About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed 3-4 hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and am the editor of a Baltimore/Maryland sports blog called "The Baltimore Wire." My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with a Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

Safe Sailing with God (Acts 27:1-44)

I well remember my parents talking about stories of their early marriage and God’s provision through the most perilous of times. They were married in 1929 just seven weeks before the economic crash and beginning of the Great Depression.

Diana and I did not face anything quite that deleterious, but there were some crazy times that I even marvel at when remembering certain events. Our first apartment cost $125 a month to rent. The first house we bought was $36,200, and we thought that was a total fortune at the time.

We were married in May of 1977 before my final year of college. I had applied to Dallas Theological Seminary earlier that spring, as the admission process was very selective and one had to apply about 18 months in advance of matriculation. I was not at all certain that I would be accepted, but coming home from our honeymoon we had a letter from Dallas saying I was welcomed to attend after the following year. This was a fork in the road moment for us, and we knew it even at the time.

Our move to Dallas the following year was an adventure, to say the least!  We shipped some of our things by a freight company, but we were so broke we moved a bunch of it ourselves. My father-in-law pulled a trailer behind his van, and we drove our packed-out 1968 Rambler Rebel station wagon. The trip was treacherous. The trailer broke loose at one point (in Winchester, VA) and actually passed the van while sliding down the road. It also had multiple hitch and tire problems. So many things went wrong in transit that, when we at last arrived in Dallas at our destination (briefly living with some family who were already there), I completely broke down into tears from the stress of it all.

But God got us there! Clearly it was where we were supposed to be. Life there involved some wild jobs at crazy hours. Diana was a Christian School teacher with a starting salary of $5,600 … whoohoo!  I worked for UPS and cleaned swimming pools. I have oft told the story and have surely written somewhere in these 1,000 devotionals about being rejected for a church music position – one for which the person hired was truly not qualified. There was a true injustice in it – and I recall driving home alone that evening after being told I did not win the position, hitting the steering wheel and YELLING at God. It was so unfair. But, three months later a much better and larger church called me out of the blue and gave me the music position there. It was the best experience of the Dallas years – even better than the seminary. And it all worked together to position me for everything else that has happened over the past four decades.

In it all, God knew what He was doing. The journey was sometimes treacherous and often very confusing (even today I wonder about God’s workings and plans with my life moving forward). But God always put me where He wanted me – in the right place at the right time, whether I realized it at that time or not.

As we turn today to Acts 27, we see the Apostle Paul on his actual trip to Rome. By this time in Paul’s life he had experienced so many unusual events and circumstances that he knew he could trust God to get him where he was supposed to go – doing it in ways that could appear confusing but that always served divine purposes. Paul knew God was sending him to Rome; the details would be revealed day by day.

This is a great chapter of the Scriptures. You have to laugh at how Paul is nothing but a prisoner on a ship, but in fact he is essentially in charge when everything around him goes awry with the foul weather conditions for sailing. Paul ends up giving the orders as to what everyone should do.

And though our journey through life might not have quite the drama as the Apostle Paul, we can be sure that we will sail through some storms and difficulties. But that does not mean God is not being faithful, and it does not mean he is displeased with us. He may be working to use us in unique circumstances, or perhaps he is preparing us to be used for some future time. He is faithful. He gets us where we need to go. And trusting him in every event is the best way to enjoy his pleasure and success in being used for his glory.

Paul Sails for Rome

Acts 27:1 – When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. 2 We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.

3 The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. 4 From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. 5 When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6 There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. 7 We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. 8 We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.

9 Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement.[in the Fall, as weather was becoming more difficult for sailing]  So Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.

The Storm

13 When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, 17 so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.

21 After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

The Shipwreck

27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.

33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38 When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41 But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.

42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.

Three Portraits on the Wall (Acts 25:23-27, Acts 26)

It has been my opportunity to visit Europe a total of four times – three missions trips to England and Scotland, and a fourth occasion in 2013 that included six countries on the continent. Such tours inevitably take you through quite a variety of castles, palaces and other prominent structures. A typical feature of these grand places is the number of portraits and paintings on the walls in practically every room. The famous kings, princes, dukes, earls, queens and princesses are all memorialized on the walls.

When you take a tour through these castles, the guide will stop from room to room and direct your attention to important features within it – ranging from who has slept there in the past, or who was beheaded there in that room. Frequently, however, the guide will draw your attention to the portraits on the wall, identifying the persons and giving some information about their lives, beliefs and activities.

So today, let’s think of Acts chapters 25 and 26 as a room with three portraits – Festus, Agrippa, and Paul. We pick up the story in Acts 25:23 where Agrippa has come to meet and interview the prisoner of Festus – this alleged criminal and curious fellow named Paul of Tarsus…

Acts 25:23 – The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. 24 Festus said: “King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. 25 I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. 26 But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. 27 For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.”

Do you get the feeling that Festus is really glad that Agrippa has come along and is there to shed some light on this confusing situation? Indeed, Festus is not versed in either Jewish background or of “the way” … this new entity we know as the church. We need to read through the chapter (look around the room) and then we will be able to talk about the three portraits on the wall …

Acts 26:1 – Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.”

So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: 2 “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.

4 “The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?

9 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.

12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’

“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. 21 That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22 But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”

25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.”

32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”

So let me now serve as your tour guide to take you behind the burgundy-colored, velvet ropes and right up close to examine these three paintings and characters.


As we said earlier – he is the newer Roman governor who took over from the vile Felix. This is a portrait of a fully secular man.

It is more likely that the learning of Festus made him mad rather than the learning of Paul. The thought of a man dying and rising from the dead did not fit well with reason. Such talk was craziness.

Festus was, no doubt, a heathen, ignorant of any religion except the idolatrous temple worship, which in the time of the Apostles overspread the civilized world.

From what we read of his comments in the previous chapter, he seems to have been profoundly ignorant both of Judaism and Christianity.

Like most Romans, he probably regarded most religions with contempt. Romans were too proud to be openly religious, regarding most religion as either equally false or equally true in some general way.

The idea of a Jew being, as Paul declared, “a light to the Gentiles” was totally ridiculous. This would be like a homeless person declaring himself to be an expert on international monetary theory, or making him the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Is it not true that there are many in our world like Festus? A strong majority of folks! They are found in every rank and place of society from the richest to the poorest. We pass them on the streets and work with them on the job. They are frequently very good people with respectable lives.

But like Festus, they have no faith or religion, living as if having no eternal soul. They give little credence to matters of faith beyond some obligatory notice at special holidays, often to appease more spiritually-minded relatives.

They live as if there are no pressing matters of life and eternity rather than to care for the body, eat, sleep, work, get money, spend money … with no world to consider beyond that which may be perceived with the eyes.

Their greatest value is to let everyone alone in their beliefs, scoffing at the silly idea of religion as a sort of medication for the weak, scoffing also at the non-scientific and irrational idea of a miracle of resurrection from the dead and a spiritual world that is the true reality, or a creator God to whom one should be accountable.

Yes, the world is full of folks like Festus; he has a common face we see every day. But let’s move over to the next portrait …

  1. Agrippa

Agrippa is actually rather different than Festus, being of Jewish extraction and brought up as a Jew. And this accounts for Paul’s remarks that he knows he is familiar with the prophets and gives witness that he believes in them.

He was very much familiar with many ideas that Festus knew nothing about, so the concepts that Paul speaks of are not the ramblings of a lunatic to him.

Agrippa seems to have some sort of secret inner conviction that this man Paul had truth on his side. But that is about as deep as it goes. He saw … He heard … He felt … He was moved … He was at the door of the Kingdom, but he halted outside, not having the will to enter in.

Again, the world is full of a great many people like Agrippa, being found everywhere, even in our churches. Often these are people who have known the truth from their childhood, knowing the essential core teachings of the Scriptures. In their heart of hearts they know it is true, but that knowledge fails to break to the surface.

These folks are those that the Scripture says are among the ones who have not taken up their cross to follow Christ. They oft willingly confess their lives are not what they should be. Someday … sometime … they’re going to put it together. Meaning to and intending to, they live … and meaning to and intending to, they die. Kind, good, respectable people, not enemies, but not disciples and frequently not Christians.

So the portrait of Agrippa is a very familiar face as well … everywhere … even in the church.

But I think we’ll find the third portrait to be more compelling in every way.

  1. Paul

Looking closely at this third portrait, let me point out three distinct features …

  1. Great Boldness – to stand before high authorities and witness well for the Lord. Paul was always this guy that you don’t know what to do with, if you’re an authority who does not really like him. You can’t just persecute him – because he is happy to suffer for Christ … and you can’t just kill him – because he sees that as better yet.
  2. Great Confidence – in the meaning of the gospel he had come to experience in his own life. He is more than a man with boldness and nothing to say. The gospel message truly met the core need of mankind, being empowered by the work of the Spirit that goes along with the preaching of the truth. And we have this same message, yet we may tend to shirk from bold confidence in speaking it out … essentially demonstrating a lack of confidence in the source of this truth.
  3. Great Desire – to see all around him come to know the truth. Paul saw people in the light of eternity, as he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 about the exercise of the Christian life … So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. … We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

So we walk away from the three portraits, asking ourselves in which we see ourselves reflected …

Are you today a Festus? Skeptical of faith? Really, you want to hold onto the things of this world as the true reality?  I encourage you to run to Christ today.

Are you today like Agrippa? Standing at the door of commitment? An “almost Christian” … or a “just barely Christian?”  That is neither a safe or happy place to be. So come through the door, or come clearly forward in your faith as a top priority of life.

Are you today running the race like Paul?  Bold / Confident / Desirous to advance the gospel to others?  Then run on with encouragement; and don’t be knocked off stride by the opponents and critics that strew the course of the Life Race.

(These notes and the main idea come from a sermon I first preached 29 years ago, with the inspiration of the illustrative picture coming from the devotional writings of the great British cleric J.C. Ryle.)

Persecuted Paul – Just the Beginning (Acts 25:1-22)

Let us ask some questions here about what you can imagine is the nature of Christian persecution around the world today.

About how many Christians are estimated to have lost their lives worldwide in 2016 because of their faith?  A. 4,000 / B. 18,000 / C. 41,000 / D. 90,000

About how many Christians around the world face governmental opposition that to some extent inhibits their full exercise of faith?  A. 140 million / B. 355 million / C. 490 million / D. 600 million.

The answer to both question is letter D – 90,000 killed and about 600,000,000 afflicted by authoritarian opposition (research done by The Center for New Religions). Christians are now the most persecuted religion in the world.

The trend of anti-Christian hostility is growing. Certain stories make the news prominently, like the killing of 44 Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday. But this is just the surface; it is happening in all corners of the earth. “There are many places on Earth where being a Christian is the most dangerous thing you can be,” Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project has said.

But this is actually nothing new, as hostility toward the gospel existed from the very beginning. Paul himself was of course an early persecutor. And he was an early victim as well.

Even after two years of imprisonment in Caesarea – 75 miles away from Jerusalem – the anger toward Paul had abated very little. In Acts 25 we read of the immediate raising of the issue of Paul the prisoner by the Jewish leadership as soon as a new governor (Festus) takes over power. There remains a plot to kill Paul. These are angry people. As Festus would like to please the Jews by getting Paul to Jerusalem, the Apostle knows that this would result in a loaded situation against him … besides the fact that he is fully innocent. So he asserts his rights to appeal to Caesar, where he will ultimately be sent.

By God’s grace we are not (yet) living under such a condition of hostility, though a gradual transition toward it is more imaginable than at any other time of my life. The trend is clear. A great many people hate the gospel message and the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ as the only way, truth and life.

Jesus said the world would hate us just as they hated him. The Scriptures teach in multiple places that opposition and persecution are to be expected as the normal condition of living the Christian life.  But none of this should ever cause us to be knocked off pace in running the Life Race. So keep running, just like Paul.

Paul’s Trial before Festus

Acts 25:1 – Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, 2 where the chief priests and the Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul. 3 They requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. 4 Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. 5 Let some of your leaders come with me, and if the man has done anything wrong, they can press charges against him there.”

6 After spending eight or ten days with them, Festus went down to Caesarea. The next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him. 7 When Paul came in, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him. They brought many serious charges against him, but they could not prove them.

8 Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.”

9 Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?”

10 Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. 11 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”

12 After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

Festus Consults King Agrippa

13 A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. 14 Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. 15 When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned.

16 “I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges. 17 When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. 18 When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. 19 Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. 20 I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. 21 But when Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.”

22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear this man myself.”

He replied, “Tomorrow you will hear him.”

Where Justice is Guaranteed (Acts 24:1-27)

We like to think we live in a place where “liberty and justice for all” is truly the guaranteed possession of the citizens. I believe it is accurate to say that there has never been a country in the history of the world where it has been more perfectly applied than in the United States of America. The justice system gets it right in a high percentage of cases … but it still isn’t perfect. Mistakes are made, and here and there are a few personages in power and authority with a less than perfect desire to see truth prevail, especially when it may impact their longevity and position in power.

We could make quite a list of places around the world where injustice prevails and where authoritarian strongmen abuse their people for personal gains. Though the Roman world and system made quantum leaps forward on the issue of justice, it was still true that abuses could prevail. And we see some of these cracks in the system in the biblical record concerning the Apostle Paul.

Today we meet a Roman governor who is a fair-minded and insightful fellow on one hand, yet also a man in possession of quite a laundry list of personal deficiencies. Many of these are known about him from secular sources outside the biblical record. Felix was not a man of high moral character personally. He was much into self-aggrandizement, possessing also a volatile personality and short fuse. We read that he truly heard what the Apostle Paul had to say, apparently did not buy the grandiose false stories of the Jewish accusers, and was even interested in hearing on occasion Paul’s views on matters of faith – being convicted by these words.

Yet at the same time, Felix was hoping to personally gain a bribe from Paul. Why would this be, and how could Paul pay such a thing? In Paul’s defense before the governor, the Apostle said that he had brought money to Jerusalem to give to the poor. Perhaps Felix thought that the people behind the source of these funds would likewise send money to see their dear Paul released from prison??  This is my speculation completely. In any event, Paul’s imprisonment lasted for two years.

Here is the text of Acts 24 … come back at the end for a few comments on the issue of justice …

Paul’s Trial Before Felix

Acts 24:1 – Five days later the high priest Ananias went down to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus, and they brought their charges against Paul before the governor. 2 When Paul was called in, Tertullus presented his case before Felix: “We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. 3 Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. 4 But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.

5 “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect 6 and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him.  7[some manuscripts have an extra verse at this point, not likely original] 8 By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”

9 The other Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.

10 When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: “I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense. 11 You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 12 My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. 13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

17 “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. 18 I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. 20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin— 21 unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”

22 Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” 23 He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs.

24 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” 26 At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him.

27 When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.

That truly is an injustice for the Apostle Paul. Imagine the frustration of knowing that you are innocent, yet are being held as a criminal by people who are themselves doing something criminal in detaining you. Imagine also how Paul must have been frustrated about the passing of time and loss of opportunity; yet as we referenced yesterday, Paul redeemed all of time by witnessing and proclaiming the gospel to all whom he met – including prison guards and authorities.

There is no guaranteed justice on earth. And that is a factor that I think makes the gospel so appealing. Justice would be for us to be eternally separated from God as payment for our sin. But the new justice that God makes available in Christ is that Jesus has paid this debt, and we therefore can anticipate a positive justice in the life to come as we stand before God in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Even if justice should fail us in this world, it will never fail us in the world to come. That is good news; that is what the gospel is all about.

The Bigger Plan of God (Acts 23:11-35)

As I sit to write these few words about today’s reading in Acts 23, I have had the occasion over the past 24 hours to have two conversations with young adults about the big issues of life. One of them was troubled about events and circumstances of life that are happening that are not pleasant at all, while the other was troubled that important life events were not happening, leading to a wonderment about what God was doing and why it was taking so long for the next chapter to develop.

Life in this world, even when faithfully running the Life Race of the committed follower of Christ, is not always fair and free of pain, difficulty, complication and confusion. Not for Paul, not for us. Here Paul was doing good stuff – bringing the offering to Jerusalem that would speak to the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ – and he ends up as the focus of a riot he did not create, thus being jailed by the Romans under the pretext of serious accusations to come from the Jews. What is fair about this?

But we can be sure that in all of life’s circumstances there is an over-arching plan of God that is being executed – most often out of sight and beyond our awareness. It is a bigger plan, and often it is something we do not fully understand until long after it is over and we can look back at what has transpired.

God’s larger plan for Paul is revealed to the Apostle …

Acts 23:11 – The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”

There is the big plan. God is going to get Paul to Rome and in front of an unusual number of prominent people and others who need to hear the gospel. Looking ahead some years later after Paul has been in Rome for an extended time, even in difficult circumstances of varied levels of confinement, he is able to positively say to the Philippians (1:12-14) …

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

Look again at the statement of God to Paul in verse 11, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”  Paul’s unpleasant circumstances of gangs threatening to kill him, being beaten, and thrown into prisons … these events had nothing to do with Paul’s character or actions, but rather it related to a larger plan of God to use Paul in a bigger way. And so, not every bad event that arrives on our doorsteps has necessarily something to do with errant behavior on our part; it may rather be God’s sovereign intervention in our lives that finds its outworking in convoluted and circuitous paths – even some we don’t appreciate … some that seem like we are lost and alone in the dark. Take heart; be faithful; serve God; trust him for clarity another day.

The remainder of chapter 23 is quite a story of a plot to kill Paul that involved 40 men and a conspiracy with the Sanhedrin. In God’s sovereign plan, the plot comes to the ears of the commander – Lysias – who puts together a contingent of 470 soldiers and horsemen to usher Paul quickly out of town by dark of night. Over two days of travel they take him safely to Caesarea, about 75 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, where he will await hearings and examination under Roman authority. God’s plan to care for Paul is evident in all of this. And for Paul … for us … there is no safer place to be than in the midst of God’s plan for us, even if it doesn’t always make sense, even if it is uncomfortable.

The Plot to Kill Paul

Acts 23:12 – The next morning some Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. 13 More than forty men were involved in this plot. 14 They went to the chief priests and the elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. 15 Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.”

16 But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.

17 Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him to the commander.

The centurion said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.”

19 The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?”

20 He said: “Some Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. 21 Don’t give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request.”

22 The commander dismissed the young man with this warning: “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.”

Paul Transferred to Caesarea

Acts 23:23 – Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. 24 Provide horses for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.”

25 He wrote a letter as follows:

26 Claudius Lysias,

To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings.

27 This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. 28 I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. 29 I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. 30 When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him.

31 So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris. 32 The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. 33 When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. 34 The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will hear your case when your accusers get here.” Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.

Nasty Politics is Nothing New (Acts 22:30—23:10)

There is a lot to be disappointed about in terms of government effectiveness these days. They really are frozen by their varied factions and inability to get much accomplished relative to big agenda items. The middle ground is rather small. Not surprisingly, I have a lot of opinions on all of this, though I won’t talk about them no matter what you write or say to me. Heaven looks pretty good right now.

But here’s the point as to why I even dare to bring up politics. We seem to believe these days that the divide with political rancor and factions is something rare and unprecedented. Not really. Much of our history has witnessed such discord, and not just around the Civil War – though that would be a prime example. Horrible things were written and said about opposing viewpoints and figures who promoted differing theories on proper governance in the early days of the country. Such stuff is as old as Cain and Abel.

And a deep party divide existed within Judaism in the time of Christ and the early church. The Pharisees were the more legalistic element with scads of rules from oral tradition, while the Sadducees were more politically accommodating to the Romans. They were more aristocratic and elite, deemed by the Pharisees as the worst sort of sinners – not believing in angels or the resurrection for example (which made them sad, you see?).  Not surprisingly, being joint members of the ruling body of the Sanhedrin, they fought and argued incessantly with each other. It didn’t take much to get them battling each other, and Paul knew that …

Acts 22:30 – The commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews. So the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the members of the Sanhedrin to assemble. Then he brought Paul and had him stand before them.

Acts 23:1 – Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” 2 At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”

4 Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”

5 Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’[Exodus 22:28]”

So why didn’t Paul know that this was the high priest?  Some have speculated that it was due to poor eyesight. This could be, though more likely it was because Paul did not personally know the appearance of Ananias, having been away from Jerusalem for quite some time. We can’t help but recall that it was another “Ananias” that gave Paul his eyesight back at the time of his conversion.

Ananias (high priest from A.D. 49-57) had a sketchy reputation according to the Jewish historian Josephus, who said of him that he was a typical Sadducee: wealthy, haughty, unscrupulous, filling his sacred office for purely selfish and political ends. Even so, Paul believed the office deserved respect, if not the person occupying it.

6 Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)

9 There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.

Here is another passage for my forthcoming book entitled The 100 Most Humorous Passages in the Bible. Paul knew that at this juncture he was safer in the hands of the Romans than in the hands of the Jews. Beyond that, Paul knew that he was ultimately safest in the hands of God, and in this he could be confident that whatever befell him, he ultimately had nothing to worry about. God would bring opportunity for him to serve in any sort of circumstance (as we’ll see him doing later even in chains), and if he perished in the process … well … that was better yet. Paul wrote that to live was to serve Christ, and to die was actually gain – even better yet!

That is the sort of Christian we need to be as we run the Life Race.  As I write these words, the stock market is crashing, the USA version of the Sadducees and Pharisees are slinging insults at each other, and a bombastic shrub of a human in North Korea is threatening to blow us all away. Oh well. To live is Christ, to die is gain. I’m going out for a bike ride. See you at The Finish Line, if not before.

A Piece of Work – You! (Acts 21:37—22:29)

Our hearts go out to the plight of law enforcement officers who have to respond to difficult situations, often of the domestic altercation variety. Entering a neighborhood, they find one handful of people fighting with another. Who are the victims? Who are the aggressors? What is the conflict all about? They somehow need to understand immediately what to do in order to stop the violence, and then they need to somehow calm the situation enough to sort out what is going on and where there might have been unlawful activity.

This is essentially the situation faced by the Roman soldiers who intervened in a riot instigated by Jews from Asia against the Apostle Paul in the Temple courtyards. Very nearby – just outside the Temple portico – was a Roman military installation called the Antonia Fortress. The soldiers there were quickly made aware of the uproar and descended (literally down a series of steps) upon the situation with force – the designations of the officers involved indicating that there was a bare minimum of 200 soldiers involved.

The “commander” (Claudius Lysias) is an officer called in Greek a “chiliarchos” … a leader of 1,000 men. Paul is rescued from the mob by being chained and arrested, being carried by the soldiers. On the way to the installation, Paul speaks to the officer in charge, surprising him that he could speak Greek …

Acts 21:37 – As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”

“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. 38 “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?”

39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.”

The commander presumes Paul to be a particular Egyptian insurrectionist the Romans had been unable to capture thus far. Assuring Lysias that he was himself a Jew, Paul requests the opportunity to speak to the crowd that just tried to kill him. That makes sense, right? The first thing that would come to your mind would be … “Hey, I want to preach a sermon to this mob that just attempted to beat the life out of me!”  Yes, Paul is unique … he’s also multi-lingual and surprises others now that he is able to speak their Palestinian language rather than Greek. He does so from the steps that ascended up to the Antonia Fortress…

Acts 22:40 – After receiving the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic:

Acts 23:1 – “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”

2 When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.

Then Paul said: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.

6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’

8 “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.

“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 9 My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.

10 “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.

“ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11 My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.

12 “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13 He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.

14 “Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’

17 “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’

19 “‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20 And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’

21 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”

22 The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”

Surely the crowd was skeptical, but they listened as Paul opened with his own history of zeal that led him to be a persecutor of Christians. They tolerated a few more sentences about Jesus and Saul losing his sight and being spoken to miraculously. He bought a few more seconds of attention by again referencing his zeal for Judaism and affirmation of the stoning of Stephen. But then came the intolerable moment and words quoted as from God, “I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”  Die, you wretch!

Lysias the commander is little more informed but believes he’s only going to understand it if he gets Paul into a more secure and secluded place to gain information …

23 As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. 25 As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”

26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”

27 The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

28 Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”

“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.

29 Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.

As a takeoff on the American Express commercial – “Roman citizenship: Don’t leave home without it!” … or, the Visa Card commercial – “Roman citizenship: It’s everywhere you want to be!”  The scourging that was about to be given to Paul was a terrible thing, the same that left Christ unable to carry his cross.

The officers had no reason to presume that Paul was a Roman citizen – one who could not receive any such treatment without having been duly found guilty in advance. Even being put in chains was unlawful. And so we see these military dudes put everything into a quick reverse when they learn this information, fearful of repercussions against them should Rome learn of this.

Paul is such an interesting mix of gifts, personality, and circumstances … of education, boldness, and citizenship in the ruling empire while also being Jewish. God did this, preparing him for the service to which he was called.

You too are an interesting mix of gifts, personality, and circumstances – whatever it is. This is God’s preparation for you to uniquely serve Him through his Spirit working through you. Don’t discount that. It may not be as dramatic as Paul’s assortment, but it is what God has allowed for you to have to be able to serve him in the corner of the vineyard where you have been placed.

Ephesians 2:10 — For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

So, yep, you’re a piece of work – God’s work. Just like the Apostle Paul was a piece of work!

Riot Deja Vu (Acts 21:26-36)

Do you ever have that feeling where it seems like the whole world is against you? Yes, there are some friends and family you can count on, but beyond that you run into opposition and difficulties at every turn.

Certainly the Apostle Paul must have had such a feeling. As we have followed his life it has been interesting to see how many people have come to know him and love him. Wherever he travels there are folks who want to spend some time with him and hear about the spread of the gospel.

Yet at the same time there were even more enemies. On occasion they were even people who claimed to be Christians but taught errant doctrine. Other times the Gentiles were in opposition. But the worst of the resistance came from the Jewish element. And you could certainly forgive Paul for having a déjà vu feeling of “here we go again” … as the riot we read about in today’s passage is actually the 6th time this occurs in the book of Acts. On this occasion it was not the Jews in Jerusalem who get the riot started, rather it involved Jews from Asia who had seen Paul start churches there that drew people away from the historic faith and traditions. Their accusation is a lie, not that they really cared …

Acts 21:26 – The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.

Paul Arrested

27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” 29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)

30 The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. 31 While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.

33 The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. 35 When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. 36 The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Get rid of him!”

Speaking of déjà vu, what does the final phrase here remind you of?  You can’t read that without it conjuring up a memory of the Jewish crowds who screamed about Jesus in Matthew 27 …

22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

As we recall these stories and these events, it should not surprise us when we proclaim the gospel that people will sometimes not just reject it, they will reject you and despise you for your belief. If Jesus and Paul faced such fierce opposition, why would we expect to be in any better position? Yet it should not stop us from doing what is right, just as Paul continued on in running the race of preaching Christ. And we should do the same, understanding that opposition is quite normal and will be a repeated situation.

A genuine love and compassion for lost people can take us a long way toward enduring opposition. We are driven by truth to bring people to a genuine understanding of the greatest truth. Our view of people is changed, and we want to see them escape their lost condition. We no longer see people as mere humans going through a few decades on earth; we see them as eternal souls who need the only Savior who can rescue them from their lost condition. Paul summarized this with a few words from 2 Corinthians 4:14-16 …

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.

Things Major and Things Minor (Acts 21:15-26)

Like many of you who read these writings, I came from a rather traditional church background. Though those places of my younger years have moderated a bit, by our local church standards they remain very traditional and uncomfortable with progressive and contemporary elements we have known now for several decades.

Is it wrong to have to wear a suit on Sunday morning, only use the King James Version of the Bible, recite the Lord’s Prayer and sing traditional hymns from a hymnal to the accompaniment of an organ and piano? No, of course not; we know that these are not black and white commands. But it is a valued pattern of weekly meeting for these folks who treasure these rituals. The observance of these elements conjure up a warmth of memories of the history of their faith and salvation, and to ignore them would seem to devalue items of deep meaning.

So what would I do if I returned to these places today to visit with former friends and even present the Scripture in the service? What would best bring blessing and unity between us all? Should I wear jeans and a polo shirt like I did at TSF this past week? Preach from the NIV or ESV as I regularly do? Do a special song from Jars of Clay and in all other ways flaunt my freedoms to be as in-your-face contemporary as possible? No, I’d not do that. It would be distractingly annoying and rude. It would not be worth it in the big picture of things. Doctrine is not at stake, so why not just go along with their way of doing things for the sake of unity and focus upon the greater issues held in common?

This is essentially what Paul does as he returns to the very most traditional of New Testament churches in Jerusalem, being amongst a largely Jewish Christian congregation who continued to value many old traditions from their background.

Acts 21:15 – After this, we started on our way up to Jerusalem. 16 Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples.

17 – When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”

So Paul reports to James and the elders of the Jerusalem church on the expansive nature of the growth of the gospel amongst Gentile peoples, and this is greeted with pleasure. But they needed to honestly tell Paul that an unfair story was common among the people that Paul devalued and disrespected their traditions. Whereas it would be true that Paul did not tell Gentiles they had to circumcise or observe other non-essential Jewish traditions from the law, neither did he preach that folks should not do these things.

The leaders suggest that Paul could take the steam completely out of these unjust criticisms if he would participate with four local men who have made a Nazarite vow (a commitment to deep piety that involved an expensive sacrifice – when offered by a Christian as a sort of memorial). Likely these men were poor, and we recall that Paul has come with an offering from the Gentile churches.

Acts 21:26 – The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.

As we’ll see in our next passage, this apparently serves the purpose. The opposition that arises comes from out of town factions in Jerusalem.

Just because we feel and know that we have liberties to live, serve and worship in a certain way, it does not mean that we are wise to flaunt them in the presence of others who are troubled by or uncomfortable with those liberties. This is a part of what Paul meant when he said that he became all things to all people in order that he may win some by not putting obstacles in the way of the gospel. The gospel is the main idea, the big thing. That is a “major.”  All the other stuff that is in the category of the preferential is “minor” by comparison.

In our upcoming and growing emphasis of the “For the City” campaign, we are increasingly looking to develop and build partnerships with a wide variety of other churches. We are only going to do this with those who truly believe and preach the gospel, but we are not going to get distracted by the relatively minor variations we have about worship styles and cultural differences. There are too many people lost in our community for us to fuss over these matters. Majors – yes; Minors – no time for that stuff. Eternity is approaching.

Mulish, Obstinate, Pertinacious, Dogged Tenacity (Acts 21:1-14)

We call them “the greatest generation.”  By this we are speaking of those who were quick to sign up to fight the personification of evil in World War 2.  It was not simply a matter of the army making good soldiers out of those who had to serve because they were drafted into the military. No. By the tens of thousands, men did everything they possibly could do to get into the army and into the war, believing the cause was a worthy one that was bigger than themselves and their own lives.

My own biological father was beyond the age of prime fitness for combat, but he maneuvered to get himself into the military by using his skills and voice in radio communications in the Asian theater. This generation was willing to give their lives if necessary so that other generations may have a land and world with freedom – willing to die in the race so that others could run and compete. It was all about the bigger vision and greater truth.

The Apostle Paul was such a man as he ran his life race. His own personal safety and well-being was far down the list of personal considerations. Over and over the missionary to the Gentiles would suffer, yet counting his persecutions as a blessing to be so honored. Most others, then and now, would have a first consideration for their personal security and comfort. But this never seemed to be much of a conscious thought for Paul. Others around him saw it, worried for him, and as in today’s passage they also warned him about trials soon to come. But Paul persevered and ran on … being mulish, obstinate, pertinacious, dogged, and tenacious – words which all mean essentially the same thing.

We pick up in Acts 21 with some travel narratives as Paul was headstrong on getting to Jerusalem. And even though he was warned everywhere by Christians with prophetic gifts that he was sure to suffer in going there, Paul put his head down and continued with focused perseverance to move toward what he believed was God’s calling on his life.

Acts 21:1 – After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Kos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. 2 We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. 3 After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. 4 We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 5 When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. 6 After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home.

7 We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. 8 Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.

10 After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”

12 When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”

So, why is Paul being so bullheaded here? It would seem that God’s people are the instruments of God’s message of warning as what would happen if he continued on. The answer is “yes,” it was a warning, but it was not a deterrent. Paul realized through all of this, as well as through his own conviction, that trials and sufferings awaited him. Like the model of Jesus in the final week of his earthly life, Paul was pressing toward the goal in spite of the pending personal ramifications.

And what was that goal? Surely it involved the big idea of what Paul was all about – the preaching of the gospel. But we’re talking here about Jerusalem, not some Gentile, Roman center of commerce.

There is another answer, though it is not in this text. It has to do with Paul delivering an offering for the poor in the Jewish-dominant, mother church in Jerusalem … an offering generously raised and coming from a very dominant Gentile world. Paul’s passion was for the unity of the church in the coming together of Jew and Gentile under the larger common denominator of the gospel of Christ.

Among multiple passages that speak of this collection of funds from the Gentile churches are these …

Romans 15:25-27 – Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.

1 Corinthians 16:1-2 – Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

Later, in Paul’s defense before Felix, Paul speaks of his purpose in coming to Jerusalem on this occasion … “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.”  (Acts 24:17)

Often in true service for God, replicating the model of Jesus Christ in his incarnation and obedience to going to the cross, we are called upon to give up our personal preferences for the sake of others. The world is bigger than our preferences. In the church, the needs of others are bigger than our preferences. Thirty-nine years after graduating from college with a music degree, and having seen the world of church music preferences morph multiple times, I no longer have much patience for those who simply have to have the worship service exactly meet their stylistic liking. That’s nice if it happens. But there are so many other needs in a church family that are so far beyond music preferences that such items of “taste” simply don’t make the menu of serving priorities.

I am not sure I am going to live any longer than Paul did so as to be able to see a very similar desire come true in the evangelical church, even at TSF. He wanted to see the Jews and Gentiles become one true church together – recognizing the common denominator in Jesus Christ. I would like to see the CHURCH truly be on earth as it will be in heaven – a conglomeration of varied ethnic peoples in one family of worship, around the common denominator of Jesus’ sacrifice. We will have a five-week sermon series this fall to address this very issue.

We could mention quite a host of items that are bigger than ourselves. We’re worker bees in the hive, and it is not all about us as a single bee; it is all about the hive. Coming to truly understand this and give our lives away for others is the true mark of maturity in Christ. It is a way of demonstrating mulish, obstinate, pertinacious, dogged tenacity.