In literature, a foil is a character who the author creates to contrast with the main character in order to highlight certain of the main character’s qualities. You might think of how the confident and conniving Draco Malfoy is contrasted with the young, uncertain Harry Potter or how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle counted on Watson’s failures in observation to help us see Sherlock Holmes’s gift for deduction. In the telling of history as well, we often pair two opposites, like Hamilton and Burr, to compare and contrast character and personalities.
In Acts 24, Luke draws our attention to two character foils. Here we see the strength of Paul’s Christian character and his “clear conscience toward God and men” (Acts 24:16).
The first is religious. Tertullus, the lawyer for the Jewish leadership, came before Felix, the Roman procurator, as a model of self-righteousness and flattery. You can just hear the sweet compliments rolling off of Tertullus’s tongue for the judge (vv.2–3). And following his flattering words, Tertullus brought three exaggerated charges against Paul, accusing him of stirring up riots, being a ringleader of the Nazarene sect (the Christians), and trying to desecrate the temple (vv.5–6).
In response, Paul felt no need to perform. He began his defense humbly, simply acknowledging the judge and saying that he was grateful to be able to defend himself (v.10). Then, Paul calmly answered all three charges (vv.11–21).
Felix knew Paul was innocent and that the Christians weren’t insurrectionists (v.22). Nevertheless, Felix wouldn’t grant Paul his freedom. With this action, Felix became the second foil for the apostle—a corrupt and morally questionable one. Whatever one might hear through Tertullus’s flattery, it’s clear that Felix was an unjust judge. In spite of the lack of credible evidence against Paul, Felix continued to hold him in prison. He wanted to appease the Jewish leadership (v.27), and he hoped that Paul would offer him a bribe (v.26).
In the face of Felix’s corruption, Paul continued to hold on to the message of life. He spoke boldly “about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” (v.25).
What is it that makes a Christian like Paul stand out when compared with both performance-oriented religious people and those who are corrupt and immoral? It’s this: Paul didn’t need to flatter others, tell white lies, take bribes, or bend the rules to get ahead. He knew, as we must know if we are to stand out in the world today, that God’s promises are true even when our circumstances seem to say otherwise. We can believe what God says and persevere in this life. We can offer up words that confess Christ’s name even when our situation seems most dire, because we serve the God who raises the dead (vv.15,21).