Many love a gossipy royal story, especially when it involves immorality, corruption, power and greed. Well, those were certainly part of the lives of the family of Herods who appear for the last time in Scripture here with King Agrippa and his sister Bernice. However, they appear not for gossip but in contrast to the true king, Jesus, whose humble life was truly great and glorious.
The apostle Paul has been imprisoned in Caesarea for two years, whilst his case was heard firstly by Felix and more recently by Festus (Ac 24:27). Now he has appealed to Caesar and awaits transport to Rome (Ac 25:11,12). But in the meantime a member of the Herod family arrives. These royals have been overlapping with the story of Jesus since Herod the Great at the beginning of Luke’s gospel (Lu 1:5). Here we have his great grandchildren, the siblings King Agrippa and Bernice (v13); in between we meet other family members including Antipas who interrogated Jesus prior to his crucifixion (Lu 23:8). It’s said that this brother and sister were incestuous. Certainly in our verses they have status and power, entering the story with pomp (v23) to advise the Roman governor (v14, 26). Yet, their cheap glory is fading fast. Soon Judea will be smashed by the Jewish-Roman war and the Herods will vanish out of the history books, whilst Jesus rises to greater and greater glory. Israel will be seen to have chosen the wrong king.
It’s a common sin, as seen in our delight in royal stories of corruption, immorality and deceit. Sure, we also love to see the rich fall but that’s often just envy, a wish that we could have their lives. Sometimes we even imagine that we’d be better rulers but that’s unlikely. Though some leaders are obviously better than others, all fall in the end for sin ruins everything. Only the Lord Jesus, the king free of sin, is suited to being the truly good King.
Well, somehow Luke has a record of the conversation of Agrippa with Festus and on the surface it sounds very fine: they are discussing a tricky case of justice (v14,15). But it’s not really since no evidence exists (Ac 23:29; 25:8) and the case has already been examined over a long period by the previous governor (Ac 24:27). This is so typical. People will talk earnestly about seeking what is just but the reality is that our judgement is affected by many other factors. Festus is political, Agrippa is power-hungry, the proud leaders of Jerusalem are self-serving, and justice soon fades in importance when other factors come into play (Ac 24:27). So Festus may sound reasonable (v16,17), serious (v18,19), practical (v20) and fair (v21). But the reality is that he wants to keep in with the Jews (Ac 25:9) and endangers Paul despite surely knowing about the threats on his life (Ac 25:3; 23:30). Meanwhile, Agrippa is a show-off (v22,23) who is flattered by Festus (v24-26) and asked to recommend a charge to place against Paul for Caesar, despite there being no crime that he’s committed (v26,27)! These leaders concerned for justice are so unjust.
We have to be wary of this sin in others and ourselves. It’s too easy to dress us up fair what is actually biased. We claim to follow the evidence but actually our emotions, relationships and desires are driving our decisions so that we see what we want to see. But Christians have to remember that God desires truth (Jo 18:37), hates lies (Pr 12:22) and is just (Is 30:18); we are to live by his ways. The world is a sinful place and wickedness is to be condemned. But Christians are to be careful only to do so when the evidence is clear and we are guided by God’s law.
But in contrast to what is seen in this courtroom, Jesus is a true king and judge. What is the striking difference between him and the Herods? Humility (Ph 2:5-7). In the end God only trusts a man to judge the world (Ac 17:31) who has shown himself willing to lay down his life for others (Jo 10:17). Jesus said that only a person who can love his enemies, be kind to the ungrateful, show mercy and forgive, is ready to judge another; only a person free from pride can truly assess another (Lu 6:27-42). At the end of a short life, Jesus had been stripped of possessions (Jo 19:24), ridiculed as stupid and derided as useless (Mt 27:41-43). Yet who is honoured globally as a king today? None of the Herods! Jesus is God’s true king worthy of our trust and service. And though in this life that may leave us with little, this humble path has been proven by Jesus to be the best. Festus may feel that Paul’s message is a weird one (v19) but for us it is the heart of our faith. Jesus died but rose again to ascend to glory. Those who trust in him will do the same.