But after certain days, Felix came with Drusilla, his wife, who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned of righteousness, and self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was terrified, and answered, “Go thy way for this time; and when I have a convenient season, I will call thee unto me” (Acts 24:24-25).
His name, in Latin, meant “happy” or “fortunate.” Yet, as procurator of Judea, Marcus Antonius Felix did not have the luckiest or most fortunate job.
But he was a “fortunate” freedman, having been given a position of power thanks to his connections to the Emperor Claudius’ house. Historians attest to Felix’s cruel, licentious, and greedy behavior (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.7, Tacitus, Annals, 12.54). That he expected some money as a bribe to release Paul is not terribly surprising (Acts 24:26); he was known for taking bribes, leading to no little crime in Judea, and upon his dismissal, was accused of plundering the city of Caesarea.
He also apparently had a thing for women named Drusilla. His first wife was Drusilla of Mauretania, descended from Mauretanian royalty and a second cousin to Claudius himself. But then, in Judea, he saw the Drusilla mentioned in Acts 24:24, the daughter of Herod Agrippa I, former king of Judea (cf. Acts 12:20-23), and fell madly in love with her on account of her beauty (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.7.2; Histories, 5.9). She was married to the King of Emesa, but Felix hired a man to persuade her to leave her husband and to marry Felix. Thus Felix divorced the first Drusilla for the second, and Drusilla the Jewess likewise divorced her husband.
This is the Felix to whom Paul is entrusted as a prisoner after his life was threatened in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 23). Felix, for his part, had a “more exact knowledge” concerning Christianity, and wanting neither to offend the Jews nor to act overly unjustly to Paul, chose rather to defer the case rather than to make a decision during the “trial” (Acts 24:1-22). Nevertheless, Felix treated Paul well, giving order to the centurion in charge of him to allow him some liberty and to allow his friends to come and minister to him (Acts 24:23).
Furthermore, despite his sinful ways, Felix is interested in learning more about Christianity– “the faith in Christ Jesus.” He and Drusilla listen to Paul. And then Paul starts talking about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come (Acts 24:24-25). Felix is terrified by this, and rightly so. He is known as an extortioner, cruel, and adulterous in his behavior. His conduct in life does not conform to the standard of righteousness, he does not exhibit much self-control, and an impending day of judgment would not be pretty for him.
In reality, such is the terror that each and every person should feel when they first learn about the Gospel message. When people see that their conduct is not consistent with God’s holy standard, and that a day of judgment awaits, there is good reason to be afraid (Matthew 10:28, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, 1 Peter 1:17)! That fear should lead to repentance– to renounce the life that led to such a terrible condition, to humbly accept the great grace and mercy of God manifest through Christ, and to serve Him (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8).
Yet in Felix and Drusilla this terror did not lead to repentance. It was easier to push off the message and the messenger, and so they did, telling Paul that he would call upon him at a more convenient time (Acts 24:25).
As far as we can tell, that moment never really came. Yes, Felix often called for Paul and spoke with him, but more to find a way to get money out of the situation than to really learn of righteousness (Acts 24:26). Two years later, in 58, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus as procurator (Acts 24:27). Despite having an excellent opportunity to pardon Paul, he did not do so– as a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison, “passing the buck” to Festus (Acts 24:27).
Drusilla and her son with Felix are reported to have died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79; Felix is reported to have married his third wife afterward. We otherwise know nothing about them but have little confidence that they ever became obedient to the message they heard from Paul.
Felix’s example serves as a warning for people throughout time. If there were someone whom we would imagine as hard-hearted, it would likely be Felix, but such was not really so. Despite being covetous, licentious, and cruel, he listened to what Paul had to say. He knew, deep inside, that what he was doing was wrong, and the prospect of being called into account for it by God on the Judgment day was a strong enough possibility in his mind that it led to terror. But that feeling of terror was not sufficient to lead to repentance. Perhaps Felix was concerned about how conversion to Christianity would sit with either his fellow Romans or with the Jews or both. He likely did not want to imagine himself without Drusilla #2 or again with Drusilla #1, if that remained possible. Perhaps he just did not want to give up his lifestyle. Regardless, in that critical moment of decision, Felix did not repent; he ran. He sent Paul away, figuratively attempting to escape from the truth and power of the message. Maybe he imagined that there would be a “more convenient day” to hear Paul and to change his ways. Yet it is just as likely that he never imagined that there would be such a day coming– it was just a way of ending the conversation without having to change.
There are likely some people who have so blinded themselves to the truth and have been so hardened by their sins that they do not think that they are doing anything wrong and who truly repudiate everything about the message of Christ. Yet such people are in the minority. Most people who sin know, if nothing else deep down, that they are doing things they should not be doing. The message of righteousness and self-control inherent in the Gospel exposes this shame to the light, and the confirmation of the day of Judgment, made certain by the resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 17:30-31), guarantees that justice will be served. Internal terror, the correct and visceral response to these truths, manifests itself.
Our future destiny is entirely dependent on how we respond to that internal terror. If, on seeing our condition, we know that we must change our ways and serve the Risen Lord Jesus, we have the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-8). But if we make any other decision– to assault the integrity of the message or messenger in an attempt to rationalize our behavior, to excuse our behavior in some other way, or simply to find a way to physically and/or spiritually “get away” from the message and the messenger, and refuse to repent, then our condition will be very grave– separated eternally from the Creator in torment (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
Felix chose the latter. The vainly imagined “more convenient day” never came, as it never comes for the majority of people who are so minded. We can push men off, but the standards of righteousness, self-control, and the imminence of the day of Judgment are fixed and certain. Let us resolve to serve God and not to run away!
Ethan R. Longhenry