Formations 11.26.2017: Innocence, Guilt, and Technicalities

Acts 26:1-3, 13-18a, 24-29

An illustration of Bishop Myriel by Gustave Brion for the first edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (Wikimedia Commons)

The first time I heard Les Misérables, I was fifteen or sixteen. My mother had picked me up from school. Somewhere between learning it was her favorite musical and the grocery store, I asked her what it was all about. She began with the bishop.

Jean Valjean, released from prison, found a place to stay with the bishop. After leaving, the police bring Valjean back before the bishop, having found him with silver stolen from the church. Instead of identifying the silver as stolen, the bishop identifies the silver as a gift and offers him candlesticks too. From that scene, where prisoner #24601 becomes Jean Valjean again, my mother unfolded his journey of redemption and mercy.

The stakes aren’t so different when Paul testifies before Festus and Agrippa II. Though he focuses on Christ in his testimony, Paul’s situation is ultimately legal. He is in prison, awaiting trial in Rome, where he will eventually be executed.

Paul’s confession begins where we first saw Paul. He commanded a crowd persecuting a growing movement of Jesus followers (Acts 8; 26:10-11). As a Roman citizen and a Pharisee, “with authority received from the chief priests,” Paul’s early life looked much different than it did that day in Festus’s court (v. 10).

But the road to Damascus changed everything. Where he had rejected the early church’s testimony, he accepted it and proclaimed it for himself. Where he had oppressed the young movement, he entered into solidarity with it, even suffering for it.

In the middle of this, Festus interrupts Paul, remarking that too much learning has driven him mad. But Agrippa II asks a question instead: “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” (v. 28). Paul admits this hope, and it is implied that Agrippa does not convert. But Agrippa’s response is more interesting.

As legal information, Agrippa accepts Paul’s testimony (v. 31). Agrippa leaves and remarks on the apostle’s innocence. And yet, we understand that recognizing Paul’s innocence is insufficient.

Agrippa heard and understood Paul’s story, but it did not move him. Rather, Agrippa accepts the inevitably of Paul’s situation, saying, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor” (v. 32).

Despite recognizing Paul’s innocence, Agrippa II does nothing to protect it. He allows a technicality to prevent justice.

Unlike Agrippa II, the bishop met prisoner #24601 as a brother. And he heard, or at least guessed, the depths of his story. He understood that hunger and care for his family, not evil, sent him to prison. He recognized that stealing the silver came, not from greed, but from the uncertainty that followed him on parole.

The bishop heard the depths of Valjean’s testimony and he responded by offering justice and mercy where they weren’t present. We too are confronted with testimonies: stories of injustice, of suffering, of evil, and also of joy, celebration, and grace. What it would it take for us, like the bishop, to hear them in their fullness? Even more, how would the testimonies lead us?

Discussion

• What truths have transformed your life?
• What truths or beliefs do you accept but struggle to let affect you?
• What testimonies are you confronted with that you struggle to hear? Why?
• What might taking others’ experiences seriously demand of you? Why?

Reference Shelf

A Common Hope for Resurrection

Paul wastes no time defending his loyalty to his Jewish heritage. His zealous loyalty is well known to “all Jews” (v. 4). He has spent his entire life as a member of the Jewish community, which he identifies as “my own people.” He also emphasizes his longstanding connection with Jerusalem (cf. Acts 22:3, where Paul speaks of being born in Tarsus, but brought up in Jerusalem). Paul speaks of his association with Pharisees, which he describes as “the strictest [akribestatēn] sect of our religion” (v. 5). Josephus employs a cognate of Greek word translated as “strictest” in his description of the Pharisees (J. W. 2.162). It is perhaps significant that Paul employs an aorist (past) tense verb, saying that he “lived as a Pharisee.” Paul does, like the Pharisees of his time, hold to a belief in resurrection (cf. 23:6). But he no longer lives as a Pharisee (cf. Phil 3:5-8).

In vv. 6-8 Paul comes closest to actually addressing the “charges” for which he stands on trial. He claims that he stands where he does because he embraces the hope of his fellow Jews—a hope for the realization of the promises that God made “to our ancestors” (v. 6). It is a hope for which his people long and “worship night and day” (v. 7). “For this Jewish hope I am being accused by Jews,” is how C. K. Barrett paraphrases the last line of v. 7. Paul has not mentioned Jesus, and he will not mention “resurrection” until the next verse, but readers know that the hope of which Paul speaks is the resurrection. And readers know that, for Paul, that hope is finding present fulfillment in that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

The hope of resurrection for Jews meant far more than the hope of an individual afterlife (though it included that). Resurrection had become an inclusive symbol of the hope of liberation from all that oppressed God’s people. With such liberation, “we [Jews], being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve [God] without fear” (Luke 1:74). Paul asks incredulously why “any of you” (plural) think it incredible (lit., “unbelievable”) that God raises the dead (v. 8).

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 476–77.

Christianity and the Power of Rome

The narrative also makes clear what Jesus’ disciples are and are not to expect from the state. On the one hand, the state is available to offer disciples protection against violence (23:17-22). The state respects a disciple’s Roman citizenship (22:27-29; 25:16), often sparing no expense to guarantee a citizen’s physical safety (23:23). On the other hand, one must be realistic about what can be expected in the way of implementation of Roman justice. If Paul is deemed completely innocent, why does he remain a prisoner? At one level, Paul’s continuing imprisonment is viewed as due to human evil. Both Felix (24:27), and Festus (25:9) dilute the justice due to Paul by their desire to please the Jews (cf. 12:3). Moreover, Felix’s desire for a bribe (24:26) gives him an additional reason to keep Paul in custody. Even though Roman officials recognize his innocence, they do not give Paul full justice because of their personal failings. Whereas the disciples of Jesus may expect to benefit from Roman justice, contingent on the character of the individual administrators, there is one area in which they should not expect anything from the State. The Roman state is not competent to judge religious or theological matters about which Messianists and non-Messianists clash (25:20a, 26; 26:24; see 18:15). The matter of resurrection is incomprehensible to the state.

An auxiliary point in the narrative concerns the suffering of Jesus’ followers (cf. Heb 10:32-34; 1 Pet 4:4). Paul in this narrative acts to protect himself from senseless violence. He does not rush into martyrdom but uses his legal options. He makes use of the Roman legal system to preserve his life (23:17-22; 25:10-12; cf. 16:37-39). He manifests no lust for death as Ignatius of Antioch and the young Origen do later. Messianists may die as martyrs, Luke thinks, but this is only after they have exhausted every legal recourse. Martyrdom is not suicide.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 210.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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