71 Angry Men (Acts 23:1-11)

Al Pacino was nominated for an academy award for his acting in 1979’s …And Justice For All. In a climactic scene, Pacino’s character, a defense attorney, becomes indignant at the injustice of the system and starts ranting the now famous lines: “You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They’re out of order!…It’s just a show.” As he’s being forcibly removed from the courtroom he shouts, “I’ve just completed my opening statement.”

The performance was powerful, but not enough to nab Al the Oscar. It went to Dustin Hoffman that year. Not to worry, Pacino was back in the courtroom in a role that would ultimately win him the academy award in 1992’s Scent Of A Woman. You may remember the famous scene, where Pacino, defending his client, becomes indignant at the injustice of the system and starts ranting the now famous lines: “What a sham! What kind of a show you’re putting on today. I’ll show you out of order. You don’t know what out of order is!” Second time’s the charm, I suppose.

In our text we’ll see a wild courtroom scene. Paul doesn’t even finish his opening statement before the trial collapses into violent mayhem. Unlike Pacino, the Apostle doesn’t become unhinged or enraged. Though he does have to be removed for his own safety.

Now, Paul before the Jewish Sanhedrin is a big deal. Other apostles had stood in front of them in earlier chapters, but this was the first time that Paul would testify before them. He probably knew some of these fellows personally, or at least used to. Though this was the crowd he ran with before his conversion, this would be the first time he was in their presence since he became a disciple of Jesus Christ. And now, here he is, before the ruling body, the highest court, the experts and authorities. And who among them wouldn’t be struck by the profound transformation in Paul’s life, the power of his logic in expounding the Scriptures and the undeniable proofs he would present that Jesus was, in fact, their long-awaited Messiah?

Paul wasn’t naive, but what anticipation he must have had. That this might be the moment when everything changed for his nation.

Did you know that Billy Graham preached in North Korea? In 1992 the world’s foremost evangelist brought the message of the Gospel to Pyongyang, speaking at Kim Il Sung University and had a personal meeting with Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s dictator at the time. What a scene that must’ve been! And yet, from what we measure, no revival, no Nineveh moment. No dramatic conversion. Kim Il Sung died the next month and by 1994 the US was seriously considering war against them.

Sometimes the best man for the job does his job, but nothing really changes. We’ll see that playing out in the verses tonight. Paul does not break through the hard hearts of the Sanhedrin. In fact, their response to just a few of his words is violence and rage.

As we’ve seen before, some commentators are bent on criticizing Paul through this whole section of his life, since he decided to go to Jerusalem. They look at what happens and decide that Paul, outside the will of God, responding in anger. That he was acting as a “shrewd psychologist” who enjoyed watching these Jewish rulers squabble.

One commentator in our text disagrees with this assessment: Jesus Christ. At the end of our verses He will appear to Paul and, rather than rebuke him, He endorses his choices. Why this doesn’t settle the debate over this issue, I don’t know.

Rather than seeing Paul as some unhinged Pacino, a better lesson is the helpful reminder that manmade systems, ultimately, are not going to do the right thing. Sometimes men’s hearts are so hard that it is hopeless to think we can rehabilitate the structures they have built up. Which is why, as Christians, our function is to be witnesses, not architects of a human utopia. On display here is the reality that the methods of the Sanhedrin were too far gone to be salvaged, but individual members were not too far to be saved. That was Paul’s hope. And it should be ours too.

J. Vernon McGee has a timely quote for us. He said:

“In our day there are a great many people who feel that if we change our form of government, or at least if we change our party from the one that is in power – whichever it may be – this will give us a solution to all our problems. It has never solved our problems in the past…We wonder why the system won’t work. We think we need to change the system. Do you know what we need? We need to change men’s hearts. It is man that needs changing, not the system.”

So, let’s begin and see how this played out, starting in verse 1.

Acts 23:1 – Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience to this day.”

This opening statement is bold. It sounds like it’s coming from a man who is completely unafraid, unintimidated. And yet, we’ll see that Jesus feels the need to say, “take courage, Paul.” Apparently Paul was afraid and discouraged. How does this add up? I believe it shows us that the Lord was making good on His promise when He said:

Luke 12:11-12 – 11 Whenever they bring you before synagogues and rulers and authorities, don’t worry about how you should defend yourselves or what you should say. 12 For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what must be said.

Now, how could Paul honestly make this claim? Well, notice he didn’t say that he had lived his life in perfection. He speaks of his clean conscience. What is conscience?

Warren Wiersbe says, “Conscience is the inner ‘judge’ or ‘witness’ that approves when we do right and disapproves when we do wrong. Conscience does not set the standard; it only applies it.”

The standard for Christians is God’s word, which has been given to guide us, instruct us and measure us. And in God’s word we are commanded to: “keep faith and have a clean conscience.” Which means we must learn and apply the Biblical standard to our thoughts, choices and behavior.

We recognize that the Bible is authoritative for life and Godliness that we might be complete. And we should keep that truth close to heart, in these times when the world around us is calling good evil and evil good.

Acts 23:2 – 2 The high priest Ananias ordered those who were standing next to him to strike him on the mouth.

There were at least 3 things that would’ve made a man like Ananias angry: First, but calling them “brethren,” Paul made himself a peer of these supposedly great men. Second, he suggested that not only was he innocent, but that he was just before God. Third, he spoke before being spoken to. Scoundrels like Ananias don’t like any of this and so he illegally had Paul struck.

Ananias may have held the office of high priest at the time, but he was by no mean’s a Godly man. Historians record him as being a thieving glutton. He was tried for cruelty and it’s recorded that he would send thugs to steal the food from some of the priests in the temple, beating those who stood in their way, and leading to the starvation for some of them. So, that’s the chief justice here.

We can also notice that, as a body, the Sanhedrin has been progressing in their refusal to hear the message of grace. Think of it: In Acts 4 they had listened, then warned the disciples. In Acts 5, they listened but jailed and flogged the disciples. In Acts 6 and 7 they listened to Stephen, but then murdered him. And now, in Acts 23, they will no longer listen. After so many attempts made by God to show them grace and offer them forgiveness, they had come to an end. They’re set in stone now. And we will see them no more after this, other than a delegation that goes to accuse Paul further.

There comes a point in the lives of people and nations where they cement their hearts so much against the Gospel that they will not hear it anymore. We don’t always know when that point is, but it happens. And while God strives with men day by day He calls out to them in both Testaments: “When you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” These men had to their own ruin.

Acts 23:3 – 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! You are sitting there judging me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law are you ordering me to be struck?”

A lot of commentators accuse Paul here of wrongdoing. They say he snapped. That his temper flared. That he lost his composure and that the flesh prevailed. However, David Guzik rightly points out that we have no idea the tone of Paul’s statement. We assume it to be harsh, maybe it wasn’t. When’s the last time your tone was misunderstood on a text message?

Think of Paul’s track record. Remember how gracious he had been leading up to this moment, to the mob and to the Romans. Later, Jesus does not rebuke him for this statement. And we remember the promise that the Holy Spirit would speak through God’s servants in exactly this situation. In fact, on top of that, thanks to the vantage point of history we know that this statement was a prophetic utterance! A few years after this scene, Ananias would be assassinated because of his ties to the Romans. It’s possible that Paul lost his temper, but nothing he said here was wrong or unfair.

Acts 23:4 – 4 Those standing nearby said, “Do you dare revile God’s high priest?”

It’s amazing how broken manmade systems can become. Suddenly these guys are worried about Godliness and honor and conduct? Meanwhile, Paul is being illegally treated in a trial for which there is no evidence because he had done nothing wrong!

Acts 23:5 – 5 “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest,” replied Paul. “For it is written, You must not speak evil of a ruler of your people.”

There are a lot of theories about this verse. Some think Paul was being ironic, snarky even, saying that a man like that couldn’t be high priest. Others blame his bad eyesight. Others note that the high priests changed so frequently in these days, it was hard to know who had the title. Sometimes they had 3 in a year! He also wouldn’t have been in his official garments, as established in Ezekiel 44:19.

Some think Paul was finally getting control of himself and was walking back his angry outburst. But he doesn’t apologize. I suppose it will remain a mystery on this side of heaven, but two points present themselves.

First, in reality, this man was not God’s high priest. For one thing, he had disqualified himself through his ongoing life of sin. For another, Herod had appointed him for the office. But, most importantly, Jesus Christ was now and is forever God’s High Priest. Having died, rose again and ascended, He now functions as God’s Great High Priest, Who has entered heaven and rules over God’s house.

But a second point is this: What Paul said still holds as a standard for us. “You must not speak evil of a ruler of your people.” Man, that’s a tough one, isn’t it? Let me make it a little worse for us:

Ecclesiastes 10:20a – 20 Do not curse the king even in your thoughts

These are commands given to us. We are to honor authority, submit to it, and respect the offices. We do not have to agree with Godless men or unjust behavior, but our Lord sets this as the standard. Let’s not be like the Sanhedrin and instead calibrate our consciences according to the word of God.

Acts 23:6 – 6 When Paul realized that one part of them were Sadducees and the other part were Pharisees, he cried out in the Sanhedrin, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am being judged because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead!”

Here some commentators once again accuse Paul of less-than-Christian behavior. They say he was manipulating them, trying to get himself out of a self-inflicted jam. I don’t see it that way. For one thing, it’s true that the trouble with the Jews came from the preaching that Jesus was resurrected.

But we can observe that Paul frequently had an exit strategy. I don’t mean that in a negative sense at all. It was clear that this door was shut, no one was going to listen. So, since there was no preaching left to do that day, Paul brought the scene to an end. It reminds me of when he said, “Are you allowed to scourge a Roman citizen?” And later when he’ll say, “Ok, that’s enough, I appeal to Caesar.” He was mindful and thoughtful and prudent in the way he carried himself.

Don’t move on before noticing that a third time he calls them “brothers.” Paul loved his fellow Jews. He truly loved them and wanted them to be saved.

Acts 23:7-8 – 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, and neither angel nor spirit, but the Pharisees affirm them all.

The Sadducees denied the supernatural. They believed there was no heaven, no hell, they didn’t even think humans had a spirit! They believed there was a God but that He didn’t care what you did, as there were no punishments or rewards after death. It begs the question: What point is there having a high priest who doesn’t believe in any of those things?

Now, we are called priests in the New Testament. Our doctrines are given to us in the Scripture. They’re about life and death, mercy and grace, hope and truth. The question is: Do we live what we believe? Or have we become wrapped up in the temporal, material, manmade systems like the Sadducees? We say we believe that righteousness exalts a nation and that it is the Gospel that brings hope and transformation to lives and communities. But then do we live that out? Or, like McGee said earlier, do we keep going to human systems hoping they will solve our problems?

This melee between the Pharisees and the Sadducees looks a lot like our country right now. They needed little excuse to break out in violent opposition to one another. We see a bitter, partisan resentment. Now compare this to what we read back in Acts 15, the Jerusalem council. There, the Church gathered to settle and bridge this serious rift between points of view. And it was done without violence, without hatred, without anarchy. And the church wasn’t just 2 parties like we see here. We’re talking zealots and tax collectors, Jews and Samaritans, academics and fishermen. That’s what God does when He’s in charge of hearts. He brings peace and grace to His Church.

Acts 23:9 – 9 The shouting grew loud, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party got up and argued vehemently, “We find nothing evil in this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”

It wasn’t just the Sadducees who were hypocrites. The Pharisees didn’t actually believe this. They hated Paul! Even Christians in the Pharisee party were against him! Again we see the breakdown of the human system. Everything that was happening was happening because of political motivations.

As Christians, our motivations are to be relational not political. That’s how Simon the zealot can live and work with Matthew the tax collector. As I always try to point out, that doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t be involved in the political process or government. But when we see examples of that in the Bible, Daniel, Nehemiah, folks like that, what was their purpose? To influence policy or to manifest their faith? To restructure their government or to glorify God and further His purposes?

Acts 23:10 – 10 When the dispute became violent, the commander feared that Paul might be torn apart by them and ordered the troops to go down, take him away from them, and bring him into the barracks.

So, once again, we see these people ready to explode into violence at the drop of a hat. Feels a lot like today and that’s not good. Violence is not the answer for Christians.

Proverbs 3:31 – 31Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways

Now, the Bible does make a difference between vengeance and defense, between attacking and rescuing. We’re told to defend our families. We told to deliver the helpless from the grasp of evil people. But violence as retribution or revenge is outside the boundaries for Christians and it is not a tool used to accomplish God’s plan of redemption.

Acts 23:11 – 11 The following night, the Lord stood by him and said, “Have courage! For as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so it is necessary for you to testify in Rome.”

Paul must’ve been so discouraged that night. No matter what he had try to say and do in Jerusalem, none of it had the desired effect. And yet, Jesus endorses it! He says, “You testified about Me! Let’s do this again!”

How had so few words been a testimony? Well, if we go back just to when he was attacked in the temple and move on from there, we find that Paul had shared these truths: That Jesus was resurrected and alive (23v6, 22v8), that God does involve Himself in affairs of men (23v22), that Christ forgives sins (22v16) and that His plan of salvation is for everyone (21v21).

Paul’s preaching was a lot more than it looked at first. And, as Jesus speaks with him, we see that the Lord’s goal for his life was not for him to reform the Sanhedrin. It was to present salvation to those God brought in his path. Chuck Smith said that, as Christians, we don’t work on commission. You’ve been commissioned to make disciples, not create a new world order. Jesus is going to do that. Our purpose is to testify of Christ and to represent Him in the lives we’ve been given. If you’re in a position like Daniel or Joseph or Nehemiah, perhaps you are able to make a lasting societal change, but that happens when hearts are transformed, not when laws are passed. What law hasn’t been broken? Our hope is in the Lord’s plan. Our purpose is to courageously testify for and represent Him. Our power is found in the Word. The whole system may be out of order, but we can navigate through with joy, peace, grace and confidence that the Lord will continue His amazing work through us, day by day, trial by trial because our hope and our heading is Christ, not human institutions. He is our Savior, our Leader, our Provider.

Whipbacklash (Acts 22:23-30)

2020 was a remarkable year when it comes to the topic of law and freedom. In just a few short weeks we found that many rights that we assumed were guaranteed weren’t really ours to enjoy any longer, at least not in certain parts of the country. The infringement of rights and government officials breaking the rules at whim are common topics of discussion these days, which makes a passage like the one before us all the more compelling.

It’s been a little while, so let me get us back up to pace with the story. Paul had gone to Jerusalem. While in the Temple he was attacked by a mob and was being beaten to death until the Roman garrison intervened. While being ushered out, he asked to speak to the crowd. The Roman Commander (named Lysias) allowed it and Paul tried to preach to the angry Jews who had tried to kill him. When he dared to mention the word “Gentiles,” the scene exploded and a riot began once more. Paul was saved from the violent mob, but we will find him out of the frying pan and into a fire.

In this famous scene the apostle will invoke his rights as a Roman citizen in order to escape a terrible suffering and the Commander is the one who suddenly finds himself in a world of hurt.

Tonight we can see two pictures to ponder. The first is a picture of our spiritual reality as Christians. The second is a picture of the unsuspected emergency every unbeliever is in.

But what about the civic freedom of it all? Isn’t this a passage that shows us how to claim our rights? One beloved commentator frames the story as teaching us that it is our duty to exercise our protected rights as citizens in whatever country we find ourselves in.

The Bible gives us a lot of direction when it comes to how to interact with the political systems of the world. There’s nothing categorically wrong with enjoying the rights and freedoms that are made available to us in a nation like ours. But, we can’t very well look at this incident and say it presents to us a doctrine of how and when to claim our rights, because Paul did not always do what he does in this passage! In a very similar setting, back in chapter 16, he allowed himself to be illegally bound, illegally beaten and illegally imprisoned. He didn’t say a single word until many hours later. In that case, he specifically refused to claim his rights when he could have exercised them. So what was the difference between these two illegal arrests? And what does it mean for us in a time when we’re feeling a mounting pressure against churches and religious freedom?

Though Paul’s choices can hardly be described as prescriptive for us, as usual the way in which he carried himself should inspire us as we run our own races. So let’s begin in verse 23.

Acts 22:23-24 – 23 As they were yelling and flinging aside their garments and throwing dust into the air, 24 the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, directing that he be interrogated with the scourge to discover the reason they were shouting against him like this.

The scene outside the barracks was total mayhem. The crowd no longer cared that there was a contingent of armed soldiers there who would have no problem cutting them all down. These Jews were blinded by their fury and hatred.

Despite everything that happens in this section – the injustice, the corruption and persecution, we never see Paul vent any anger or cynicism or hostility toward anyone. Rage is not a fruit of the Spirit. It’s fashionable these days, it’s the currency that’s used online and in political discourse, but we are not to be a raging people. We’re not to be hostile combatants. As a Christian, you are a medic, not a sniper. You’re a rescue diver, not a door gunner. And in this world, everyone’s mad about something. What better time to be full of God’s joy and His peace. What a dramatic difference that will be compared to the angry, fearful, hatred that permeates our society today.

Now, Lysias had a problem. Not only was he responsible to keep the peace in Jerusalem, but if there was a riot like this, he could be held personally responsible for any property damage that resulted. We’ll find that he had a lot of power. At the end of the chapter he convenes the Sanhedrin and the Chief Priests. It’s like an army captain telling the Supreme Court they have to come into session and hear a case that he wants them to hear. But, as we watch Lysias, we’ll see he doesn’t go and talk with the Temple police. He doesn’t have any interview with the Temple officials who had been on duty. Instead he goes straight to the easiest method in his arsenal: torture. It’s not fair, it’s not due process. It’s not necessary, but hey, it gets results, right?

This scourging that Paul was about to endure was the same our Lord suffered before He was nailed to the cross. Paul had been beaten with rods before – for example in Philippi – but this was the Roman flagellum. Many people died before their scourging was over.

There’s a reminder here for us: Our hope cannot be in human governments or systems. Paul was no dummy, but it’s possible that, once the soldiers came and rescued him he thought, “Oh good, I don’t have to be beaten to death today! Now I’m safe because the government has stepped in.” Maybe he didn’t think that, but I think it would’ve crossed my mind. But once out of Temple he was not at all safe. Instead of being beaten to death he was quite possibly going to be scourged to death!

As David said:

Psalm 20:7 (ESV) – Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.

The problem with chariots is that sometimes they run you over. In this era we tend to have a lot of our anticipation and confidence wrapped up in political systems and candidates and parties, but our hope is in God alone. He alone is our Rock and our salvation.

Acts 22:25 – 25 As they stretched him out for the lash, Paul said to the centurion standing by, “Is it legal for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and is uncondemned?”

This is an amazing scene. There’s Paul, bruised and battered from the beating he had endured. They bring him in, remove his shirt. They take his hands and stretch them out, tying him down onto what might become his death bed. The soldiers get the scourge from it’s storage space, probably some linens for wiping off the blood and chunks of flesh that would splatter onto their uniforms. And, at the last possible moment, Paul casually turns his head and says, “Quick question…”

Why did Paul wait so long? We can’t be sure. We don’t know Paul to have a flair for the dramatic, he’s a pretty straightforward guy. Maybe he was waiting for the Spirit to lead him. Maybe he was doing the ministry math in his head. I think we can notice some important differences between this situation and the similar one in Philippi back in Acts 16. First, in Philippi, he was beaten with rods. Though that would’ve been truly awful, there was little chance he was going to die. Here, there was a very strong chance he would die. In Philippi there was a brand new church being started, the very first in Europe. And through his suffering he was able to secure a period of peace for that church. In this situation, going through with the scourging would do nothing to improve the standing of the church in Jerusalem or the government’s pressure against Christianity. So, on that ministry level, there’s no benefit for this suffering, which could be avoided.

Throughout Church history we find that there are some who believe that suffering should be whole-heartedly embraced. We think of monks whipping themselves or doing other self-harm. The idea is that if you suffer more you are automatically less sinful and more Christ-like. It’s not just a medieval idea. One best selling Christian author who leans more toward asceticism in his attitude and teaching wrote in one of his latest books that though we shouldn’t suffer just for the sake of suffering we should “desire” it. His reasoning is that suffering will always accompany true Christianity and that suffering helps us to become Christlike. We agree with both of those statements. And I think, as a church, we spend a lot of time talking about suffering and how, in this age, God’s strength is shown through our weakness. But we do not see Paul always embracing suffering when he could have. Whether we’re called to endure suffering at the hands of the Lord’s enemies or whether we’re able to escape it is up to God’s will and provision. Sometimes Christians are James and sometimes they’re Peter. Sometimes they find themselves in Acts 16 and sometimes in Acts 22.

Now, we remember that Paul had most definitely been promised that he would suffer a lot, right from the beginning when Ananias came and restored his sight. We, too, are promised suffering in this world for the cause of Christ. The world hated Jesus, they’re going to hate us too as we live out our faith. But, the point of Paul’s life was not to set a world record for suffering. Neither is ours. So, while we believe the Bible when it says we should expect it and not think it a strange thing when it happens, while we trust God in it and rejoice if we’re able to share in Christ’s sufferings, we also recognize that there are times when God does rescue people out of suffering and allow them to avoid it. We don’t need to become self-flagellating monks in order to become Christlike. But neither is it Christlike to expect to always be healthy and wealthy and free to do whatever we want.

Back into the text. Paul says he’s a citizen and in our modern age of easy lies it’s surprising that they take his word for it. There are a couple of reasons why they wouldn’t have much doubt. First of all, to falsely claim to be a citizen of Rome was a capital offense. Second, citizens would sometimes carry small wooden tablets that acted like a passport which could prove their citizenship.

In Paul’s wording we see a beautiful picture of our spiritual reality. If you are a Christian, you are an uncondemned citizen in the court of heaven. Your guilt has been washed away. Your name has been added to heaven’s roll. There is no condemnation for those in Christ. How does a person receive such an amazing gift? John writes, “Anyone who believes in the Son of God is not condemned.”

In Rome there were all sorts of classes of people. There were slaves, peasants, citizens, soldiers, aristocrats. As believers, when the Bible says we are uncondemned and that we are citizens, it’s hard to grasp just how much God has done for us. He not only freed us from slavery, but He has granted us a forever home in heaven. On top of that, we’re allowed to serve the King. On top of that, Jesus has made us His friends. On top of that, we have been adopted as sons and daughters and included in the full inheritance that belongs to Christ. And, along the way, God has fully, finally dealt with our sin, removing them from us as far as east is from west, remembering them no more.

Of course, as citizen sons and daughters, we are called to a life of worthy obedience to our God and Father. And, as we all know through personal experience, we fall short of the standard. Take this comfort from 1 John:

1 John 3:20 – whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.

Don’t live under condemnation. Live in the amazing realities of your spiritual citizenship.

Acts 22:26 – 26 When the centurion heard this, he went and reported to the commander, saying, “What are you going to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.”

Centurions are always interesting characters. They are shown as men of decision and thoughtfulness and integrity. As a devotional thought, we should take note of this man’s courage. His commander had been playing fast and loose with the law and the centurion sticks his neck out, not only for Paul, but also to help save Lysias from a really bad mistake. He wasn’t just going to go along and say, “I was just following orders.” When we find ourselves in a situation where something like this is going on, we should also take courage, show integrity and stand up for what is right.

Acts 22:27-28 – 27 The commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes,” he said. 28 The commander replied, “I bought this citizenship for a large amount of money.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul said.

We notice that Paul was still not aggravated or vindictive. He’s not screaming for their badge number or gloating that he’s going to get them all fired or killed. He’s not smug or enjoying the fact that they had made this mistake. He speaks peaceably. These guys were actively wronging him, but Paul does not categorize them as enemies! He wanted these guys to be saved! In fact, even though Lysias was totally in the wrong, Paul never goes after him. He never reveals what really happened that day.

There were different ways you could become a Roman citizen. We don’t know who in Paul’s family had won that privilege or for what reason, but it was now part of Paul’s inheritance. He was born into it. This shows us more of our spiritual reality. You cannot merit membership in God’s Kingdom. You can’t buy it or earn it or win it. To have it you must be born. Born again.

1 John 5:1 – Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father also loves the one born of him.

Lysias had bought or bribed his way in, which would’ve been quite a feat, especially if he had started off as a slave. But all his work, all his gains, all his status was now forfeit. Not only could he lose his job for what he’s done, had he gone through with this scourging, he may have been executed. His whole life of effort, all the money he paid, all he had given to Rome as a soldier, it was all for nothing. One mistake cancelled it all out. And everyone there knew just how serious this was.

Acts 22:29 – 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately. The commander too was alarmed when he realized Paul was a Roman citizen and he had bound him.

They didn’t know they had just done something they would be condemned for. Did you know that you probably commit about 3 felonies a day? It’s true, technically, even if you have no idea you’re doing it. For example, if you ladies have ever visited Carmel, California wearing high heels without a permit, you broke the law. I couldn’t find it in the municipal code online, but multiple outlets (including Ripley’s Believe It Or Not) cite a Hanford rule which states that, in our fine town, it is against the law to interfere with kids jumping in puddles.

Those are silly examples, but when we apply this to the spiritual picture it becomes very serious. The unbelievers around us, in many cases, have no idea that they are condemned to eternal death because of their sin. They’ve missed the mark. They’ve made mistakes. They choose to do wrong. And because of it, they are on a crash course with judgment.

Here’s what that means for us as Christians: People need to be told that they are sinners. We’re not to celebrate their guilt or relish in telling them about hell. Rather we should have the kind of urgency and compassion Paul had for the lost.

Sometimes today we’ll see prominent preachers say things like, “I want people to feel uplifted when they hear my messages.” And so there is a de-emphasizing of sin. But people need to know that they are in serious trouble. They’re headed for a sentencing date and they are most definitely guilty. Commander Lysius realized this and was understandably afraid. What would he do? Would he fall down before Paul, as the Philippian jailer had and say, “What must I do to be saved?”

Acts 22:30 – 30 The next day, since he wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews, he released him and instructed the chief priests and all the Sanhedrin to convene. He brought Paul down and placed him before them.

Ah, Lysias, it’s too late to be legal now. But we’ll see he tries to scheme his way out of this mess. I wonder how long he lived in fear that Paul would reveal what he had done. Listen, if you’re an unbeliever, you’re like Lysias. You are guilty of a serious crime, not against Rome but against God. And no matter what you’ve tried to buy or earn or trade, you cannot pay the fee for your guilt. There’s no hiding from God’s wrath. No scheming your way out of it. It doesn’t matter if you have power and influence and wealth and position, like Lysias, it will all vanish in a moment. The only way to be saved from your condemnation is to be born again. No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again. You must become a child of God, be adopted into His family in order to be saved. How? By believing in His Son, Jesus Christ. He, and He alone, has made it possible for us to become uncondemned citizens of heaven, giving us “a living hope and an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us.” If you’re not a Christian, won’t you accept this free gift that God offers you?

For we who are believers here tonight, a closing thought: Being uncondemned does not mean we will be undisturbed. We face trials and troubles, setbacks and sufferings as we walk with God. Perhaps the Lord will allow us to avoid some of them, but often not. Look at Paul: While the whole city was shaking with rage, while Lysias’ world was coming crumbling down, Paul is at peace. He’s not foaming at the mouth. He keeps his calling and purpose in focus. In this case, the Lord gave him leave to escape the scourging, but not so he could go on the attack himself, rather so he could continue to preach the Gospel. And, along the way, he showed completely undeserved grace to these soldiers. Our spiritual reality gives us present priorities. Even when we believers start to feel pressure from a God-hating world, we remember that God has brought us into a spacious place, leading us on a straight path which leads to fullness of glory and sanctification. A path on which we grow to become more and more Christlike in our thought and affection and behavior and in the fellowship of His sufferings. We’ve been made free, uncondemned, lifted up above the circumstances of earth so that we might not only enjoy our relationship with God, but help others receive His salvation as we go.

Ways To Go (Acts 22:1-22)

Wrong way driving cause hundreds of traffic deaths each year. Though they account for only 3% of car crashes, one study showed that wrong way accidents can be 27 times as lethal as others. Surprisingly, wrong way accidents are on the rise in multiple states. Arizona saw a significant rise in 2019. And something’s going on in Wisconsin: in 2018 police recorded 500 wrong-way driving incidents, compared to 300 incidents in 2015, 2016 and 2017 combined!

In the 14th chapter of Proverbs we are presented with a chilling verse:

Proverbs 14:12 – 12 There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.

If our lives hang in the balance, it natural for us to want to know the right way to go. The way that leads to life instead of death. Luckily, actually, lovingly, God not only gives us a warning, He also help us with instruction. He comforts us with many verses like:

Psalm 73:24 – 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me up in glory.

Psalm 32:8 – 8 I will instruct you and show you the way to go; with my eye on you, I will give counsel.

When we left off, Paul found himself on a staircase, saved from a violent mob who was trying to beat him to death. With his life in the balance, Paul asked to speak to the crowd. Tonight we will see him give a personal testimony of how he was on the road that led to death but was now going God’s way. In other words, he recounts his origin story to them.

It won’t turn out to be very effective for this hard-hearted crowd, but for us it is helpful and inspiring because in Paul’s story we see how a person starts to walk with God, to go God’s way rather than the human way, which leads to ruin, destruction and death. And it is particularly instructive to us since it was Paul himself who said: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” That can seem like too high a bar sometimes. Because, after all, Paul was an apostle. He was uniquely used by God to change history. He was a miracle-worker and had visions of the risen Christ. Though we don’t expect those elements to be a part of our own experience, it’s good to remember that Paul was a man like us. He didn’t always know what to do in his walk with the Lord. He was led just as we are to be led. In the end we know that he finished well and made it to the glorious destination that we are aiming toward. So, seeing that change from taking man’s way to taking the Lord’s way should rouse our hearts.

We begin in verse 1.

Acts 22:1 – “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense before you.”

His friendliness almost makes us forget that these people, just moments earlier, were savagely beating him to death. Paul had an immense love in his heart for his fellow man, even his enemies. He sees them as family. Sometimes he reminds me of Dug in Up who had that wonderful line, “I just met you and I LOVE you!” Paul’s affection reminds us that the way of God is a way of love and grace. The more excellent way. God’s way is not one of hatred and resentment and division. It’s the way of love and grace.

Acts 22:2 – 2 When they heard that he was addressing them in Aramaic, they became even quieter.

You’ll hear a buzz-term in Christian circles: “Engaging culture.” It’s the topic of conferences and seminars. No one ever really nails down what it means, but as you listen you get the distinct impression that the message of the Gospel probably needs to change in order to become more palatable to a secularized world. I think we see an excellent example of “engaging culture” right here. Out of the languages Paul could speak, he spoke with the one that everyone would understand. He didn’t preach to them in Latin, which would’ve been foreign. Or Greek which would’ve excluded many. But he also didn’t fashion the Gospel to their tastes. The Gospel is meant to be counter cultural. To engage culture means to communicate the once-delivered truth of the Scripture in a way that will, hopefully, save people out of their bankrupt culture.

But a second insight here: This important message wasn’t delivered with everyone shouting over everyone. Our culture right now is a yelling culture. No one wants to listen. Social media has tossed common courtesy out of the window. It does no good to blow up at people and rage at them. That’s not the way to convince people they’re wrong about life.

Acts 22:3 – 3 He continued, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strictness of our ancestral law. I was zealous for God, just as all of you are today.

Before he was a Christian, Paul was the pinnacle of human achievement. Intellectually, educationally, religiously, culturally. He was the smartest, most disciplined expert in the room. He was a brilliant, enthusiastic nationalist – a Jedi Knight of Judaism. What was the result of his unmatched, advanced devotion to his way of life?

Acts 22:4-5 – 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, arresting and putting both men and women in jail, 5 as both the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. After I received letters from them to the brothers, I traveled to Damascus to arrest those who were there and bring them to Jerusalem to be punished.

Death. Like Anakin Skywalker or Harvey Dent, the one who was supposed to be the best hero took his road and ended up a killer. Elsewhere Paul talks about how, in his fury, he compelled people to blaspheme God. How he hunted them and hurt them and acted in whatever way he could to destroy.

Man’s roads lead to death. Eternal death for the individual and death for people around them. Now, as Christians, we still want to take some notes from Saul’s example. Legalism does not lead to growth but to devastation. Saul was the most religious person on the planet, yet he was the greatest enemy of God at the time. In our own lives, if we turn from the path of grace to the path of legalism it will kill compassion in our hearts, it will dismantle mercy, it will destroy spiritual fruit.

Now, since we know Paul’s story, we also know that his life isn’t just a cautionary tale, it is one of the greatest redemption stories of all time. He had been the chief crusader, sent out to annihilate God’s people through whatever means he could and now he has completely turned around, is on a new road, not only headed toward heaven, but a road full of peace and compassion toward others. And in this we see one of the most important contrasts between man’s way and God’s way. On man’s way the mentality is: “Join us or die.” But that’s not how we act on God’s way. Don’t get me wrong: The choice is a life and death decision. But as we go God’s way we don’t act like crusaders. We don’t bulldoze anyone who stands in our way. We don’t try to crush opposition. What did the Christians do in Acts? They presented the Gospel, they endured persecution and escaped it when possible, but they never militarized against those who weren’t with them. Think of when Paul went through Cyprus. He preached to the governor of the island and the man was saved. They didn’t then establish a commission to outlaw unbelievers or go to war with them. Because our mission isn’t to destroy, it’s to build. Our marching orders are to rescue not retaliate.

Acts 22:6-8 – 6 “As I was traveling and approaching Damascus, about noon an intense light from heaven suddenly flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 “I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ “He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, the one you are persecuting.’

Paul thought himself enlightened, and (according to man’s way) he was. But that was a total darkness in comparison to the light of Jesus Christ. On the road to Damascus Paul was brought to the stunning realization that, even though he had dedicated his entire life to honoring God, he had completely missed the mark. He didn’t even recognize the Messiah when He came.

Looking at our Lord in this scene we can notice some tender things about Him. First, He still identified with us. He called Himself “Jesus of Nazareth.” As far as I know, when Journey performed Steve Perry didn’t come out and say, “Before we get started I want you all to know I’m from HANFORD!” But our Lord will remain the GodMan, God with us, forever and ever.

Second, in this encounter we see Christ’s astounding mercy. Remember who Saul was and what he was doing. There was no greater enemy of Jesus than this man on planet earth. In our way of thinking, the Lord should’ve met him with a lightning bolt or some plague. But instead He met Saul with mercy and invitation.

Imagine, for a moment, that SEAL Team 6 made it into Osama Bin Laden’s compound that night in 2011, broke in, knocked him down, then said, “We want you to come with us. We’re going to grant you American citizenship and fill your account with an inexhaustible supply of resources. And then we’re going to make a place for you in the US Government.”

Our crimes against God deserve nothing but capital punishment. Yet He extends mercy and love.

Acts 22:9 – 9 Now those who were with me saw the light, but they did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.

There were witnesses to what had happened. The way Paul walked with God was rooted in reality and truth and revelation. He didn’t base his spiritual life on trends or false prophecies or worldly philosophies packaged to look like religion. It was based off of the true revelation and reality.

Acts 22:10 – 10 “I said, ‘What should I do, Lord?’ “The Lord told me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told everything that you have been assigned to do.’

Right at this beginning moment of Paul going God’s way we see that he was assigned and commanded. So far, he had been going his own way according to what he thought would be best. But, from this point on, he was going to be directed by God.

Going God’s way means we must obey. He leads, we follow. Paul recognized that he was under the authority of a Master. He acknowledged that Jesus was Lord. To go God’s way does not mean we choose to make God a ‘mentor’ to us. It means we acknowledge what is true: That He is King and we are His servants. The rest of Paul’s life would be under the direction and command of his Lord.

Ephesians 2:10 – 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.

Like Paul, these are things we must do. And so we accept that we are no longer the chief executives of our lives. We never were, but we’re especially not now. You are, instead, called to be a willing participant in the will of God, following as He leads according to His purposes and timing.

The Bible demonstrates that God’s people can leave the path of His will. Think of Moses killing the Egyptian. Or John Mark abandoning the missionaries. Peter going fishing after the crucifixion. Rather than assume we know best for our lives, we must continually be led by the Lord in what He would have us do. He said to Paul, “You’ll be told everything.” And so will we. We’ve been given the Word to guides us. We’ve been given the Holy Spirit to indwell us. We’ve been given fellow Christians to assist us and encourage us. Give the Lord the helm to your life and then follow in His ways.

Acts 22:11 – 11 “Since I couldn’t see because of the brightness of the light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and went into Damascus.

Paul was still a genius, but the Lord was teaching him that, on this new way, he would have to be led. God wants to lead us by the hand, too.

Psalm 139:9-10 – 9 If I live at the eastern horizon or settle at the western limits, 10 even there your hand will lead me; your right hand will hold on to me.

We don’t always know which way to go in life, how to respond to different situations. But the Lord does and we can trust Him to lead us. The question is not whether He will lead, the question is whether we’re interested in following His guiding hand.

Acts 22:12-13 – 12 Someone named Ananias, a devout man according to the law, who had a good reputation with all the Jews living there, 13 came and stood by me and said, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight.’ And in that very hour I looked up and saw him.

Paul had described the Jews as “zealous.” It was a term all wrapped up in politics and nationalism and agitation. But he described Ananias as “devout.” It means circumspect and Godly. We see that he was not a man who went around making enemies. Even facing persecution he still maintained good relationships with the Jews around him. And he, too, was a man led by God. Led to do something completely unpredictable, completely inadvisable, something he was, frankly, unqualified to do, and yet – because he went God’s way in faith – he was used to change the course of history.

Thinking about how all this played out we’re reminded that God’s way is a way of restoration. God has overcome the world, but His victory is more than just putting down His enemies. He restores people and transforms their lives. Looking back, we don’t want a blind, powerless Saul. We want an unstoppable Paul! But that requires grace and Christians willing to be agents of grace.

Acts 22:14-15 – 14 And he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear the words from his mouth, 15 since you will be a witness for him to all people of what you have seen and heard.

This general calling: To know God’s will, to hear God’s word, to follow the Messiah and testify about Him to others, that’s our calling as well. The specific obstacles and opportunities each of us are presented with will vary, but this is the way of God that we’re to walk in. It’s a way that requires faith and trust, but it is a path every single one of us can make progress on as we move through life.

Notice, the assignment wasn’t, “Go figure out how to make a successful Gentile church.” God already knew how to do that. No, the assignment was, “Follow the Lord’s navigation. Go with Him as He leads you and bring others along if they are willing.”

Acts 22:16 – 16 And now, why are you delaying? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

Don’t be troubled into thinking that this verse is saying baptism is necessary for salvation. It isn’t. There are a lot of linguistic reasons. But we also know that there were about 10 baptisms in the book of Acts and, often, salvation and Spirit-filling preceded baptism. The New Testament is clear that salvation is by grace, through faith, not of works.

So, what about baptism? Well, water baptism is commanded by Jesus. In one sense it’s like getting a new job and filling out that W-4 form. It’s part of the job, right? Baptism is important and wonderful and a significant part of doing that witness work we’re called to, but it does not remove your sin.

Acts 22:17-18 – 17 “After I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him telling me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’

They wouldn’t receive his testimony. Does that mean Paul had failed in his assignments? No. As we go God’s way we are responsible for ourselves. We’re to be burdened for others, but, in the end, we cannot force people to join us.

Acts 22:19-20 – 19 “But I said, ‘Lord, they know that in synagogue after synagogue I had those who believed in you imprisoned and beaten. 20 And when the blood of your witness Stephen was being shed, I stood there giving approval and guarding the clothes of those who killed him.’

First, we see here that going God’s way means sometimes our own wisdom will be confounded. Paul was simply wrong about how things were going to shake out. Luckily, he believed the Lord and submitted to His leading. It helped him avoid disaster.

Second, we see how terribly priorities get skewed when we are going man’s way. There was Saul, making sure nothing bad happened to the clothes of people who were illegally murdering a man. We wouldn’t want any coats to get ripped or taken, that would be wrong!

But we also can take such comfort in the fact that God can redeem and restore and transform anyone. Had Paul not gone God’s way, verse 20 would’ve been his legacy. But God saved him and changed him and made something beautiful out of his life. Maybe you’ve made terrible mistakes in life, fallen short in your callings or responsibilities. So did Paul. And Moses and David and Jonah and Peter. God is powerful enough to bring you back and use you for a glorious, eternal legacy.

Acts 22:21 – 21 “He said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”

This was not Paul’s plan. It probably wasn’t even Paul’s desire. He wanted all men everywhere to be saved, but his heart was for his countrymen. But going God’s way means surrendering your heart and your helm to His leading. Maybe you think you have some great plan, but be sure to ask God if He agrees. Because you want to have a reason for being the places you find yourself in life and in ministry. When Paul was in Jerusalem or Cyprus or Corinth he could say, “I’m here because God led me here.” John Mark couldn’t say the same at certain points. David couldn’t say that when he was hiding in Philistine territory. Lot couldn’t say that when he pitched his tents toward Sodom. Going God’s way means following His prescribed itinerary for your life. One commentator says: “The Lord views all or goings as ‘rewardable’ or ‘judgable.’ Indeed, we are eternally held accountable for every decision we make…This truth calls each of us, all the time, to a…life [driven by] God’s purpose!”

This reality shouldn’t frighten us, but excite us since we know God is ready to lead us on His way, which is full of joy and and growth and life and meaning.

Acts 22:22 – 22 They listened to him up to this point. Then they raised their voices, shouting, “Wipe this man off the face of the earth! He should not be allowed to live!”

Men going their own way are only willing to listen to a point. Ultimately, if they want to continue heading down their own path they will either have to reject God’s message or stop, turn around and go with Him, forsaking their previous path.

Their hard-heartedness came at an incredible cost. They missed the most valuable treasure imaginable, they turned down the opportunity of a lifetime. In going this way many sealed their fate of judgment and death. And, once again, their way led to ruin. Ruin for themselves, for others and their nation.

God’s way is the way we want to go. It can seem daunting or confusing, but we see that it can be done. It’s not always easy, but it is simple. We are to be led. Led in our movements. Led in our decisions. Led into the will of God as He accomplishes good work through us. Stay on that path, abiding in Christ, and in the end we too will lay hold of all that we truly want and all that God wants for us as He leads us into glory.

Justice Is Deferred (Acts 21:31-40)

Yesterday, Pastor Mike McClure and other representatives from Calvary Chapel San Jose stood before a Santa Clara court and were found in contempt for continuing to hold church services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The judge ordered they pay $55,000 as a result. The church also faces county fines as high as $700,000 for keeping their doors open.

As Christians we watch these court cases with interest. Unfortunately, throughout 2020 the trend has been clear that the powers that be don’t have much of an interest in making sure Christians are able to gather before God week after week. Even when it seems like courts rule in favor of churches, thus far it hasn’t been any kind of great victory. Instead, a few courts have simply ruled that churches should be held to the same restrictive standard as any restaurant, retailer or secular business.

We know that our historic experience of religious freedom is the exception, not the norm for most Christians in most places through the last few thousand years. Yet, reading the Bible, seeing the power of God wielded on behalf of His people, hearing how the Lord talks about mountains moving and how no foe can stand against us, we might expect that Believers would chalk up a victory in every single battle. But, not every story of oppression ends with the parting of the Red Sea.

Though that is true, we need not lose hope. As we learned this past Sunday in our study of Psalm 146, good is going to win. We look forward to a future victory, one that is complete in every way. Where all injustices are righted, all injuries are mended, all insufficiencies made whole. But today we walk in the midst of trouble. And some of those troubles will not be immediately removed or overcome. But, it still surprises us.

Even reading through a book like Acts we find surprises like this. If you were reading through the book of Acts for the first time and keeping score, you’d notice that, yes, sometimes scary things happen to God’s people. But, thus far, usually the Christians come through the adversity. They come out of the dungeons. They are taken out of the chains. There have been some exceptions along the way – men like Stephen and James (the brother of John). But now we’re dealing with Paul, the man of steel! You arrest him, the earth shakes. You stone him, he comes back to life.

When we left off last time a violent mob had seized Paul after he was accused of something he would never do. Today, we see what happens next. But, many of you are familiar with the story and you know that this attack and arrest do not end in his exoneration or even escape. He’s going to stay arrested through the end of the book. In the mean time, he’ll be wrongfully imprisoned, targeted for assassination, shipwrecked, and gnawed on by a viper. Where is God when Christians take such heavy blows? And how might we stay on our feet to fight another round? Those are some of the questions before us in our passage tonight. We begin in verse 31.

Acts 21:31 – 31 As they were trying to kill him, word went up to the commander of the regiment that all Jerusalem was in chaos.

On the whole, if we were keeping score, it will feel like the good guys are losing points. As we’ve covered before, some commentators are passionate in their opinion that Paul was outside the will of God throughout this entire period, and we’ve talked about why we don’t see it that way. But even if he was, God does not base His love for you on performance. He doesn’t stop loving you or stop offering His grace when we make a mistake. Praise God for that!

But, no matter why Paul was in this situation, here he was. And the Lord was with him. He’s going to be savagely beaten, then wrongfully arrested, and he’s going to stay that way for years. Knowing that there’s a long haul of persecution ahead in his story, I am so thankful and encouraged to see marvelous notes of providence in these verses.

We see at least 2 here. First, “as they were trying to kill him.” The Temple complex was full to the brim. Paul is one man. No one is defending him. He’s got no body armor. It’s not that hard to kill someone in a situation like this. People kill individuals on black friday without even meaning to. There in 2 Kings chapter 7 the people had been besieged and were starving in the city of Samaria. God brought deliverance and when the weak and weary townsfolk rushed out to the enemy camp for food they crushed the captain of the king’s guard.

So why was it that a highly motivated, enraged mob of killers could beat Paul but were unable to kill him? I have to call it providence. Second, “word went to the commander.” How did that happen? They had strategically shut the gates of the temple. God found a way. He provided a messenger to go and deliver the necessary news to bring the soldiers in.

Why not send an angel? Why not open up the ground and swallow these blasphemers whole? Well, knowing the rest of the story we know that God’s desire was to put Paul before governors and kings. To inspire him to write more epistles. To use him as a missionary among many Roman military men.

Acts 21:32 – 32 Taking along soldiers and centurions, he immediately ran down to them. Seeing the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.

Historians believe this officer would’ve been in command of 1,000 Roman soldiers. The wording here gives us the impression that he mustered at least 200 to go with him into the riot at the Temple. Despite the bedlam and the barriers, the police response time was incredible! In fact, I’d say it was providential. Years ago our house was being robbed on a Sunday morning. We happened to be at Calvary Tulare that day and my alarm company called and asked if I wanted to dispatch the police. I didn’t think anyone would actually break into my house in broad daylight on the Lord’s day, but I said they should. Even if we were be robbed, I figured it would be too late by the time the police showed up. But, as it turns out, there was an officer very near by. He arrived while our uninvited guests were still doing their thing and, despite some property damage, no harm was done.

Here you have a huge mob beating a man to death (a man who, stubbornly, won’t die!) but the peace officers were able to get right where they were needed in no time flat. That’s providence.

By the way, a scene like this highlights the fact that human beings need governance. We need police. We need laws. We need enforcement of those laws. And we are thankful for those who put themselves in harms way to protect and serve and keep the peace.

Acts 21:33 – 33 Then the commander approached, took him into custody, and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He asked who he was and what he had done.

Now, wait a minute! The guy being beaten without mercy, that’s the guy you arrest? While we appreciate and are indebted to the justice system around us, at the same time we can’t expect any worldly order to always do what is fair and right. This is important for us to keep in mind right now as we watch these court cases. The god of this world is our adversary and he perverts justice. In the end, he’s going to be cast into the Lake of Fire. But, for now, we don’t hang our hopes on the decision of 5 SCOTUS members or some appeals court. If courts rule in our favor, great, but either way we don’t rejoice in the words of men, but in the promises of God, knowing that one day we will be ruling and reigning with Him in His perfect Kingdom.

Now before we move on, notice this: Paul was bound with 2 chains. This is a fulfillment of Agabus’ prophecy, delivered in Caesarea up in verse 11. It was a literal fulfillment. Agabus said he would be bound and then he was bound. We have no reason to expect end times prophecies to be fulfilled in some allegorical way. A careful critic would say, “Ah, but we’ve got you! Agabus said the Jews will bind Paul and deliver him to the Gentiles!” Our answer is that it was their actions which led to his binding and their charges against him in the Gentile court of law would keep him bound for years. So, what does that tell us? It tells us, first, that Biblical prophecy is a literal business. Paul wasn’t emotionally bound or financially bound. He was shackled. But, as the fulfillment unfolded, there were elements that came into play that weren’t specifically outlined by the prophet.

So, when we look at end times prophecies, there are gaps in our understanding. The Antichrist is one example. We don’t know who he is. And there are a lot of opinions about his heritage. How can that be when there are so many prophecies about him? Well, God gives us an outline of future events, but there are gaps in coverage. We can’t exactly see how every element is going to fit together. And that’s ok. Gaps don’t indicate prophecy isn’t to be taken literally. Bible prophecy, when fulfilled in the Bible, always happens literally and actually.

Acts 21:34 – 34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing and some another. Since he was not able to get reliable information because of the uproar, he ordered him to be taken into the barracks.

Unsaved people really are held captive by the devil to do his will. Look at what we’re seeing here. We had a wild, concentrated effort to murder a man. Countless numbers of these people immediately involved themselves in that effort. And then, when asked what was going on, they didn’t even know what was happening. There is a satanic conspiracy to resist God and His people and His work on the earth. And many unbelievers around us have no idea that they are part of the injustice. They think they’re just living their lives, doing no harm to anyone, but it isn’t true. This is one reason why it does no good to become angry or spiteful toward the unbelieving world. We can have a righteous anger or frustration at injustice, but it does no good to let unbelievers around you know that you’re enemies with them. The truth is, you’re not their enemy. You’re the first responder sent by God into the war zone of Hanford or Lemoore to go and save those people from the clutches of Satan.

Every now and then a movie will be made that focuses or touches on the topic of child soldiers in African wars. And we see how horrifying and wrong that is and we recognize that those poor children have been taken advantage of. They need to be saved out of that life, not just cut down where they stand. We want to develop the same softness toward unbelievers around us.

Now, I will ask this question: When it comes to verse 34, where are the Christians? So far there has been no one there to defend Paul, or to try to tell the commander what’s really going on. No prayer vigils for him. If we see injustice and can stand for what’s right, we are called to do so, in love. It’s true that the situation was chaotic, but Paul seems to be completely alone, without support. If we see a brother in need, stand in support. Offer assistance. Cross the line to be by their side.

Acts 21:35-36 – 35 When Paul got to the steps, he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mass of people followed, yelling, “Get rid of him!”

We’ve seen providence working its way through this scene, but we also see the devil fighting back. He’s rallying his forces to get hold of Paul again. The shock and awe of hundreds of Roman soldiers had completely worn off and the mob turns violent again, despite the fact that they are unarmed civilians. Look at what the devil does to people. If a full blown assault breaks out against these soldiers, the only result is going to be widespread bloodshed. But the devil doesn’t care.

Acts 21:37a – 37 As he was about to be brought into the barracks, Paul said to the commander, “Am I allowed to say something to you?”

In contrast to the satanic hatred on display, we’re about to see some of Paul’s famous love. For now, we notice a couple things that were happening during this drama of injustice. First, Paul kept his spiritual wits about him. I can’t imagine the pain he was feeling, but, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he stayed in control and stayed in a position of trust in the Lord. Second, even though he’s at a physical breaking point and is being unfairly treated by this government official, Paul speaks graciously and respectfully.

We do not have to agree with ungodly leaders. But we are called to treat them with grace and respect. That protocol is the same for Commander Lysius or High Priest Caiaphas or Caesar Nero or Governor Newsom. Being wronged doesn’t void our Christian code of conduct or make the fruit of the Spirit inapplicable. “But the bad people are so bad!” I know. It’s true. But they’re also dearly loved by God, whose desire is to save them just as much as it was to save us. Now, Paul had previously been a man completely consumed by hate. Hate for outsiders. Hate for dissenters. Hate for those who didn’t go his way. How did he overcome that propensity for hatred? It was the transforming work of God in his heart. He explained in Romans 5 that God poured out love into his heart through the Holy Spirit and that love was the source of his endurance, his character, his hope. It was Godly love that changed him from a killer to a man of compassion. Always ready to lay down his rights and his life. Always ready to face the mob. Always ready to offer all upon heaven’s altar. And he did so with grace toward those who were wronging him, even those who were killing him. That same love is shed abroad in our hearts by the same Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Acts 21:37b-38 – He replied, “You know how to speak Greek? 38 Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt some time ago and led four thousand men of the Assassins into the wilderness?”

Throughout the proceedings here we notice that the unbelieving world, represented by the commander, keeps making assumptions about Paul. And that’s going to often be our experience, too. They assumed he was the guilty one. They assumed he was some uneducated rabble-rouser. None of it was true, but they assumed it all the same and it changed the way they acted toward Paul. People are going to assume things about you as a Christian today. They’re often going to be unfair, negative things. Let’s surprise them with grace and compassion.

Now, Josephus records that there had been this Egyptian Jew who led a revolt in Jerusalem and, at one point, took a bunch of his followers out onto the Mount of Olives and said, “I’m going to cause the walls of the city to crumble!” At which point, Felix sent in soldiers and wiped them out. But the Egyptian escaped. This commander thought Paul was that guy.

The comparison is interesting, though. Because we often do think of ourselves as part of a revolution. But, unlike this other terrorist, our revolution is not based on division, brutality, or force. We’re not dagger-carriers. We carry good news. Our revolution is based off of truth, kindness and selflessness. Our mission isn’t to tear down, but to build up. Let’s remember our marching orders.

Acts 21:39 – 39 Paul said, “I am a Jewish man from Tarsus of Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. Now I ask you, let me speak to the people.”

Paul isn’t interested in preaching to the soldiers, yet. He’ll get there, but for now we see him prioritizing. And we see him playing an advantage card, not to toot his own horn or to make himself seem important. Simply as a way to get in front of this audience before it’s too late and they disperse. The soldiers will still be in the barracks an hour from now. This crowd of Jewish pilgrims? He’s got one shot.

So, as opposition comes hard against Paul we see him enduring, we see him loving, we see him keeping his wits about himself, but we also see something else. One commentator calls it “daring.” Paul was daring. His main goal wasn’t to just get through the situation or even to win his own freedom. His main goal was to win souls for heaven. And, toward that end, he actually put off his own safety in hopes that some might be saved. Warren Wiersbe has a set of commentaries called the “Be” series. Each volume distills a book of the Bible into an imperative for us to apply. Like, “Be confident” (for Hebrews), or “Be hopeful” (for 1 Peter). For Acts 13-28 the book is “Be daring.” Paul was heroic in his willingness to take leaps of faith. We want God to give us faith like that.

Acts 21:40 – 40 After he had given permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned with his hand to the people. When there was a great hush, he addressed them in Aramaic:

Your translation may say “Hebrew” there at the end. Scholars say that the text says, “he addressed them in the Hebrew dialect,” which would’ve been Aramaic at the time.

We see one more does of providence here. God gave Paul inexplicable favor with the commander and then supernaturally drew the attention of a multitude onto one man. A great hush fell over the crowd. Even during injustice and persecution God was fighting on behalf of His servant. Sudden deliverance wasn’t going to arrive, sudden revival wasn’t going to break out. But God had not failed. And Paul was not disheartened. The work continued.

The world may come against us, blame us, misunderstand us, accuse us of things that aren’t true, assume the worst of us. That’s to be expected. And it’s ok, because we can show them the truth by our love and our grace. And, whether we “win” in court or not, we can be sure that God is still on our side, He’s still on the move and He’s still sending us out in power to do what we can to rescue those trapped by the devil. One day, all injustices will be righted. Until then, we proceed as we always do, in rain or shine.

With Friends Like These… (Acts 21:17-30)

In 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a diplomatic blunder on a visit to China. He was there, hoping to develop commercial activity between China and the UK. But, there was a snag: When he met with Chinese officials, he had a poppy pinned to his lapel. In November the poppy is used to honor the war dead in Britain. For the Chinese it’s not a welcome symbol, especially when being worn by an Englishman. For them, the poppy is a reminder of the Opium wars, fought between China and England in the 19th century, both of which China lost. Cameron and his team resisted requests to take off the flower. And, in the end, they came away with deals that could be described as “modest” at best, but certainly disappointing.

In our passage tonight we’ll see a significant diplomatic blunder that ends much worse than David Cameron’s. Paul will be sent into the Temple to put on a show for the Jewish believers and instead of everyone clasping hands and singing Kumbaya My Lord, a violent riot breaks out.

As we read it’s clear that mistakes were made. But who made them? Was Paul wrong to participate in the effort? How might the church have dealt with the brewing controversy? And how do we dwell together in unity when we come from such different backgrounds and traditions and live during such a time of unrest and agitation?

As we start in on the text, after a long journey through the Empire, Paul has arrived in Jerusalem.

Acts 21:17 – 17 When we arrived, the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem welcomed us warmly.

What a great thing to see this warm embrace from the Christians there. He was welcomed as a brothers, not a celebrity.

Paul had been warned again and again that suffering and imprisonment were waiting for him in Jerusalem, but as he finally entered the city, he didn’t do so looking over his shoulder in fear. He felt compelled by the Spirit to come. So, he wasn’t freaking out, bracing for impact. But that doesn’t mean it was easy, either. Remember – he had said to his friends who were trying to convince him not to go, “Why are you breaking my heart?” I’m sure by this point Paul was pretty convinced that his race was going to end in martyrdom. So, with the Lord as his strength, he pressed forward.

Matthew Henry reminds us of how Paul had strengthened other Christians out in on the field “by encouraging them to continue in the faith and by telling them, ‘It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.’” We shouldn’t think it strange that we are faced with trouble in this life. Rather, we should expect and endure and remember that one day we, too, will cross the borders into the New Jerusalem, to be forever in glory with our Lord.

Acts 21:18 – 18 The following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.

It seems none of the 12 were in town when all this happened. Paul’s habit when he came to Jerusalem or back to his home church in Antioch was to give a report of all that had happened on his missionary journeys. He also has his gang of 8 with him – guys like Luke and Timothy and representatives from the Gentile churches who had all pooled money together to give as a gift to the famine-starved Christians in Judea.

On the one hand, it wouldn’t have been unusual that the elders were all assembled here. But we’re going to see that they had an agenda. Sadly, they’re going to behave in a way that feels a lot more like the Sanhedrin than the Upper Room.

Usually we try hard not to criticize the decisions that believers make in Scripture, that is when it’s not overtly sinful or commented on in the Word. There have been lots of moments in Acts where commentators want to point fingers and lay blame, like when Paul and Barnabas got into their argument. This is another one of those areas.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find much that is redeeming about James’ and Company’s behavior here. Their plan is going to be a complete failure. Their methods are political, not spiritual. So, while we want to take a gracious approach, it seems they made quite a mistake in this scene.

Acts 21:19 – 19 After greeting them, he reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

Paul gave a very thorough account of everything that had happened. Astonishing things. World-changing things. There would’ve been many more things reported than are written down for us by Luke. And we notice the careful choice of words: “what God had done among the Gentiles.” It wasn’t that Paul was the perfect minister or that their methods were the perfect methods. It was God working through them to accomplish His purposes. If Acts teaches us anything, it should be that God has opinions and He has plans for what He’s doing today and in whatever city we find ourselves in. It’s not our job to decide what we think Hanford needs or what method of ministry is “most effective.” Our job is to discern the will of God and make ourselves available to it. Think of the difference between Abel’s offering and Cain’s. Cain’s offering was his idea. And I’m sure it was lovely from the human perspective. Full of care and effort. But it wasn’t what God wanted and so He wouldn’t accept it. The question we should ask is not “What do I want to do for God,” but, “What does God want to do through me?”

Acts 21:20 – 20 When they heard it, they glorified God and said, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law.

James and the elders are not completely callous, but we see they start to tip their hand here. They glorified God after Paul’s report (how could you not after hearing those things?), but they then immediately pivot onto a subject they’ve clearly been discussing themselves. Have you been to a meeting like this? Maybe you or someone shares at length about some issue or initiative and then the people in charge say, “Great. But what we really want to talk about is…budget cuts.”

G. Campbell Morgan points out that there’s no recognition of the generous gift Paul and his friends brought with them at their own peril. In fact, they don’t even acknowledge the Gentiles standing there right before them. And that’s because they’ve become completely distracted by traditionalism and their own heritage. And what follows is a sad cave to legalism, bigotry and man-pleasing.

They begin by saying “Paul, we’ve got this problem…and there are just SO many people who agree with what we’re about to say.” Red flag. “And, all these people, they are all zealous for the Law.” The term they use is “zealots.” Now, there are a couple of issues here. First of all, since when did being a Mosaic Zealot become a good thing in the Church? And, second, this is a huge generalization. Obviously there were many Jewish Christians who were not hung up on the ceremonial Law the way many in Jerusalem were. Paul is an example. Barnabas. Aristarchus. Silas. But we see, from the beginning, James and the elders are drawing a line and, in fact, building a barrier between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. This is not a good thing. We know it’s not a good thing because an entire book of the Bible is written to Hebrew believers telling them to stop being Hebrew in their approach to God! But here we see that the leaders in Jerusalem have become partisan. Back in Acts 15, with the first Jerusalem Council they were able to resist the pull, but they’ve slipped and now they’re being dominated by this legalistic and sectarian mentality.

Acts 21:21 – 21 But they have been informed about you—that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or to live according to our customs.

This is such a sad statement. First, they’re generalizing again “you teach ALL the Jews this stuff.” And they’re saying, “Everyone’s been gossiping about you.” But, even worse than that, what they were saying wasn’t true. Every Christian who knew Paul knew this isn’t what he taught. He was on record on these issues. Romans and Corinthians had already been written. Paul’s views on the law are clear in those letters. Of course the printing press wasn’t around yet, but we know that his letters had circulation. Peter references them. Also, it was public knowledge that Paul had Timothy circumcised in adulthood so that he wouldn’t offend Jews they were trying to evangelize. So, anyone who knew Paul, including James and these elders, knew these accusations were made up.

But, notice what they say there at the end: these are “our customs.” Each of us come into the Church with certain heritage, background, affiliations, but as a Christian, what you are is a Christian. You’re not a Jew first or an American first or a Libertarian first. You’re a Christian. Blood bought into the family of God, united with your brothers and sisters from every corner of the globe. If your customs divide you from others, then it is the custom that should be discarded, not the brother.

Because these Jerusalem Christians were poorly prioritizing their affiliations, it was causing a lot of tension when Paul came into town. So what should be done about it?

Acts 21:22-23a – 22 So what is to be done? They will certainly hear that you’ve come. 23 Therefore do what we tell you…

They’re about to unfold this plan, but notice here the way they’re going about it. “Paul, all the Jewish believers are freaked out because they’ve heard you’re anti-Jew.” First of all, it wasn’t true that everyone thought Paul was some anti-Law fanatic. Remember what we read in verse 17: The brothers and sisters received him warmly. They weren’t wringing their hands about Paul being there. The fact of the matter was there were Judaizers in their midst who wanted to tie Christianity down under the Law of Moses and Paul stood in their way. That group was just as mad as they had been back in Acts 15 while they were trying to keep Gentiles from entering into salvation! But, in response to the gossip, the church leaders say, “Paul, you’re going to have to prove yourself to these people.”

If it was so easy for people to hear news about Paul’s arrival and his activities, why didn’t James just spread the simple message that, “Hey, what you’re saying about Paul isn’t true.” What’s more Biblical? To tell people the truth or to put on a show hoping people will see that you want to please them? Because that’s the plan being laid out here. Here’s how they thought it would go:

Acts 21:23b-24 – We have four men who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, purify yourself along with them, and pay for them to get their heads shaved. Then everyone will know that what they were told about you amounts to nothing, but that you yourself are also careful about observing the law.

Then everyone will know. If it was so easy for word to spread, why not spread the truth? Why pretend? Why put on a show? There are a lot of problems in this plan. First, its goal is to seek the approval of man. Second, it sends the message that purification comes through ritual and sacrifice and everyone in the room knew that wasn’t true. Jesus had said, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” Third, they asked Paul to pay the fees for 4 men. This would’ve been an expensive thing. Paul didn’t have any money. They’re putting this huge financial burden on him to pretend that he still believes in the ceremonial Law so that people who hate him won’t have to be rebuked and corrected for spreading lies and gossip about him.

Jack Arnold writes: “The leaders [in Jerusalem], fearing a division, accepted the philosophy of peace at any price.” God calls us to unity, but not at any price. These leaders were wrong to indulge gossip, to refuse to defend the Apostle and to use worldly methods of manipulation to try to appease legalists. They hadn’t needed to do all this nonsense back in Acts 15, when the church was threatened with division over the Law before. What happened then? Well, back then there were a few men who were courageous enough to stand up and say, “No” to legalism and bigotry and partisanship. That was needed again here in chapter 21, but this time there was no dissent.

Some commentators call this plan compromise, some call it prudence. They say that it would’ve been too difficult to expect lifelong Jews to abandon their heritage in the rites and ceremonies. Yet, we remember that Jesus Christ called the disciples to leave their nets. Leave their tax booth. Leave father and mother and follow Him. Do you still have a heritage once you become a Christian? Of course. But that background, those traditions are never to have their hands on the rudder of your life because you are a new creation in Christ. A citizen of a heavenly Kingdom. Speaking of us, Jesus said: “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

Acts 21:25 – 25 With regard to the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter containing our decision that they should keep themselves from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from what is strangled, and from sexual immorality.”

If I had been in Paul’s position, this would’ve hurt. It assumes that he had not been teaching these things effectively out in those Gentile churches. That he hadn’t properly shown them how to Christian. And then think of what it would’ve felt like to be one of the Gentiles there in the meeting! “Yeah, I know not to be sexually immoral.”

Plus, we see a flaw in their logic. So a simple written note would be sufficient for all the Gentile world to know the truth, but they couldn’t handle spreading the truth through the Christian community in one city (Jerusalem)?

We also note a contrast between Paul’s sharing in verse 19 where he talked about what “God had done” and then James and the elders saying here in verse 25, “Here’s our decision.”

Acts 21:26 – 26 So the next day, Paul took the men, having purified himself along with them, and entered the temple, announcing the completion of the purification days when the offering would be made for each of them.

Why, oh why did Paul go along with this? Some say he was deep into sinful compromise. Some say he was simply trying to be all things to all men. I think that’s closer to the mark. We can’t be sure of what was going on in his head, but we know Paul to be a humble man. He was a man who was willing to lay down his life to reach people with the Gospel. He was a man ready to sacrifice his own liberty to do ministry. And, we know that he knew he was gong to be imprisoned in Jerusalem. I think it’s very possible that he was able to be at peace with their scheme, not because he agreed, but because the Lord had given him a certain amount of prophetic revelation about what was going to happen. Maybe he was thinking to himself, “So that’s how it’s going to happen.”

Acts 21:27-28 – 27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd, and seized him, 28 shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place. What’s more, he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”

So, the literal opposite of what they planned for happened. They had planned this grand gesture of legalism and it completely backfired. Not only had the Jerusalem elders put Paul in a bad position, they didn’t even help him in it. Where are they in this scene? They’re so worried about this supposed rift in the church, but they’re nowhere to be found. That’s a sad testimony.

A simple lesson here is that, when we try to apply human methods to ministry, the result will often be the opposite of what we wanted to the detriment of people. Whether it’s in fundraising or outreach or messaging, let God lead. We don’t need to worldly techniques. Worldly recipes don’t produce spiritual outcomes.

Acts 21:29 – 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.

This is a baseless assumption. But, note, not even the 4 guys finishing their vow vouch for Paul. When we give in to bias or prejudice or legalism in our minds or in the church the result is destructive. That’s what we’re seeing here. It goes both ways. In this case, Jerusalem was clearly dealing with an anti-Gentile bias. In much of history the church has been plagued by anti-semitism. Today our culture is obsessed with everyone grouping up and identifying who is “us” and who is not “us.” Don’t give in to that. It’s detrimental and destructive and, ultimately, deadly.

Acts 21:30 – 30 The whole city was stirred up, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul, dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut.

John Phillips wrote, “What did James and the others think of themselves? We wonder… They apparently did nothing to secure (Paul’s) release, nothing to speak on his behalf, nothing to appeal to the Jews of Jerusalem to give Paul fair play. They sent no one to the Roman authorities to assure the commander of the garrison that Paul was innocent of the charges leveled against him.”

This is a sad chapter, not only for Paul but in the history of the Church in Jerusalem. What might we learn?

Well, if we find ourselves sin Paul’s position, we see from his example selflessness, humility and a willingness to lay down his rights. He knew he was where he was supposed to be because the Spirit had led him. To be sure, the situation was a painful one, but as usual he demonstrates that grace is the way. In uncertainty, in conflict, when being mistreated, respond with grace. That doesn’t mean we compromise with sin, but we can choose to humble ourselves and bear the fruits of patience and peace and grace, even when we’re not the ones in the wrong.

If we find ourselves in James’ position, we should learn from his example that sometimes our responsibility is to stand up for the truth, even if that makes us unpopular with our peers. We see the dangers of placing heritage over conviction. We see what happens when we cling too tightly to the approval of man or the traditions of man rather than the grace of God.

On a wider level we also learn two general but important things from this passage. First, we should takeaway the understanding that the ‘church’ is not co-equal with Scripture. For example, in Roman Catholicism, church tradition carries equal authority with Scripture. We see, in this case, the “church” decision wasn’t the right one. We are fallible, the Scripture is not.

But that leads to a second takeaway, as pointed out by H.A. Ironside, it is a comfort to see that even apostles made mistakes. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to offend one another. Hopefully it doesn’t lead to someone’s false imprisonment, but we are going to fall short at some point or another. Grace is the way forward. Clinging to what has been revealed in the Scriptures is the way forward. So let’s move forward, not in fear, not in traditionalism, not trying to win the approval of man, but forward in grace, as people of the Word, doing what is necessary to follow God and be used for His purposes.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Acts 21:2-16)

In World War 2, the Eager Beavers were a ragtag B17 crew in the Pacific theater. They were known for volunteering for dangerous recon assignments, some of which would even be considered suicide missions. On the morning of June 16, 1943, the Eager Beavers accepted a mission no one else wanted. They were to fly to the islands of Buka and Bougainville to gather photo intelligence for the upcoming Allied invasion. There were some problems, though: They’d have to fly hundreds of miles unescorted into enemy territory. And, to get usable pictures, they would have to fly steadily for 20 minutes, undoubtedly while being engaged by enemy fighter planes.

At 4am the beat up and battle-scarred bomber took to the sky for what General George Kenney would later call “a mission that still stands out in my mind as an epic of courage unequaled in the annals of air warfare.” They reached their target, were engaged by at least 20 enemies, and fought through 45 minutes of continuous combat. 2nd Lt. Joseph Sarnoski was one of two men to receive the Medal of Honor for his efforts on that flight. The pilot did as well. The rest of the crew received the the Distinguished Service Cross for their part and nearly all of them were awarded Purple Hearts for injuries sustained. Lt. Sarnoski gave his life in the fight, even waving off medical attention so he could stay at his gun. Two minutes after he downed one of the enemy fighters he succumbed to his wounds. Sarnoski would’ve been sent home just 3 days later. Records show that he didn’t have to join the mission, but he felt it his duty to go and do his part, not counting his life dear to himself.

In war we understand that stories like that. We honor the courage of those who do not make personal safety their life’s goal. We accept that, at times, people will be sent to make the ultimate sacrifice because there is a greater mission being accomplished. And, if every soldier, sailor, marine or airman said “No, my personal security is more important,” then there would be no victory.

The problem for us is that so often it doesn’t feel like we’re on the front lines of an all-important war. Day-to-day life with its many distractions can keep us from seeing how God is leading us. And, as we live our regular lives, we can start to forget what our spiritual objectives are. We start to focus on safety, security and success in a way that might actually hinder the advance of the Gospel and discourage others in their walk with Jesus.

These were issues in play as Paul moved ever-closer to Jerusalem in Acts 21. As we read through the travel log, we sense that the story is building to a dramatic climax. At the same time we also see a lot of Christians, Godly Christians with grace and gifting and passion for the Lord, living out their regular lives, but in this case, losing a bit of perspective when it comes to how they were counseling Paul. There are a lot of places where we could insert ourselves in the story tonight. And we can see how God can use regular Christians, doing regular Christian things to accomplish His amazing providence. At the same time, we’ll see that a loss of perspective can lead us into wrong steps which contradict God’s leading and discourage others along the way.

We begin at verse 2.

Acts 21:2 – 2 Finding a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we boarded and set sail.

Keep your eyes open for providence in this section. Providence is God providing for His will to be done in this world. Dr. J. Vernon McGee defines it as “the means by which God directs all things.” How is it possible that Israel was able to survive and produce the Messiah when Pharaoh systematically tried to destroy them and Haman and Herod and all the rest? God provided the way. Providence, however, does not mean that God causes everything to happen. God is not the author of evil. God does not tempt you. God, in His strength, has given human beings a freedom to choose. He freed the wills of Adam and Eve and He has freed the wills of each human afterward. But, despite our freedom, He will accomplish His purposes. And we find that, in God’s will, there are areas of wiggle room. For example: Mordecai said plainly to Esther: “God is giving you the opportunity to be used to deliver His people, but if you won’t do it, then deliverance will arise from somewhere else.” That’s providence as opposed to what we would call determinism. Think of Moses, also used by God to deliver Israel. Yet, at one point before Moses even made it back to Egypt, God confronted Moses and planned to kill him because he had failed to circumcise his son.

In this passage, we’ll see some wonderful, tender providence. Wherever Paul lands, God provides shelter and supply for him in the homes of loving Christians. But, here in verse 2 we see that they hadn’t been told which ship to take. They went and found one. Would they take a smaller vessel that hugged the coastline? Or would they board a larger liner that would sail straight across the sea? They made a choice and then through it God provided what was needed.

Acts 21:3 – 3 After we sighted Cyprus, passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria and arrived at Tyre, since the ship was to unload its cargo there.

Paul knew he was headed for arrest and suffering. He had said so in the last chapter. Knowing that he was definitely headed for hard times, maybe to his own death, it probably was a hard thing to pass Cyprus without stopping. There were friends there – many people he was a father to in the faith. This route they were taking would also bypass Antioch, his home church, full of friends and family who he loved so much. But, this was the mission. Remember, God the Holy Spirit was compelling him to go. There was something for him in Jerusalem. Not to mention that he and the 8 brothers traveling with him were bringing financial aid to the struggling church there.

Paul didn’t prioritize his own emotional wants and needs. None of these guys did. These were not the kinds of guys who believed that line you hear sometimes: “You have to love yourself first before you can love someone else.” That’s an impossible formula, because real love always includes self-sacrifice. Instead, as they passed Cyprus and Paul, I’m sure, felt that twinge of disappointment or heartache, he was able to strengthen himself in the Lord and be reminded that he was following a trustworthy God, who is good and loving and full of grace.

Now, as we read this section, we note that sometimes Dr. Luke will skip over years of time and then sometimes he zooms in on a few days. That’s what’s happening here. And so much of it seems very routine. And that’s a good thing because we are not apostles. We do not find ourselves in the middle of some miraculous revival. We’re living what we would call regular lives. And that’s what we see happening among the Christians in these various cities. A lot is going on with Paul, but as he passes through we see believers in Tyre and Ptolemais and Caesarea living normal lives. People with homes and families and spiritual gifts and a desire to honor God. And what we’ll see is that even though we’re not apostles doesn’t mean we’re not an important part of God’s work.

Acts 21:4a – 4 We sought out the disciples and stayed there seven days.

Paul and his companions went and found the Christians living in Tyre. There’s a very simple devotional question for us to ask: Could someone find us as the Christians in our neighborhood? If someone was in need, whether they were fellow believers or nonChristians seeking help, if inquiries were made, would we be marked as disciples?

The Church in America has not been driven underground yet. And, certainly, in times of violent persecution things are a little different. But right now, despite the pressures we face, we are still allowed to be Christians. There’s no need for us to be camouflaged about it. We’re to shine like light in the dark, a city on a hill, radiating the love and the truth of Jesus Christ to the world around us.

The second part of that devotional question is: Once found, are we ready to serve? This was probably a surprise visit for the believers there in Tyre, but they were ready to extend help and support when it was needed.

Acts 21:4b – Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem.

Some commentators suggest that Paul, throughout this whole portion of his life, was completely out of step with God. That he was actually in sin for his refusal to listen to the Holy Spirit. They use this verse as evidence. But, here’s what we know: We know that the Holy Spirit had authorized Paul to tell all the Christians of the church age: “Follow me as I follow Christ.” We know that the Spirit had compelled him to go to Jerusalem. And we know that, after he gets there, Jesus Himself will appear to him and say, “Take courage [Paul]! For as you have testified about Me in Jerusalem, so it is necessary for you to testify in Rome.” So Jesus signed off on this trip.

So what should we make of this statement in verse 4? Well, as Paul has already said, in every city he was receiving messages from the Lord, telling him that chains and afflictions were waiting for him at the end of the line. What the Spirit was sending as a “heads up” the Christians were delivering as a “hold off.” It’s going to happen again in a few verses.

Now, before we move on, let’s think about this: The Gospel came to Troas as a result of Paul’s pre-Christian persecution of the Church. That’s providence! The man who sought to destroy God’s people has now been redeemed, transformed, and is being ministered to by the very people who were driven out of Jerusalem by his violence. Sharing a meal and a room in the house might seem small compared to planting churches, writing Scripture and working miracles, but it was such a blessing and a help to Paul. You see, in towns like Tyre, the inns frequently doubled as brothels. Jesus promised that even a cup of cool water has eternal merit in heaven’s record books.

Acts 21:5-6 – 5 When our time had come to an end, we left to continue our journey, while all of them, with their wives and children, accompanied us out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach to pray, 6 we said farewell to one another and boarded the ship, and they returned home.

Some of the most meaningful ministry is done in the home. What a beautiful thing to see these families together in prayer and togetherness. If you have plans for how you want to serve God and they don’t include your family or your local church, you’re missing something essential. We want to be creating opportunities for our kids and families to pray and serve together.

Acts 21:7 – 7 When we completed our voyage from Tyre, we reached Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day.

God provided another group of caring friends at the next stop. Our culture tends to be more skeptical and standoffish. It’s good for us to be reminded that the world will know we are Christians by our love for one another. It’s ok to have differences of opinion and certain boundaries and all that, but we want to let the Lord grow a kind of love in us that gives food and shelter to the guy who killed some of our friends. That’s what’s happening here. That’s who Paul was.

Acts 21:8-9 – 8 The next day we left and came to Caesarea, where we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven, and stayed with him.

It’s been 20 years since we last saw Philip in Acts. He’s already been such a fine example to us of faithfulness and boldness, but here he shines again in his forgiveness and humility. Paul’s sin had personally impacted Philip’s life. And now that Paul had become the great apostle! Philip doesn’t complain or withhold or make passive aggressive comments. He brings Paul into his house and introduces him to the family.

As the team relaxed in his house, Philip would’ve been an incredible resource to Luke, who was gathering accounts and testimonies for the books he was writing. To Timothy, who was called to be a pastor and would be told by Paul to “do the work of an evangelist.” Around the table they would’ve heard the stories of revival in Samaria and the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch. At the same time, we realize that, despite his history and the amazing way that he had been used by God, despite his gifting as an evangelist, Philip wasn’t too important to still wait tables. His house became a B&B for 9 weary travelers, headed toward Jerusalem.

Acts 21:9 – 9 This man had four virgin daughters who prophesied.

Again, Luke draws our attention to the family ministry. Raising kids in the Lord isn’t less important than being an evangelist. We don’t need to rank service to God. And it’s not about picking one or the other saying, “I did this, so I did my part.” It’s about calling and gifting and God’s leading in your life. God called Philip to evangelize and raise kids. He called Paul to evangelize and write Scripture. He calls you and I to certain duties and opportunities. And they will not only be outside the home. Our service to the Lord begins in our own house.

A word to young people before we move on: Seek out your gift. If you were being listed in the book of Acts, how would you be described? Would you be included as a prayer or a servant of God?

Acts 21:10-11 – 10 After we had been there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 He came to us, took Paul’s belt, tied his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him over to the Gentiles.’ ”

We’ve met Agabus before when he gave an earlier prophecy that a famine was coming to the Roman world. And then you know what happened? A famine came to the Roman world. He was bona fide. Leading up to the election some of our brothers and sisters in more charismatic circles were making a bunch of specific prophecies about Donald Trump that didn’t come true. One prominent pastor made a public prophecy, then apologized for it being wrong, then removed his apology and now has said, “If the outcome remains the same, I will repost my apology video. If my prophetic word turns out to be right, I will do the chicken dance in my spandex.” The Bible is pretty clear that if you say you’re a prophet, make a prophecy and it doesn’t come to pass, then you’re not a prophet. And you should be very thankful you don’t live under the Mosaic Law!

Now, what Agabus said here was not news to Paul. But it was shocking to the other Christians at the meeting.

Acts 21:12 – 12 When we heard this, both we and the local people pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem.

The reaction was the same the fine folks at Tyre had, only this time it included Luke and the other guys traveling with Paul. They were desperately trying to convince Paul to not go to Jerusalem so he could avoid suffering. And what we learn here is two-fold: First, that personal safety, security and success is not the end goal for a Christian life. And, second, what we want for the people we love is not always what God wants. They wanted Paul safe and doing ministry throughout the world. But God did not want that at this point. God wanted Paul in front of rulers and kings, ultimately the emperor of Rome. The price for that opportunity was going to be high. It was going to cost Paul a lot of hardship and suffering and loss of freedom. But that’s what the Lord wanted.

Now, we’re seeing here that even dedicated, Godly, Spirit-filled Christians can make a mistake. As students, we can look at see that they were focused on a wrong priority. God had just spoken through Agabus about what was going to happen, and then they said, “Let’s avoid that.” Jesus Himself had said “Remember Lot’s wife: whoever seeks to save their lives will lose it.” While He was speaking of the end times, He was also clearly teaching that having a temporal, material set of priorities would lead to disaster for a spiritual life. Instead, God’s people are commanded to take up their cross daily, dying to self.

When we turn the wheel of our own lives or when we give advice to others, the highest goal of a Christian is not “whatever you do, avoid suffering and instead try to be successful.” This is an important word for parents who have a duty not to raise their kids into material wealth, but into faithful service to the Lord. Don’t tell your kid not to do something just because you think the paycheck won’t be big enough. Teach them to follow the Lord, no turning back. Paul’s friends, out of love, were pressuring him to change course, and it was a huge discouragement to him.

Acts 21:13 – 13 Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

People around us are headed for suffering. The Church needs to rally together to strengthen each other for it, not undermine each other’s stability. We need to have a Biblical approach to difficulty and a Biblical perspective on life so that we can support one another when we’re weak.

Acts 21:14 – 14 Since he would not be persuaded, we said no more except, “The Lord’s will be done.”

These believers are mature and Spirit-filled, so despite their short lapse, they snap out of it quickly and once again have a right perspective. They weren’t angry. They surrendered to the Lord and trusted that His will was good and worth pursuing.

As we make decisions or share advice, the thesis of our thoughts should be: What is God’s will? From that point we advise and pray and plan.

Acts 21:15-16 – 15 After this we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. 16 Some of the disciples from Caesarea also went with us and brought us to Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we were to stay.

Though the prophecy centered on Paul, it’s good to see that these other Christians (both the locals and his gang of 8) didn’t chicken out. They knew that trouble was waiting in Jerusalem, and still they walked with him. Verse 15 says: “We packed our bags.” They were deploying with him. And once again God provided friends, shelter and help along the way. Through these verses we see there is a spot for everyone: Kids and dads and moms and wives, the young and the elderly. We’re all part of God’s providence. Our portion may not be “great” in the eyes of men, maybe we’re just providing a meal or two, but it’s great in God’s eyes. It’s part of the victory He’s winning.

The Eager Beavers weren’t the ones to drop the bomb and end the war, but their part was necessary. Luckily for all of us, they didn’t shrink from the cost. Some of them paid in full.

You and I may, in one sense, live a very regular, day-to-day life. But, on the spiritual level, we are part of God’s providence and part of a cosmic struggle. It may cost us dearly to do our part, but we can be sure that even the little missions matter. So, we must keep His purposes as our aim. Our lives are not about our own safety, security and success. They’re meant to be much, much more than that. We follow Him into eternal victory, fearing no evil, no turning back.

Call Of Duty (Acts 20:16-21:1)

Most of us can probably think of a movie where a character is about to escape some situation but, with almost no time to spare, they decide they have to go and settle one last score. If it’s the hero, it gives them one more chance to do something heroic before getting away just in time. In those scenes the characters make that choice because they feel like they must do it. They’ve got to sort out something that’s been left unfinished. It’s a matter of honor and duty and passion.

We see something a little like that in our text this evening. Paul is hurrying out of the Gentile world, trying to get to Jerusalem in time for Pentecost, but before the ship pulls out into the Mediterranean he decides he’s got to take care of something. And what follows is a very tender meeting between him and some of his friends from the city of Ephesus.

As they talk it’s clear that Paul felt it was his duty to give them this farewell. He testifies that he had faithfully carried out his duty toward them and then he charges them with duties of their own. Though this is a meeting of pastors there is still a lot for all of us to learn in this tearful goodbye.

We begin in chapter 20, verse 16.

Acts 20:16 – 16 Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, because he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, for the day of Pentecost.

It’s unusual for Paul to avoid something. We sometimes see him willing to go talk to violent mobs. Sometimes he was willing to be illegally beaten. So why was he hoping to bypass the province of Asia? Well, he wanted to be in Jerusalem by Pentecost. Scholars calculate that he’d have about 30 days to get there, which is not a lot of time when it comes to first century travel across the empire.

Throughout this section we see Paul making decisions. He decided to go back through Macedonia. He decided to walk, rather than sail, to Assos. He’s deciding to sail past Ephesus. Your life is full of decisions. Some of them are more trivial, some are monumental. But we can’t always tell which is which, right? So what should we do? On the one hand, we don’t want to live in such a way that we become paralyzed. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you don’t need to pray for an hour before deciding what socks to wear tomorrow. But, at the same time, we don’t want to swing the other side and live a life that neglects to include God in our decision-making. God has an opinion on where you live and where you go to college and where you work and how you fill your days. More than an opinion, our Lord has intentions and commands for us to follow. How do we do that? The believers in Acts did it by being Spirit-filled. We’re watching them do it, page after page.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:

1 Corinthians 7:17 (ESV) – 17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.

Jesus told us that the Holy Spirit is our Helper who will teach us all things and guide us in the truth. We have the Scriptures as a guide for how to live a Godly life. With these precious gifts, we can make decisions that keep us in line with God’s will and put us in position to be used for His glory. That’s how Paul was making these choices.

Acts 20:17 – 17 Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and summoned the elders of the church.

Their ship must have had a layover, so Paul squeezed out this one last mission before they left port. It was about 30 miles from city to city. I’ve never had to walk to the Fresno Airport, that’s about how far it would be. But, after receiving this sudden summons, these elders come straightaway.

Now, why was only Ephesus represented? What about the other cities in Asia that had churches? Well, it seems God placed an urgent message on Paul’s heart for this group, a prophecy in fact.

Acts 20:18-19 – 18 When they came to him, he said to them, “You know, from the first day I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, 19 serving the Lord with all humility, with tears, and during the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews.

Paul is convinced that he’s never going to see these people again, though he would write to them the letter we have in our Bibles after this encounter. But even though he could write, there was a pressing need in his heart to have this talk with them.

God will sometimes set time-sensitive duties and opportunities before us. We think of the owners of the upper room in which Jesus had His last supper with the disciples. God had led them to make that room ready, and it was in a specific window of time. As soon as Paul finishes with these guys, they walk him onto the boat. We can almost see the crew loading cargo and drawing up the gangways as they huddle together, but this was a needful meeting.

As he begins, we see Paul being very personal and genuine. It’s hard to get a clear picture on what Paul was like when you interacted with him personally, but we get a glimpse here. He reminds them that he was emotionally affectionate and it was genuine. More importantly, he invites them to think back and consider how his life matched the Gospel he preached. His life was defined by humility and service to the Lord. And I think that’s an important note in his choice of words: What Paul did was not for the human community. It wasn’t for the cause of justice. It was service he was rendering to the Lord as his Master. Now, our God is a God of community and justice, but Christians sometimes get their own ideas about how to bring those things about and then slap the name of Jesus on it, when it wasn’t His idea at all.

Our duty in this life is to serve the Lord. As Master, He will send us to minister to others, but let everything we do be unto Him.

There are a lot of tears in these verses. It shows us that Paul wasn’t simply a traveling speaker or performer. He had a real connection to these people. God wants us to connect with Christians this way. We can’t build a personal relationship with every Christian we meet, but we are to be knit together with some local fellowship of believers.

Let’s pause to consider how amazing it is to see that all the hate Paul had for Christians earlier in his life has been replaced by God’s love. It’s incredible what God can do in a heart. Not that long ago, Paul had been a man who wanted every Christian destroyed. Now, he risked his own life to make more Christians and to serve them.

But this sort of brotherly love is not just a Paul thing. We each have a duty to cultivate and live out this sort of love for God’s people.

1 Corinthians 16:14 – 14 Do everything in love.

Colossians 3:14 – 14 Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

1 Peter 4:8 – 8 Above all, maintain constant love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.

Proverbs 10:12 – 12 Hatred stirs up conflicts, but love covers all offenses.

Part of the way the Gospel transforms us is washing the hate out of our hearts and replacing it with love. There are things that make us angry. People we would like gone. But the love of Christ compels us into the kind of caring compassion that took Jesus to the cross to die for His enemies.

Acts 20:20 – 20 You know that I did not avoid proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching you publicly and from house to house.

We see here that Paul wasn’t doing what he did in order to be popular or receive the favor of man. He was no politician. Yet, even though he was above all that, he was deeply devoted to people and he was devoted to fortifying them through the teaching of the Word of God.

When the Bible is taught, the goal should be that people are convicted of sin and are shown how to be strong in the Lord. Whether that’s for salvation or sanctification (the day-by-day process of becoming more like Jesus), God’s Word is not meant to bully. It does make demands on us and it reveals that we are sinners, but it does that so we can then realize why and how Jesus came to save us from our sin. When Paul taught, people weren’t depleted, they were enriched by the truth.

Acts 20:21 – 21 I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus.

Faith without repentance is not genuine. In the movies they will use movie money. There are two kinds, depending on how close the shot is going to be and how realistic it needs to look. One of them is very close to real money on the front, but on the back it’s blank. The one side can seem as real as can be, but it’s of no value without the back also. The same is true with repentance and faith.

Ray Stedman has a good thought about repentance and how it is a duty we carry out not just once when we become born again, but continually as we walk with God:

“To repent means to stop thinking and acting and living the way you have been. Instead, step out in faith. Trust the living Lord who is in you to operate through you, and venture out, move out! The Christian life is intended to be exciting, compelling, always interesting, always different, always lived on the verge of adventure and danger. That is why it must be characterized by faith. So, you see, there are the two basic steps, and you must take them over and over again. The way you begin the Christian life is to repent and believe. And that also constitutes your walk through the Christian life.”

Certain jobs have ongoing fitness requirements or qualifications that must be kept up. I think the marines have 2 a year. As believers, we have a duty to continue in repentance and faith.

Acts 20:22-23 – 22 “And now I am on my way to Jerusalem, compelled by the Spirit, not knowing what I will encounter there, 23 except that in every town the Holy Spirit warns me that chains and afflictions are waiting for me.

It was humbling to see what Paul wrote here and then wonder when I last heard from the Holy Spirit. Have we interacted with Him lately? We never want our relationship with Him to be like one of those old friends that, if asked about, you say, “Oh I haven’t heard from that Guy in forever!”

Paul knew he was headed for trouble. The Spirit wasn’t warning him in order to stop him from going, but to prepare him for what was ahead. As believers, we have a duty to face the unknown and to accept the fact that sometimes suffering is part of the package. Subscription boxes are all the rage right now. Blue Apron, KiwiCo, Bespoke Post. You don’t always know what’s going to come in the box, right? It’s been curated just for you. In the spiritual life, it’s not all that different. “What’s in the box today? Ok…some encouragement and some new wisdom. I see we’ve got some suffering in there too!”

But, as one commentator wrote: “We should not shrink from danger or from death. Duty is to be done at all hazards. It is ours to follow the directions of God; results we may safely and confidently leave with him.”

Paul was at peace because he knew that, since he was walking with God, it didn’t really matter what he met on the road ahead. His Savior and Friend could be trusted to keep him in His loving care.

Acts 20:24 – 24 But I consider my life of no value to myself; my purpose is to finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.

Paul really wanted to finish his race. He wanted to finish it well, and he didn’t necessarily want it to be over early, but he was looking forward to the end. By this point he had already had his vision of heaven we read about in 2nd Corinthians, so we can sympathize. But, as he headed to that finish line, he wanted to play out every last second.

That doesn’t mean we can never stop doing something that we do right now for the Lord. Paul was about to enter a very different season of ministry, one where he didn’t travel the world establishing churches. But even when life changed, his purpose and desire to serve God did not. In that sense, no matter whether the terrain was a level sprint or a slow, rocky climb, he kept going.

Acts 20:25-27 – 25 “And now I know that none of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will ever see me again. 26 Therefore I declare to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, 27 because I did not avoid declaring to you the whole plan of God.

Paul reveals here that we have a duty to the people around us. To bring them the Gospel. Many of you have probably been in a safety training and heard the poem “I Chose To Look The Other Way” by Don Merrell. It opens:

I could have saved a life that day,
But I chose to look the other way.
It wasn’t that I didn’t care,
I had the time, and I was there.

I don’t want us to be condemned, but reminded that we do have a commission and command to go and preach to those who are lost. As we do so, both individually and as a church, like Paul we want to keep in mind the “whole plan of God.” God’s plan for a person or a family or all mankind is more than just the 5 popular topics that stock Christian bookshelves. Marriage, parenting, finances, those sorts of self-helps that are constantly churned again and again. God has a comprehensive and involved plan, spanning from creation to consummation and it’s all knit together. So, we want to be aware of it and learning more about it. We can be by systematically reading and studying the whole of the Bible. Paul believed that it was his duty to be well-versed in the plan of God and we do too.

Acts 20:28-31 – 28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I never stopped warning each one of you with tears.

So now, he is giving the watch over to these spiritual shipmates. It wasn’t that he was tired of helping them, far from it. But the Lord was leading him on and so he had to lay the care of this church down for others to take up as their duty.

It would’ve been quite a loss, in one sense, to have Paul say, “This is it. I’m headed out. You’re on your own.” And then to be told that some very real threats were going to come against their church, specifically. But, Paul was telling them and had shown them how to equip themselves for the job ahead. What a great thing that God empowers us to continue the work of the church in an unbroken chain of growth from that time until now.

Part of their job was going to be resisting these wolves. Toward that end Paul told them to stay alert. Not paranoid, but watchful. There’s a difference between the two. And watchfulness is part of being on duty. Paying attention and using our minds and keeping a look out.

Acts 20:32-35 – 32 “And now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that I worked with my own hands to support myself and those who are with me. 35 In every way I’ve shown you that it is necessary to help the weak by laboring like this and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, because he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

So, we’re got a duty to love and to be alert and also, we see, to walk in grace. Grace is the way. It is able to build and repair and fortify. Though wolves would be doing their thing, we know there were also faithful men there. Men like Timothy.

We see in Paul’s example that we have a duty to be content. Paul had laid hold of contentment, both in blessing and in severe want. We can too, because we have the same Spirit within us. In Hebrews 13 we’re commanded: “Keep your life free from the love of money. Be satisfied with what you have.”

Along with that we see Paul saw it as his duty to provide for others. We would flesh this out to mean those who cannot provide for themselves. We know Timothy had many infirmities. He may have had long periods where he was unable to work. Today, we have many wonderful ways to provide for those who have no provision. And it is our duty to allow the Spirit to lead us into which of those He would like us to involve ourselves in, if we’re able.

Acts 20:36-21:1 – 36 After he said this, he knelt down and prayed with all of them. 37 There were many tears shed by everyone. They embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 grieving most of all over his statement that they would never see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. 1 After we tore ourselves away from them, we set sail straight for Cos, the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara.

It’s a sad farewell, but as most of us know, this life has far too many sad farewells. But, though we may have to part ways with those Christians who are dearest to us in this life, we can know that we will be reunited with them again in heaven. Where there will be no more hurt, no more wolves, no more danger. Only joy forevermore, together with our Lord.

God has given us so much and part of it is duty. Duty to Him and then to others. Duty to love, to preach, to give, to watch, to face the unknown, to obey, to repent, to run the race. These aren’t thing we have to do in order to earn salvation or to make God happy with us. But they are part of the transformation the Lord accomplishes in us and the wonderful Kingdom work He has sent us out to be a part of. We have what we need to do all these things. Now we get to live them.

Lessons Of The Fall (Acts 20:2-15)

I love watching those super slow speed replays of athletic motion that they can capture these days. Whether it’s swimmers taking off from the block in an Olympic race or a keeper diving and twisting to save a shot on goal. One of the best is the baseball swing. It’s a thing of beauty. “Hitting a ball with a round bat is considered one of the most difficult skills in sport.” From stance to contact to follow through there’s an incredible amount of motion as muscle groups from the feet and legs up through the abdominals into the shoulders, arm and neck all do their part, some turning one way, some turning another, all together an amazing, graceful movement.

Everybody’s stance and swing is just a little bit different, but each member of the team is on the same side, part of the same effort, and gets a chance to contribute toward the common victory.

In our passage tonight we see a lot of motion as Paul and his gang of eight move through various cities on their way toward Jerusalem. As they go, we’re able to see the beautiful, grace-filled motion of Christian ministry, with many different things happening, but happening harmoniously and effectively. Looking at these verses, we can highlight some principles and characteristics of doing God’s work in a way that glorifies Him, strengthens others and keeps us in spiritual scoring position.

As we begin, Paul is headed out of Ephesus. In verse 2 we read:

Acts 20:2-3a – 2 And when he had passed through those areas [of Macedonia] and offered them many words of encouragement, he came to Greece 3 and stayed three months.

Throughout this whole section a general characteristic of Christian ministry is that it is full of activity. That isn’t to suggest that Christians should be busy for busy’s sake. As we’ve seen many times, there are specific things God the Holy Spirit wants to lead you in and to simply do other things just to do them is actually detrimental to your spiritual development. But, there’s no denying that for all the disciples in this book, the Christian life is a life of active service. Some stay local, some travel out. Some speak, others sew, but everyone is engaged.

We also see here (and later in verse 12), that Christian activity is characterized by encouragement. Now, encouragement isn’t just flattery or blind optimism. In the Bible it means to help, exhort and comfort. Paul here was going around speaking urgently to these young churches, some of whom would go through very difficult times, but, though the message was urgent, it wasn’t meant to weigh them down with a burden. Christian ministry is encouraging because its aim is always to build up. Even when Paul had to go deal with serious issues in, say, Corinth, his goal wasn’t to tear down what had been built there, but to strengthen them in the truth and in the Spirit.

Our messaging, our ‘many words,’ should be the same. What are my words building? If I have to give a correction to a fellow believer, am I doing so with the intention of building them back up, or am I just hurling words at them, wanting them to feel stung like a brick through a window? When I speak to non-believers, what’s my goal? In Acts we see that the Christian goal was that they would believe and be saved. The words flowed on a river of compassion and grace, not anger and venom.

Now, before we move on, Paul was giving many words of encouragement to these believers, but with a backdrop of unrest and the potential for very real persecution. These were people who acknowledged that, in some cases, they may be attacked, imprisoned or killed for coming to church. And we can be sure that Paul did not say, “Nah, none of that is going to happen!” In fact, he probably said the opposite. And yet, they were comforted and built up.

Our words of encouragement (at this point) usually are less about persecution and more about suffering. The people you know are struggling with sickness or loss or fear. Our words of encouragement shouldn’t be platitudes that “everything is going to work out.” Or that God is going to heal every affliction they have in this life. In the end, all will be made well, all suffering will be dealt with, but in this life, lots of Christians are going to suffer and die and our encouragement, our support for them needs to be true and honest, otherwise it is no support at all.

Acts 20:3b – The Jews plotted against him when he was about to set sail for Syria, and so he decided to go back through Macedonia.

Flexibility is a characteristic of Christian ministry. We can’t always predict what is going to happen and what obstacles we might face. Rather than walk off the field, we just need to adjust our swing. When a pitcher throughs a curveball, the batter doesn’t throw up his hands and say, “I thought you were just gonna throw them nice and slow right down the middle!” That’s not how it works.

It seems that Paul had booked his passage and that, perhaps, these guys were planning to take the voyage with him and maybe toss him over the side once they were out in the open sea. We don’t know for sure, but at the last minute the plan had to change.

The Jews’ plot backfired, because instead of making a beeline for Syria, Paul decides to extend his trip and goes back to do more ministry through Macedonia.

Acts 20:4 – 4 He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia.

We’ll see in the next verse that Dr. Luke joins the group once again as well. So you have a team of 9 guys on their quest to Jerusalem. The fellows in this list were probably selected by their churches to be a part of the delegation that was bringing relief money from the Gentiles to the church in Jerusalem. That was the major purpose of their trip together. And it highlights for us that a characteristic of Christian ministry is generosity. The Gentile Christians in Corinth, on the human level, had nothing to do with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. But, as far as they were concerned, they were family. If Jews were suffering and Gentiles could send relief, of course they’d supply what they could.

In the Bible we are commanded to make generosity a priority. We’re told that our financial giving to the work of God should be regular, sacrificial and joyful. We should support local ministry and allow the Spirit to lead us in how we can support wider ministry of evangelism and compassion. What you give should be motivated by love, but it should be happening. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but of ‘which.’

Now, these guys listed here show us a few things about Christian ministry. First, the fact that they exist and are here participating in the work reminds us that the goal of local church ministry isn’t just to generate some program. The goal is to harvest people. To save them out of the clutches of sin and then to help them become fruitful members of Christ’s Body. Paul didn’t go to these cities and say, “Ok, we need to establish a program that will generate money to feed hungry people in Judea.” He preached the Gospel, then, when people got saved, he established local churches and then those people lived out the Christian life, which included activity like generosity and compassion and all that. Churches can become project or program oriented and the expense of actual people and that’s not what we want. People in the church aren’t cogs, they’re children of God.

We also note that these guys had different levels of experience, different areas of expertise. But they were all useful in God’s hands. The Lord could bring them together to work harmoniously, taking curve after curve together.

Acts 20:5-6 – 5 These men went on ahead and waited for us in Troas, 6 but we sailed away from Philippi after the Festival of Unleavened Bread. In five days we reached them at Troas, where we spent seven days.

Again, we would note their flexibility. Sometimes in the Christian life we find ourselves waiting, sometimes we’re moving. Sometimes we get to be reunited with friends in ministry, sometimes we’re doing stuff with strangers. But this group of guys were a well-oiled machine, because they were filled with the Spirit and shared a common heart of grace.

Acts 20:7 – 7 On the first day of the week, we assembled to break bread. Paul spoke to them, and since he was about to depart the next day, he kept on talking until midnight.

A characteristic of the Christian life we might draw out here is the camaraderie of believers. We use the word ‘fellowship’ a lot, but that’s a somewhat old fashioned term. To be ‘in fellowship’ with other Christians means to share together with them. Sharing one another’s sufferings and one another’s blessings. It means we partner together in faith. It is meant to be a living, family bond. And that means we embrace one another, warts and all, in love and friendship, with Christ as our focus.

When it says Paul kept on talking until midnight we shouldn’t assume he was just monologuing for 6 hours. Rather, scholars point out that the term used means he discoursed with them. Undoubtedly he had a lot to say, but they also had a lot to ask. During this section of Acts it’s believed that Paul wrote 2nd Corinthians, Romans, maybe Galatians as well. So clearly he had a lot of doctrine on his mind. But these were young Christians who would’ve had a ton of questions. And, Paul was probably assuming he’d never see these people again. That’s what he’s going to tell the Ephesians in the next passage, so it’s probably his thinking here as well.

Acts 20:8 – 8 There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were assembled,

This large, upper room, was probably filled with smoke. These people had probably worked a full shift all day long. That is going to give some context to what’s coming next. But, before moving on, we should highlight the fact that integrity is a characteristic of Christian ministry. We see it also in how they’re handling the funds being collected. There was nothing shady going on. They conducted themselves on the up and up. Now, the Christians of that time were sometimes accused of very strange things. It was suggested they may be cannibals. Some accused them of having weird, secret meetings in the dark where they butcher babies and commit acts of incest.

Obviously none of that was true, butI appreciate that the Christians here behaved like Daniel. Lights on, windows open, gathering together openly. That doesn’t mean Christians are never driven underground, when possible, they were public with their activity. “You say we’re eating human flesh, well let us show you what the Lord’s supper actually is.” It’s a sad thing when you hear in the news about underhanded, questionable practices are happening with God’s money or in a ministry. That shouldn’t be true of God’s people.

Acts 20:9 – 9 and a young man named Eutychus was sitting on a window sill and sank into a deep sleep as Paul kept on talking. When he was overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was picked up dead.

Some commentators say that the devil pushed him out the window to distract Paul! Others rail on poor Eutychus for not being spiritual enough to stay awake. Listen – he probably had worked from dawn till dusk. Now was on hour 6 of a church meeting. The room is stuffy and hot and filled with oil smoke. He’s just trying to get a breath of air…he probably gave his real seat up to someone else. And he just finally tanks out. I know I’ve felt this way before. There have been times where we’ve been overseas and we’re just wiped from travel and everything and we’re in some church meeting and I’m about to nod off and I’m thinking, “Man, is it going to look bad if I fall asleep right now.” So, let’s not criticize this poor guy.

We can learn something from this example, though: Accidents happen. In this case, everything is going to work out great right away – Eutychus is going to be raised from the dead – but sometimes, lots of times, that’s now how it works. God’s people get hurt. God’s people die. Not because God pushed them out the window or even the devil did, but because we live in a fallen world. Here at Calvary, we’re not Calvinistic when it comes to salvation. But if you stop and think about it, a lot of Christians sort of become Calvinists when it comes to things that happen in life. Listen: sometimes calamities just happen. Not so God can work a miracle and not because people were so worthy of judgment, but because the world has been infected with death. John the Baptist wasn’t beheaded in order that God might do some glorious miracle. And when a tower collapsed on some people in Siloam in Luke 13 they didn’t die because they were worse sinners than other people. The world has been ruined. And God is working a large-scale, cosmic plan to redeem. In the meantime, sometimes people fall out of windows. Let’s be careful not to blame God for that.

Acts 20:10 – 10 But Paul went down, bent over him, embraced him, and said, “Don’t be alarmed, because he’s alive.”

Some try to suggest that Eutychus wasn’t actually dead, but he was. A medical doctor pronounced him dead. What we’re seeing here is a miracle. But it also serves as a type in a few ways.

First of all, this is a type of what God has done for you. But it is also a type of what we can do for one another. Paul, maybe on this very trip, wrote this to the Galatians:

Galatians 6:1 – if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself.

Eutychus had been overcome by sleep and, as a result, fell. Paul, his loving brother, gently and compassionately took him up in his arms and brought him back into fellowship with the others.

This is a characteristic of Christian ministry: We’re to intervene in these situations and do what we can to restore the fallen back into the Body.

Acts 20:11-12 – 11 After going upstairs, breaking the bread, and eating, Paul talked a long time until dawn. Then he left. 12 They brought the boy home alive and were greatly comforted.

We might note here that there is a practicality in the Christian life. There was food that needed to be prepared, lamps that needed to be filled with oil, chairs to set out. It wasn’t just all emotionalism or individualism. And, I do love that after this shocking event – the death of a young man – Paul treats it simply as an intermission. He goes back and starts teaching again. Sometimes, if we’re not careful, we start to become superstitious about things. God does lead in subtle ways sometimes, but this accident with Eutychus wasn’t a ‘sign’ that Paul should stop. I was driving somewhere the other day and just as I got on the freeway a cardboard box full of something in the truck in front of me sailed out of his bed and bam right into me. That’s a drag, but it wasn’t a sign that I should turn back home.

The passage closes with a trip itinerary.

Acts 20:13-15 – 13 We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul on board, because these were his instructions, since he himself was going by land. 14 When he met us at Assos, we took him on board and went on to Mitylene. 15 Sailing from there, the next day we arrived off Chios. The following day we crossed over to Samos, and the day after, we came to Miletus.

One characteristic that we might pull out here is that the Christian life is one of endurance. Whether you were the guys on the boat or Paul walking 20 miles to the next town, it was an effort. Inning after inning, the pitches kept coming. Sometimes straight down the middle, sometimes crazy curveballs high and inside. But we see the Christians in motion, full of grace, sometimes being brushed back, sometimes hitting a home run, but consistently accomplishing great things with the Lord.

And that’s one of the great things about this book. It shows that no Christian is meant to be a lifeless drone in some rigid operation. Paul, on this leg of his trip, would write Romans and explain that we are all various parts of One Body, with various abilities and tasks. Using the baseball analogy, you might be at bat or you might be on deck. But everyone is part of the action. And though we can’t predict each pitch we’re going to get thrown at us (we may even get beaned by one or two), we can continue what was started in Acts. As we, too, engage in the Christian life and take our swings. We can be taught and be teaching. We can be generous and practical. We can be active and flexible. We can live with endurance and camaraderie with our teammates. These are the motions of the Christian life. We are the ones at bat. God has called us out onto the field. And that is an exciting thought.

Rage Against The Missionary (Acts 19:21-20:1)

After years of uninterrupted ministry, we find ourselves in a time where Christianity is becoming more suspect to the world around us. There are some who suggest that church gatherings are “super-spreaders” of COVID-19. We see officials trying to make the case that Amy Coney Barrett’s faith is going to lead to the ruin of the American society if she is confirmed to the Supreme Court.

At the same time we see a general backdrop of societal unrest. It’s truly an usual time. While I’m not suggesting that we are facing the kind of persecution that Paul faced in Ephesus, I will say that the idea of a sudden riot breaking out in our town and Christians being called on the carpet is not as far-fetched as it used to be.

We’re seeing lots of demonstrations in lots of places over lots of issues. Some are peaceful, some are not. Some are rallies, some are riots. Often, the point of these gatherings is to angrily complain about who is to blame for one problem or another. No doubt many of you have been invited to a gathering of that sort. And, these sorts of peaceful protests have their place in a free society. But what is our part to play? Or, what might we expect and how might we respond in a time like this?

God’s word gives us guidance and an example here in Acts 19. And even if this passage isn’t meant to be direct preparation for us, we can still be built up by being reminded of what Christianity is. We can be built up and fortified against the kinds of attacks the enemy might use in our city or our nation. And we can be reminded of just how helpful and essential the Church really is.

We begin in verse 21 of chapter 19.

Acts 19:21 – 21 After these events, Paul resolved by the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem. “After I’ve been there,” he said, “It is necessary for me to see Rome as well.”

We saw last time that a wonderful revival was taking place in the city of Ephesus. Lots of people were getting saved and having their lives transformed. We’re about 25 years past Pentecost at this point. And Paul has spent the last 2 or 3 years in the city of Ephesus being used by God. But now, he’s decided to move on. Rather, I should say that he and the Lord decided it. Certainly it was his desire to go back to some of the places he had been before, but it wasn’t just his plan. The Holy Spirit compelled him to go. In the next chapter he’ll say he was bound to do it.

It shows us that Paul consistently had plans for future ministry, while not neglecting present opportunities. Paul was great about being in the moment and seeing what was right in front of him, the needs, the open doors, the chances to preach and the minister. But he also kept making future plans for more service to the Lord. If we follow his thinking during this time in his life, piecing together what’s written here and what he wrote elsewhere, his plan was to go to Greece then Jerusalem, on to Rome and even as far as Spain. He had a passion for ministry and the preaching of the Gospel. And, while we might say he was motivated by those personal desires, we also see he disciplined himself to be directed by God the Holy Spirit. This mentality kept him from becoming the kind of person that never did anything until that one big opportunity came alone, but also kept him from just doing his own thing and calling it missions.

Now, if you were to look at a map, you’d see that if he wanted to end up in Jerusalem, going to Macedonia was the wrong way. Why take the long way ‘round? Well, trouble was brewing in the church at Corinth and he felt a duty to get involved. And he also wanted to gather an offering from the Gentile churches to be brought to the believers in need in Jerusalem.

So, it wasn’t just that Paul wanted to do something new and exciting. This can happen to Christians sometimes. There’s an excitement to do something fun and new. And often God does call us to do new things. But it’s always easier to pick the job of planting a tree than pulling a bunch of weeds. And, in the wide scope of ministry, sometimes we’re going to be asked to do the weed pulling.

Acts 19:22 – 22 After sending to Macedonia two of those who assisted him, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.

We see a selflessness in this act. These guys helped Paul, but for the sake of the family in Corinth, he sent them out. Timothy had a pastor’s heart and Corinth needed a compassionate pastor. Erastus, we learn in Romans 16 had been the city treasurer there. So he was a great candidate to send to prepare the gathering of funds for relief in Judea.

While your resume doesn’t determine or limit what kind of thing you can do for God, you can use your abilities and position for the furtherance of the Gospel. Dorcas could sew. She used that for Christ. Joseph of Arimathea had money and influence. He used them for Christ. If you have a mind for administration, offer it to the Lord. If you’re in a position of leadership in a company or a municipality, use it to glorify the name of Christ.

Acts 19:23 – 23 About that time there was a major disturbance about the Way.

Why now? Why not shake things up in the last 2 years? Of course, we know the devil can’t simply do whatever he wants, God was extending protection to Paul throughout his ministry in Ephesus. But now, just as the apostle was about to pack up, there was an onslaught.

It reminded me of a moment in the classic movie Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Khan, the villain, is chasing the heroes and they’re about to escape into a nebula. One of Khan’s lieutenants says, “If they go in there, we’ll lose them.” So Khan says, “Explain it to them.” And they open fire on the Enterprise and the battle ensues. Paul is launching out again. I’m sure, in his strategizing, the devil would rather have had him stuck in one place than on the move.

Now here Christianity is referred to as “the Way.” We don’t use that phrase much anymore, but maybe we should. It reminds us that we are headed somewhere. We are leaving this world behind and we’re supposed to bring people along with us. We’re reminded that this Way is a different way than the unbelieving world is taking. Different destination. Different pace. Different scenery and purpose. We’re reminded that it is the Way, not the Stance. By definition it’s an image of progress and development and growth. It requires participation and endurance and trust as we walk along after the leading of the Lord, often without much visibility.

Why were the unbelieving Ephesians so disturbed? We’ll get some specifics in a moment, but we know, generally, it was because these people became so different. Those who had been pagan weren’t pagan anymore. Those who had shared a mindset of materialism didn’t feel the same way. This caused a great agitation among the unbelievers. That’s a great contrast to what is meant to be true of us as Christians. The Gospel made them agitated, it’s to make us agents of peace and joy.

Acts 19:24 – 24 For a person named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, provided a great deal of business for the craftsmen.

This guy was a leader among those who made pornographic, pagan mementos for worshipers and tourists who went to the temple of Diana. We also learn that he was doing just fine. A great deal of business. But his business was a detriment to the lives and souls of people and, ultimately, the world around him. He helped furnish their spiritual prisons.

Some professions are wrong. There are industries that God-fearing people have no business being a part of. I don’t need to list them because the Holy Spirit will disqualify them in your heart as you walk with Him. But what we do in the 9-to-5 matters. And if it brings destruction and enslavement to people, we should count it as loss and walk away, just as so many Ephesians had done.

Acts 19:25 – 25 When he had assembled them, as well as the workers engaged in this type of business, he said, “Men, you know that our prosperity is derived from this business.

So here we have the primary reason for the disturbance: Christianity was a threat to their prosperity.

Is God for prosperity? There is a whole swath of teaching called the “prosperity Gospel” that suggests that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy and have material blessing. Reading the Bible, I think a fairer question to ask is whether God is against prosperity. The answer has to be “Sometimes, but not always.” God is against ill-gotten wealth. He’s opposed to people becoming rich through taking advantage of others. And He often warns us about the spiritual dangers of material prosperity.

But, it’s also clear that being well off is not, as a rule, a bad thing. Many of the Old Testament heroes were incredibly wealthy. Even here in the book of Acts we see faithful, Spirit-filled believers who had a lot compared to others. Lydia is one. She used her wealth to bless people. Cornelius had a household and, we’re told, gave a lot of money to the poor.

It’s the heart that God is interested in, not the wallet. But we should be careful, because the wallet tends to exert influence over the heart. So be on watch for that danger.

Acts 19:26-27 – 26 You see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this man Paul has persuaded and misled a considerable number of people by saying that gods made by hand are not gods. 27 Not only do we run a risk that our business may be discredited, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be despised and her magnificence come to the verge of ruin—the very one all of Asia and the world worship.”

They considered Christianity to not only be a threat to their prosperity, but also to their philosophy and their prominence. They said, “Paul is teaching that hand made gods are not gods!” What a sad philosophy to believe in. “This little silver idol will protect me and give my life meaning and bring me vibrance and fertility!” We’re removed from that overtly pagan way of thinking. But the human heart must rely on something. Today we might substitute a paycheck or career in the place of the silver shrine. My ‘identity’ or affiliation becomes that thing that we think will keep our lives steered on course. God comes along and dismantles those lies, revealing how lost and rudderless we are without Him, but then gives us truth to build a real life on. A good life that matters.

As Christians, we want to be delivering truth. We can argue against the philosophies of this world, and should, with the end goal being that we give people the truth of life.

The Ephesians were bothered that Christianity might destroy the prominence of their proudly pagan city. They can’t even hear the absurdity of their beliefs. Hearing them talk, you’d think the Artemis was some sort of ancient Tinkerbell, who can only survive if enough people clap for her. Puny god!

This pulls back a curtain for us, though. Don’t expect people out in the world to hold rational beliefs. This is important in a volatile time like we find ourselves in. People believe crazy things. They make sense to them because they’re trapped in their sin. There’s no use beating them upside the head. It’s the heart that we need to focus on. The truth will set them free. So we want to base our ministries and our behaviors on the unchaining truth of Scripture.

What’s a real world application of that idea? Well, let me just say this: In this passage, there’s no Christian petition to close the Temple of Artemis. I’m guessing there was a lot of prayer for that to happen, but the Christians believed that if a person’s life was transformed, they wouldn’t keep being pagan. And that’s true. So, listen, I’ve signed petitions. We’re not against them. But the ultimate answer for what’s wrong in our society is that people need to be set free from sin and given new life in Christ. We can prove it from the Bible and we can prove it from history. You look at historic revivals, like the revival in Wales in 1904, and you see how places are transformed once people are transformed. During that 1 year revival, maybe 150,000 people were saved out of the population of 2.4 million. But even that relatively small percentage was enough that “The crime rate dropped, often to nothing. The police force reported that they had little more to do than supervise the coming and going of the people to the chapel prayer meetings, while magistrates turned up at courts to discover no cases to try. The mines underground echoed with the sounds of prayer and hymns, instead of nasty jokes. And, [they say] not only did the miners put in a better day’s work, but also that the pit ponies were so used to being cursed and sworn at, that they couldn’t understand orders being given in kind, clean words! Yet, still the work output increased.”

That’s the kind of salty effect we’re meant to have in Hanford and the wider world.

Acts 19:28-29 – 28 When they had heard this, they were filled with rage and began to cry out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 So the city was filled with confusion, and they rushed all together into the amphitheater, dragging along Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s traveling companions.

This mob was marked by rage. We’re to be a group marked by joy. It’s easy to be angry. It’s God’s intent that we be full of grace. Think of people God used in great revivals. Evan Roberts was one of those used in a major way in Wales. “Someone remarked that the most striking feature of the revival ‘is the joyousness and radiant happiness of the evangelist…The very essence of his campaign is mirth.’” Think of Chuck Smith, used by God during the Jesus Movement of the 1960s. A man of grace and joy.

Now think of the movements shaking our nation today. They’re marked by rage and anger and destruction and violence. That’s not from God.

This angry mob went and found two of Paul’s friends and dragged them out into the riot. I’m guessing it was a surprise to them, but, then again, this is what you sign up for when you become a believer. You’re not only joining the ranks of heaven, you’re enlisting in a war where you’re promised trouble, hatred and attack from the enemies of God. We know that Aristarchus would later become a prisoner for Christ along with Paul. We’ve signed up for the same thing.

Acts 19:30-31 – 30 Although Paul wanted to go in before the people, the disciples did not let him. 31 Even some of the provincial officials of Asia, who were his friends, sent word to him, pleading with him not to venture into the amphitheater.

Paul is often pictured alone in a cell or adrift in the sea, so it’s a nice reminder that he had friends who really loved him. And they knew he wouldn’t hold back, but would go put himself in danger for the sake of his friends and the Gospel. Yet, in this situation, that wouldn’t have been wise. Matthew Henry wrote: “We may be called upon to lay down our lives, but not to throw away our lives.” In this situation, Paul needed wise people to counsel him to not go in. And we see he took it as from the Lord. Later, when all his friends beg him to not go into Jerusalem he says, “Hey, I’m going.” But here, it seems, the counsel was from the Lord for his protection.

Don’t be a yes-man to your Christian friends. Sometimes our friends have ideas or are making plans that are going to shipwreck their lives. Be brave enough to try to restrain them or at least plead with them not to set sail into ruin.

Acts 19:32-34 – 32 Some were shouting one thing and some another, because the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. 33 Some Jews in the crowd gave instructions to Alexander after they pushed him to the front. Motioning with his hand, Alexander wanted to make his defense to the people. 34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

Things are boiling over now. For some reason the Jewish community decided to try to get out in front of the story. Probably because no matter who is being persecuted, if it’s not the Jewish people, they’re usually second on the list. So, Alexander goes out there to try to separate the Jewish community from the Christians, but we’re way past discussion or debate by this point. It’s just fury and frenzy. And in his failure we see that it was not a good scene for Paul to insert himself in.

Acts 19:35-41 – 35 When the city clerk had calmed the crowd down, he said, “People of Ephesus! What person is there who doesn’t know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple guardian of the great Artemis, and of the image that fell from heaven? 36 Therefore, since these things are undeniable, you must keep calm and not do anything rash. 37 For you have brought these men here who are not temple robbers or blasphemers of our goddess. 38 So if Demetrius and the craftsmen who are with him have a case against anyone, the courts are in session, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. 39 But if you seek anything further, it must be decided in a legal assembly. 40 In fact, we run a risk of being charged with rioting for what happened today, since there is no justification that we can give as a reason for this disturbance.” 41 After saying this, he dismissed the assembly.

This guy is probably the top dog, when it comes to city officials. He’s doing the best he can, but you can tell his focus is all on their liberty. He didn’t want Ephesus to lose its status as a free city in the Roman Empire. Worse, a riot like this could lead to military intervention and capital punishment for rioters. The city clerk wants to keep his power and keep his liberty and his autonomy. He didn’t care that innocent men might die. He didn’t care about any of that. He cared about keeping the status quo. “Let’s all calm down and get back to living how we were so that no one will bother us and we can just do our own thing.”

As Christians we don’t want to just maintain the status quo in our communities. Righteousness exalts a nation. We’re to pursue justice, living quiet and peaceful lives marked by Godliness and dignity.

Luckily, this riot defused without more violence. Everyone went home, but it would’ve been a scary reality for the Christians in the city, and at just that moment, Paul announced he was leaving.

Acts 20:1 – After the uproar was over, Paul sent for the disciples, encouraged them, and after saying farewell, departed to go to Macedonia.

They would have to live in this time of instability, but they didn’t need to be shaken. Paul encouraged them that there was no need to fear the mob. They may come. Suffering may increase, but God was still surrounding them with His love and faithfulness. And the Christian imperative to walk with God in a way that changes lives continued, despite the unrest and suspicion. Because, even though Christianity may be a threat to paganism, ill-gotten prosperity or human pride, it is a force for peace and good in every city, in every climate. The nations may rage, but the Lord God is with us and will empower us to be His Body, working His good work wherever we find ourselves until we move on to our final destination.

Not The Magic Kingdom (Acts 19:11-20)

Do you want to “unlock the power of God in your life?” That’s a phrase that is used by some in more charismatic circles, but they’re not the only ones. A simple Google search will show that this is an idea that is tread over a lot out in the Christian world. Here are a few search results titles:

“Unlocking Kingdom power and authority in you.” “Unlock and develop God’s brain power.” “Unlocking our access to Divine power.” “The key to opening the heavens.” “The key to unlock the Holy Spirit’s power in your life.” “Prayer is the way to unlock the power of God.” “Faith is the key to unlock God’s power.” “3 keys you must possess to unlock the power of God.” “5 ways to unleash God’s presence and power.” “7 keys to help you unlock the power of prayer.”

These links lead to articles, books, sometimes programs or conferences which make claims and promises to move you into a category of “more.” More power. More manifestations. More tangible experience with the supernatural outpouring of God.

One such annual conference had a promo video in 2019. It wasn’t being held by some heretical church or cult. It was a church we might go to if we lived in that town. The conference billed itself as a special time in God’s presence because it is “in God’s presence” that every good thing starts. And then their list was: “The darkness scatters, cities transformed, nations restored, sons and daughters reconciled. In His presence we encounter MORE.” It then showed a montage of worship concerts and lots of people laying hands on each other.

I don’t list these things to deride the idea of God’s power pouring through God’s people to transform the world. That’s why Christ has a Body on the earth. But, so often, what we find is that there is a desire to systematize or synthesize some method, some formula, that promises to generate some wanted result, usually visibly manifested in a feeling or behavior that we label as spiritual.

Here’s the problem: This is not how the Christian life is described in the Bible. It’s not how it’s described and it’s not how it’s demonstrated. We can look at those moments of great outpouring in the Old Testament, where the Shekinah came down at the dedication of the Tabernacle or Temple and say, “There, look: They had a worship service and were going through this holy liturgy and God ‘broke out’.” But, the Church is not Israel.

What about Pentecost? Wasn’t there an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, visibly manifested, during a worshipful prayer gathering? Absolutely. And it happened once again in Acts 4. But, in those moments, we don’t see the Christians working God like a machine. Running through some formula in order to experience a particular feeling or result that they decided upon beforehand.

Now, fast forward to Acts 19, where we find ourselves tonight. We see incredible outpourings of God’s power. We see a city transformed. We see lives changed. Sinners reconciled to God. We see dramatic things happening that astonish everyone who hears about them. How did Paul accomplish this? How did he unlock and unleash God’s power in Ephesus? The truth is, he doesn’t! As Luke tells the story, Paul doesn’t even appear on the stage. He’s mentioned and referenced by some of the other characters, but we see no effort on his part.

In our verses, when some characters do take it upon themselves to try to stir up the power of God and accomplish a spiritual purpose, the result is that they get wrecked. They were looking for a particular manifestation of power but, in the end, not only did they not help the people they were trying to help, they’re worse off themselves.

In the mean time, while they’re fooling around with some spiritual chemistry kit, God is busy throughout the city doing extraordinary work. We see in this example that He did not have to be “invited” to come, or coerced or cajoled or conjured to work His magic in Ephesus.

I find this to be a hard issue because, on the one hand, we saw last time that God’s desire is for us to live supernaturally empowered lives filled with His everlasting abundance. As a Christian, you have been given Living Water. You’ve been given supernatural gifts. You’ve been given the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit. That is the present reality for those who have been born again.

But, at the same time, so often we can slip into a pattern of life that feels completely devoid of God’s power and presence. Theologically He is always with us, but what about our feelings? This is what leads to all those Google searches and conferences and programs.

What we discover as we study God’s word is that there is a difference between living in Christ’s power and just feeling something we want to feel. Some magical experience that validates us.

This scene in Acts 19 is very helpful and shows not only that God does not need to be conjured, but the dangers of trying to make the spiritual life formulaic.

Acts 19:11-12 – 11 God was performing extraordinary miracles by Paul’s hands, 12 so that even facecloths or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, and the diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.

You have to chuckle at the opening words: God was performing extraordinary miracles. Your translation may say “unusual.” Aren’t all miracles extraordinary? They are, but Luke is making a point here: Something specific and particular was happening in this moment in this city. This happens from time to time in God’s history. Think of Peter in Acts 5. There was a period where God was using him to heal people like crazy. Even if his shadow fell across them, they would be made well.

But Peter and Paul weren’t “faith healers.” There are some who claim that title today. Peter and Paul couldn’t just heal people at will, like Superman using x-ray vision. There are multiple times when Paul was unable to heal people, even when he really wanted them to be made well. We think of his own thorn in the flesh, Timothy’s infirm stomach, he left Trophimus sick at Miletus and he was heartbroken at how sick Epaphroditus was, he thought he was going to die.

These guys weren’t faith healers. Neither are the people who claim to be today. What does the verse say? God was performing the miracles. It was His work and His decision. Why was He doing so?

We can’t know the mind of God, but obviously He decided Ephesus needed this kind of ministry at the time. This was a city full of superstition and magic and occult practices. And the Lord did want to verify and authenticate the message of Paul. He was proving that this representative was true and different from every other wonder-worker in town.

We also see that, sometimes, God likes to square off against the false gods of man. He did so in Egypt. He did so when He sent Elijah to confront the prophets of Baal. God doesn’t only play defense, He plays offense too. He went to this pagan swamp and planted His flag there.

There’s no suggestion that these miracles were Paul’s idea or his method to get people’s attention. In fact, we simply see him lecturing in classes and then, it seems, working up a sweat, probably tent making. He is most definitely not selling his rags to turn a profit. If you get some offer to buy a prayer rug or some other item that is supposedly blessed by some faith healer, save your money. What we’re seeing here was unusual, even by miraculous standards.

There is an important subplot that runs through many stories in the Bible that I like to bring out when we can. And that’s that God can use anything for His glory and His eternal work. Your words, your home, your singing, your countenance. Even your old dish rags or shoebox if His plan permits.

Now, we tend to identify something that we think God should do in our city or to address some problem and then we try to convince Him to do it. Paul’s not doing that. No, it pleased God to bring this little revival to Ephesus and Paul was simply willing to participate in submission and faithfulness.

Here’s what happens when we make it our business to plan God’s work for Him.

Acts 19:13-14 – 13 Now some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists also attempted to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I command you by the Jesus that Paul preaches!” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest, were doing this.

These aren’t Christians. They’re Jews who were sons of a priest. Not a high priest in the official sense. Scholars think they were either sons of one of the chief priests who led one of the 24 courses or priests, or they were just saying they were sons of a high priest for street cred.

Why are they in Ephesus? Well, they were vagabonds. This was their job. They would go from place to place, like Doc Terminus in the old Pete’s Dragon, getting paid to work their magic and then move on. In contrast, why was Paul in Ephesus? He was there by the leading and permission of the Holy Spirit. Let that be a warning to us individually as we think about how we serve God and to Christians involved in church planting efforts.

These guys were using a formula, incantation approach to their ministry. That was the prevailing method in that region at that time. What’s our secret sauce today? Sometimes it’s ‘data’ or methods that convert to certain behaviors or phenomena. These sons of Sceva were marrying practices from the world into their spiritual lives, hoping for a tangible result. Rather than believing and submitting to Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit, they were simply trying to harness His power for their own purposes. And, if you think about it, this is a terrible compromise on their part. They’re supposed to be priestly Jews, and here they’re invoking a man who is seen as a false messiah!

Let’s see how it goes.

Acts 19:15-16 – 15 The evil spirit answered them, “I know Jesus, and I recognize Paul—but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them, overpowered them all, and prevailed against them, so that they ran out of that house naked and wounded.

These men had no authority because they didn’t represent Jesus. If someone came to your front door and shouted, “Come out with your hands up!” and you could see that they weren’t a cop, there’d be no need for you to come out. In fact, you’d probably arm yourself for an altercation. That’s exactly what happens here. Looking back on it, it’s somewhat comical to us, but this does highlight a very important principle for the real world: There are real problems out there, people whose lives are being ruined by sin while they’re held captive by the devil. If we want to bring true solutions to a life or a city or a nation, only real Christianity is going to make the difference. Not formulas or half measures or things that just feel spiritual. We need the actual work of God. Not swaggering out in pride and presumption and sprinkles of paganism like these guys.

The good news it that God is so powerful and so gracious, He is able to accomplish the impossible in the most ruined of places, through just 1 person if necessary. Look at Joseph or Nehemiah or Daniel. Look at the revivals of history. These stories don’t start with formulas or men devising a plan. They begin with people who know God and believe Him and choose to follow His leading.

Acts 19:17 – 17 When this became known to everyone who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, they became afraid, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high esteem.

When Luke gives a vitals report of the work of God he does not elevate experience or wonders over the glory of God or the spread of His word. For the individual man in this story, it would’ve been really great for him to no longer be demon possessed. But that wasn’t the end goal. Without a permanent intervention in the form of salvation the exorcised demons might just come back, this time with a few of friends in tow. But now we see the fear of God starting to grip the hearts of the people of Ephesus. And that is a very good thing because it leads to life change.

Acts 19:18-20 – 18 And many who had become believers came confessing and disclosing their practices, 19 while many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. So they calculated their value and found it to be fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread and prevailed.

They came together, not to experience manifestations or emotionalism. They came to get rid of their obsession with those sort of things. Book burning is not generally a good thing, but this is one we could get behind. Instead of gathering as a church and saying, “We want to feel a tangible manifestation that makes us feel like something supernatural happened,” they said, “We want to have a tangible demonstration of our repentance!” As the Bible promises, the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. As they learned more about what it means to be a Christian and learned more about the word of God and how it directs us, they realized, “Oh wow, I need to get rid of this book.” They believed God and what He said about certain practices.

It’s silly to say, but God has opinions. He has stances on things. He has made decisions about what is good for you and what is not good for you, what is glorifying to Him and what is outside the boundaries of your relationship with Him. We need to agree with those opinions. This is why it matters when God’s people disagree over Biblical prohibitions. God’s word has to prevail and be the authority. When someone comes along and says, “It’s not ok for you to not observe the Sabbath,” we can say, under the authority of Scripture, that they’re wrong. We don’t have to observe the Sabbath because God has dismantled that regulation. Rather, it was never for the Church. But, when people come along and say, “The Bible has antiquated and bigoted views on sexuality, we no longer need to go along with what it says,” we can authoritatively say, “No, you’re wrong. That boundary still exists.” The issues aren’t always simple, but they are discoverable as we ingest God’s word and study it and allow it to prevail in us. As we personally submit to it and say, in our own lives, “I need to burn this book of magic because it is in contention with the teaching and leading of my God.”

Those acts of obedience can be hard and costly. Scholars argue over how much money this was worth, but they agree that 1 silver piece was a day’s wage. Meaning 50,000 days of labor. If we took the average American income, that’d be somewhere north of $8,000,000. That’s a costly repentance. Of course, they were making out ahead in the end. In Paul’s letter to these Ephesians he talks again and again about the riches they received in Christ. About 8 times he speaks to them about the endless treasures of God’s kindness and grace and our rich and glorious inheritance in Him.

Amazing things were happening in Ephesus. But they weren’t by man’s design. They weren’t man’s idea. Paul, for his part, is completely passive in these verses. And yet we see the power of God shaking this town up in a remarkable way. As it was happening, we see these believers coming, not to generate some experience. They’re making it a point to separate themselves from magical mysticism and instead embrace the word of God and have it rule over their everyday lives.

The problem is, we want to see God bring revival. We want God to dramatically transform lives, even work wonders. We want to enjoy the kind of relationship with the Lord that we see in people like Paul or Jonathan Edwards or A.W. Tozer or so many other examples. And we want to feel spiritually invigorated.

Those are all good desires. And God does still work in powerful and miraculous ways at certain times and in certain places, but it’s according to His design, not ours. So, how do we unlock the power of God in our lives or in Hanford? First of all, He doesn’t deadbolt the door. The veil is torn. Paul would say, more than once, in his Ephesian letter, “you have access to God right now.”

So, what about the power? Paul said that as we trust Christ He will make His home in our hearts and then He will empower us with inner strength through the Holy Spirit by His own glorious, unlimited resources. The question is not what we do to convince God to ‘break out’ in our midst. The question is: Do we trust the Lord? Do we believe what He says in His word? “Yes I do, so I should see the following manifestations of miraculous power…” That isn’t how it works. That’s not what we see in the New Testament. “But I want to feel it.”

God’s word says you have received power. He’s given it to you. Our walk with God is supernatural. You are supernaturally gifted as a Christian. You’re part of the impossible, eternal work of God on the earth. But the when, how and look of it is God’s business. Our part is to trust, obey and be led.