It is easy to ‘gloss over’ the human consequences and emotions of the last verse of Acts 24: “When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favour to the Jews, he left Paul in prison”. Imagine how Paul must have felt! He had been spearheading the greatest revival yet in the history of the Early Church, growing churches every week, doing miracles, debating with the most intellectual of opponents and discipling great men of God throughout the Roman world. And then he was taken out of the picture. Imprisoned, he could do nothing much but pray, study, and pass messages to his colleagues. So frustrating! Sometimes Christian leaders need to learn to be patient with God as they see their ministry side-lined, their gifts wasted, and their calling placed ‘on pause’.
Festus was a better man altogether than Felix, but he clearly decided to ‘begin at the beginning’ with Paul’s case and he began a dialogue with the Jewish authorities immediately. Those smooth-talking leaders wanted Paul transferred to their jurisdiction in Jerusalem, to ‘save Festus the bother of a civil trial’ – and, of course, to have Paul murdered in transit. To his credit, Festus refused to take that easy way out – or else we would all still be pagans!
Requesting that Paul’s accusers join him in Caesarea for a proper trial, he returned to his palace and listened carefully to the allegations and evidence. He quickly realised that Paul had done nothing wrong under Roman law – or Jewish law, for that matter. So, his duty as Governor done, he thought he might as well curry favour with the Jewish rulers and persuade Paul to accept a Jewish religious trial.
Paul refused to ‘take the bait’ and insisted that Caesar’s court was officially represented by Festus, who had not found him guilty. Therefore, he was certainly not going to yield to the increasing pressure to ‘play along’ to the Jews’ request. There was really only one option left for Paul, if he was to avoid death or further house arrest: “I appeal to Caesar”; in effect, as a Roman citizen, he wanted a hearing at the highest court in the world. This was an official plea that Festus could not ignore, and he agreed for Paul to be taken to Rome at the earliest opportunity.
Whilst arrangements were being made, King Agrippa II and his ‘sister’, Bernice – also known as his ‘lover’! – arrived to welcome Festus to his seat of power. Agrippa had jurisdiction over the Galilee region of Israel. He was fascinated by the prisoner, Paul and wanted to hear his story. Festus willingly agreed, both as a social entertainment for his guests and because Agrippa would then be able to assist in drafting the official charge document that would travel with Paul to the Emperor. In explaining all this to Agrippa, Festus made it sound as though Paul would have been set free if he had not made his appeal.
The story continues tomorrow…
2 KINGS 12, 13 and 14
Sometimes if you want a job done, you just have to get on and organise it yourself. And if you have been King of Judah since you were seven years old, you could be forgiven for getting a bit impatient over the lack of progress in your lifetime! Joash was the new king, taking over from the tender age of seven from the six tyrannical years under Athaliah, the previous Queen Mother, and being guided diligently and impartially by Jehoiada the priest into closely following the ways of the Lord. Joash had decided to restore the temple and needed money to pay the workman, therefore he asked the Levites to collect it and use it for the reconstruction work. However, for some reason, they all prevaricated and so the work didn’t really get started. Eventually, Joash himself had a large secure chest converted into a giant moneybox (i.e. it was easy to put it in but hard to get it out). The people were commanded to bring their due taxes (as initiated by Moses) and put them into the chest, which was then emptied by a representative of the priesthood and one from the palace. After that, the work progressed spectacularly fast.
It may seem strange and unnecessary to you that God’s people should be spoken to directly by those in government over them to persuade them to do what they should have been doing anyway. Giving money seems, to some Christians, a very private (almost ‘sacred’) thing, never to be mentioned aloud. These Christians would have therefore been extremely uncomfortable in Jesus’ day, since he spoke a great deal about money; and they would also have felt ‘imposed upon’ in Joash’s era. Perhaps we need to kill this myth that money and giving are somehow so secret, and instead reinstate the New Testament philosophies of generosity, transparency and free-will giving. It is sad to say that many bible-believing Christians of today have used times of hardship or recession as an excuse to cut back on their giving to their local church and to hide behind a veil of confidentiality and secrecy to save face. But the Lord sees! And he cannot be mocked. Why not set yourself the challenge of giving faithfully – with perhaps the nominal ‘ten percent’ level as a faith target in some cases, or a starting point in others?
After his friend and spiritual mentor, Jehoiada, died, Joash rather ‘went off the rails’ spiritually. He forsook the Lord and slid back to the old Baal worship, rejecting and persecuting the Lord’s prophets who spoke the word to him. When someone who mentors us no longer has the same influence, for whatever reason, this is the acid test of how effective their discipleship was – when the disciple must stand on their own two feet; will they stay loyal to their mentor and his teachings, or will they forget the grace that has been given them and reject the years of good guidance? God punished Joash with death by the hands of his officials – something that Solomon’s aides would never have dreamed of doing!
Meanwhile, Jehoahaz son of Jehu had become king in Israel, and he began as badly as Jeroboam and Ahab had ended their reigns. But, like Ahab, he repented and sought God’s favour – God just cannot resist repentance, no matter how long you have been in rebellion – and God rescued both the king and the nation. Jehahaz’s son, Jehoash, succeeded his father as king; he was just as bad as any other recent king too! Just before Elisha’s death from a serious illness (notice that even prophets of God became ill), Elisha delivered his final prophetic statements about the Northern Kingdom, illustrated by the shooting and striking of arrows. Even after his death, Elisha’s bones held potent life-giving power, raising another dead man to life just by contact with Elisha’s skeleton. We today might not have quite this effect upon the next generation, but we too can leave a life-giving legacy behind, so that after our death, others may come to live forever in a different way!
Unusually, a good king follows a bad king in Judah. Amaziah succeeded his father Joash. We recall from yesterday’s reading that Joash had started off well, under the discipleship of Jehoiada, but had ‘gone bad’ later in his life. Amaziah his son had been blessed by some godly parenting early in his childhood and youth and he had retained these principles of faith and character when he grew older. The first few years of a child’s life are critical in the formation of godly character – and it is the parents’ number one task to fashion this in their children at an early age. It is impossible to start too young and easy to leave it too late! “Bring up a child in the way he/she should go…”.
Amaziah mustered a large army and reinforced it by hiring a hundred thousand mercenaries from Northern Israel. Later, as he was preparing to attack the men of Mount Seir, a prophet challenged him not to rely on these extra men, but to put his full trust in the Lord. He obeyed, despite having paid a huge sum of money, and he sent the mercenaries home. The battle turned out to be a great victory for Amaziah, vindicating the prophetic word and the king’s faith in God.
The weird thing that followed was that Amaziah started to worship the captured idol-gods of the peoples of Seir, bowing down to them instead of to the Lord. The pithy question from the next prophet summed up God’s exasperation with Amaziah: “Why do you consult this people’s gods, which could not save their own people from your hand?” (2 Chronicles 25:15). The king refused to listen, let alone to repent. Instead, he attacked Jehoash, the incumbent King of Israel and was brutally defeated, Jerusalem partially destroyed and great plunder taken from Judah back to Israel. Eventually, some of his own people tracked the fleeing Amaziah down and killed him. His son, Azariah became king at the age of sixteen.
These simple accounts of obedience or disobedience to the Lord, of trust in human power and resources, or trust in the Lord’s provision and protection, are the abiding themes of the books of Kings and Chronicles. The bias of these kings and their people towards foreign gods, carved images and demonic and crudely sexualised practices was the main reason that eventually the Lord swept them all from his land – Israel first, and then Judah. They had become no better than the nations that they themselves had displaced as the original act of God’s justice in the land. The nation became like the idols they sought to worship: they became ‘nothings’!