Agrippa said to Festus ‘This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.’ Acts 26:32
Acts 26:32 caps off a long stretch of narrative that propels Paul from Macedonia to Jerusalem, from the Temple in Jerusalem into prison, and then through a series of bureaucratic complications that position him to depart for Rome (ch 20-26). The verse is pivotal, in the sense that it completes this narrative of this bureaucratic journey and looks ahead to the brief but intense travel narrative that is about to come (ch. 27-28).
(Bible Gateway offers a detailed online commentary from IVP)
The text of v. 32 strikes me as itself an ironic commentary on the nature of the authority to which Paul is finally subject. Here’s why:
We have been told at the beginning of the narrative that Paul is “captive to the Spirit” (20:22) as he makes his way to Jerusalem. Although his friends and companions warn him prophetically on three specific occasions that he faces imprisonment and persecution in Jerusalem, he persists in heading there. The naïve reader might wonder why Paul persists against the guidance of the Holy Spirit (which is so important in Luke-Acts). Ultimately, his insistence leads his friends and companions to concur with the formula “the Lord’s will be done” (21:14)
Later, however, after Paul is imprisoned in Jerusalem, the reader is let in on a prophetic dream (probably – it happens at night) in which “the Lord” appears to Paul and says “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” (23:11) From this, at this point, the reader might now suspect that Paul had had a similar communication about the trip to Jerusalem, which the narrator didn’t report. That inference would make sense out of Paul’s refusal to listen to the church’s prophecies, although it might raise the question of the purpose of those testimonies – for Paul, and also for the church. If they weren’t meant to dissuade Paul from making the trip what was their purpose? From a narrative point of view, however, their purpose is clear enough: the testimonies generate the suspense of seeing first whether Paul will heed the warnings, and then whether they will be fulfilled. Now, the suspense will come in waiting to see how events unfold to deliver Paul to Rome, which we presumably now count on happening. It’s a different kind of suspense: no longer about outcome, but about means.
As it turns out, the “means” have everything to do with the political circumstances of 1st century Judea and the Roman imperial context. They involve the overlapping political, legal and religious jurisdictions; the oversight of Jewish religion and Temple observance by Jewish religious leaders, including the high priest; the military occupation; the Roman governor in charge of the occupation and the administration of Roman justice; and the cooperative Jewish tetrarch. They involve the behavior of crowds and their susceptibility to rumors and presuppositions. They involve informers and channels, administrative action, the following of procedures and the writing of explanatory letters. They involve bribery and corruption, or at least the expectation of bribery and corruption. It’s all stuff that, properly translated to account for contemporary circumstances, would be familiar in our own day.
A vast, complex, organized system of governance and administration is in operation; on the whole, its operation protects Paul from certain kinds of threats: the riot in the Temple precincts, the plot to ambush and assassinate him. He benefits from this protection – although it’s also captivity – because he is a citizen of the imperial city. And it is his appeal to the justice of the Emperor which will ultimately send him to Rome.
I think Luke is painting a somewhat detailed picture of these nested and overlapping communities, and their different relationships to authority, on purpose – to give people a model for the piece of the picture that we can’t see – but have some reason, at this point in the narrative, to imagine. We are so used to hearing Jesus referred to as “Lord” and the usage is so commonplace in Luke-Acts, that we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to its political significance in this context. But Luke no doubt recognizes Jesus as more than a household lord, but as the Lord even of the emperor, the Lord to whom everyone will report in the end.
The statement that Paul could have been set free if he hadn’t appealed to the emperor could on that reading have a double meaning: not just the appeal to the emperor in Rome, but beyond that, the appeal to the cosmic emperor, of an empire into which people are born through baptism. This cosmic empire is thus more universal even than the Roman empire, which still maintains the distinctions between various nationalities, and in particular the distinction between Jew and Gentile. Long before Paul appealed to the Roman emperor, he had appealed to this cosmic emperor, had in fact received a pardon for directly injurious activity, and had been given a commission which he is now faithfully carrying out.
I think we are supposed to realize that Agrippa and Festus perceive themselves to have the power to release Paul, “had he not appealed to the emperor,” and to realize that their understanding of their own earthly authority is faulty: they really don’t have the power in this matter at all, in the end. The real power here lies with the Holy Spirit and the ruler of the more significant entity of which Paul is a citizen, the Reign of God. Agrippa and Festus are acting, in their different ways, as agents of that even larger empire, though they are not – or perhaps, not yet – its citizens, just as some of the instrumental actors in Paul’s story are not citizens of the Roman empire.
From the standpoint of the Reign of God, the earthly politics are unfolding in a kind of bureaucratic and predictable way; the various participants, with their various loyalties, ambitions, efforts, goodnesses or corruptions, all of that is in the end serving the larger end of a much larger, more comprehensive, and entirely good empire.
I don’t know that I like the idea of God as a cosmic emperor, because of the connotations of “empire” in our day – they are almost entirely negative, for good and sufficient reasons. Saddling God with those negative connotations is, I feel, a problem. We could use some new conceptual models for a kind of divine sovereignty that we can imagine, as human beings, without impugning God’s goodness. But having said that … the idea that Paul’s temporal and temporary constraint points beyond itself to an eternal and vastly more benevolent and protective system, with its own orders and procedures and expectations … that idea is comforting. There are definitely occasions when it would be a benefit to be able to say “I am a citizen, and I appeal to the emperor.” Because, in Paul’s own words,
If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. (Romans 8:33-34)