The Emperor’s New Clothes – Acts 23:23-24:27

by Roger McCay
29 November 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 23:23-24:27
Link to Audio Version

At some time or another you’ve probably heard one of the many renditions of Aesop’s Fable called “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Here is short telling of it:

Once upon a time there was an emperor whose only interest in life was to dress up in fashionable clothes. He kept changing his clothes so that people could admire him.

Once, two thieves decided to teach him a lesson.

They told the emperor that they were very fine tailors and could sew a lovely new suit for him. It would be so light and fine that it would seem invisible. Only those who were stupid could not see it. The emperor was very excited and ordered the new tailors to begin their work.

One day, the king asked the prime minister to go and see how much work the two tailors had done. He saw the two men moving scissors in the air but he could see no cloth! He kept quiet for fear of being called stupid and ignorant. Instead, he praised the fabric and said it was marvelous.

Finally, the emperor’s new dress was ready. He could see nothing but he too did not want to appear stupid. He admired the dress and thanked the tailors. He was asked to parade down the street for all to see the new clothes. The emperor paraded down the main street. The people could only see a naked emperor but no one admitted it for fear of being thought stupid.

They foolishly praised the invisible fabric and the colors. The emperor was very happy.

At last, a child cried out, “The emperor is naked!”

Soon everyone began to murmur the same thing, and very soon all shouted, “The emperor is not wearing anything!”

The emperor realized the truth but preferred to believe that his people were stupid.[1]

When you hear a fable such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” it is just natural to start working out parallels in our own culture and lives, and that is what such a fable is designed to provoke! I think this parable makes for an interesting bridge from our passage in Scripture to our culture and lives today.

The antagonists in the fable are the thieves, who in Aesop’s version are called “rogues.”

Their deception makes for a remarkable metaphor to the lies that are told to us by the world, woven throughout our society and culture, constantly tempting us.

In Acts 24 we see two people who have completely fallen for the deception of the world – Felix and Drusilla. And the lie they wear has the substance of the Emperor’s New Clothes. There is also Paul, who is Felix’s prisoner, and whose choice was to either pander to Felix and Drusilla (like the prime minister did for the emperor out of fear and selfish interests), or to boldly speak the truth of the gospel into their situation (similar to the little boy when he saw the emperor)—that they were naked in their sin.

The gospel reveals the true reality of all who experience it. Yet, due to pressures of the world, fear, and our own interests the message can become stunted, so that we never really tell people that they are walking around without any clothes even though they think they are wonderfully dressed. And sometimes, even when the gospel is spoken boldly, it is put off or ignored completely leading to tragedy of eternal proportions.

The Apostle Paul, after his arrest in Jerusalem, was sent to Caesarea so that he could stand trial before Felix, the provincial governor. The Jews had come forward and spoken a bunch of lies concerning Paul, but Felix wasn’t convinced. Despite this, he kept Paul in prison for a while at his whim.

Now, Felix had the distinction, through a series of events, to be the first slave to become the governor of a Roman province. And it turns out that he made a terrible governor. Kent Hughes sums up Felix and Drusilla’s situation saying:

During Felix’s governorship, insurrections and anarchy dramatically increased throughout Palestine because of his brutality. Josephus tells us that he repeatedly crucified the leaders of various uprisings. The Roman historian Tacitus described him as “a master of cruelty and lust who exercised the powers of a king with the spirit of a slave.” Antonius Felix was an unscrupulous, avaricious, brutal, scheming politician.

Drusilla was his third wife, and Felix was her second husband. Drucilla was the youngest daughter of Agrippa I and had originally married Azizus, king of Emesa, a small kingdom in Syria. She did not find Azizus very exciting and won Felix’s affection with the help of a magician named Atomas, eventually becoming Felix’s illicit lover and “wife.” She was barely twenty at the time. Unusually beautiful, her ambition and lust equaled that of her new husband. Unlike Felix, a pagan, Drusilla had been raised as a Jew… though she no longer had an active faith in the one God.[2]

Basically, these people were self-centered, hedonistic, immoral, greedy, and cruel persons with no fear of God. They had swallowed the lie of the world, and their own selfish pleasures and interests were the driving factors behind every aspect of their lives—an empty, meaningless existence, naked and exposed to God’s judgment and wrath. And these were the people who decided to have a conversation with the Apostle Paul.

Felix, perhaps surprisingly, had quite a bit of knowledge about the Way (v. 22), knowing a bit about Christians and the Lord Jesus whom they follow. Thus, he had some idea of Paul’s beliefs. Verse 24:

24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus.

Now, considering who Felix was, this is quite a remarkable turn of events. Felix probably thought he was bestowing a privilege upon Paul, his prisoner, but my thought is that the reality was quite the opposite. Felix was given the privilege to have a personal audience with the Apostle Paul and to have the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed to him straight from the mouth of the apostle.

The first part of v. 25 gives a picture of Paul’s message to Felix and Drucilla: “He reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment.” Paul preached to this illicit couple. He spoke to them about major aspects of the Way – the gospel of Jesus Christ. He spoke of the need for faith in Jesus and what that entailed, including the aspects of righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come. He spoke consistently with the message he had proclaimed far and wide, and detailed in various epistles making their status before God plain to them, as sinners deserving God’s judgment and wrath. And this was probably not some generalized statement of sin, but rather, considering Felix’s response, Paul’s message was aimed in such a way to target specific sins revealing them for what they were.

He spoke of Law and grace. The Law bringing condemnation, but grace bringing justification so that the one who has faith in Christ is not condemned.

Rom 3:10 “None is righteous, no, not one.”

Rom. 3:21-25 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

Rom 10:9 – “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

But Paul spoke not only of righteousness and the judgment of God; he spoke of self-control (and this is critical). Speaking of self-control, Paul made it plain to them that, even if they believed, it would not give them a license to continue living in the sinful manner they had been living.

Rom. 6:1-2 – “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

This is right in line with Christ’s teaching of what it means to follow him. Mark 8:34-37:  Jesus said,

8:34 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul?

Paul didn’t give them some sort of “gospel lite” message out of fear that he would offend them, even though he was Felix’s prisoner and at his mercy. Surely, he even prayed as he wrote in 2 Timothy 2:25-26: praying that…

“God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

For surely this describes the reality of Felix and Drusilla—ensnared to do the devil’s will.

Paul boldly proclaimed the truth of the gospel message to them! He told them they were sinners in need of saving. He spoke to them of redemption in the blood of Christ shed on the cross—that garment of righteousness, which would cover their sinful nakedness before God, appeasing his wrath—a gift that was theirs if only they would trust in Christ. As Jesus himself preached, “Repent and believe the gospel.”

Today the gospel message is often muted (sometimes in the church itself). Rather than telling the Emperor he is naked, the Emperor is told he is beautifully clothed. The message of the gospel is offensive. People don’t like hearing they are sinners deserving hell. They don’t like the idea of God’s judgment and wrath. They don’t like messy messages of the cross, which Christ endured to appease that wrath, involving torture and blood and pain and death. They also don’t like to hear that, although they may have said some prayer at some point … (“Oh, I said the prayer when I was little, I’m good.”) … they don’t like to hear that their worldly lifestyle with no fruit of the Spirit brings into question whether they have any real faith at all and are thus not saved – being deluded. They don’t like such a message because it means their exalted status in their own minds is just a sham. It means they must fear God or die eternally.

People much prefer to be affirmed where they are. Tolerance, right? They want to hear the lie that no matter what, God is on their side. But such a message proclaims the beauty of their clothes, when they are as naked as a jaybird.

In “The Emperor’s New Clothes” the thieves laughed and laughed at the paralysis of the town to speak the truth (truth that was right before their eyes), fooling themselves and supporting the Emperor in his own foolishness. The prime minister and the people saw the truth. They saw the sham. But in fear, pride, and due to their own selfish interests (including position, power and wealth for the prime minister), they did not proclaim the truth, but rather upheld the lie. Such are those who know the truth of the gospel, but only proclaim “gospel lite” or simply no gospel at all.

The little boy, however, was humble and honest, too young to have self-conscience fear of going against the crowd. He had no ulterior selfish motives, so he boldly proclaimed the truth that was so plain to him: “The Emperor has no clothes!” Such is the one who boldly proclaims the gospel in its fullness (faith in Jesus Christ, righteousness, self-control, and the judgment of God). They proclaim the cross of Christ.

Some questions that you and I can ask ourselves concerning this: “Who out there is like the prime minister and the crowd?” and, “Who out there is like the little boy?” Even more, ask yourself, “Am I like the prime minister and the crowd?” or, “Am I like the little boy?”

Which are you?

Be discerning. Beware of those who uphold the world’s deceptive agenda by preaching “gospel lite.” Beware of those who tickle the ears of people assuring them that their clothes are beautiful, when, in fact, they are sinners naked before the Lord without his righteousness and facing his judgment.

My friends, let us not be fooled or fool ourselves. Let us acknowledge, respond to, and live the truth of the gospel. And, thus, clothed in the garment of righteousness, let the light of Christ shine, exposing the lie of the world. Because the gospel is revealing, we must proclaim it boldly.

In vv. 25-26, notice how Felix responded to Paul’s message of the gospel. Verses 25b-26:

25b Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” 26 At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him.

Your version may, in v. 25, say Felix was “frightened” or that he “trembled.” The ESV has “alarmed.” The root of the word used here is phobos – fear. It can be translated as “terrified” here. Felix was extremely afraid after hearing the true gospel that Paul preached. He recognized that he was a sinner – he knew it! And he was terrified of what that meant. And yet, he missed his chance. Hughes puts it this way:

This was the continental divide of Felix’s life. He was being weighed on the scale of God’s holiness. It was time to make a choice – believing repentance or continuing rejection. The scale trembled and hesitated for a moment, and then Felix said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you” … In a very real sense, his soul died at that moment – a tragedy of infinite proportions.[3]

After that critical moment, Felix’s fear had passed; his heart had hardened. From there Felix would often converse with Paul, but his motives were that he was looking for a bribe. The fear that he had felt in that moment never returned. Felix went his own way, and so he lost everything.

This is kind of like the Emperor in the fable. Although he saw nothing when he was shown his new clothes, he allowed himself to be deceived. His vanity and pride led him to ignore the truth right before his eyes. He even paraded and celebrated his own foolishness. He became unable to see; unable to act. He saw the truth, but denied the truth. Even when he heard the crowd, whose eyes were opened by the little boy’s statement of truth … even when he heard them calling out the truth that he was wearing no clothes, he chose to ignore them. In his delusion he preferred to think the people were stupid. And so he became a laughingstock. He lost his chance to be what he so wanted (a wise and good ruler). His vanity and pride led him to be just a foolish joke.

It is a very dangerous thing to put off the gospel message. Ignoring the message, ignoring the fear you might feel when you consider that you deserve God’s wrath is to take a great risk. The next time the fear might not be there.

If, today, you have heard this message and you realize that you are not truly saved in Jesus Christ, put aside your pride or anything that might hinder you from answering his call. Follow Jesus today, in faith. Repent your sins, turn to him as your Lord, and enter the joy of his Kingdom. Because the gospel is revealing, we must receive it humbly.

We live in a culture that, in a lot of ways, encourages traits similar to those of Felix and Drusilla: self-centeredness, hedonism, immorality, greed, and pride—self-delusion with no fear of God. The gospel truth speaks to our culture in a very real way. People have been deceived into thinking they are beautifully clothed. Yet they are naked before God in their sin without the redeeming blood of Christ to cover their sins in redemption and righteousness.

Will you be the one who tells them their clothes are beautiful?Or will you just not say a word, smug in your own clothing? Or, will you be the one who tells them they have on no clothes, and introduces them to Jesus Christ who will clothe them in eternal righteousness?

Let us proclaim the gospel boldly!

And, if you are here today and have never followed after Jesus Christ in faith, trust in him, and do not wait! This may be your moment! Turn to him in faith as your Lord, and follow after him. Don’t wait! There is too much at risk.

Because the gospel is revealing, we must be realistic about its message.


[1] “The Emperor’s New Clothes | Short Stories,”

[2] R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996), 309.

[3] Ibid., 313.