In the End, the Beginning (Acts 28:1-32)

Every story has an ending.  But the great stories have end with a new beginning.  In the final chapter of  C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, the characters are invited “further up, further in” as the land of Narnia is restored.

“[T]he things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)

The same is true of God’s story, in which we are invited to participate.  So as we see the book of Acts draw to a close, we are reminded that this is not the end, but a new beginning.  The church continued long after Paul, and life with God will continue into eternity.

TIME IN MALTA

Acts 28:1-31  Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta.  2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.  3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.  4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.”  5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.  6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

Some cultures are ruled by superstition.  In the ancient world, men who survived shipwrecks were thought to be righteous.  But men who were bitten by snakes were thought to be unrighteous.  Paul experienced both, so this was quite a pickle.  When God preserved Paul’s life, they thought he was a god.  There will always be those who see God’s work and attribute it to something else.  Thankfully, we can see that it is God working through Paul, as seen in Paul’s praying for the sick in the next section:

7 There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and for three days entertained us hospitably.  8 His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him.  9 When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured.  10 They honored us in many ways and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.

FROM MALTA TO ROME

11 After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island. It was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux.  12 We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days.  13 From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli.  14 There we found some brothers who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome.  15 The brothers there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and was encouraged.  16 When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.

The next section deals with Paul’s journey to Rome.  When he got there, he was basically put under house arrest.  This wasn’t ideal, of course, but all things considered this wasn’t that bad.  He was allowed to have visitors.  He was allowed to write.  The letter to the Philippians was actually a thank-you letter for sending Epaphroditus to Rome with supplies.  While in prison, Paul wrote the letters we call Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.

CONFERENCES WITH THE ROMAN JEWS

17 Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans.  18 They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death.  19 But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar– not that I had any charge to bring against my own people.  20 For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”  21 They replied, “We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of the brothers who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you.  22 But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect.”

23 They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.  24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.  25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet:  26 “‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”  27 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’  28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

Each of the above two paragraphs represents a separate conference Paul had with the Jews.  He explained his reasons for being in Rome—clarifying his innocence—but more importantly, he shared the gospel with them.

WHEN IN ROME

30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.  31 Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul invested two years in the city of Rome.  Luke’s story ends here—confirming that Luke ended his writings of Luke-Acts at roughly 62-63.  Luke doesn’t record the end of Paul’s life, but in roughly 110 AD, a writer named Ignatius recorded what the church had apparently believed: Paul was beheaded by the Roman emperor Nero in 65 AD.

The end of the story?  Not for Paul.  And not for us, either.  While under house arrest in Rome, Paul said that his desire was to “depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23).  Does God’s story move you?  Drive you?  Are you centered in God’s purpose, God’s story?  Does the thought of devoting yourself to God’s mission terrify you?  Thrill you?  Inspire you?  Don’t let what you’ve gained from this series go to waste.  Now, more than ever, we need men and women of conviction and prayer.

Men and women for whom prayer is their first impulse…and never a last resort.

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Navigating Culture (Acts 27:1-44)

What is culture?  Ask five people, and be prepared for six different answers.  For some, “culture” is something to be celebrated for its lavish diversity.  For others, “culture” is something to be feared and avoided.   “Culture” is basically the way we answer the question: “What does it all mean?”  Music, art, technology—these are all things we use to figure out what life is supposed to mean.

There was a day when we looked for meaning in the pages of the Bible.  No more.  Now, we live in a world of many competing cultures, many competing stories.  There are many different—often conflicting—ways of explaining what life is supposed to mean.  This is what we mean when we say we live in a “post-Christian” world.  If you look to God and His Word, you risk being labeled out of touch with today’s changing times.

God’s Word tells us to “seek the good of the city” we inhabit (Jeremiah 29:7).  This means that each of us is called to be a missionary to the world around us.  We look to the example of Paul, who continues on his journey to Rome.  We’ll lift some principles from his sea voyage to understand how to relate to today’s post-everything world.

DESIGN, NOT DISASTER

Acts 27:1-44 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.

First, God’s missionaries see design where others see disaster.  To understand this better, we have to look beyond this chapter and see Paul’s journey as a whole.  He was destined to go to Rome (Acts 21:10-13).  Everything else that came his way was part of God’s plan.  This doesn’t mean that God causes disasters such as hurricanes and shipwrecks.  But it does mean that God is at work in every circumstance working it for His good.

Whether we experience tragedy or merely witness it, it’s tempting to look for someone to blame.  Political opponents.  Corporations.  Maybe even God.  But the question we should be asking is simple: “Does God know about this?”  Yes, that’s sarcasm.  God knows.  The storms of life don’t care about you.  Don’t know you.  God knows you, and God cares about you.

SUPPORT, NOT SOLITUDE

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.

God’s missionaries seek support where others seek solitude.  Notice the “we” in verse 2?  Luke, the author of Acts, is actually one of Paul’s travel companions.

Too often we can view church community as optional.  If there’s nothing else on our schedule, if our vacation’s over, then we attend church…or at least come twice a month or so.  This makes sense when church is a duty and an obligation.  But for Paul, Christian community was neither of those things.  It was a joy, born from necessity.  When facing persecution, community shifts from being optional to being vital.

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 Fast. 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.

Do you understand what’s going on here?  The “Fast” refers to the time surrounding the Jewish holiday of the Day of Atonement, typically celebrated in the Fall.  If you were a good sailor, you knew the phrase mare clausum—literally “the sea is closed.”  Sailing didn’t usually happen between mid-September until February at the earliest.  Paul seems to understand this, and that’s an important point.  Paul’s trust in God’s design didn’t stop him from exercising wisdom along the way.  Sadly, this wisdom was waved aside like the flags on the White Star Line.

13 When a gentle south wind began to blow, they thought they had obtained what they wanted; 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 When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that 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.

The final verse says it all.  Not only were they facing a storm, but they lacked the sun and stars that usually helped them navigate.  Our world is full of those who insist that we “trust our hearts.”  “Look within,” we’re told.  But neither trite slogans nor personal introspection are of any use when you’re lost at sea.

CONFIDENCE, NOT COMFORT

21 After the men 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 whose I am 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.”

God’s missionaries have confidence where others seek only comfort.  Paul had hope when all seemed hopeless.

Comfort is a fragile thing.  It can be taken away in an instant.  Yet if we’re honest, we find our value in the idols of comfort, convenience and control.  Outside the walls of the church this is understandable.  Inside the walls, it becomes toxic.  We judge our spiritual experiences not by what we invest into them—but by what we get out of them.  “I’m not being fed,” we complain.  And so the demand for comfort corrodes our souls and our communities.

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 fall away.

COMPASSION, NOT CRITICISM

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.

God’s missionaries display compassion where others display criticism.  The language here of breaking bread is similar to the language of the Lord’s table (cf. Luke 24:35).  With so many unbelievers present, it’s unlikely that this was a communion service.  But I think we’re meant to see this conversation as representing God’s incredible love for the world.  Paul still confronted the errors that he saw (27:21).  But his love went beyond merely saying “I told you so.”

When something troubles or offends you, what’s your first impulse?  Is it prayer?  Or a rant on Facebook?  When political decisions don’t go our way, when a beloved celebrity does something shocking, we should respond with bended knees and bowed heads—not with clenched fists.

SACRIFICE, NOT SECLUSION

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 pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety.

Finally, God’s missionaries pursue sacrifice, not seclusion.  Christians are (in)famous for living in a “bubble.”  We remain “pure” by creating a sub-culture.  Christian music.  Christian books.  Christian coffeehouses.  If we’re careful enough, we might never have to meet a non-Christian.  And apparently it’s working.  The magazine Christianity Today recently reported that an increasing number of non-Christians have never met an actual Christian.  This should shock us.  This should trouble us.  And this should provoke us to the same sacrificial love of Christ.  The cross shows us that sacrifice always leads us further into the world—not away from it.

In the Old Testament, we see another missionary, and another storm at sea.  Like Paul, Jonah was called to reach a group of Gentiles and bring them back into fellowship with God.  But unlike Paul, Jonah refused.  Jonah got on the boat to flee his calling, Paul got on the boat to fulfill his calling.  The message of this contrast is simple: God will always fulfill His purposes.  He will accomplish His mission through us, or He will accomplish His mission in spite of us.

Which one is your prayer?

Outsider Reactions to Insider Faith (Acts 25:23-26:32)

It started as a simple conversation, but dinner that evening came served with a side of awkward.  I was out with some friends during my college years when the conversation landed on the subject of religion.

We’ve probably all been there.  That deer-in-the-headlights moment.  You weren’t looking for a spiritual conversation, but the conversation found you.  Ironic, isn’t it?  Religion, along with politics, is one of those subjects you just don’t bring up casually.  For some, these topics are off-limits entirely.  But there I was.  I don’t remember the exact question that was raised—or even my response to it.  But I do remember the anxiety.  I’ve never wanted to hide my faith.  But in that moment I felt the pressure, the need to “get it right.”  If they didn’t understand, how could I make them understand?

If you’ve been there, you’re hardly the first—or last.  In today’s reading, we look at the way Paul shares his own spiritual story.  We’ve heard his story before—of God’s radical grace and transformation.  But in this passage we get to see it through an outsider’s eyes.  How will the Roman officials respond?

…BY SAVING FACE?

Acts 25:23 – 26:32  The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading 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 on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him.”

I love the phrase “great pomp” (as opposed to mediocre pomp?).  King Agrippa had arrived.  This was a big deal.  But a conversation with Festus, the local governor we met in Acts 25, it’s starting to look more and more like a government foul-up.

If you remember, Paul had appealed to Caesar.  If the leaders followed through, Paul would be on his way to Rome.  But Festus seems worried.  What would he write to the Emperor?  Would he look foolish for making such a fuss over an innocent man?  Maybe by escalating it to the attention of King Agrippa, he could “save face” in front of his superiors.

The next lengthy section is a summary of Paul’s spiritual journey.

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 Jews 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 according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee.  6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers 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. O king, it is because of this hope that the 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 saints 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. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.

12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests.  13 About noon, O king, 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 of me and what I will show you.  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 to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.  21 That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me.  22 But I have had God’s help to this very day, and 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 Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

…BY THE INSANITY PLEA?

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.”

We don’t know much about the faith background of Festus.  Previously he’d seemed to be fairly open.  But a man rising from the dead (26:23)?  This was too much.  So Festus is quick to dismiss Paul by the insanity plea.  The message was too weird to be taken seriously. King Agrippa was familiar with Jewish custom; this was probably not the first he’d heard some of these concepts.

If we’re honest, we speak a very different language from the rest of our world.  We speak in terms of “quiet times” and “devotionals.”  We talk about something that “the Lord laid on my heart.”  We insist we “have a relationship, not a religion.”  What’s wrong with any of that?  Nothing.  But like Festus, there will always be those in our world who think such language is just plain weird.

…BY ONE CONVERSATION?

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 God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Paul was expecting more of a reaction from the King.  “Do you believe the prophets?” he pleaded.  “I know you do.”  But the King was unmoved.  We can’t assume that a total conversion can happen by one conversation.  Instead we need to pray the words of Paul—that God would accomplish His purposes regardless of the time that it takes, short or long.

30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them.  31 They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, “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.”

Their conclusion?  The man’s crazy, but no criminal.  In fact, the craziest thing of all is that he appealed to Caesar rather than enjoying his freedom.  Paul is arguably the greatest missionary who ever lived.  Yet even he was labeled as crazy.  Why would we expect any different?

The greatest sin of our culture today is to be too dedicated to any one particular thing.  A “religious” person might be tolerated—maybe even admired for being morally upright.  But a person sold out to Christ and His gospel is just…well, weird.  No one wants to be labeled a “fanatic.”  But if I believe the gospel, I can be secure in my own identity in Christ.  Even negative reactions provoke me to bold love rather than cowardice.  Following Christ demands I place others ahead of self and faithfulness ahead of success.  “There is no failure here,” sings a popular musician. “Just when you quit.”

Are you praying for faithfulness in sharing your faith?

The Religion of the Great Perhaps (Acts 25:1-22)

Do you believe in “fate?”  Do you believe that things happen for a reason?  Do you believe there are no accidents?

Your answer to this question might say a lot about your background.  Different cultures define “fate” differently.  If you were raised in east India, for example, your view of “fate” might be linked to things like “karma.”  Your culture would basically tell you to “deal with the cards you’re dealt.”  Here in the west, we tend to think of “fate” as connected to a “higher power.”  “Someone is watching over us,” we might say.  If something good happens, we might say, that it was “meant to be.”  When we experience suffering, we might console ourselves with the sentiment that “everything happens for a reason.”

We don’t need to unpack all that.  We only need to know that the Bible does not present us as creatures merely carried along by impersonal “destiny.”  Instead, we can have confidence that we rest secure in the hands of an infinitely wise and infinitely just God.  If we forget this, we surrender ourselves only to the religion of the great perhaps.  But when we remember that God is in control, even times of confusion and difficulty become powerful testimonies to the magnificence of God.

Why is this so important?  Because in today’s reading we see Paul standing before the authorities.  He has been stripped of any illusion of control.  But while control can be taken away, trust cannot.   We see God at work in three different stages in this section.

POWER STRUGGLE

Acts 25:1-22  Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem,  2 where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul.  3 They urgently 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 press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong.”

Portius Festus wasn’t stupid.  He knew that to effectively rule as governor of Syria, he’d need the support of the people.  But he quickly learned that he’d stepped into a mess left by the former administration.  The Jews were starting to realize that to get rid of Paul, they couldn’t wait for Rome.  They had to take matters into their own hands.  But do you see the strange way that God works?  The Jews were in a tug of war with the Roman government.  God used the power struggle to spare Paul’s life.  Nothing happens by accident.  God can use even the worst of life’s circumstances to reveal the best of His grace.

FINDING HIS APPEAL

6 After spending eight or ten days with them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him.  7 When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove.  8 Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews 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, like Felix (Acts 24) is a complex character.  He seems to empathize with Paul.  But he soon realizes why Felix never dealt with the situation.  Release Paul, and he offends the Jewish leadership.  Any disturbance of the peace would not reflect well on his political career.  Paul, as a Roman citizen, had a right to appeal to Caesar.  Festus was probably relieved at having the decision removed from his hands.  Again, God is at work.  The appeal to Caesar would only propel Paul forward to help him reach Rome.

A NEW AUDIENCE

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 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 any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their 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 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.”

The scene shifts.  We now meet king Herod Agrippa II.  If the name sounds familiar, he was the great-grandson of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1).  We’ll spend more time with this man in our next reading together.  The point of this section is that Paul’s high-profile court case granted him a new audience—new experiences he would never have had otherwise.

THE GOSPEL AND FATE

If I believe that my life is governed by fate, chances are that changes my perspective on my negative circumstances.  At worst, I see my struggles as the result of some past failure.  “If only I’d listened to my mother.”  “If only I hadn’t taken that job.”  At best, I see it as some hurdle to overcome.  “Everything happens for a reason,” I insist.  “I just need to stay strong.”

Do you see how both reactions are wrong for the same reason?  Fate pushes me toward self-examination.  My performance comes into question.  But if the gospel is true, then my life is not governed by fate, but by a personal God.  Jesus left His Father’s side so that each of us could be drawn near.  And because of this, God draws us into His larger story.  Like Paul, God is at work in every detail of our lives.  Are you looking for Him?  Or are you preoccupied with understanding your own destiny?

To believe in the gospel means to repent of the religion of the great “perhaps.”  I believe that when we read stories like Paul’s, we can hear God whispering to us: “Don’t worry if you don’t have it all figured out.  I never meant for life to be figured out.  I meant for life to be lived.  Trust in Me.  Look to Me.  Talk to Me.  It doesn’t mean that life will get better, or even easier.  But it does mean that life can be filled with purpose and joy.”

Is that your prayer life?  Are you seeking God in every circumstance?  Today’s a great day to start.

Redeeming Reputation (Acts 25:1-27)

Reputation.  It’s one of the only things in life that we get from others.  And once it’s damaged, it’s hard to repair.

Reputation is part of the reason it’s becoming so difficult to be a person of faith in the public square.  You call yourself a Christian?  Then be prepared to be labeled and shunned.  Our world sees Christianity as an exchange of reason and compassion for superstition, intolerance, hypocrisy, and repression.

But this is nothing compared to the life of Paul.  In this phase of our story, Paul becomes the focus of a high-profile court case.

THE PEOPLE’S COURT

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.

The charges against Paul were simple: he was falsely accused of violating Jewish law by bringing a Gentile into the temple.  Previously, Felix had refused to decide Paul’s case until his accusers arrived.  In this chapter, they arrive, and their appearance takes the form of a courtroom drama before Felix.

Opening statements

 Acts 24:2-92 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.  78 By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”  9 The Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.

 Riots had broken out, and Paul was accused of being the “ringleader.”   Why would the government care about this?  Riots were a threat to political and social order.  The Jews were tolerated by the Romans, but Christianity threatened to upset this delicate balance.  Rome had previously allowed the Jews to execute those who violated the temple, and now the Jews wanted to cash in their chips.

Paul’s response

Acts 24:10-21 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 fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets,  15 and I have the same hope in God as these men, 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.'”

Paul could only respond to the charges by countering them with the truth.  His defense was twofold:

  • Lack of motive. He had not been in Jerusalem long enough to cause any riots (24:11), but had rather come for the Feast of Pentecost (cf. 20:16) and to worship.  In verses 17-18 he makes mention of bringing an offering from Gentile churches.
  • Lack of evidence.  None of his accusers had evidence or witnesses to verify that Paul had started any riots in Jerusalem.  (24:12-13)

Paul’s “counterclaim” was that his accusers were really the ones who had stirred up a disturbance (cf. v. 12).

PAUL AND FELIX (Acts 24:22-27)

Acts 24:22-27 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 a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.  25 As Paul discoursed on 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.

Felix gives no indication that he leans one way or the other.  He is familiar with Christianity (“the way”)—could it be that he empathizes with Paul?  But he can’t risk his political career by upsetting Paul’s accusers.  So what does he do?  He stalls.  He waits until the commander, Lysias comes to decide.

But we never hear of Lysias again.

Maybe out of guilt, maybe because he knew of Paul’s innocence, Felix allows Paul a lot more freedom than usual, including visits from friends.  Felix even has conversations with Paul.  Unfortunately for Paul, these conversations proved too convicting.  Drusilla, his wife, was Felix’s third marriage and he had to break up another marriage just to have her.  All this talk of “righteousness” must have made him sweat.  So he left Paul in prison, calling for him only on occasion out of hope for a bribe.

This went on for two years.  Felix eventually got replaced—he had been too cruel in squashing a Jewish and Gentile conflict and replaced by Festus.  But, to keep the Jews happy, Paul was left in prison.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY

There are times and places when faith will earn you more foes than friends.  The temptation we face is to try and change our reputation.  How might we do this?

  • Fight back.  The best way to build ourselves up is to tear others down.  We can attack others for their political views, their moral views, or even spiritual views.  But this only deepens the cultural divide.
  • Distance ourselves.  Chances are, you’ve probably said something like this: “It’s a relationship, not a religion.”  For some, this is a great way to remember the truth of the gospel.  But for others, this statement does more to comfort followers than convert skeptics.  It’s a convenient way to distance ourselves from “those” kind of Christians.

If the gospel is true, than my reputation is built on the righteousness of Christ.   I don’t need to leverage my reputation in the eyes of others.  I have God’s approval—who else’s do I need?  Our prayer is that we learn to shed the shackles of focusing on our own reputation, and learn instead to live in His.

Only One Safe Place Exists – Acts 23:23-35

A well-known commentator on the current culture has opined that the popularity of social media – particularly Twitter, where many people post every small detail of life – is the quest for fame and notoriety. There is a sort of “celebrity rush” that comes from thinking all of hundreds of “followers” are now seeing your tweet “brushing my hair now #LookingFine”.

This same commentator speaks from his own fame that public notoriety is a two-edged sword. After a while, anonymity becomes the highest value.

The more public one is, the more that same person not only builds fame, but also builds critics and detractors for one of hundreds of possible reasons.

I’ve never been hugely well-known, but I have had enough life in the public eye between pastoring, coaching, political activism, etc. to know that not everyone is going to like you. Someone once said that “no good deed goes unpunished.”  That statement communicates how even well-intentioned and pure actions will have some folks who read into it a self-centeredness or motivational ill intent that did not actually exist.

Certainly the Apostle Paul had to feel this way. He was seeking to obey God and share the gospel’s good news everywhere he went … but his reward seemed to most often be beatings and imprisonments.

Our reading picks up on the portion of the text yesterday where it was revealed that a plot was afoot to murder Paul. So the local Roman commander thwarts this by sending Paul “up the ladder of authority” to Governor Felix in Caesarea, accompanied by a heavy guard of foot soldiers for the first day of the journey (see attached map) along with cavalry for the entire trip.

One can also imagine Paul’s amazement that he had somehow caused all of this trouble. I would suspect he also had to feel he could certainly accomplish more if he could be on the road by himself – living the evangelist/missionary life. Instead, he seemed to be more often in chains and locked up in jails. Where was God in all of this misery and waste of time?

The fact was that Paul was perfectly in the Lord’s hands, and that is the safest place for any of us to be. Though God allows difficult times in our lives, and though he may at times even call some of us home to himself on a schedule that seems like an unjust timetable, this does not mean that God is not for us and with us. Again, to live is Christ, and to die is gain – the worst thing is actually the best thing! God has a plan, even though it often seems to be more confusing than clear.

Yes, there is only one safe place – in God’s hands and care.

Paul Transferred to Caesarea – – Acts 23:23-35

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.

When Circumstances Don’t Make Sense – Acts 22:30 – 23:22

One of the age-old questions is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  I’m not going to answer that fully today. And it is not a question that finds a 100% final answer, as we are left at times to simply trust the truth stated in Scripture that God’s ways are higher than our ways

But I do mean to state it clearly today that there is not a one-to-one perfect correspondence to pleasant circumstances in our lives as perfectly representing God’s pleasure with us. And neither do all painful life circumstances correspond to God’s displeasure with us.

The passage today tells the story of the Roman commander’s total confusion with what truly comprised the story of this crazy guy named Paul. He determined to bring him before the Jewish leadership – the Sanhedrin – to gain some better information. They were not a part of the riot of the previous day, and surely they could help him understand the nuances of various Jewish or Church groups.

So Paul is brought before them to give a statement. His first sentence offends the high priest, who orders that he be slapped on the mouth. OK, you look at that and say, “Where’s the offense in that?”  I’m not sure I can answer that one for you! All I can do is report that it happened and Paul got whacked! Obviously, this irritates Paul and he reacts against the order with some pretty strong words. He is then made to realize that he is speaking to the high priest. For some reason, Paul did not realize this. There are two possible explanations: it might be that Paul’s eyesight was bad (this is speculated to be a physical condition from which he suffered – based upon a variety of Scriptures), or it may be that Paul simply did not know what the guy looked like and assumed he was not even there. In any event, Paul essentially apologizes.

This is off to a bad start!

So, Paul changes course rather rapidly by throwing the entire Sanhedrin into an uproar by saying that he was being judged for the hope of the resurrection from the dead. What a sly political move! The Sadducees were the theological liberals who did not believe in such things as the resurrection or angels, etc.  On the other hand, the Pharisees were the conservatives who affirmed these teachings, along with all of the Old Testament (and not just the writings of Moses). Paul’s move here would be sort of like someone yelling out in the U.S. House of Representatives that they were being excessively persecuted by the government because of a wrongful burden of unjust taxes!

It was quickly clear to the Roman commander that he was going to learn nothing from this gang, and in fact he had to again rescue Paul from being torn to pieces like an old sock being pulled apart by two dogs in a tug-of-war.

The second part of today’s reading speaks about the uncovering and reporting of a plot to kill the Apostle Paul. A pretense was to be made to have Paul again come before the Sanhedrin, and to kill him as he was being transported. This leads into tomorrow’s reading.

But to conclude today, 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.

Paul Before the Sanhedrin – Acts 22:30 – 23:11

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.

23 Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 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!”

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

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.’”

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.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)

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.

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.”

The Plot to Kill Paul – 23:12-22

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.”

Trump, and High Trump! – Acts 22:22-29

No, I’m not talking here about Donald.  Rather, the title is a reference to how many card games have one suit (the category determined by a symbol or color) that in the course of the playing of a hand will carry greater power than the others; and this is called “trump.” And then within that suit, there is the card with the greatest value that is called the “high trump.”

In the Roman era, those folks who were citizens of Rome had a special sort of “trump” over other people. Though they could be detained, it was strictly illegal for them to be scourged without trial and just cause for any harsh treatment.

So as Paul is being stretched out for a beating, he plays the trump card. The power of it is immediately evident in the way the entire mood in the barracks changes. The centurion, upon hearing this interesting information, immediately takes it to the senior officer. The commander himself goes to Paul to query about the truth of this assertion. They had all probably assumed that this ordinary fellow whom they had previously even thought was some Egyptian revolutionary was certainly no Roman citizen. These soldiers were in serious trouble if they violated this right. The commander reveals to Paul that he himself was a Roman – a citizenship that was only obtainable to him through a great price, presumably a bribe! But Paul was born with it from his parents – the circumstances of which are entirely unknown.

So what kind of trump do you have? American citizenship is certainly worth something in most places. People risk everything to come to this country in hopes of attaining it. But any trump of this world is merely a power of this world – therefore temporary. But through faith in Christ and adoption into God’s family, we not only possess the trump of the suit which is the most powerful in the game, we possess the highest of all trump – the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is this that gives us eternal life, the winning hand at the end of it all, even when earthly trump fades.

The knowledge of this “trump” made Paul the bold soul that he was. It was this perspective that made him able to say, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Today’s Reading

It is helpful to begin today’s passage with a quick restatement of the several verses leading into it. Paul was giving his testimonial speech to the throngs of Jews who had nearly beaten him to death. They were listening reasonably well … until … the last statement …

…. 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.’ ”

Paul the Roman Citizen – Acts 22:22-29

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!”

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.

Hey, Let’s Have a Riot! – Acts 21:27 – 22:21

Well, that title probably just got this post read by a whole bunch of folks at the National Security Administration (NSA). To them I say, “Hi guys – I welcome you to read through the book of Acts with us! Hah! You think you guys have got problems?! This passage even mentions an Egyptian revolutionary leader and 4,000 terrorists in the wilderness. See how relevant the Bible is!”

So, today we see again where the Apostle Paul gets arrested – thankfully – since he would have otherwise been beaten to death by the Jews in Jerusalem. The Jewish crowds were certainly confused about exactly who Paul was, but in some general way at least, many of them seemed to know he had a history as a trouble-maker. We can well imagine what the rumor mill was circulating about him. He was known to be too friendly with Gentiles – having been seen around town with a particular fellow from Ephesus. The crowd wrongly assumed that Paul had brought Trophimus into the Temple, but the accusation was more than sufficient to get the masses aroused. After all, who doesn’t like a good riot?

Well, the Romans don’t!! They rush into the crowd and “rescue” Paul by arresting him and putting him into chains. With the crowd chanting and the Romans hauling him off to the barracks, Paul gets the bright idea of giving a speech to the crowd! Hey, great speakers never like to pass up a big audience!

Granted the request, Paul motions to the crowd to become silent and listen to him. (And this is what amazes me…) They do! He begins a defense before them in the common local language of the day, rehearsing his experiences of being a former persecutor of “The Way” before his incredible conversion experience. It is a great testimony.

It all goes well until the final sentence: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”  You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to read what happens next!

The Scriptures tell us in several places that we should be ready at all times to share the story of our faith and to give an account for it and the hope that is to be found in Christ. Paul really lived this out! We probably usually think this will happen in a happy and positive place of good feelings amidst seekers who genuinely want to hear our story. But maybe it does not always have to be in that context … maybe sometimes there are also opportunities in the midst of criticism and opposition – even when it will not be popular. God can use it all.

Paul Arrested – Acts 21:27 – 22:21

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!”

Paul Speaks to the Crowd – Acts 21:27 – 22:21

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.”

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:

22 “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”

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

Then Paul said: “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. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 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.

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

“‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.

“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 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.’ ”

Stubbornness?… or Conviction? – (Acts 21:1-26)

One part of my keen interest in Civil War history has to do with continually seeking to understand the values and commitments that would make a man walk across an open field and into the face of a 12-pounder Napoleon Model 1857 cannon loaded with canister (about 75 metal balls packed into a sort of tin can). Looking straight into that barrel, watching the enemy artillerists ramming home the powder charge and the projectile, knowing life was down to a few final seconds … thousands continued to walk forward toward that fate. Were they too stubborn to turn and flee? Or were they that committed to their convictions?face of a cannon

The Apostle Paul was a man of conviction – that is certain. In today’s reading, we see him journeying onward to Jerusalem. Everywhere he goes – at every stop – he is warned that difficulties, persecution, and imprisonment await him. Yet he continues on toward that goal, convinced that the Lord wanted him to do that.

What is success in ministry? Is it always visible? Is it always quantifiable? By 21st century standards, the day of Pentecost was a success – 3,000 saved in one day! That is the blessing of God. Here and there we read of “many who believed and were baptized” after a sermon of Paul. Amen! But now (as we will see over these final two weeks of readings) Paul walks into the face of certain imprisonment. Everywhere, people warned him to stay away – come on Paul, change your methods and stop being so antagonistic! Surely you can reach more people by staying out of jail and the courts! Are you just stubborn or what? Get over yourself!

But Paul had a divine appointment that he knew included imprisonments and suffering. And this would involve gaining the attention of (and gospel proclamation to) a mob in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, two Roman governors, King Agrippa, and the praetorian guard in Rome.

Again, the road of taking up one’s cross to follow Christ is difficult. It is filled with obstacles, opposition, pain and disappointment. There is brokenness on the journey, no matter what the modern fired-up purveyors of the gospel of success say and appear to always enjoy. As Paul said to Timothy, sometimes ministry is “in season” and sometimes it is “out of season.”  The command is to be faithful in each – being convinced of the calling of the Lord.

This is not a popular message. Sorry about that! Sometimes the calling is to set your face toward Jerusalem and walk that road into the face of great difficulty and opposition. Paul did it … and so did another guy before him, who began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

So what is success? What does the pathway of conviction and calling look like in our lives? Sometimes it looks and feels like walking toward a loaded cannon.

On to Jerusalem – Acts 21:1-26

21 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. We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. 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. We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.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. After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home.

We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. 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.”

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.

Paul’s Arrival at Jerusalem

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.”

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.

Additional note: I know this final section today almost looks like Paul was honoring the Jewish sacrificial system as if the cross was not sufficient. Paul certainly did not see it this way… he was not doing this to promote a method of salvation – for that was in Christ alone. But he saw no conflict in honoring these Jewish traditions related to vows of commitment and things of that sort. His action here would work toward the unifying of the Jews and Gentiles in the universal church. Perhaps this passage from the epistles would put it into context:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.