Paul answered, “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do no refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” (verses 10-11)
As I watch Paul navigate an unjust arrest and imprisonment, I am reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
There is an underlying graciousness to Paul’s response throughout, but there is also a shrewd understanding of his own rights and of the workings of Roman rule. Here’s what I notice:
• Paul affirms Roman law and justice. He seems to have a high regard for these secular institutions, in line with what he says in Romans 13, viewing them as established by the Lord himself. He submits to them, willing to suffer even death, if guilty, knowing that government officials do not “bear the sword for nothing” – their authority has been “established by God” (Romans 13:1-4).
• He calls Festus to account, explicitly stating that Festus knows full well Paul’s innocence. It’s said very graciously, but it’s a rebuke – a very daring thing for Paul to do, given the circumstances.
• He presses on the levers of the system, requiring it to function within its own bounds. “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried” (verse 10), he says, placing himself confidently within Roman jurisdiction. But then he pushes clearly on the implications, declaring that “no one has the right to hand me over” to the Jews (verse 11). He knows the law, is willing to submit, but also presses to ensure it functions as it should.
• He takes full advantage of his rights. As a Roman citizen he has the right of appeal – he can press his case to a higher court, to Rome and to Caesar himself. Paul, knowing his rights, exercises them fully.
All of this is undergirded by Paul’s clear understanding that he is the Lord’s servant, and that the Lord himself has a purpose he is working out. Paul has been reminded, time and again over the past season, that imprisonment awaited him as he travelled to Jerusalem, but that the Spirit was urging him to press on nonetheless. He knows, too, that the Lord has called him to testify in Rome itself, his plan being stronger than any whim of human authorities.
So, he’s as shrewd as a snake, as innocent as a dove, and as faith-filled as any Apostle could be.
In our own time, in the midst of political polarization, violent declarations of personal rights, and disregard for established authorities of society, followers of Jesus need to embrace Paul’s example: wise and bold, yet gracious and willing to submit, all the time trusting implicitly in the Sovereign Lord rather than in our own scrappiness or protest or political might.
It’s a challenging road.
Sovereign Lord, I entrust myself to you again, knowing that your call on my life holds precedence over any other human authority. In honour of you, I submit myself again to the authorities you have put in place. Grant them wisdom beyond themselves. Meanwhile, grant me strength to live faithful and true to you, balancing shrewdness and innocence, boldness and grace. To the honour of Jesus’ name. Amen.
Reflect: Which do you find easier to employ: Shrewdness or innocence? Boldness or grace? Ask the Lord for strength where you need it most.