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The Justice of Festus

“The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”—Luke 16:8

The judicial system of ancient Rome, like that of any large government, had its honest judges and its corrupt judges, This is well illustrated in the trials of the Apostle Paul before Felix and Festus. While Felix sought a bribe (Acts 24:26), Festus sought justice.

Upon being appointed procurator, or governor, of the province of Judea, Festus made a courtesy call upon the Jewish priests in Jerusalem. They quickly pressed their case against Paul, who had been put in bonds in Caeserea by Felix, the previous procurator.

“They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way.”—Acts 25:3 NIV

Sensing the danger, Festus refused and told them to come up to Caeserea for the trial. The representatives of the Jewish Sanhedrin came promptly and Festus called it for the next day. After listening to the charges he saw that they were unsubstantiated and mainly concerned matters of Jewish religion.

Desiring to do the Jews a favor, he queried Paul on his willingness to travel to Jerusalem to stand trial there.

“Paul answered: `I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!’ After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: `You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!’”—Acts 25:10-12 NIV

Some time later King Herod Agrippa II, whose dominion included Galilee, and his sister Bernice came to pay their respects to Festus. Agrippa was the last of five Herods to sit on the throne, and his sister Drusilla was married to the former governor, Felix. (Acts 24:24) Bernice had just deserted her third husband, Polemo, king of Cilicia, and was living with her brother at the time. Later she became mistress to the Roman emperor Vespasian and to his son, Titus. Both Agrippa and Bernice claimed to be converts to Judaism and, for this reason, Festus sought their counsel on the handling of the thorny case of Paul. After hearing Paul’s logical arguments, Agrippa exclaimed, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” (Acts 26:28) Then the two officials met privately to summarize the case.

“They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, `This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.’ Agrippa said to Festus, `This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.’”—Acts 26:31, 32 NIV

There are at least four principles of justice demonstrated in Paul’s trial before Festus which the Christian would do well to emulate.

Face to Face Confrontation

“To whom I answered, `It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die, before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have licence to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him.’—Acts 25:16

The right of the accused to face his accusors is recognized by the laws of jurisprudence in most civilized countries today. It not only eliminates hearsay evidence, but permits the accused to give his own interpretation of circumstantial evidence which may be presented against him. This is also the first principle of Christian judicial procedure.

“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”—Matt. 18:15-17

Each of the three steps involved—the private hearing between the accused and his accusor, the investigative hearing with one or two others and the church trial—presupposes the presence of the accused. No right is more fundamental than this in the ascertaining of the truth of a matter and the securing of true justice. All evidence, including direct statements, are open to multiple interpretations, and no one is more qualified to presenting a second interpretation than the speaker himself.

Determining Jurisdiction

“Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. When Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.”—Acts 25:19-21 NIV

Festus faced a dilemma. He determined that the charges were religious, therefore out of his jurisdiction as the civil governor of the province. His prisoner, Paul, on the other hand, insisted that he, as a Roman citizen, be tried before the civil court, and appealed to the highest court—Caeasr’s, in Rome.

The Christian, in similar manner, must determine similar matters of jurisdiction. Fundamentally, the Christian is not to judge, but to leave such matters to God. (Matt. 7:1; Luke 6:37; 1 Cor. 4:3-5; Rom. 2:1-3; 14:10-13; Heb. 12:23) Yet their are certain matters in which the Christian is called to make a judgment. (1 Cor. 6:2, 3; 5:1-5)

The determination of which matters lie within the jurisdiction of the individual Christian or the Church collectively is a serious one and requires serious thought.

Seeking Expert Counsel

Although the morals of Agrippa and Bernice were open to question, Festus had good reason to seek their counsel. As a Roman, Festus was in a quandary as to how to handle the religious aspects of the case—”I was at a loss as how to investigate such matters.” (Acts 25:20 NIV) Agrippa and Bernice, professing Judaism, would be better qualified on these matters.

Although the Christian should be qualified on matters concerning religion, it is incumbent on him that he realize his own limitations. Scriptures are seldom black and white, but are frequently open to interpretation. Matters of judgment, especially, are serious matters because they affect the lives of the ones being judged. Therefore it is essential that a broad base of counsel be consulted before applying Scriptural princples in judgment.

“Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”—Prov. 11:14

Many matters seem easy to interpret. Depthful study, however, reveals problems with simplistic answers and are suggest more discussion is needed as to how to apply fixed principles to a specific situations. This is where it is wise to seek multiplicity of counsel.

Specificity of Charges

“For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him.”—Acts 25:27

Being specific in delineating the crime was of utmost concern to Festus. It should be of equal importance to the Christian in judging one another. This necessitates a clear comprehension of the case. It implies a discernment, not only of the facts of the matter, but also of the spiritual laws which govern a proper decision.

Proper judgments in temporal courts not only consider mitigating circumstances but also distinguish the degree of responsibility in the crime. For example, the distinction between first and second degree murder call for a judgment on the amount of malice aforehand. The Mosaic law recognized similar considerations in determining the amount of guilt. (Num. 35)

The New Testament, likewise, calls for a discernment between degrees of sin and guilt. For instance certain crimes, such as adultery, can be either matters which lessen one’s position in the kingdom (Matt. 5:19) or which exclude one from the kingdom. (Gal. 5:19-21)

In identifying a charge, therefore, the Christian most clearly understand not only the crime, but the circumstances behind it and the Scriptural laws which govern its judgment. Only then can he make a proper determination as to a proper judgmental decision.

The Children of This World

“The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”—Luke 16:8

Although Festus was a Roman the wisdom of his judgments showed higher principles than many of the Jews who had a closer relationship with God. The principles of righteousness must be recognized wherever they are seen. They may be better demonstrated by worldly courts than by the people of God.

The underlying precepts of civil jurisprudence are to be recognized wherever they are demonstrated and applied by the Christian in spiritual matters.

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