apparently nothing.  Nothing except his claim that his hope for this life and the next was in a dead man named Jesus who was alive again forever.

 

And do you know what that Jesus is doing now?  Well Paul tells us in Romans 8 34.  He mentions ‘Christ Jesus who died… who was raised to life’.  He is now ‘at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.’  Wow – just wow!  What is Jesus doing now?  If we’re in Christ by faith, then he’s now at the right hand of our Father, influencing on our behalf.  That’s the kind of influencer my life needs!  Is that the kind of influencer you need?  Then have it – have it in Christ!

 

Christ Jesus came to our world without pomp and presence.  Isaiah 53 says there ‘was no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’   He didn’t come to look good.  But to bring God’s good.  Sharing the message about him often looks weak and is called out as insane - just foolishness.  But how weak did the church look back in Acts 1?  And look what it achieved.  How powerless does Paul appear ‘in chains’ from here on in.  But look at what the Bible shows us that he did.

 

In 1 Corinthians 1, Pauls tells the church to assess itself.  His observation is this – ‘Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential…’  ‘But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.’  Why?  ‘The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’

 

What influence do we at Riverside have in Horbury Bridge?  What pomp and presence?  What we have seems weak and foolish.  But weak and foolish have been greatly underestimated in the past.  And they will be in the future too as we are moved and shaken by the new life rhythm of Jesus.  God’s Son.  Our Saviour.

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