It soon became clear what the Jews wanted from Governor Felix. They wanted the governor to kill Paul. They had several charges against him, which Tertullus, their lawyer, skillfully developed.
1. That he was a troublemaker. “Troublemaker” is an interesting word. A literal translation would be “pest,” but it was stronger than what pest usually means for us today. For us “pest” usually means a nuisance. But in earlier days of the English language, “pest” meant “plague,” an idea which we preserve in the stronger but still somewhat archaic word “pestilence.” What they were saying was that Paul was a plague of mammoth proportions. He was an infectious disease. He spread contagion. Tertullus was suggesting that if Paul were set free, he would spread turmoil, disorder and maybe even rebellion throughout the empire.
This was the charge the Jewish rulers had brought against Jesus Christ at the time of His trial, and for the same reasons. They knew that the Romans were not interested in religious matters but were intensely concerned about anything that might stir up trouble. So, before Pilate they accused Jesus of having made Himself a king to rival Caesar, and here before Felix they accused Paul of having caused turmoil.
2. That he was a ringleader of the Nazarene sect. Each of these words was loaded with strongly negative connotations, as the reader is at once aware. Paul was a follower of Jesus, of course. But even at this early date, the Jews apparently wanted to avoid using Jesus’ name. He was just “the Nazarene.” Moreover, Tertullus did not even refer to Paul as a follower of the Nazarene. It was the Nazarene “sect” instead. “Sect” has overtones of heresy. Finally, Tertullus called Paul a “ringleader.” He could as easily have said “leader.” But he didn’t. He said ringleader because the word had the same overtones for them as it has for us. It meant one who was whipping up this troublesome heresy that for some unknown reason had grown up within Judaism.
3. That he had tried to desecrate the temple. This third charge was not true, of course. Paul had not tried to desecrate the temple. This was only the mob’s accusation. Yet now, in telling the story, Tertullus distorted the truth even further. “So we seized him,” he said. He meant, “We arrested him because he had tried to desecrate the temple.” But that is not what had happened. The mob had fallen upon Paul and was trying to kill him. The people who had actually arrested Paul were the Romans, and they did it in order to save his life.
Those were the charges. Paul is a troublemaker (we don’t need any of those; we’ve had enough already). He is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes (we all hate heresy). He has tried to desecrate our temple (even Rome acknowledges that to be a sacrilege). Perhaps Tertullus thought he could score points with the last accusation, because Roman law gave special status to the Jewish temple and even prescribed the death penalty for those who should violate it.
Tertullus had made his accusation. He sat down, Felix must have nodded to Paul, and Paul, according to the strict procedures of Roman law, had a chance to present his rebuttal.
Paul began his defense in a polite manner. But his words to the governor are restrained, especially when they are compared with those of the professional orator, Tertullus. Tertullus had flattered Felix. Paul would do no such thing. Nevertheless, he pointed out that he knew that Felix had been a judge over Israel for a number of years—long enough to know something about the kind of nation it was—and because of that Paul was glad to be able to make his defense before him. Felix would have been aware, Paul points out, of the kind of charges that were being brought and the fact that they were (he implies rather than states this) insubstantial.