Paul and Festus -- a Contrast
Acts 26:24-25
And as he thus spoke for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, you are beside yourself; much learning does make you mad.…

1. It was no even-handed contest in which the apostle found himself engaged. It was the occasion of a great state ceremonial, a Dhurbar, when the Imperial Viceroy received the welcome and the homage of the most powerful native prince. Just at this time he had a quarrel with the Jews and was anxious to secure the support of Festus. He had recently added to the palace of the Herods a lofty dining hall from which his guests could look down upon the inner temple. The priests and guardians of the sacred precincts resented this act, and therefore built up a high wall, and shut out the king's view. Agrippa resented this indignity, and endeavoured to get the restriction removed. He applied to Festus for aid; and Festus warmly espoused his cause. All this we have on the authority of Josephus. I mention the fact here for two reasons. It illustrates —

(1) The historical accuracy of the sacred narrative. The narrative of St. Luke and that of Josephus fit together as separate pieces of an historical whole.

(2) The relative proportions of events which men inevitably take who are mixed up in them. The aggressive insolence of Agrippa was the one topic of general interest at the time. But this interview with Paul, who cared for it? Yet time has wholly reversed the verdict of contemporary history. Of the magnificent palace of the Herods, or the goodly buildings of the temple, not one stone is left standing upon another. The aggressiveness of Agrippa and the policy of Festus have alike passed away, but the words of St. Paul are living and germinating and fructifying still. The quarrel of Agrippa has vanished out of sight, the pleading of Paul is the inheritance of all ages.

2. The attitude of Festus towards St. Paul more especially demands our attention. Festus was not a man whose opinion could be lightly disregarded. We have not here to do with the sceptical, worldly, cynical Pilate, or a cruel, reckless profligate like Felix; but with a just, sincere, outspoken, prompt and vigorous ruler, the very man to whom in the common affairs of life we should entrust our case with confidence. Nothing could be more upright than his treatment of the prisoner from first to last. But he has no ideas and no aspirations beyond. When the future and the unseen are mentioned he is lost in confusion; he is as helpless in dealing with such topics of thought as one who is blind in discriminating the hues of the rainbow. He is blunt, even to contempt, when he refers to "one Jesus which was dead whom Paul yet affirmed to be alive." This was decisive to his mind. Could any sane man maintain an absurdity like this! He listens for a time with patience while Paul pleads his cause, but at length he can no longer restrain himself. He is confirmed now in his first surmise. He rudely interrupts the prisoner, shouting rather than speaking, "Thou art mad, Paul!" All this talk about sin and repentance, and forgiveness and salvation, what is this but the very phantom of a diseased brain? This story of the apparition on the way to Damascus with the light and the loud voice has nothing in common with the solid experiences, the stern matter-of-fact duties of the Roman magistrate, and, in short, with the acknowledged realities of human life.

3. Yes, it was sheer madness —

(1) To commit social suicide as this Paul had done. He had given up a high and honourable position among his fellow countrymen; he was on the high road to preferment, and yet he suddenly gave up all — for what? To become an outcast; to be hated by the Jews and scorned by the Greeks; to drag out a miserable career of penury, of suffering, of toil and of danger; to be spurned by all men as the very filth and offscouring of society. Who has put the case more strongly than himself? Aye! he knew, no one could know better, that he was irretrievably mad as the world counts madness. "We are fools," he says of himself, "we are fools for Christ's sake."(2) To profess such a creed as Paul did. Whoever heard before of one claiming the allegiance and the worship of the whole world for a crucified malefactor? There was no difference of opinion here between Jew and Greek. On most questions affecting religion the one spoke a language quite unintelligible to the other; but here there was absolute unanimity of sentiment — Festus, Agrippa, Roman soldier, and Hebrew priest, alike must join in condemning these rovings. Here again no one knew better than the apostle himself how his teaching was regarded by the learning and the sagacity of his age. He knew it, he gloried in it, he invited all men to become mad as he was mad. This very madness, he maintained, was the indispensable condition of all higher knowledge. "If any man thinketh to be wise in this world let him become a fool that he may be wise."

4. So, then, two wholly irreconcilable views of life confronted each other in Festus and Paul. Paul was sincere. Festus was also sincere. And yet between the two there is a yawning and impassable gulf. If Festus is right, Paul is mad. If Paul is right, Festus is blind.

5. From an evidential point of view this scene would suggest not a few important reflections.

(1) I may point, e.g., to the calmness and sobriety of the apostle's statement, to the perfect assurance with which he details the history of his conversion and the grounds of his belief, to the manly and courteous simplicity with which he replies to the rebuke of Festus, and the sarcasm of Agrippa. Certainly nothing is more unlike the raving of the maniac.

(2) I might turn away from the scene itself to its results. The civilised world, after long wavering and much halting, did ultimately prefer the madness of Paul to the sanity of Festus. Reflect how enormous has been the gain to mankind from this preference, and how irretrievable would have been the loss if it had taken Festus instead of Paul. Christianity rescued a helpless world which was hastening to its ruin, endowed society with fresh vigour and youth by infusing into it new aspirations and hopes; and this reinvigorating influence contained in itself the potentiality of all that is noblest and best in modern civilisation and life.

6. But it is a practical and not an intellectual conviction which I would wish to enforce upon you — the magnitude of the alternative. No ingenuity or indifference can bridge over the gulf which separates the view of human life, taken by Festus, from the view of it by St. Paul — the view taken by the upright and reasonable man of the world, who lives only in the present, and the view taken by the Christian, whose whole soul is dominated with the presence of God, with the consciousness of sin, and with the conviction of eternity. God forbid that we should speak meanly of honesty, truth, uprightness, whatever in human life is lovely and of good report. But still the fact remains. Here are two antagonistic views of human life and human destiny. Men may strive to patch up a hollow compromise between them, but no truce can be real because no meeting point is visible. It is the alternative of sanity and madness, of light and darkness, of life and death. If you have decided that the Christian view is sanity, is light, is life, then it must not, it cannot be inoperative in you. It will pervade your whole life, and breathe the breath of heaven into the work of earth. All this stands to reason. It cannot be a matter of indifference whether you are responsible in your actions only to the judgments of human society or to an all-seeing Eye, who overlooks, misinterprets misjudges nothing. It cannot be a matter of indifference whether wrong-doing is simply a violation of order, attended with inconvenient consequences, or whether it is sin, that is, a rebellious defiance of an all-righteous, all-holy, Father in heaven; whether He who walked upon our earth eighteen centuries ago was a lunatic; or whether He was indeed the only begotten Son of God; whether this life is our entire life, or whether there is an eternal hereafter before which the triumphs of the present are just nothing at all. This, then, I say, this is the tremendous alternative. There is no halting between two opinions here; the chasm is broad and fathomless. Accept, therefore, the alternative which you have chosen; accept it with all its consequences, think over it, master it, live it. Men will taunt you with your inconsistency; but be not discouraged by this. Let the taunt nerve you to greater efforts. The inconsistency must necessarily be greater as the ideal is higher. Festus, no doubt, was a much more consistent man than St. Paul. The standard of Festus was the ordinary standard of honourable men, and it would seem he did not fall far short of it. The standard of St. Paul was absolute self-negation, and he is constantly bewailing his shortcomings. The mere voluptuary is far more consistent than either. His aim is sensual pleasure, and he devotes himself to it heart and soul. Endure to be called madman when you stand before the judgment seat of Festus. That is inevitable; only remember meanwhile that you are the sons of God, heirs of eternity.

(Bp. Lightfoot.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.

WEB: As he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, "Paul, you are crazy! Your great learning is driving you insane!"

Illustrious Fools and Madmen
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