Caesarea was a lavishly built port which King Herod developed on Judea’s coast. A very Gentile city, it was the main residence of the Roman governor of the land. At the time of Paul’s arrest this is Marcus Antonius Felix and the Lysias, the commander in Jerusalem, has sent Paul to him to be tried by Felix, after an assassination plot was uncovered (Ac 23:20-24). But though Paul looks like the helpless victim of a tyrannical political and legal system, actually he is a witness in a far more important legal process: the trying of Israel by the Lord for their failure to acknowledge and respond to Him. (Ac 20:22-24).
The court in Caesarea is an unpleasant place for Paul to be, with different parties playing for power and working to their own agenda. The high priest has come down from Jerusalem to see Paul condemned, bringing with him a lawyer named Tertullus (v1). Speaking in the stand legal fashion, Tertullus opens with flattery for the governor – no doubt the wily and cynical governor loved to have his authority honoured (v2,3). The lawyer explains why they are bothering the governor at all: because Paul is disturbing the peace which Felix has worked hard (and violently) to establish. It’s a foul and degraded scene with the high priest of Israel smiling at the words of praise for this brutal oppressor of his people, who worships idols and despises the God of Israel. He’s willing to play by the Gentile’s rules to get rid of his enemy. But he will regret it because what you sow is also what you reap (Ga 6:7): one day the Gentiles will smash his temple (Mt 24).
Knowing that Felix is a busy man (v4), Tertullus moves on to declare Paul is a troublemaker who causes riots all over the place (v5). Although Paul by background is a Jerusalem Pharisee, the lawyer focuses on him being a leader amongst the Nazarenes thus associating him with a backwater, messianic movement. He also insists that Paul has desecrated the temple (v6), which is a straight slander (Ac 21:27-29). Tertullus calls no witnesses to show this but is confident that Felix will know the truth (v8)! The Jewish faction readily shout their support (v9).
The scene reminds us how often the world doesn’t play fair. Bribery, flattery, slander, spin, wheeling and dealing can be found in so many parts of life, running rife in some societies. Christians aren’t to be naive about that, but neither are we to use the same techniques. We don’t play the world’s way because we know it doesn’t end well (Mt 26:52). We honour the Lord and maintain the truth, believing that he will bring justice in the end (Ro 12:18,19). That’s not easy since such ways can crush the spirit. But the Lord is to be trusted.
We also keep in mind that whatever mini-courts we face in this life, we are all part of a much bigger court case: the Lord versus the world (Jo 16:7-11). All will give an account before Him. Christians are to live conscious of that, concerned to honour him in everything. And we are to live as witnesses: those who speak the truth about Christ so that the world has no excuse.
Finally, Tertullus reminds us of the downside of lawyers. That includes those who misbehave within the formal legal system. But there are other ‘lawyers’ who trouble us too. There are those people who in everyday life have strong opinions and are always quick to condemn others around them. Well, it can be good to listen to personal criticism so that you can root out sin, learn wisdom and discover mistakes. But we are to be wary of those who criticise for their own reasons and whose invalid opinions may simply get us down. The Christian’s desire is for true rebukes given in love (Pr 15:31), not for the proud judgements of those who need to assess themselves first (Lu 6:42). Then there is also the ‘inner lawyer’. We all have consciences and they are very useful, helping us to feel when we have sinned. But our consciences have also been damaged by the fall of humanity, such that we can feel bad when we shouldn’t and we can be played by the Satan, who loves to accuse us of anything he can. We, therefore, have to test our feelings carefully by God’s word. If we have broken his commands, then we must repent. But we should not feel condemned for other reasons. And as Christians we are always to remember that in God’s sight we are justified through Christ: though sinners, we have already received the ‘not guilty’ verdict from the supreme judge, thanks to sacrifice of our Saviour (Ro 3:22-24).