Well we're picking up our series in Acts again, the series we've called 'The Unstoppable Message', which started as long ago as this time in 2008. So far we've seen God at work to take his gospel rapidly and unstoppably outward from Jerusalem, breaking through cultural barriers and sometimes meeting violent opposition along the way.
At the end of chapter 20 we saw the end of Paul's missionary travels as he set off for Jerusalem. If you were here for our giving services a couple of months ago you might remember that Paul had gathered a large financial aid package from the churches in Turkey and Greece to take to the church in Jerusalem. That's probably this journey.
In chapter 21 Paul arrived in Jerusalem and the rest of the book concerns what happened to him from then on. Interestingly there are marginally more verses given over to this section of Acts than to the missionary journeys, and more verses devoted to Paul's speeches in his defence, like tonight's, than are given to his missionary speeches, so our author, Luke, obviously thinks this is all pretty important. And over the next 9 weeks we're going to finish this book, so I guess in that time we're going to find out why.
We're going to see how, in spite of hostility, imprisonment and an assassination attempt, Paul continues to preach the gospel, eventually arriving in Rome, at the heart of the empire, as God continues to work out his promise to take the good news about Jesus to the very ends of the earth.
Now that's the bigger picture, but the immediate context is important as well, so take a blue bible and look up p786, Acts 21. If you look across to Acts 21.17, you'll see that Paul and his companions were welcomed to Jerusalem by the Christians there. That wasn't a foregone conclusion, though, as many of the Jewish converts to Christianity are still getting their heads around the gospel being for Gentiles, non-Jews. They're concerned that Paul might be abandoning his Jewish heritage, which would offend the Jewish Christians, never minds the unbelieving Jews themselves.
And in fact that's what happened the last time we were in this book. Look at 21.27-29. Paul is taking part in a ceremony at the Temple when some Jews recognise him and shout false accusations against him about bringing a gentile into the Temple and defiling it. A crowd gathers and they grab Paul and try to beat him to death. A little bit further down a Roman commander arrives with his troops to calm everything down. Seeing Paul being rescued by gentile soldiers doesn't calm anything down so the commander has his troops carry Paul up the steps to the barracks, and they've just reached the top step and are about to go inside when we rejoin the action in v37.
Look down at v37 and we'll close out the chapter.
37As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, "May I say something to you?"
'Permission to speak freely, sir?' Paul must have asked in Greek, given the commander's response:
"Do you speak Greek?" he replied. 38"Aren't you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?"
Apparently this was a guy who claimed to be a prophet, who gathered people outside Jerusalem, promising that at his command the walls would fall and they would overthrow the Romans. The Roman governor Felix – we'll get to him in chapter 24 – he heard what was happening, took a bunch of soldiers out and put a violent end to that. The Egyptian slipped away but there were a lot of Jews who would be very unhappy to see him again. Obviously that's not Paul, though, v39:
39Paul answered, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people."
40After receiving the commander's permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic:
22.1"Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defence."
2When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.
This is a bit like a man getting beaten on the streets of Belfast by Irish Republicans who assume he's a traitor and a fraud, then being rescued by the police, but… climbing up onto the bonnet of a police Landrover and addressing the crowd… in Gaelic. 'He speaks Gaelic?!' 'Quiet down, there, let's hear what he has to say!' As we start chapter 22, you could hear a pin drop and you could cut the tension with a knife. What on earth is this guy Paul going to say?
Now, that's hopefully set the scene. Paul is about to give his defence to the crowd, and the big idea of that speech and the big idea for tonight is this:
The gospel is the fulfilment of Judaism: salvation now offered to all nations
I've got three headings for the rest of tonight's passage:
1) Paul's gracious defence
2) The crowd's furious response
3) The Romans' lingering curiosity
Please do keep that passage open, p786 – we'll be working through the text bit by bit.
1) Paul's gracious defence
Paul's speech in this chapter is a superb example of how to speak with sensitivity and grace, and to use a phrase I don't like, meeting people where they are at. Remember what's just happened. Paul was at the Temple in the first place to show his commitment to his Jewish roots. Some Jews from out of town threw out some false accusations that he was in fact doing the very opposite, defiling the Temple, and now they've just tried to kill him. He's probably got blood dripping from his nose and mouth, his clothes may be torn and he may be hurting from all sorts of punching and kicking and stamping. But he wants to address the crowd. He wants to explain himself. He wants to mention the Lord Jesus to them.
So he starts in Aramaic, the language of the city, and he starts in the most respectful tone:
1"Brothers and fathers [these same people who nearly killed him… Brothers and fathers], listen now to my defence."
You accuse me of hating my people. Listen to my background (this is v3-5):
3"I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city."
He means Jerusalem – one-nil Paul.
"Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today."
Studying the law under Gamaliel was like studying physics with Stephen Hawking… two-nil Paul. Fine Paul, but what about this Christianity business?
4"I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. [I was their Rottweiler.] I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished."
In other words Paul was a Jew of Jews, exemplary. Good start, Paul, but what changed? Look down at v6. [Well, it wasn't something I decided… it was the intervention of God that turned me around.]
6"About noon as I came near Damascus, [on my way to arrest Christians] suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, 'Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?'
8"'Who are you, Lord?' I asked.
"'I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. 9My companions saw the light [it wasn't a hallucination or a trick], but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. [It was a specific encounter for me.]
10"'What shall I do, Lord?' I asked.
"'Get up,' the Lord said, 'and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.'
[This Jesus has clearly has some sort of authority.] 11My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.
So I was in Damascus, very confused, still blind, when, v12:
12"A man named Ananias came to see me. [Who is this character… sounds dodgy. No, says Paul,] He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13He stood beside me and said, 'Brother Saul, receive your sight!' And at that very moment I was able to see him.
14"Then he said: 'The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. [Again, this is from God.] 15You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.'
Paul, you've been had. You got a bit of sun-stroke out on the road and then one of those Christians got to you first and has spun you off course. You've been conned, Paul. No, says Paul, there's more, v17:
17"When I returned to Jerusalem [God's city] and was praying at the temple [God's house], I fell into a trance 18and saw the Lord speaking. [This message came to me at the temple of God, not in some unholy Gentile backwater town.] 'Quick!' he said to me. 'Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.'
19"'Lord,' I replied, 'these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.' [Paul reckoned that his prior record persecuting Christians would give him credibility among the unbelieving Jews, that they would have to sit up and take notice because of the turnaround in Paul, but the Lord had a different plan, v21:]
21"Then the Lord said to me, 'Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'"
Everything Paul has said so far has been designed to make two main points. The first was that he himself was a loyal Jew, by birth, by education and still. The God of his fathers was still his God. He hadn't abandoned his ancestral Jewish roots; he was in direct continuity with them. Jesus of Nazareth was 'the Righteous One' who fulfilled all Jewish prophecy and history. And Paul's second point was that those ways in which his faith had changed – his acknowledgment of Jesus and his mission to the Gentiles – those weren't his own ideas or a Christian trick. They had been directly revealed to him from heaven, first on the way to Damascus and then in the Jerusalem temple.
If you want to get onto the London Underground somewhere in central London, chances are you have to go underground. Seems pretty obvious. But on several lines, if you stay on the train long enough it eventually comes above ground. The end of the line in quite a few places is at ground level. Now, when the train comes up out of a tunnel into the daylight, it doesn't stop being a London Underground train. It's the same train. But something has changed. That's a tiny picture of what Paul's saying here about Judaism: I got on the Underground, I rode the Underground better than anyone and I'm still on the Underground – I'm still on that Jewish trajectory – but something has changed. Something major has happened to Judaism itself.
Paul shows that the gospel is the fulfilment of Judaism: salvation now offered to all nations. Look again at two places where that big idea becomes particularly clear:
V16: Ananias tells Paul, 'Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on [Jesus'] name.'
That is how the catastrophe of human rebellion is finally resolved: Jesus put our sins against his name so that we can have clean records, clean slates, a fresh start for each one of us.
And in v21 Paul says, "Then the Lord said to me, 'Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'"
This offer of forgiveness and restoration to relationship with the one true God is not just for the Jews but for all peoples, all nations, all humanity.
Three things to take from this speech.
1) Let's make sure we spot our place in all this correctly. We're are not Paul in this story. You may daydream about preaching the gospel to an angry mob from the back of a police van, but we're not Paul here. This is history, not allegory, so we are playing the role of ourselves. We are gentiles, living way way out in gentile-world, getting on for 2,000 years later. We're playing the role of ourselves. We have our Father God, the Lord Jesus and his faithful servants from Paul all the way to your parents or your minister or your friend or whoever it was first told you about Jesus – we have all of them to thank for the grace that we know as Christians today. That's the first thing: we're the gentiles in this story, and we should be eternally thankful to be in it. Praise God for his offer of forgiveness to all nations and all people.
2) Let's be thankful for our Jewish heritage. Let's be thankful for the Old Testament. Let's read it and digest it and know it and love it, because it points us to the one who fulfilled all of it: our saviour Jesus Christ.
3) Let's copy Paul's example of speaking with sensitivity and grace to unbelievers. Paul didn't get defensive and agitated by these false accusations. He didn't cry out for help from the Romans. He didn't shy away from talking to the crowd. He wanted to address them. He wanted to explain himself. He wanted to mention the Lord Jesus to them. And he was able to tell the truth and point to Jesus with a great deal of humility and diplomacy. That's got to be an example worth copying.
But, let's not imagine that if we can crack that formula then our attempts to justify ourselves and share Jesus with unbelievers will be transformed into wonderful times of sharing and growing and loving together. Let's not imagine that if we can just get this right we can expect God to smooth every crease in our path. That's certainly not what happened to Paul. Let's look at that now; it's our second point:
2) The crowd's furious response
21"Then the Lord said to me, 'Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'"
22The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, "Rid the earth of him! He's not fit to live!"
23As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks.
So the crowd had listened pretty well. Maybe the Roman soldiers exchanging glances throughout the whole speech, perhaps only understanding the odd word or phrase in Aramaic, wondering what on earth this beat-up guy could be saying to calm everyone down so well. And then it kicked off again, even worse than before. They're demanding that he be killed.
So what did Paul say that was so bad? Why is the crowd so angry? Well for them it was okay to make Gentiles into second-class Jews. We've seen lots of people like that in Acts so far. They get called things like 'God-fearing Greeks'. But making Gentiles into Christians without first making them Jews… claiming to give them access to the God of the Jews but bypassing Judaism… that was an outrage and a scandal. Why? Because that meant that Jews and Gentiles were equal. They both needed to come to God through Jesus. The Jews were in exactly the same boat as the Gentiles, lost from God, dead to God, dead in sin, rebels set against a holy God, just as bad as those ignorant, unclean Gentiles.
And that's true. That's how it was and is. You don't have to read too much of Romans to get that explained to you. But this crowd won't have it. They listen while they agree with what's being said, but they won't consider anything that's contrary to their prejudices. You can imagine them maybe even literally covering their ears so that they don't hear any more of it.
And prejudice is the right word. This attitude is tradition gone very wrong. There are actually plenty of clues in the Old Testament scriptures that God's salvation is so great that it wouldn't be confined to the Jews. We read one earlier in Isaiah 49. But that's not their tradition. That's not their prejudice. They won't even consider it.
And we're just the same, aren't we? Non-Christians who look into Christianity often assume that they are starting from a neutral position. Maybe that's true of someone here right now – we're chuffed to have non-Christians at our services who are at any and every stage of curiosity about Christianity and if that's you, we're very happy to have you. But be aware that you're not neutral. You can't be an external observer of Christianity. You're either rebelling against God, be it vehemently or indifferently, or you're a forgiven rebel, a rebel who has been welcomed by God in spite of rebellion, as God dealt with that offence at the cross of Jesus. You're not neutral. You don't want it to be true, and there is a voice inside that tells you to forget it, stop thinking about it, stop coming to church, stop reading stuff, stop talking to Christians. It's important to know that about yourself. That's what this crowd is like.
But as Christians we're don't get a free pass on this either. Here's a whole city full of religious people who have thousands of years of tradition to prove that they are in the right and they are right with God, and there's no way they're going to consider that that tradition might be wrong. But it is wrong. They are wrong. God's salvation is for the Gentiles as well. The Jews are just as filthy before God as the Gentiles, just as needy of cleansing through Jesus. As Christians we have a lot of history and tradition behind us, too. By God's grace there is much that is good and wise and right in church tradition. But let's be careful to make the bible our final authority in everything. If these Jews had done that they would perhaps have understood that Paul was right. But instead they wouldn't listen and they demanded his death.
And there's some irony here. They want rid of Paul and his gospel by killing him. God will rid them of Paul, but he's planning to take Paul and his gospel all the way to Rome. Paul did the right thing, talking to the crowd, graciously pointing them to Jesus, but his message fell on deaf ears and he was taken away by the Romans. But even at that moment God was at work to achieve something entirely different.
So let's take encouragement that even when things seem to be going horribly wrong, God may be working to an altogether different plan. We need to imitate not only Paul's grace and sensitivity but his willingness to speak up for and to serve God wherever God takes him. It's God who is in control of what's happening to Paul here, not the Jews and not the Romans.
We're running out of time but let's get to the end of the passage. There are just a few things to say under the last heading:
3) The Romans' lingering curiosity
23As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and questioned in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this.
Now how much Aramaic the commander could understand is not known. Even if he got most of it he probably didn't understand the nuance of what had annoyed the crowd so much, but contrast him with that crowd, several times in these chapters we find him trying to get at the truth, trying to understand. Perhaps just a hint of a reflection of the bigger picture: the Jews are being left behind in their stubborn rejection, and the gospel is going to the Gentiles with much more success. Not that he was going to be kind to Paul – he's going to torture him, v25:
25As they stretched him out to flog him [perhaps in exactly the same place where Jesus was flogged 27 years earlier], Paul said to the centurion standing there, "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't even been found guilty?" [It wasn't. It would have been a crime to flog Paul, so…]
26When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "This man is a Roman citizen."
27The commander went to Paul and asked, "Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?"
"Yes, I am," he answered.
28Then the commander said, "I had to pay a big price for my citizenship." [He seems to be refuting Paul's claim. 'How could someone as wretched as you be a citizen of the Empire, when even someone like me has to pay a hefty bribe?' The answer…]
"But I was born a citizen," Paul replied. [That was a lot more prestigious than buying your citizenship, so, v29:]
29Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realised that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.
The commander wanted to get at the truth. Now he can't torture Paul for information and in fact he has a legal duty towards Paul to find out what's going on and to protect this Roman citizen unless and until he can convict him of something. One thing's for sure: Paul isn't an Egyptian terrorist.
More generally, the gospel isn't a threat to the state. We're not in the business of hostile takeovers, any more than that was Jesus' mission in the first place. That being the case, if the state acts to seek justice and law and order, then we shouldn't have anything to fear from the state either.
And in fact God can even use human governments and human means of justice to protect his people – it's not even the first time in Acts that we've seen God do this for Paul.
What to take from that? I guess Keep Calm and Carry On. Be thankful for the freedoms and protection we have in the UK, and pray long may that continue for us here.
There's one more thing to notice, though. We've thought about God working towards his bigger agenda, and keeping in mind his sovereignty when all our efforts for his name seem to be imploding. But just for one moment, think about God's work in Paul himself. When Paul stood to address that crowd he began, 'Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defence.'
There's an almost identical phrase all the way back in Acts 7, when Stephen is accused on trumped-up charges of blasphemy. Stephen begins his reply, 'Brothers and fathers, listen to me!' Paul was there, holding the clothes of those who stoned Stephen to death and now those words belong to Paul. Now he's chained in perhaps the very same spot as Jesus was before him, transformed from one of the gospel's most dangerous enemies to one of its most important servants.
We've thought about the gospel being the fulfilment of Judaism, God's superagenda. But here it is in microcosm, worked out in the life of one man, completely turned around, brought full circle by the grace of God, the same God who works in his world and his people and in each of us even today.