Felix was a man of humble beginnings. However, through the influence of an older brother, he was able to rise above his lowly station in life and worm his way into a position of social prestige and political power. In his relentless quest for political and personal advancement, he was willing to resort to adultery, bribery, conspiracy, cruelty and even brutality. Concerning him one Roman historian, wrote, “He thought he could do any evil act with impunity,” and he “exercised the power of a king in the spirit of a slave.” His lifestyle was characterized by an undisciplined, careless, and even reckless abandonment to pleasure.
We are first introduced to this Roman rascal in Acts 23. The year was A.D. 58. It had been six years since Felix was appointed Roman administrator of the province of Judea.
At that time there were some forty Jewish men living in Jerusalem who had conspired together to kill the Apostle Paul (Acts 23:12-15). They went on a hunger strike, vowing that they would neither eat nor drink until they had completed the act. (By the way, I don’t know if they starved to death or not, because their plot was detected and their plans were thwarted [Acts 23:16-22].)
Paul had been placed in protective custody, and was about to be transferred to Caesarea, where he was supposed to appear before Felix. His accusers were ordered to present their case first, then Paul would be permitted to defend himself (Acts 23:23ff).
In Acts 24, Luke allows us to witness the courtroom drama five days later:
Now after five days Ananias the high priest came down with the elders and a certain orator named Tertullus. These gave evidence to the governor against Paul. And when he was called upon, Tertullus began his accusation… (Acts 24:1-2a).
Tertullus was a Roman attorney who practice law in Jerusalem. He was an intelligent and eloquent trial lawyer who began his case against Paul on behalf of the high priest, Ananias. Other high–ranking members of the Jewish Sanhedrin were also present, trying to win Felix’s favor with flattery (v 21ff). After several slanderous charges were made, Paul was finally permitted to speak in his own defense (vv 10-21).
And after some days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and answered, “Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you” (Acts 24:22-25, emphasis added).
Why was Felix so afraid? What did Paul say that Felix could not bear to hear?
Among the topics Paul discussed with Felix was the subject of self-control. Just the fact that that issue was raised was probably enough to make the hair on the back of Felix’s neck bristle. If there ever was a man whose life epitomized a lack of self-control, it was the money-loving, pleasure–seeking, power–grabbing, Antonius Felix.
For example, he had already been married twice before. The name of his first wife is still unknown. His second wife was the granddaughter of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. But then he met Drusilla, the Jewess daughter of Herod Agrippa I, the King Herod who executed James the brother of John (Acts 12:1–2). Drusilla’s great-grandfather was the King Herod who tried to kill the baby Jesus. And her great uncle was the King Herod who beheaded John the Baptist.
Although she was only sixteen when she and Felix first met, Drusilla was already married to somebody else. But Felix persuaded her to leave her first husband for him. They committed open and wanton adultery. So, is it any wonder that Paul’s words concerning righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come pierced Felix’s heart?
The word Paul used for “self–control” in his discussion with Felix is the same word that Peter used in his instruction in 2 Pet 1:2–11.
I mentioned in a previous article that the Bible makes it clear that there is a sense in which every believer is a builder. What are we building? We are building a house, of course. But, we are not talking about a house of wood and glass, and of brick and mortar, but of Christian character.
If Paul warns each believer to “be careful how he builds,” because “the fire [at the Judgment Seat of Christ] will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Cor 3:10, 13), it is Peter who explains how to build a life of quality that will make a difference for all eternity (in 2 Pet 2:1-11).
In the first half of 2 Pet 1:5, Peter instructs us how to build (“giving all diligence”). In the second half of the verse he informs us what to build. In past articles I have already considered the building blocks of virtue and knowledge. In this article I want to examine at greater length and depth the third building block of self-control.
A Biblical Definition of Self-Control
Once again, it is best for us to begin with the Biblical definition of the term. The word that Peter used here, translated self-control, is only found a total of four times in the entire New Testament (twice in 2 Pet 1:6 and once in Acts 24:25; I will explore the last use later in this article) and in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) in Gen 43:31, “Then he washed his face and came out; and he restrained himself, and said, ‘Serve the bread.’” The Greek word restrained is egkrateia, which is derived from a root, kratos, meaning “power.” So egkrateia is a power that is mastered. It is strength that is restrained and controlled. This quality is what you and I need, Peter said, if we are going to be effective and productive for the Lord.
Do you want to be effective and productive for the Lord, so that one day, you, too, will receive an abundant and extravagant reward? Then you cannot live an undisciplined life. That is, you cannot if your person and passions are uncontrolled. That is why Peter said that you need to add to your faith, along with virtue and knowledge, the building block of self-control.
Here are three areas of our lives that need to be brought under control. They concern, generally speaking, your mouth, your mind, and your morals.
Controlling Our Tongues
The Bible makes it clear, for example, that we need to learn how to control our tongues. To be sure, at times that would almost seem to be a “Mission: Impossible,” at least, according to Jas 3:2-12. James, the half-brother of our Lord, reminds us that the tongue is powerful and poisonous, and can easily be perverted. Indeed, there is probably nothing that can trip up a believer quicker than a dangling tongue. As someone quipped, “the tongue weighs practically nothing, but so few people are able to hold it.”
But there are times when we have to hold our tongue. We need to learn to speak with tongue in check. James said it like this, “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless” (Jas 1:26).
If you want another good Biblical example of someone who had a problem with his tongue, just study the life of Peter before the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit finally got a hold of it. I think that if I had been the Lord, there were some times when I would have turned to Peter and said, “Stifle it!” (Now that I think about it, there were a couple of times when I believe Jesus actually came pretty close to saying that Himself). Yet that is precisely what you and I need to learn to do: stifle it! As Solomon said in Prov 21:23, “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.”
Controlling Our Tempers
It was also Solomon who said in Prov 17:27, “He who has knowledge spares (i.e., controls) his words, and a man of understanding is of a calm spirit.” Obviously the Bible not only makes it clear that we need to learn how to control our tongues, but it also makes it clear that we need to learn how to control our tempers. Paul wrote in Eph 4:31 (and Col 3:5) that the believer must throw out the baggage of the old sinful nature, including “anger and rage.” In other words, one must learn (among other things) to control his temper. Again, it was Solomon who wrote in Prov 14:17, “a quick-tempered man acts foolishly, and a man of wicked intentions is hated.” In Prov 19:19 he added, “a man of great wrath (i.e., quick-tempered) will suffer punishment.”
If you are looking for a good Biblical example of someone who had a problem with his temper, just study the life of Moses, especially on that day when he “lost his cool” in the wilderness. The Psalmist said that Moses spoke “rashly” (Ps 106:32–33), as he struck that rock angrily. And, yes, even Moses had to pay the penalty.
As Solomon wrote in Prov 16:32, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”
Controlling Our Temptations
Finally, we need to learn to control our temptations as well. I am referring to what the Bible calls in 1 John 2:16, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Indeed, you must get a handle on them, before they put a death-hold on you.
C. S. Lewis wrote, “Surrender to all your desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humor and frankness. For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary” (Mere Christianity, p. 89). I believe that many people today would like to cast off every restraint, because they themselves are living in this world without any moral reference point.
There are several examples in the Bible of individuals who had a problem resisting temptation. Perhaps David is one of the most notable. It appears from the Biblical record of his life that there was very little (if any) laughter left in his home after the time of his moral failure with Bathsheba, and the subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. Instead, there was one tragedy following another.
Today, perhaps more than ever, as a believer you need to guard yourself so that you don’t over involve and over-indulge yourself in things that may even be good in moderation, but bad in excess—whether it is eating or sleeping or working or playing.
Paul said, in 2 Tim 2:22, “flee also youthful lusts.” You need to know when it is time to flee! I like the way Paul drove home this point to the believers in Corinth: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13).
The Bible makes it clear that we need to learn how to control our tongues, our tempers, and our temptations, if we are going to be effectively and productively used by the Lord. We need to learn to live a disciplined life if we hope to receive an abundant and extravagant reward.
The 15th–century devotional writer Thomas à Kempis said, “No conflict is so severe as his who labors to subdue himself.” However, that does not mean that the goal of self-control is unthinkable or unattainable. Self–control is doable, but it is going to require at least two things.
First, it’s going to require strict training. Paul explained in 1 Cor 9:25, “And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” The word that is translated “temperate” is a form of the very same word translated “self-control” in our primary text in 2 Pet 1:6.
By strict training we mean that you need to pay close attention, first, to where you are and to whom you are with. For example, in Prov 22:24–25 we read, “Make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man do not go, lest you learn his ways and set a snare for your soul.” These are choices that you can and must make.
Furthermore, this strict training requires that you pay strict attention to what you do and to how you do what you do. It means that you also have to be willing to say, “Look! I am in a strict training program right now, because I do not want to lose my prize. There are some things I just cannot do!” In addition, when it comes to those things that I can do, I am going to be careful how I do them. Which means, for example, that I am going to meet legitimate needs—be they financial, material, emotional, and/or social—in legitimate ways. It also means that I am going to counteract the bad that I may be tempted to do, with any good that the Lord has prompted me to do. In other words, I will not “be overcome by evil, but [I will] overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21).
Second, it’s going to require Spirit-filling. It is the ninth and final “fruit of the Spirit” catalogued by Paul in Galatians: “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23a). Just a few verses prior, Paul admonished the Galatian believers, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). If the Galatians wondered how that statement could be true, they found the answer just a few verses later. It is because the (unquenched) indwelling Spirit will produce the fruit of self-control. So, in the words of Eph 5:18, “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.”
Speaking of self-control, if there was anything that Felix lacked in his life, it was that. No wonder he became a little fidgety as Paul spoke of self-control. “Now as he [Paul] reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and answered, ‘Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you.’” How did Felix respond? He hesitated, then procrastinated. Essentially, he said to the Apostle Paul, “Don’t call me. I will call you.”
The irony and tragedy of it all is that although Felix said he was well-acquainted with the sect they called the Way, he really had no personal relationship with Jesus Christ who is the Way (John 14:6).
If you are wondering whatever happened to Felix and Drusilla, I will tell you what I know. In the year A.D. 60, Felix was recalled to Rome by Nero and was replaced by a man whose name was Festus. Some Jews who followed Felix to Rome went to the Emperor and bitterly accused Felix of misconduct and mismanagement. He narrowly escaped capital punishment, and eventually died in obscurity and disgrace. Historians say that Drusilla (who also had the privilege of hearing a complete presentation of the grace Gospel from the lips of Paul), died with her only son, Agrippa, in the awful eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year A.D. 79.
But I wonder, dear reader, how will you respond to this brief discourse on self-control?
If you have believed in Jesus for everlasting life, then I would remind you that a rich welcome into His kingdom awaits you, if in dependence on the heavenly resources available to you, you will build upon the foundation of your faith a superstructure of Christ-like character using this building block of self-control.