Let me ask you a question: As Christians, how do we witness well to those in authority? Like those who govern over us: How do we treat our leaders, especially if we don’t like them all that much? If we are citizens of heaven, then what does that mean about our citizenship here? Do we owe a duty to our nation or is that secondary?
Today, we come to a passage that speaks to all of these questions if we are willing to listen to it.
The person in authority over Paul is the new Roman governor named Festus. Not much is known about Porcius Festus, who succeeded Felix as governor but died in office only two years later. He seems to have been more just and moderate than either his predecessor or successors. Governor Festus wastes no time in acquainting himself with Jewish affairs, including the case against Paul. Josephus described Festus as a brisk and energetic worker, and Luke’s account supports this.
[Read Acts 25:1–12]
Now I recognize that none of us are first-century Jews under Roman law. And the authorities God may give us opportunity to witness to may not be governmental. They may be in the workplace or in the academy or even in our family. Nonetheless, I believe we can drive some important principles from how Paul acts in Acts.
Keep your integrity even when integrity is not rewarded
Remember that Felix kept waiting and hoping for a bribe from Paul for two solid years. Time after time, he would meet with Paul, and Paul would tell him about Jesus, while Felix was hoping for a bribe. He never got one; Paul never succumbed. He wouldn’t stoop to save his own neck.
In his book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller tells an account of Howard:
At 27 years old, Howard was given an opportunity to move from one large company to another for a modest increase in responsibility but greater future opportunity. At the point of salary negotiations, Howard was asked to share his current salary with his prospective employer. Howard pumped up the figure by a mere four percent, a few thousand dollars. Of course, his thinking was that the higher they thought his salary was currently, the more they’d offer him. He justified the lie because the prospective company offered two weeks less vacation a year than his current one. He just added the value of that benefit onto his salary figure. On the very slim chance that he’d get caught, he had a plausible excuse. The benefit outweighed the cost and risk. And by the way, he was pretty sure everyone did this sort of thing. So was there anything wrong with it?
So what about Howard? How could his small lie possibly have wider effects on society? As Howard tells the story now, he shares that a real breakthrough in his thinking happened when he realized that the desire for just a little more money would so easily cause him to forsake his integrity.
Why couldn’t he just have been honest and shared that he thought the two weeks’ vacation he’d be sacrificing was worth an additional few thousand dollars? Why couldn’t he just trust that God, who was providing the interview in the first place, would provide for the salary? And was he basing his interest in the job on the salary or on the work God was giving him to do?
He realized that the wider impact on society started with the recognition that, with integrity sacrificed on the altar of money, the next lie would be easier. He realized that others who might observe him could be tempted to do the same. Everyone would trust one another a little less. And he realized that to work for the money instead of the value that the work itself might contribute would damage the culture of the company he was joining … and damage his witness as a Christian. Are you prepared to keep your integrity even when integrity isn’t rewarded?
Show respect even when respect is not deserved
We owe respect to our government. And it doesn’t matter if we feel that the people in office deserve it. As Paul would write in Romans 13, “Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Government is ordained by God. A bad government is better than no government. Government is not merely a human institution.
Paul didn’t just write those words; he lived them. Paul has been put in a position where he’s going to remain under arrest until he is taken to Rome. Now this is all going to work out for God’s glory because God is in charge, but you know Paul had to be frustrated. Under the law, he should have been acquitted and released two years ago!
We have to treat our government and our leaders with respect. We may not always agree with them, (in fact the price of leadership is that people will not always agree with you), but we should always respect them, as Paul demonstrates here.
Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and others in the struggle for civil rights didn’t condemn America, but rather called her into account to be consistent with her founding documents and highest ideals. We should speak in terms of “the best of the American ideal.” Can we disagree and debate without demonizing the opposition? Can we show respect even when we don’t feel it’s deserved?
Speak truth even when truth is not popular
Paul’s response to the charges against him is simple, verse 8, “Then Paul made his defense: ‘I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.’” He simply says, “I haven’t done anything wrong.” In his case, it was the truth. That’s why the religious leaders wanted to have him ambushed and murdered, because they knew they had no legitimate case against him.
Paul’s was a simple defense, and it was true. But Paul had a bigger problem: He was facing a politician. If Festus could do the Jewish leaders a favor, then they would owe him a favor that he could collect on later. He wanted that. Politicians always want that. So we read his response in verse 9: “Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, ‘Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?’”
Government, though ordained by God, is not always our friend. Here’s Paul, unjustly accused, wrongfully incarcerated for two years, and now this new governor is offering to “help,” by putting him in a situation that will probably get him killed. Paul might have appreciated the words of Ronald Reagan who said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
Paul refused to agree to go back to Jerusalem. He insisted that the present court, a Roman one, was the one before which he ought to be judged (v. 10). The issue was whether he had broken Roman law, as was in effect admitted by the Jews. And Paul’s reply can be read as a respectful rebuke of Festus. “I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “There are things for which an uncompromising stand is worthwhile.” His contemporary Martin Niemoller was a German pastor and theologian, and one of the founders of the Anti-Nazi Confessing Church during Hitler’s rule. Niemoller openly opposed Hitler’s racist polices and that government’s attempts to control the churches in Germany. In 1937, Niemoller was arrested by the Gestapo. He was confined in POW and concentration camps until he was freed by the Allies in 1945.
During his imprisonment, one of Niemoller’s friends, another pastor, visited him in prison, bringing rebuke: “Martin, if you had just kept your mouth shut, you would be a free man. Have you forgotten Romans 13:1? Have you forgotten that Paul wrote that we should submit ourselves to the governing authorities? What in the world are you doing in this prison?” Niemoller looked his well-meaning friend squarely in the eyes and said, “I think the real question is, why in the world aren’t you in this prison with me?”
Martin Luther King wrote wisely: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” Are you ready to speak truth even when it isn’t popular?
Accept just judgment even when the judgment goes against you
If Paul had committed a crime against Rome for which death was the penalty, then he was prepared to face a Roman punishment. If, however, the charges against him proved baseless, then there was certainly no reason for him to be punished just so the governor might earn favor with the Jews. This was precisely what Paul feared might happen. Felix had already attempted to use Paul as a political pawn in this manner, and the suggestion of Festus that Paul be tried in Jerusalem pointed ominously in the same direction.
But I believe Paul believes what he says in verse 11. If legally deserving of punishment, he was prepared to accept it. Sometimes as Christians we may need to violate the law as part of our witness (e.g., protesting against legally sanctioned injustice). When we do, also as part of our witness, we should be prepared to accept the consequences of our actions.
In his book Vanishing Grace, Philip Yancey writes about a Muslim man who told Yancey, “I have read the entire Koran and can find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in society. I have read the entire New Testament many times and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.” Yancey comments, “Christians best thrive as … a counterculture. Historically, when [Christians] reach a majority they have yielded to the temptations of power in ways that are clearly anti-gospel.”
Dallas Willard observed, “The church has always been at its best when it has the least.” History shows us what a tremendous impact Christians can have on a society even when they have been marginalized and persecuted.
Assert your rights when it’s right for the gospel
Seeing no other way, Paul asserts his right as a Roman citizen who has not been convicted of a crime and appeals to Caesar (v. 11b). I believe that this was a calculated move. Where most of us might have been tempted to feel sorry for ourselves, I believe that Paul sees the hand of God at work and allows himself to be given over to that hand.
Remember that when this all started, when Paul was first put into prison, Christ appeared to him and told him what he needed to do next. Acts 23:11, “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.’” I think that Paul now understood that his destination was Rome, that the door for ministry in Israel had closed at this time. Here he has the opportunity, not just to get away from the religious leaders but also to get his trip to Rome paid for by the empire. And not just the travel and meals, he was even going to get an armed escort!
The ability to appeal to Caesar meant a hearing in Caesar’s court, not necessarily before Caesar himself, but it had to take place in Rome, not one of the provinces of Rome. This practice was implemented to protect Roman citizens, which Paul was, from incompetent governors, which Festus probably wasn’t.
To get around this, Paul raises the stakes. He treats it as a capital case. Legally it may not have been, but since the religious leaders were plotting to kill him, in reality that’s what it was. When Paul takes matters to this level, they have to send him to Rome. Paul could have ranted against the system and against the unfairness of it all, but instead he accepted the system, learned the system, and then used it to his advantage as best he could.
But don’t miss this: Paul was concerned more about the gospel than about what happened to him. I think too often the reverse is true of us today. When I assert my rights, I’m concerned about getting my way! When Paul asserts his rights, he’s concerned for the gospel.
Too many times in the church’s recent past, when it comes to politics, our message has been about so many other things except Jesus. I’m not saying that all of those other things aren’t right, and I’m not saying that they aren’t important. But the central message of the church needs to be Christ, the one whose name we bear. We need to introduce people to him, and when we do that and they become his disciples, then he will change their hearts and the other things will come into line. Until people accept Christ into their lives, they won’t accept his authority. The central message of the church, the central message of our witness and of our lives must be Jesus, first and always. So instead of asserting our rights when it’s right for us, let’s follow Paul and assert our rights when it’s right for the gospel.
So Paul makes his appeal, and Festus grants it. And you can tell it made an impression.
[Read Acts 25:13–22]
Witnessing God’s Way
There’s an old saying: “He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.” This passage has a parallel: “Those who witness God’s way may live to witness another day.” Witness God’s way, even when it doesn’t go your way, and you may get to witness again.
Serving in the city of Donetsk, Alexander Moseychuk and his wife, Svetlana, pastor the evangelical New Life Church, reaching the unchurched Ukrainian people by meeting their physical and spiritual needs. “Seventy years of communism led the evangelical church to focus inward,” Alex explains. “Unfortunately, the church has little influence on society.” New Life Church has been changing this in a powerful way, calling for repentance, especially since the Russian-backed invasion of the Donetsk area in 2014.
Pastor Alex’s life has been threatened repeatedly and his family home invaded, yet still he serves, making the dangerous trip out of the war zone to buy food for the church’s feeding program. In addition to the church’s “Christian Family Center” feeding and warming programs for the community, the church is known for its outreaches to the blind, disabled children, and their families. Also a high priority are classes for families and couples.
Alexander posted the following on his Facebook page: “On July 6, 2018, our New Life Church in Makeyevka, which is located on the territory of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, was left without a church building. About noon, seven representatives of the authorities arrived, among whom were armed people, and they said that our building no longer belongs to us. Despite all the persuasions and negotiations, the building was sealed.
“Over the four years of the war, more than 700 people have received spiritual and material assistance. Every Sunday people have listened to the living word of God, many have repented of their sins, and there are those who are waiting to receive water baptism. In addition to spiritual food, the hungry have received bread, clothes, and shoes.
“On Sunday, about 120 people will approach the church gates ... what’s next? Many thoughts, worries, and experiences. How to lead the Church? Is this only the beginning of persecution? [We] need wisdom and God’s guidance.”
Please uphold Pastor Alexander, his family, and his congregation in prayer. Pray that even under pressure they will witness God’s way and so live to witness another day. And let’s pray for ourselves as well, that we will witness God’s way to those in authority over us whenever we have the opportunity.
David Ward is Pastor of Teaching Ministries for New Hope Church in Greenwood, IN.