“But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off, saying, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.” Then he gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody but have some liberty, and that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs. After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him. When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.” (Acts 24:22-27 ESV)
CTRL-ALT-DELETE, just three keys on a computer keyboard but most of us know what happens when they are used together – the system resets and reboots. David Bradley, who was one of the engineers working on the original design of the IBM PC, needed a way to “reset” the system quickly as they worked through the process of fixing “bugs” that caused the system to stop working. So, he programmed this key combination into the system’s control brain (the BIOS or Basic Input/Output System) so that the design team had a way to quickly reset the system as they encountered and resolved these system bugs. Originally, he had used a different key combination but the team quickly realized that those keys were too close together and they could accidentally cause the system to reset, so the key combination was changed to the combination we know and use today.
Have you ever needed a personal “system reset” or a life reboot? Sometimes we find ourselves following particular personal or professional habits or making life choices that aren’t really good for us or our future. Destructive habits can also be very difficult to break or overcome. It is not uncommon to develop these destructive habits when we are young and then struggle to overcome them as we mature and slowly recognize the control they exercise over our lives. We get “locked” into a destructive pattern by our habits and then find it almost impossibly to break the pattern and turn our lives around. Thus, a personal “system reset” or life reboot might help us break the cycle and get our lives back on a positive track.
In today’s focal passage, Felix is facing a life situation much like what I describe. He has developed a habit of using situations like Paul’s for his personal benefit and financial gain. He is known for being open to bribery and, at the same time, cruel and ruthless in his treatment of those who oppose him or stand in his way. Paul’s case and the charges made against him are not overly complex or difficult to assess. Felix has heard the charges made against Paul by the Jewish Council and High Priest and he has heard Paul’s defense and rebuttal. He initially delays his decision until he can talk to Lysias, the Roman Tribune who saved Paul from the Jewish mob.
Felix and his wife, Drusilla – who happens to be Jewish and the daughter of Herod – have a very clear understanding of “the Way” or of Christ’s followers. They summon for Paul to be brought and they engage him in a conversation about these beliefs and about faith in Christ. But I want you to notice that Luke tells us that Paul reasoned with them about righteousness, self-control and judgement and, for the next few minutes, I want us to consider the importance of these topics in our own lives. Why? Because there’s more going on here than you might think…
“And when he [Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” (John 16:8-11 ESV)
Felix has an accurate knowledge of “the Way.” I don’t believe that means that Felix understands the intimate theological beliefs and teachings of Christ. Rather, it appears to mean that Felix knows the charges being made against Paul and Paul’s beliefs are motivated by the High Priest and the Council and are not a social or political threat and that Paul is not guilty of sedition or of inciting riots. Paul isn’t a threat and he’s not guilty of these charges, but he’s also not released. Something else is going on here…
Feigned innocence. A child walks in and finds his parent with a stern look on their face and the child asks, “What? What’s wrong? I didn’t do it!” The child tries to act innocent, but the parent knows. The child knows. Uh oh, too late. He’s been caught. No matter how innocent he acts, there’s no getting out of this one. He’s in trouble, deep, deep trouble…
Felix is in trouble, and he knows it. Habits formed early in his career are leading him down the wrong path. Bribery. Cruelty. Selfish ambition. Pride. These habits have enabled him to climb the ladder of political expedience, influence and power. But every habit has a price and, ultimately, that cost is so high that it accumulates until it puts him into a personal and professional tail spin that is leading to a crash, to absolute and utter failure. I think that Felix is beginning to see his life and career spin out of control and Paul’s calm spirit and quiet demeanor of trust in Christ is like salve on a festering wound in Felix’s soul.
In fact, Luke draws a stark contrast between Felix the Governor and Paul the prisoner. The one in power is struggling, fearful, seeking solace and hope for the future as he asks Paul to come see him, again and again. The one in prison is confident, calm, and unafraid of his circumstances and his uncertain future while exuding hope and trust in his unseen Lord. The Governor is floundering and the prisoner is thriving. Something’s amiss. Life feels like it has been flipped upside down and Felix knows it.
Today, I want us to pay close attention to the things that Luke tells us Paul focused on as he spoke to Felix: 1) righteousness; 2) self-control; 3) and pending judgement.
RIGHTEOUSNESS. While it is a big and daunting religious word it really just means “right living.” Lots of folks today like to pretend that ethics, morality and right living is a private, personal and relative matter. In other words, what I do and the way I live is my own business and what’s right for you may not be right for me. Those who hold such a view might say things like, “there is no such thing as absolute truth,” “that may be ok for you, but it isn’t for me” or “who am I to judge?”
However, nobody really, really believes in moral relativism. How can I be so certain of that statement? First, moral relativism is based on the false presupposition that absolute truth does not and cannot exist. Why would I call it a false presupposition? Because it is a self-defeating claim – it states that absolute truths do not exist but is itself a statement of absolute truth and is making an absolute claim – absolute truths absolutely do not exist. I hope you see the flaw in their logic. You can’t throw out the existence of absolute truths while basing your claim on an absolute, indisputable truth.
Second, to claim that all morality is relative is to simply ignore the reality of life. We live our lives dependent upon the fact that we all share basic fundamental truths about what is right and wrong in our lives. For example, regardless of what culture you come from we would all agree that child abuse, murder, rape, greed, hunger and theft are wrong. In fact, I have jokingly said in the past that I can prove to anyone that he believes in moral absolutes simply by punching him in the nose. To do so would elicit the response, “Hey, why did you do that? That’s not right!” In other words, they believe that I don’t have the right to act violently towards them without a justifiable reason.
Ok, let me get to the core of this matter. We all know when someone is not “living or acting right.” Sometimes that person is us, and when it is we tend to make excuses for our actions. We try and justify ourselves. We attempt to make our actions appear just or reasonable. We might respond by placing blame on someone else (it’s his fault, he made me do it) or by downplaying our actions (well, I only did what I had to do). Here’s the deal… we are all guilty. We all do it. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do. To use Paul’s term, we aren’t righteous. We are unrighteous or sinful.
G.K. Chesterton once noted that “certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” What did Chesterton mean? Look around you, read the newspaper, watch the news, sin is all around us and is impacting EVERY area of life. If you really want to see how pervasive sin really is, visit the nursery in church when several toddlers are present. Watch how quickly a fight develops between them over a toy that one of them has and the other one wants.
So, righteousness is a contrast to sin just as Jesus’ life is in stark contrast to our lives. His personal righteousness throws a spotlight on our personal sin – which is really the point. Our sin becomes very apparent when our lives are compared to his, not one another. We justify our sin by making comparisons to each other. “Well, I’m not any worse than they are.” When we compare ourselves with the true standard – Jesus, we recognize our sin – our lack of righteousness.
Next, they discussed self-control. What a novel concept. Well, it is novel in our culture. We seem to have abandoned all notion of self-control or self-mastery. It is important to note that while Christian self-control is internal control it isn’t achieved in isolation or even through one’s own internal strength. If it were, then we would see more examples than just Christ and His sacrifice would be unnecessary. Self-control is letting Christ master our wants, desires and appetites. It is bringing them under His authority and His control.
Today, the tendency is not to submit our desires to self-control but to submit ourselves to our desires. Not to bring them under Christ’s authority and control but to abandon ourselves completely and absolutely to the fulfillment of our desires and appetites. Instead of celebrating a life of restraint and control, we celebrate lives of complete abandonment, selfish desires, and personal satisfaction. Our heroes are no longer those who have sacrificed themselves on behalf of others but those who have achieved the epitome of selfish fulfillment. Our heroes today are no longer those who give themselves in sacrifice and service to others, but those who have given themselves completely to selfish fulfillment and personal desires. Felix would have been a poster child for this movement.
It is timely that last Sunday we witnessed our annual homage to the god of “no self-control” – the Super Bowl. While I personally enjoy a good sporting event, the Super Bowl is no longer focused on the game. The game has simply become the medium by which we flaunt and parade our lack of personal self-control. It is a parade of our personal desires and appetites being exposed and satisfied. Between the food, alcohol, music, sex, commercials, human spectacle and cost we watch these things parade across our TV screens in all their glitzy glory. It is truly the antithesis of self-control. If we truly believe the Super Bowl is the epitome of human achievement thus far, then we have really lost our way.
Finally, Paul confronts Felix with the core issue – judgement. The idea of judgement is really tied to the truth of the resurrection. If the resurrection is real, then righteousness is truly demonstrated in Jesus Christ, self-control is achievable through the power and internal presence of the Holy Spirit and judgement for our unrighteousness and lack of self-control is inevitable. However, if the resurrection is just a myth then judgement is too. If there’s more to life than just this life then we must confront the core issue of being responsible and accountable for our beliefs and actions before a Holy God. In other words, this life is a full dress rehearsal for the next life. How are you doing?
Paul wanted Felix to recognize these facts and, I think, Felix was struggling under the conviction of God’s Spirit upon his life and actions. In some ways, we want to hear, even long to hear, the truth of the Gospel because it brings hope to life and possibility to our future. At the same time, we despise and reject the truth of the Gospel because it exposes our sin and causes us to hide in shame and in fear of judgement. Ultimately, the cost of the Gospel upon us is total surrender of control over the very things we cannot seem to control.
Ironic, isn’t it. The very thing that we seek (fulfillment of our every desire) is the very thing that destroys us and the one thing we hate to relinquish (authority over our desires) is the only thing that can bring victory. In our search for freedom we enslave ourselves to the very things that promise to set us free but it is only by submitting ourselves to the authority of Christ and the enslavement of our passions and desires that we find true freedom for our souls. So, the truth of the resurrection brings not only the fact of judgement but the only hope in judgement – the mercy of a loving Father.
The gospel story is that we rebel against God’s laws through sinful disobedience to His commandments and will. This rebellious sin has caused us to be separated from God and causes us to hide from Him in shame and in fear of judgement. Satan lies to us about the effects that pursuing our desires has upon our lives and we fall head long into this trap ignoring the pain it causes. Occasionally, we recognize the pain and its source but we quickly fall back into old habits and patterns.
It is only through the power of God in Jesus that we are changed and our heart begins its journey back towards full fellowship with God. Jesus, the Son of God in human form, came to fully reveal God and His will for our lives. He lived a sinless life in complete obedience to God, but was hated and despised by the religious authorities of His day. He was arrested, beaten and crucified but His suffering, death and burial was not the result of His sin, but ours. However, Jesus could not be held by death and He arose victorious from the grave. His resurrection not only shows who He is but it is the promise of eternal life that He offers to us. By faith in who Jesus is and what He’s done, if we will confess our sin and seek God’s forgiveness, then we will be redeemed from our slavery to sin and born anew as God’s children. As God’s children we will begin to see our desires change and we will begin to grow in righteousness (remember, right living) and self-control (obedience) and we will have no fear of judgement, because God’s perfect love drives away fear of judgement.
Will you believe and trust Him, today?