When the governor Felix was called to Rome to defend his handling of certain matters in Caesarea, he was replaced by Porcius Festus. Although Festus was a more moderate ruler, his inexperience also made him a fickle and indecisive governor, as today’s passage reveals.
With Festus visiting Jerusalem, the Jews once again petitioned to have Paul on trial before the Sanhedrin. At first, Festus stood firm and required them to come to Caesarea to present their case. Once in Caesarea, the Jewish accusers “brought many serious charges against [Paul], but they could not prove them” (v. 7). Paul’s defense was the same as before— he had done nothing wrong against law, the temple, or Caesar. And here we begin to see Festus’s indecisiveness.
Instead of declaring Paul’s innocence, he first tried to shift his responsibility by moving the trial to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Paul quickly exercised his right as a Roman citizen and appealed his case to Caesar. Even then, Festus had to consult others before agreeing to the appeal. Then, perhaps still uncertain of how to proceed, Festus consulted with the visiting Agrippa and Bernice. He again revealed his inexperience and his ignorance of the Jews by summarizing the situation as a case “about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (v. 19).
Festus tried to paint a favorable picture of his handling of the case, but his own words betray his inexperience: “I was at a loss how to investigate such matters” (v. 20). Under the pretext of trying to discern the charges against Paul, Festus arranged a formal hearing before Agrippa and Bernice. Once again, the world’s leadership was less than admirable, but God’s earlier promise to take Paul to Rome was slowly being fulfilled.