In the first session there, we focused on the strange and surprising triumph, and I think I ended in a place where you can see why it was a triumph of the early church in Jerusalem. We’ve seen the apostles stand firm amidst escalating opposition, accepting their forced exile as a new mission to outcast in Samaria and then to the ends of the earth.
In this talk, what I want to do is focus on a return back to Jerusalem that occurs later in the book of Acts. So later in the book of Acts, in Acts 21–25, the apostle Paul is coming back to Jerusalem. I want to look at Acts 21–25 and see what lessons can we draw for how we ought to live today.
Walking Into Hostility
In Acts 21, see if you can recall the situation. Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. In Acts 20:22, he says that he is constrained by the Holy Spirit. He wants to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost (Acts 20:16). The Holy Spirit, he says, is testifying to him personally. He’s got a personal word from the Holy Spirit and through other people. At the beginning of Acts 21, we see other people confirming it that Paul is walking into imprisonment, affliction, and most likely death. He knows this. God has told him you’re going to imprisonment, affliction, and likely death. Nevertheless, Paul is determined to go and finish his course.
Just in the same way that we can look at Acts 1–7 and we can see where the story’s headed towards Stephen, we can say, “Okay, what can we learn? How can we be faithful the same way that the early church was?” Likewise, here, Paul knows, “I’m walking into it and how can I be faithful?” So the question I want to look at is this: How do we conduct ourselves when we know that we’re heading into opposition and hostility? When you just know it’s a given, it’s going to come.
In 21st-century America, for most of us, we know that. You know good well. I learned last week at my church, we wanted to have a showing of the film 3801 Lancaster, which is a documentary about Kermit Gosnell, the late-term abortionist in Philadelphia. It’s a horrific story. You may have remembered it from the news a few years ago, and they’ve done a documentary about it.
We wanted to show it in our neighborhood here in Minneapolis, which was a very progressive, pro-choice neighborhood. When we announced it on the neighborhood forum, I knew it was not going to be well received.
We were right. It was very, very hostile. Lots of offense taken that we would have the gall to show a movie like this, especially one that they viewed as inflammatory and divisive. Thankfully, a number of the things that I’m going to talk about here had actually helped me to think about walking into that briar patch, walking into the mare’s nest, walking into that hostility. How should we conduct ourselves as a church?
Paul, of course, is an apostle. There’s going to be some differences between how we should act and how he acts. But we’re leaders, he’s a leader, and so we want to observe how an apostle navigates opposition. I’ve got about nine lessons from these chapters. Four major ones will take up the bulk of the time and we’ll see if I get time for the last five.
Lesson 1: Don’t Pick Unnecessary Fights
Here’s the first one. In Acts 21, he’s coming back. Here’s the first lesson. In facing opposition, Paul is not trying to pick unnecessary fights. This is the first thing. He’s not trying to pick unnecessary fights. He labors to be at peace with all men if at all possible.
So in Acts 21, we see him giving a perfect example of what he then tells us in 1 Corinthians 9, become a Jew in order to win Jews. Become a Jew in order to win Jews (1 Corinthians 9:20). In Acts 21, we see Paul doing it. When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, in Acts 21:17, the leaders of the church there rejoice in the news about the Gentile mission. Yet, there are a number of faithful Jews who are zealous for the law, who have believed in Jesus.
But these faithful Jews who have believed in Jesus are being told by enemies of the gospel that Paul is overthrowing Jewish customs: “Paul teaches that we need to forsake Moses. Paul tells us not to circumcise our children. Paul tells us not to walk according to the Jewish way of life.”
So, the leaders in the church of Jerusalem come to Paul and say, “Hey, can you show these new Jewish converts that that’s a bunch of lies? That you have no problem with Jews continuing to live according to the law of Moses, provided that that law is not imposed upon Gentiles, nor that law is used as efficacious for salvation.”
“Being a Jew doesn’t matter to you. Circumcise your kids. Live according to Jewish way of life. Just don’t make it obligatory for Gentiles and don’t view it as works that are necessary for your own salvation.” Paul’s good with that. That’s what they asked Paul to do. Paul does. In Act 21, he goes to the temple, he pays for some of these other Jews to fulfill a purification offering. The goal here, as Paul is doing these things, is to quell unnecessary hostility, to calm things down here in Jerusalem, to show that Christians and Paul in particular are being misunderstood, misrepresented, slandered even.
This first lesson, the fact that Paul is willing walking into hostility, knowing that it’s coming to try to do whatever he can to live at peace with all men, gives us a lesson. The lesson for us is, where we don’t have to fight, we need not fight. Insofar as it depends on us, let us live at peace with all men. We don’t want to be quarrelsome people. When it comes to non-essential issues, we ought to be incredibly flexible. We want to be the ones to give, to bend over backward, to become like Jews to win Jews, to become like Americans to win Americans.
Paul believes that in Christ, circumcision is nothing. Neither is uncircumcision. It doesn’t matter. What matters, what counts is a faith working through love, what counts is a new creation. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing. Let’s not fight over secondary things. So, Paul’s willingness to go to the temple, participate in that offering, teaches us how we ought to try to live at peace with all men in a society that’s opposed to us. That’s the first lesson from Act 21.
Lesson 2: A Fight May Be Looking for Us
Secondly, this effort to clarify things for Jews in Jerusalem does not work at all. That’s the second lesson. You should strive to live at peace with all men, and then you should know that it likely won't. Jews from Asia in Acts 21:27, where Paul had been ministering, see him in the temple and they go ballistic. They absolutely lose their ever-loving minds. They repeat the slander, saying, “There's the man.” They jump to false conclusions. They assume that he brought a Gentile into the temple, contrary to custom, which he didn't. They stir up a mob and seize Paul.
The second lesson is, even though we may not be looking for a fight, a fight may be looking for us. What’s striking to me in this chapter is that Paul is not thrown by the fact that his tactics to quell hostility failed. He’s not thrown at all. It’s amazing. The rest of these chapters are amazing at how Paul is not thrown off. He completely keeps his head in the midst of the confusion that erupts.
So in Acts 21:30–31, look there. All Jerusalem is in confusion.
All the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion.
It’s very clear when he does show up, he is not in charge. The Roman tribune comes upon a man who’s being beaten to death by a mob and the Roman tribune decides to arrest the guy that’s getting beaten to death. That’s how not in charge he is.
Paul’s getting beaten and the tribune shows up and says, “You — the one that’s hitting him. No. You — the one that just kicked him. No. Let’s arrest him and take him back into the barracks.” Crowds are shouting contradictory accusations. It looks like things are going to get violent. Chaos is raining. The tribune is clearly in over his head. He has Paul brought back to the barracks. At that moment, how do you know Paul is under control? Because he turns to the tribune, Acts 21:37, and politely asks him if he can have a word.
“May I say something to you?” It’s absolute chaos. Paul’s like, “Can we have a chat? I’d just like to have a chat.” Then the tribune, he’s freaking out. He thinks, “You’re that revolutionary. You’re an insurrectionist. You’re the Egyptian who stirred up a revolt and led four thousand men into the wilderness. That’s who you are.” Paul, calmly, “I’m a Jew from Tarsus. It’s a pretty big city. If you’ve never maybe you’ve heard of it. Can I go talk to the people?” Now just think about that. There’s a mob outside, a mob that had just tried to kill Paul in a fit of rage. They are ready to tear Paul to pieces. It’s absolute chaos. The Roman soldiers are not able to keep the peace, and Paul wants to go out and give his testimony.
“Wait, there’s a violent mob outside. They want to kill me.” “Yeah.” “Does anybody have a mic? Could I get a mic?” Think about this. The plan had been to calm things down in Jerusalem. Things have been stirred up. “Let’s try to calm him down.” Paul’s like, “There’s a mob. Yeah, I bet what they want is for me to come out and talk to them about Jesus.” Paul knows that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Five minutes in, quelling hostility out the window. Now we’ve got a mob, but Paul just rolls with it. He’s a Calvinist. You just roll with it.
He wasn’t looking for a needless fight, but he’s not thrown off when a fight shows up on his doorstep anyway. Paul sees an opportunity to preach the gospel and he takes it. The tribune looks out and sees a violent mob. Paul sees a congregation. That’s what Paul saw everywhere he went. It’s like a congregation everywhere for Paul. The amazing thing is that the tribune says, “Go for it.” He’s so out of his league. He’s like, “Yeah, I guess here’s the mic. Good luck.” Then sends him out the door to the mob. That’s the second lesson. The first lesson is, try to live at peace with all men. Second lesson, when it doesn’t work, roll with it. Roll with it.
Lesson 3: Help People See That They Can Be Transformed by Jesus
Third, as Paul goes to give his message, we see that he speaks differently to two different kinds of sinners. I’m going to spend some time on this one. Here’s what I mean. To actually understand what I mean, before we look at Acts 22, go back and look at Acts 13.
In Acts 13, this is Paul’s missionary journey. He’s been sent off with Barnabas. In Acts 13:4, led by the Holy Spirit, they go to Cyprus. They arrive at Cyprus. They preach in some synagogues. Then they go to the city of Paphos. When they get there, the Roman proconsul, who’s essentially the governor of the province, his name’s Sergius Paulus, wants to hear what Paul and Barnabas have to say.
You have a prominent government official, a man of intelligence we’re told, who’s eager to hear the word of God. Paul, of course, sees congregations everywhere he goes. So he says, “Great. I’m happy to preach the word to this proconsul.” But in the court on Cyprus, there is a magician named Elymas, a prophet who’s likely a soothsayer. He gets paid to predict the future. This false prophet opposes the preaching of Paul and Barnabas and tries to turn the governor away from Christianity. That’s the situation. This guy wants to hear it. Elymas tries to steer him away. Now, notice how Paul responds.
Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? (Acts 13:9–11)
Now, these are biting words. These are words designed to sting. This is the sticks and stones kind of words — pointed words, sharp words. They’re directed at a particular person in public. The amazing thing is they originate with the Holy Spirit. You didn’t miss that, did you? It’s “filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul comes on court.”
In this case, the fruit of the Spirit is name-calling, insults, and harsh words. What’s going on here? Now you might think, “Okay, why did Paul just do that? Why did the Spirit inspire Paul to do that? It must be because he’s encountering hostility and resistance to the gospel. The lesson then would be, when you run into hostility of the gospel that threatens your ministry, unleash the spiritual insult.”
But you’d be wrong, because if that was the case, then when you jump back from Acts 13 to Acts 22, you might think, “Oh, that’s what happens when you encounter hostility. Come on, court, Spirit inspired in soul.” Then you would expect Paul, when he comes back out with the mic, to use that same kind of language to this crowd, just like Stephen did.
We mentioned last time, Stephen’s sermon, when he was put on trial, he gives this glorious redemptive-historical sermon about the history of the Jews, the giving of the law, the temple, and all this kind of stuff. Then he gets to the altar call at the end and the band’s playing “Just as I Am.” And Stephen says, “You stiff-neck people, uncircumcised in heart and ears resisting the Holy Spirit, prophet persecuting — ‘Let’s play it one more time, guys’ — you temple worshiping, idolatrous, Messiah murdering, lawbreakers.” That’s the alter call.
You might expect Paul to give that sermon here in Act 22. Instead, he surprises us. Here’s what he does.
First, not only does he surprise us, he surprises the crowd into silence by speaking in Hebrew. Look in Acts 22:2: “When they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet.” He comes out and he speaks in the Hebrew language. He’s the Gentile lover. He’s the Greek lover. They expected him to come out and speak Greek. Instead, he comes out and speaks flawless Hebrew. They go, “That’s not what we were expecting.” He surprised them. We ought to surprise people. We ought to learn what their expectations are and figure out ways to go, “Boo.” They should not see it coming.
Second, he breaks their molds. He speaks Hebrew. He emphasizes their shared Jewish heritage: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day” (Acts 22:3). Also, he emphasizes their shared zeal for God. “All of you, just like you today, I was raised in that same tradition.” Notice that he doesn’t root their violence toward him in their hostility to the gospel. He says, “I know that you’re here today because you really love God. You have a zeal for God. I can see that. It’s obvious. I completely understand because I was taught it just like you were.”
Then third, in Acts 22:4–5, he emphasizes that he too persecuted Christians. That he dragged them off to prison. He supervised executions. He emphasizes that shared heritage, shared language, shared zeal, shared persecution of Christians. What’s Paul doing? He’s saying, “I get you people. I get it. I know you. I was just like you. I understand what’s motivating you here.” He’s trying to build bridges.
He goes on as he tells his testimony. Remember, they’re hushed into silence. He tells about his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, this turning point of his life. What’s he doing? He’s saying, “Look, I was just like you. I hated Christians. I was zealous for God.” Then Jesus knocked me off my horse and redirected my zeal. Now, I’m still zealous for God to this day, but now my zeal is shaped by the crucified and risen Messiah.”
Even here, as he tells his testimony, he tries to build more bridges. He mentions Ananias, the guy who came and baptized him and restored his sight. He calls him. He says, “Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews [in Damascus]” (Acts 22:12). You see that? Then this Christian came and everybody loved him, all the Jews and Damascus loved Ananias. He just drops that in there. Why? Trying to build rapport, build bridge with his audience.
Then in the midst of this, he preaches the gospel: Jesus is the righteous one (Acts 22:14). By calling on his name, your sins can be washed away (Acts 22:16). After his conversion, Paul then says in his testimony, “I came to the temple to pray. That was the first thing I wanted to do, was come to the temple to pray — the temple that you love, that you revere.” In other words, he’s stressing again and again, “My Christianity didn’t lead me away from my Judaism, it fulfilled my Judaism.”
How do you account for that? This is the puzzle. How do you account for the fact that when it comes to Elymas, he comes on court with the insults. When it comes to this mob that just tried to kill him, he’s all about building bridges, having dialogue, and making conversation.
Two Types of Sinners
What I’d like to suggest is that Paul is making a distinction between two types of sinners, between what might be called apostles from the world and what might be called refugees from the world — between misleaders and the misled. That category of apostles and refugees is not original to me. I first heard it from Pastor Douglas Wilson. I found it very illuminating. I see it here in the text.
Refugees from the World
What’s a refugee? A refugee would be someone who is potentially persuadable, who might give the gospel a fair hearing if you could just cut out all the clutter, if you could get past their false belief — the lies that they believed about Christians and the gospel — if you could get past that, they would actually give it a fair hearing. They could come in all shapes and sizes. They’re curious ones, seekers, racked with guilt and shame like the woman at the well. She’s a refugee from the world (John 4:1–42). Or they might be apathetic. They might not care at all. Or they might be hostile to the gospel like this mob because they’ve been lied to. But Paul sees this category of, “There’s refugees from the world who if I can cut through the clutter, I could actually give them the gospel and God might save them.”
Apostles from the World
What makes an apostle? An apostle from the world has, I think in the Bible, three defining characteristics.
First, they try to prevent other people from hearing and responding to the gospel. That’s what an apostle from the world does. That’s what’s happening with Elymas in Acts 13. Sergius Paulus, he’s a refugee. “I want to hear the gospel.” He’s open. “Tell me, Paul.” In essence, God has paved a way. He’s made a straight path. That’s the image for Paul to give the gospel to Sergius.
Then this other man, Elymas, comes along and tries to make the straight path crooked. That’s why Paul says, “Why are you trying to make the straight paths of the Lord crooked or change the image?” It’s like there’s a path between Paul and Sergius, and Elymas is trying to build a wall over the path. When someone tries to build a wall between people and the gospel, what do you do? The Spirit inspires you to give sharp, pointed words and say, “Hey, you there, building the wall, you’re a son of the devil. You’re an enemy of all righteousness. You hate God. Tear down the wall, get out of the way.”
If Elymas doesn’t want to hear the gospel, that’s one thing. “Walk away. That’s fine. I don’t have anything else to say. You don’t want to hear it, I can’t make you hear it. But don’t you dare try to get between me and a refugee who’s curious and who wants to hear about this Jesus who saved me.” We see that same pattern in Jesus’s ministry. This is how we can understand why Jesus speaks one way to Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees and another way with the woman at the well, the tax collectors, and the prostitutes.
He does not treat the Sadducees and the Pharisees with kid gloves. He’s not tender. He calls them names. Brood of vipers, sons of the devil, blind fools, whitewashed tombs, and in Matthew 23, he pronounces seven curses on them because of their hostility to his ministry. In one of those, he says this. He explains, “Why is his language so sharp?” Listen, Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”
You see the common thread? Apostles from the world keep the hungry from being fed by the word of God. When that happens, Jesus doesn’t play nice, and neither does Paul. He protects the sheep or the people who might be sheep if they can just hear the word. He loves the sheep enough to protect them from wolves. Paul loves refugees enough to protect them from apostles.
Another way to think about it is the apostles from the world are on a mission. They prowl around looking for people to devour. Jesus says later on in that same passage, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). They’re apostle from the world. They have a false gospel and they’re looking to spread it. They actively oppose our gospel. That’s the first characteristic. Apostles from the world try to keep others from hearing it.
Second, apostles from the world, as I see it in the Scriptures, are leaders in the world. They’re official leaders like Sadducees and priests. They’re unofficial leaders like Pharisees who exert considerable influence on the masses of the people. You might think of them like journalists and celebrities today. They don’t have an official position, but they do exert a lot of influence on people. They’re court officials like Elymas. We need to make a distinction between angry and hostile people who are in positions of authority and angry and hostile people who aren’t.
You don’t use the biting insults on those people who have little influences, like on the egg avatars on Twitter. You know what I’m talking about? People got the egg avatar. You don’t punch down. You just let it go. Let it roll off your back. It’s not a big deal. But you’re on the news show and someone’s coming after you, see what the Spirit inspires. He’ll give you words in the moment. If they’re biting words, let it fly.
We want to follow the advice of King Lune of Archenland, one of my relatives, who says, “Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you: then, as you please” (C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy, 216).
So, if you’re Elijah and you’re surrounded by the king and his 400 prophets of Baal, let it fly. If you’re Stephen and you’re standing before the Sanhedrin who have heard the gospel multiple times from Peter and John and are now falsely accusing you, be filled with the Spirit, pray for the words to speak and testify clearly and courageously about Jesus and sin. That’s the second thing. We’re looking for people who are preventing others from believing the gospel and who are leaders in the world.
Finally, apostles from the world are in the grip of high-handed rebellion. The Bible makes a distinction. You know this, right? In the Old Testament, the Bible makes a distinction between high-handed defiance of God and what Leviticus calls sins of error or thoughtlessness. I think the ESV translates it as unintentional sins. Sins of error and thoughtlessness or high-handed defiance.
The distinction has to do with, how do we respond to our sinfulness? Do we dig in? When our sin is discovered, do we dig in? Do we persist in it? Do we raise our fist against God or are we grieved and broken by it? That’s the difference. High-handed or not. So, an apostle from the world is a leader who is high-handed, defiant, and evangelistic in their rebellion, and who wants to keep other people from turning from their wickedness to embrace Jesus. Depending on which person you encounter will depend on the kind of words that the Spirit will give you to speak to them and the kind of words you should expect and plan to speak to them.
So how does Paul speak to the mob? He doesn’t speak to them like apostles. He speaks to them like refugees. He tries to show them even persecutors of Christians can be transformed because he was.
He’s essentially saying, “I was like you. I thought that zeal for God meant opposing and persecuting followers of Jesus. But then Jesus just collided with my story. He changed everything. Not everything. I’m still zealous for God. Christians are devout people who love God. We have good reputations. But if you trust in Jesus, if you call upon the righteous one, your sins can be washed away. Don’t reject my testimony about Jesus.” Paul says, “You don’t have to reject it.”
What’s the lesson for us? Here’s the lesson. If possible, we need to help people see that they can be transformed by Jesus. When we can, we must identify with people and show them that we were just like them. You know this. Unrighteous, liars, thieves, sexually immoral, homosexuals, drunkards, greedy, that’s who we were. But we were washed. We were sanctified. We were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.
What’s more, we want to help people see what parts of their life must die for good and what parts will be raised and transformed when they come to Jesus. Jesus calls a man. He calls a man to come and die. We all have to die with Christ. But when we die with Christ, some stuff stays in the grave and some stuff comes flying out transfigured and transformed.
For example, violence towards Christians has to die and stay in the grave, but the zeal for God that’s underneath it comes out of the grave, transformed. So when you’re talking to people and they’re really passionate, say about social justice, but their notions of social justice are just foolish, idiotic, wrong, and unjust, you can say, “It’s obvious that you care about justice. Come to Jesus and learn what justice really is. You don’t have to ditch justice to come to Jesus. You come to Jesus to get justice and mercy and then learn what justice really is.”
So Paul is speaking to this mob of refugees from the world like those who have been misled by slander. He’s becoming like a Jew in order to win them. He’s identifying with them, their concerns, their passions, and their zeal to show them the way out of their sin. That’s what he’s trying to do. He’s really trying to win them to Jesus. He’s not just dismissing them because they tried to kill him. He’s not reviling them out of personal animus. He’s really trying to win them to Jesus.
Lesson 4: Don’t Adjust the Truth to Suit Their Sin
Now, I want you to notice, in the midst of that how he ends his sermon and how the crowd reacts. This is amazing. He’s really trying to win them, doing everything he can. “Just come. I was just like you. I get it. You can be transformed by Jesus just like I was.” Now notice how he ends his sermon. At the end of his message, remember, they’re hushed into silence. They’re just listening. Then Paul says:
[Jesus] said to me, “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” (Acts 22:21–22)
Now, notice that they were listening to Paul, they were eating it up. Some of them may have begun to see themselves in Paul and were on the way to calling upon Jesus just like Paul did. Then Paul has to go and ruin it by mentioning the inclusion of the Gentiles and the people of God. Because as soon as he says that, this crowd which had gathered because they thought he brought a Gentile into the temple, goes ballistic, sermons over.
Now, I just know Paul knew good and well what reaction his words were likely to get. He knew that what stirred up the crowds was the prospect that he brought that gentile into the temple. He knows that those zealous for the law can easily despise Gentiles. He knows that better than anyone. Yet in his testimony, when he has them hushed into silence, listening to how Jesus changed his life, he says it anyway.
He could have held off. You follow me? I know what I would’ve been feeling. Because I know how much I want people to like me. I know. Imagine, you’re preaching to a group of unbelievers who ten minutes ago wanted to kill you. You’re giving your testimony and they are in wrapped silence about what God did for you, about how he saved you and changed your life. Don’t you just want to end the sermon and say, “Come to Jesus. Just come. I was like you. Now you can be like me. Call upon Jesus. He’ll wash away your sins. He’ll purify your zeal for God. Come to Jesus.” No, Paul can’t leave it there. He has to be bold. He has to be clear and courageous about who Jesus is and what sin is.
This is probably the most challenging lesson for us, because I know what I’d want to do: Just cut the corner. We’ll talk about the inclusion of the Gentiles and discipleship class. Just get them in. We’ll get there eventually. We’ll talk about the hard truths after they believe. For now, let’s just intentionally avoid talking about all the aspects of the truth that we know might set them off.
Brothers, we can’t do that. When we call people to repent of their sins, their bigotries, their idolatries, we can’t avoid the ones we know will make them angry. Because God sent Jesus to bless every one of us by turning us from our wickedness.
Our wickedness, the particular wickedness that afflicts us, which means, just follow me here, you can’t preach the gospel to the Ku Klux Klan and not call him away from his racism. You can’t preach the gospel to a partying frat guy on campus and not call him away from drunkenness and debauchery. You can’t preach the gospel to a practicing homosexual and not call them away from practicing homosexuality. You can’t preach the gospel to a contemporary, egalitarian progressive and not call them away from their commitment to a false view of human nature in marriage and men and women, or maybe put it the other way around.
In order to preach the gospel faithfully, we must be clear and courageous about the worth and value of every human being regardless of skin color. If you’re preaching to the Klan, you have to end your sermon with: “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.” You have to. It doesn’t matter how wrapped they are listening to you talk about other stuff, you have to end there.
If you’re preaching to the frat guy, you have to end with those who practice drunkenness and sexual immorality will not inherit the kingdom of God.
If you’re preaching to 21st-century egalitarian progressives, you must hold up God’s design for men and women and sex and marriage. That may end the conversation. They may say away with such a bigot. But faithfulness to Jesus means we don’t have the right to adjust the truth to suit their sin. We do not have the right to adjust the truth to suit their sin any more than we have the right to adjust the truth to suit ours. We are the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing, whether they smell it as life to life or death to death, is not in our hands. We cannot compromise, minimize, soften, hide the truth in order to win converts. We must bear witness regardless of their response.
Now, I’ve got a few minutes. I mentioned a couple of minor lessons. Those are the four major ones that I took away from this section of Scripture: If possible, live at peace. When peace isn’t possible, roll with it. Speak differently to different kinds of sinners. Even when you’re given the gospel call and you’ve got everybody’s attention, you have to hit the sin that belongs to them. You can’t leave it alone.
Lesson 5: Make Strategic Use of Legal Protections
Here’s the minor ones. I’ll just fly through these. I’ll leave them to for you to think about. Maybe you can ask the panel in a bit. Here’s some things that show up in these chapters.
Paul makes strategic use of his Roman citizenship. He uses it to avoid being beaten and he uses it to appeal his case before Caesar so that he can have the opportunity to preach the gospel there. I take from that, that it’s good and right for us to use and to strengthen American legal protections so that we can more wisely and effectively preach the gospel. First Amendment, Second Amendment, Tenth Amendment, whatever the amendments to get in to know those and to be able to use them as a way of getting a bigger crowd to preach the gospel is a good thing.
Although it’s interesting, in these chapters, when Paul’s being beaten, you’ll notice he doesn’t tell the Roman tribune that he’s a Roman citizen until after he’s been beaten for a bit. You know what I mean? He’s got that card in his back pocket, but he waits till he’s been hit a couple times by the Roman tribune’s soldiers at the Roman tribune’s orders before he says, “Oh, by the way, can you beat Roman citizens without trial?” You got to think about why he did that. Why he took the beat?
He wasn’t about avoiding pain. He took a little bit of a beating. Why? Because it was strategic. All of a sudden, the Roman tribunes at his beck and call, “What do you need? Where do you want to go? You want to go to Caesar? Sure. Yeah. I’m happy to write a letter of recommendation for you.” Then that’s a hilarious letter because the Roman tribune starts talking about how, “I came upon this man, this Roman citizen being beaten. I stepped in and saved him.” He didn’t step in and saved him. You arrested the guy. But Paul’s got the Roman tribune eaten out of his back of his hand. Why? Because he let himself get beaten and then sprung the trap.
Lesson 6: Exploit Natural Divisions of the Enemies of God
Second, Paul exploits divisions among his opponents. When he stands before the Jerusalem Council, he’s standing for the council and he sees that there are Pharisees and there are Sadducees there. He says, “I’m here today because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” Then he steps back out of the way. This is great.
In other words, these guys are united against me for the moment. I believe in the resurrection. They do. They don’t. Boom! Watch them fight. All of a sudden, he’s got Pharisees who are sticking up for him. “What if he saw something? What if it really happened? Maybe it was real.” Maybe we ought to think about how we can exploit natural divisions of the enemies of God.
Lesson 7: Watch for Remarkable Providences
Third, watch for remarkable providences. One of the best parts of this story when I was preaching through it was, there’s this plot. The Jews plot to kill Paul. Then I just picture it, like they’re in some seedy bar. I don’t know if there were seedy bars in Jerusalem in those days, but it is in my imagination. There’s a seedy bar. These rough Jewish guys are sitting there plotting, “We’re going to kill Paul. We’re not going to eat or drink anything until he’s dead.” God providentially has it so that the bartender is Paul’s nephew. Isn’t that amazing?
Of all the gin joints, it’s this one. Paul’s nephew overhears their plan and he runs and he tells Paul, “Hey, they’re going to try to kill you. They’re in line and wait.” Then Paul goes. He gets a military escort to his next speaking engagement. We ought to be looking for those sorts of remarkable providences all of the time. Because we want to be alert for them so that when they come, we’re ready to take the shot. We’re ready to step up to the plate.
Lesson 8: Be Cheerful in Facing Opposition
Another one here. Be cheerful in facing opposition. Paul’s hauled before Felix. He’s falsely accused by these Jewish leaders. This is Acts 24:1–9. They falsely accuse him. This lawyer gets up and reads off the accusations. “When the governor had nodded to him to speak, Paul replied: ‘Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense’” (Acts 24:10).
There’s no shrillness. There’s no anger about getting beat up and arrested. It’s just, “What an opportunity! Where am I going to get thrown next, God? Where are you going to put me so that I can speak, I can preach and I can take the shot? I’m ready to take the shot.” I really want to be this sort of person who’s ready to take the shot. Too often, I’m not that guy. I’m just a coward. But gosh, I read this and I say, “Okay, this is what God wants to do for us.”
Lesson 9: God Will Put Everything Right
We could talk about the accepting of human injustice because of your confidence in divine justice. Felix is a corrupt, rotten man. He keeps Paul in prison even though there’s no legal reason to do so. He gives Paul some liberty because he wants Paul to bribe him. He invites Paul to come speak about Jesus because he wants Paul to bribe him.
So Paul keeps saying, “All right, if you want me to come preach about Jesus again, I’ll come do it.” When he does, he doesn’t come embittered. Instead, what he does is he focuses on righteousness. This is in Acts 24. “Righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” — just the sort of things that a corrupt elected official needs to hear about. (Acts 24:25). He picks his target.
Finally, Felix says, “I don’t want to hear from you anymore. You need to leave me alone.” He’s over the target. Human injustice doesn’t shake Paul. He believes in the coming judgment. God will put everything to right.
Read Our Own Day
Let me close where I began. We want to learn from the book of Acts how to read our own day. We want to learn from the whole Bible how to read our own day.
Here Paul is returning to Jerusalem. He knows that affliction is awaiting him. He wants to try as best he can to live at peace, but he knows that may not be possible. Instead, we get riots, mobs, confusion, arrest, beatings, unjust imprisonment, but through it all, Paul is not shaken. When earth gives way and waters foam, when shadow falls on hearth and home, when nations rage and kingdoms mock, then we stand on God, the Rock.
Paul knows he’s standing on a rock. He knows that God is writing his story — not Jewish leaders, not the Roman Tribune, not Governor Felix. Almighty God is writing Paul’s story. So, Paul is freed to look for every opportunity to say his lines, to speak, to testify. May the same be true for us.
God is writing our story, not the Supreme Court, not Congress, not President Obama, not Donald Trump, not the Republicans, not the Democrats, not CNN, Fox News or NBC, not Facebook or the Twitter mob, not Planned Parenthood, not the multi-billion dollar corporations that see everything in terms of profit. None of them are writing the story. God is.
Jesus is, which means our call is simply to be wise as serpents. Think strategically, make use of every means available to us to advance the gospel. Wise as serpents, to be innocent as doves, live at peace with all men, if at all possible. Don’t compromise the truth. Don’t shrink back out of fear of rejection. Wise as serpents, innocent as doves, and I’m adding — I think it’s in my translation — be cool as a cucumber. Unshaken by our adversaries, ready to roll with it when the plans just come unraveled. Confident, humble, secure in the midst of mayhem, because we know Jesus is alive. He’s real. He’s writing the story. He’s on the move. Let’s just trust him and take the shot.