We’ve seen Paul defend the gospel, but now we see him defending himself (Acts 25:8), because in order to defend the gospel, sometimes we need to defend ourselves against false accusations. Paul shows us how: Proclaim the truth, keep the accusations false, and proclaim the Truth.
Acts: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Darrel Bock
A few of the wildly popular shows of the past decade have had to do with false accusations. There was NPR’s serial, which raised questions as to whether Adnan Sayeed had been wrongly charged with murder. There was Netflix’s Making a Murderer, which told the true story of Steven Avery’s false conviction, and then raised questions about another. More recently, there was When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries on the Central Park 5, 4 black and 1 latino young boys who were wrongly accused and convicted of rape in the late 80s. One of the appealing elements of such stories is the sympathy we feel for those wrongly accused: We can see it’s false, but to be on the receiving end of a false accusation makes you feel so powerless. In the passage at which we’re looking today, the Apostle Paul is the object of false accusations. His opponents hate him so much, and really hate Christianity so much, that when they see him, they look for ways to stop him, including false accusations. Today also, there will be some who reject Christ, who then also look for reasons to accuse Christians. How can you deal with that if and when you face it? Paul is going to show us in this passage how to Stand firm against false accusations. He shows us three ways: Proclaim the truth, keep the accusations false, and proclaim the Truth (capital T).
Proclaim the truth
Our passage begins with the High Priest Ananias coming down and his spokesman, Tertullus, levelling the charges against Paul. The charges are that Paul stirs up riots, leads a sect, and profanes the temple. Paul responds to these false accusations by proclaiming the truth in verses 10-15. In fact, in Jerusalem Paul did not dispute or stir up any crowd. Instead, he was at the temple going through a purification ritual when they found him, and he had come to Jerusalem in the first place to worship and bring relief for the poor. He was going through a purification ritual in the temple when they came to grab him and accuse him of profaning the temple. He didn’t stir up a riot, he didn’t profane the temple, but he does confess in verse 14 that according to the Way, he worships the God of their fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. So Paul’s kinda like, “If you want to call that a sect ok, but it’s really just the fulfillment of the Way God spoke to our fathers all along.” We get a summary of Paul’s defense in 25:8, where we read that Paul spoke in his defense, saying that he hasn’t committed any offense against the law of the Jews, the temple, or Caesar. Paul was willing to defend himself against false accusations by proclaiming the truth about what he had and had not done.
Sometimes when people are constantly making false accusations against you, you can start to wonder whether they are really true, especially when you hear them over and over and over again. You can begin to wonder even, “Am I just being arrogant here by standing up for myself? Aren’t I supposed to examine myself, remove the log from my own eye, etc.?” Yes, you are supposed to do that according to Jesus, but if you examine the accusations and yourself and they just aren’t true, you should actually proclaim that truth. It was a good thing that Paul argued in his own defense, because one of the classic tactics opponents of Christianity use against it is to attack its messengers. Part of defending the gospel, then, is defending ourselves from false accusations. That can be a cover for pride and arrogance, no doubt, but it doesn’t have to be, and there is also a temptation to confess sins you haven’t committed or apologize for things you didn’t do just because it ends the conflict. That’s fear of man, not humility.
There are plenty of things for which Christians and we individually are guilty; I’ll talk about that more in a moment, but there is also a great temptation today for Christians to too quickly own every accusation made against Christians. It’s just easier sometimes to say, “Yep, you’re right; the church sucks,” rather than standing firm and proclaiming the truth. So let’s consider some examples: Many opponents of the gospel today want to say that the church has been responsible for so much evil in the world. Unlike in Paul’s case, there is some truth in that accusation: Wars have been fought in the name of Jesus, the Salem witch trials did happen, white evangelical American Christians were and in many ways still are complicit in our country’s racism. Part of proclaiming the truth is proclaiming those truths; there should be no defense made for them. However, to say only that much is simply not to proclaim the whole truth. It needs to also be said that Christianity was the first multi-ethnic religion the world had ever known, that Christians in the Roman Empire took in infant children that other ordinary citizens were leaving for dead and stayed in Rome during the plague to care for the sick, knowing that they too were likely to be infected. Christians invented the hospital, abolished the slave trade, and developed the idea that we ought to care for every person just because they’re people, even if they’re weak, that we ought not to just conquer the nation next door to gain more power; human rights as we think of them today came to us from Christianity. The abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell, who actually lived in Philadelphia for a time, once said, “I challenge any skeptic to find a ten square mile spot on this planet where they can live their lives in peace and safety and decency, where womanhood is honored, where infancy and old age are revered, where they can educate their children, where the Gospel of Jesus Christ has not gone first to prepare the way.” The very idea that oppression is a bad thing is an idea that could only come about and in fact only has come about historically in a society with centuries of Christian influence prior to it.
And yet, Christians are often charged today in a place like Philadelphia with being oppressive, in part because Christians do teach, following the Bible, that sexual activity ought to be confined to marriage, and marriage is between one man and one woman. Does this make Christianity oppressive? If by oppressive you mean we claim some things are right and other things are wrong, yes, but then so is anyone who says racism is wrong, sexism is wrong, oppression is wrong, etc. If simply telling someone something they want to do is wrong constitutes oppression, how is not oppressive to tell Christians that what they want to preach is wrong? Don’t wear the accusations of the culture too heavily. Argue in your or in Christianity’s defense if you’re facing a false accusation. But also make sure to keep the accusations false; that’s the next thing we’ll talk about.
Keep the accusations false
Amidst Paul’s defense of himself, we find this little statement in verse 16 of chapter 24: “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” The first half is perhaps unsurprising: Of course you should try to have a clear conscience toward God. He is our Creator, and it is right that we who were created by God should live to His glory. But why take pains to have a clear conscience toward man? I thought we weren’t supposed to care what others thought of us: Don’t fear people, don’t be a people-pleaser, and so forth. That’s true, and Paul is clearly willing to do things people don’t like: He keeps preaching the gospel. So Paul doesn’t have people-pleasing issues, but he does take pains to have a clear conscience not only toward God, but toward man. What does that mean?
Another way the Bible will talk about this is living “above reproach.” It means not only doing the right thing before God, but seeking to live in such a way that, as much as possible, you remove even the appearance of wrongdoing before men. In other words, you remove any grounding for true accusations against you from men. Paul could speak in his own defense because the accusations were genuinely false. He could say, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caeasar have I committed any offense” because he really hadn’t. So it’s important for Christians when you hear the accusations of the opponents of Christianity, that you do actually examine yourself to make sure they aren’t true.
It doesn’t do much good to say, “Christianity isn’t oppressive” if you are actually kind of a jerk to everyone who disagrees with some point of Christian theology. It doesn’t do much good to say, “Christians don’t hate gay people” if you avoid all the gay people around you or can’t walk with other Christians struggling with same-sex attraction. It doesn’t do much good to say, “Christians aren’t racist” if there is no evidence in your life of love for people who are different from you, and so forth. Of course, in some ways all of us fall short in this, but even there, there is a way to maintain a clear conscience toward both God and man. When you do fail, confess your sin to God, and ask His forgiveness. Say about it what He does, rather than rationalizing or minimizing it. And then, to keep a clear conscience before men, make your repentance as public as the sin. Confess to others. If you’ve been publicly racist, confess it publicly. If you argue with your spouse in front of your kids, apologize to your spouse in front of your kids. If you engage in sinful activity with your co-workers, confess it to your co-workers.
I still remember a time when I was in college shortly after becoming a Christian when I had some friends in from out of town and I got really drunk with them. I felt terrible the next morning, physically, but also felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit that I’d sinned against God. So I confessed it to God, but I was also worried that I might be removed from the leadership role I had in the ministry of which I was a part. So I confessed to the leader of that ministry, and he had amazing grace on me, thanked me for my honesty, and prayed for me. But he also told me he wanted me to apologize to the people I was with that night that I got drunk. That scared the crap out of me, but it ended up being a really healing experience. It cleared my conscience not only before God, but before men.
Of course you can say, “Well I shouldn’t have to do that or any of this; I’m just going to do the right thing before God and people can think of me whatever they want.” My flesh kinda likes that too, honestly, but do you see what you’re saying? You’re saying, “I don’t want to have to think about other people.” I don’t want to have to “take the pains” as Paul puts it, to maintain a clear conscience toward God and man. Where is the love in that? It’s not how the Apostle Paul lived. He was concerned for what people thought of him, not because he needed them to like him, but because he loved them, and he cared ultimately what they thought of Jesus. He didn’t want to get in the way of them knowing Christ, and so, part of his standing firm in the face of false accusations was not only proclaiming the truth of his innocence and keeping the accusations false, it was proclaiming the truth, the capital-T truth, of the gospel. Let’s talk about that last.
Proclaim the Truth
In verse 24, after Paul’s original trial before Felix, we read that Felix sent for Paul and talked with him in private along with his wife Drusilla, who happened to be Jewish. What do we find Paul talking about in this setting? You guessed it: Faith in Christ Jesus, verse 24, and then righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment. Now of all the different points in Christian theology of which Paul could have spoken, why does he choose those 3? Well, it seems they would have been particularly relevant to Felix and Drusilla. Drusilla was Felix’s third wife, and she became his wife when Felix persuaded her to leave a previous marriage. They’d been faithless to marriage covenants they’d made in the past; that’s unrighteous. They lacked self-control, acting on their desires for one another rather than either of their existing marriage covenants. It’s common for people to do this sort of thing especially if they are wealthy and powerful; they know they can get away with it. So Paul also tells them about a coming judgment. In talking to them about faith in Jesus, Paul seems to have chosen his emphases to convince Felix and Drusilla that they are sinners, and that there is a judgment coming, in hope that they would exercise faith in Jesus Christ for salvation from their sins and that coming judgment.
Typically when Paul is speaking to a Gentile audience, as half of his audience is here at least, he doesn’t begin proclaiming the gospel to them by talking about sin. Remember in Acts 17, he began by saying, “I see that in every way you are very religious,” building a bridge. But, he does get to talking about sin. Though he may start with the part of the truth that connects to his audience, he gets to the whole truth, especially when in private with particular people. Do you ever get around to talking about those parts of the gospel that might be hard, that might offend the people to whom you’re proclaiming it? One might think that when on trial and having the opportunity of a private meeting with the Governor, that Paul would seek to ingratiate himself to the governor or at least plead his case. Instead he takes the opportunity to preach the gospel, even the parts that might confront or offend Felix.
And in fact, that is what happens. We read in verse 25 that Felix was alarmed and sent Paul away, but Paul doesn’t retract what he said. He was there not merely to defend himself, but to defend the gospel. Even later in the passage when Paul appeals to Caesar and is sent to Rome, the reason he’s probably doing that is so he can get to Rome and preach the gospel there too. He defended himself not so much to defend himself, but to defend the gospel. He maintained a clear conscience toward both God and man not to make people like him, but to not get in the way of people liking Jesus. He proclaimed even the offensive parts of the gospel to Felix and Drusilla because his heart wasn’t to win a trial; it was to win them. When you have a cause like that in your life, it centers you, it enables you to stand firm, whatever false accusations come your way.
But better yet, Paul didn’t so much have a cause for which to stand firm: He had a person for whom to stand firm. He knew Jesus; do you? No matter how falsely accused Paul or you have been, no one had it worse than Jesus. Though He was God, He was accused of speaking against God. Though He was tempted in every way yet without sin, He was unjustly convicted as a violator of God’s law. False witnesses were called against Him. The crowd asked for an actual thief rather than Him. One of the thieves on the cross next to Jesus even recognized this when he said, “And we [are punished] justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). Jesus is the only one who could ultimately say all the accusations against Him were false, and He died nonetheless, to bear the sins and the judgment for those who were guilty, who stood truly condemned under God’s law, so that any who believe in Him would receive His righteousness as a gift and be saved from the coming judgment.
The only way to ultimately have a clear conscience before God and men is to have your conscience cleansed through faith in Christ, to know that though your sins are many, they have been imputed to Christ, and His righteousness has been imputed to you. If God is now for you, who can be against you? Don’t be afraid of accusations; the true accusation of your sin has already been dealt with by Jesus. Who can bring any charge against you? It is God who justifies. Don’t fear people, but don’t forget people either. Love people enough to proclaim the truth, go through the pains of maintaining a clear conscience before them, and proclaim to them the whole Truth, even the parts that seem offensive, for Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and you know there is nothing better than knowing Him.