Turning defense into offense

Basketball coaches drill their players on defense. (And congratulations, by the way, to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was voted this year’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He is an amazing talent, and the award is well-deserved.) The point, of course, is to keep the other team from scoring a basket. Remember, guys, protect the rim! Challenge and block shots. Cut off passing lanes. Rotate quickly and don’t let them drive to the hoop!

But they also preach the importance of turning defense into offense. The best blocked shot, isn’t the one that gets swatted into the nosebleed seats. It’s the one that starts a fast break for your own guys and leads to easy buckets. Prevent two points at this end; gain two at the other end. That deal is a no-brainer.

As I’ve suggested before, basketball players aren’t the only ones who know about turning defense into offense. In the book of Acts, when followers of Jesus are forced to testify, they testify —  they turn what amounts to a legal defense into an opportunity to spread the gospel. Stephen did it. And as we’re about to see, so did the apostle Paul.

. . .

In Jerusalem, as we’ve seen, Paul had been the target of both a riot and an assassination plot. The Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias, had to send Paul to Governor Felix for his own protection. The apostle was spirited away to Caesarea in the middle of the night, under the care of a large and heavily armed escort.

Five days later, the high priest himself arrived in Caesarea, bringing a lawyer to handle the formal accusations against Paul. The charges were serious, painting Paul as a dangerous agitator and an enemy of the state. Felix, however, knew that the accusations weren’t the whole truth; he had a letter from Lysias which told a different story.

When the lawyer finished his spiel, therefore, Felix turned to Paul and motioned him to speak. The defense was brilliant and to the point. Here’s a summary:

  • Paul began by stating that he was glad to make his defense before Felix, who had enough experience with the Jews to be able to discern the truth (vs. 10). Indeed, as Luke tells us later, Felix was already “well informed about the Way” (vs. 22, NRSV), so Paul’s perception of Felix was accurate.
  • His statement “it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem” (vs. 11) is difficult to interpret with certainty, since it may have been at least 15 days between his arrival in Jerusalem and his defense before Felix. He probably meant that he had been in the city for only 12 days (and some of that time, he had been in custody!). His point seemed to be, So, when did I have time to do all this agitating they’re accusing me of?
  • Moreover, he argued, I didn’t cause any trouble anywhere in the city, and they can’t prove a word of what they’re saying (vss. 12-13). He had come to the city to bring alms for the poor and offer sacrifices in the temple (vs. 17). Indeed, when they found him in the temple, he was completing a religious rite, and at no time did he create a disturbance of any kind (vs. 18).
  • He pointed to a gaping procedural hole: it was the Jews from Ephesus who accused him of profaning the temple, and by Roman law, they should have been present at the hearing. So, Paul said, where are they?  Today, a judge might simply throw the case out.

The prosecution had no case, as Paul made clear. But interwoven with his defense were pointers to the gospel:

  • He proclaimed that he was indeed a follower of the Way (of Jesus), and portrayed himself as a God-fearing and obedient Jew (vs. 14).
  • He proclaimed that he had “a hope in God — a hope that they themselves also accept — that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous” (vs. 15). The Pharisees believed this, but the Sadducees did not. Either the high priest begrudgingly brought some Pharisees with him, or else Paul was needling him, knowing that Ananias could not afford to turn this into a theological debate.
  • He ended his defense with this: “Or let these men here tell what crime they had found when I stood before the council, unless it was this one sentence that I called out while standing before them, ‘It is about the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today'” (vs. 21). The message to Felix was clear: They cannot accuse me of doing anything illegal. This is a theological matter, and has nothing to do with Rome.

We’ll see Felix’s response in the next post. But it’s important to say here that this was not just a legal stratagem on Paul’s part, designed to get him off. He made the best use of the opportunity presented to him to proclaim the core of the gospel: Governor, whether back in Jerusalem or right here in Caesarea, it’s all about the coming judgment and resurrection.

And later, when he has the opportunity to speak to Felix in private, he will make that crystal clear.