Before the Sanhedrin

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I've come across many a book on evangelism – ie, talking about Jesus to people who aren't yet Christians. And one was entitled How to share your faith without losing your friends. And what's good about that title is that it's honest about our biggest fear in evangelism – which is how people will react. But what's bad about it is that it gives false promise – because it suggests there's a way of sharing the gospel where you run no danger of negative reactions. And the apostle Paul, who we're currently following in this series on Acts, would have laughed at that. Eg, just last week we saw how he was nearly lynched by a crowd that he'd just shared the gospel with, because they didn't like it. And that kind of reaction had been the story of his life ever since he was converted. Paul knew from experience what happens if you tell people that Jesus is their rightful Lord, and that they need to stop living as if he wasn't, be forgiven, and start life over again with him in his proper place. That's the gospel in a nutshell, if you're still just looking into all this. And wherever it's shared, you get two reactions. Some people accept Jesus as Lord. But others react negatively – because they want to keep running their own lives.

So Paul wouldn't have liked the title How to share your faith without losing your friends. He'd have preferred a more recent book entitled Evangelism made slightly less difficult. Because that's much more realistic. One of the books recommended on your website is Know and tell the gospel by the evangelist John Chapman – or Chappo as he was known. He died last year aged 82. And his often-quoted saying about evangelism was, 'The first 50 years are the hardest.' He was always so helpfully realistic.

So this sermon comes under the general heading, 'making evangelism slightly less difficult' – because the book of Acts is really all about evangelism. And to remind ourselves of that, let's turn to Acts chapter 1, v8. The risen Lord Jesus is speaking to his apostles and says:

8 … you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.' (1.8)

And if we're Christians, it's because the Lord Jesus has fulfilled that promise through others. And he's now in the business of fulfilling it through us. So let's now turn on and rejoin Paul in Acts 22.30. A quick re-cap of last week: Paul has come to Jerusalem; in a visit to the temple he's been falsely accused of bringing a Gentile (ie, a non-Jew) in with him so the Jewish crowd tries to lynch him; thankfully, a Roman commander steps in and rescues and arrests Paul; he lets Paul speak to the crowd but when he tells them that Jesus is offering salvation to the Gentiles, there's uproar again, the crowd wants to lynch him and the Roman commander hustles Paul away into custody. So now we rejoin it at Acts 22.30:

30 The commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews. So the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the members of the Sanhedrin [that's the Jewish ruling council] to assemble. Then he brought Paul and set him before them. (22.30)

And Paul's example gives us three lessons to make evangelism slightly less difficult:

1. Aim to live with a good conscience before God (23.1-5)

Look on to chapter 23 and v1:

1 Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, 'My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.' (23.1)

Now why does he say that, first up? The answer is: because they accused him of the very opposite – of disregarding God and his law. And they did that because he said in his preaching that Gentiles could come into relationship with God through Jesus without taking on keeping the whole Old Testament (OT) law. So, many Jews heard Paul to be saying, 'God's law doesn't matter. Obedience to God doesn't matter. You can trust in Jesus, be forgiven and live as you please.' But in fact Paul never said that. He said: the whole point of what Jesus came to do was to bring people back into a relationship of genuine, willing obedience to God – which only happens when Jesus forgives you and comes into your life by his Spirit. That was Paul's experience, which is why he could say, v1: 'My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.' (23.1)

And he doesn't say 'clear conscience' – like he's claiming to be sinless. He says, 'good conscience' – which is claiming to be sincere. He's saying, 'I've sincerely tried to live in obedience to God. I haven't done that perfectly – but examine my life and you'll see that's been my sincere aim.'

But the big problem for these Jewish leaders was that Paul said Jesus' coming had changed how we relate to the OT law, so that some of it – like circumcision – no longer applied. And they heard that as disregarding God and so they heard what he said in v1 as a blasphemous lie. Which is why, v2:

2 At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, 'God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!' (23.2-3)

So Paul's point in the second half of v3 is that Ananias is claiming to be 'Mr Law' – upholding God's law – when in fact he's blatantly a law-breaker. Because the law said, 'Do not pervert justice… but judge your neighbour fairly.' (Leviticus 19.15) That was the foundation of the Jewish legal system (and, in fact, ours), which treated you as innocent until proven guilty and gave you a fair trial. So it's Ananias who is blatantly disregarding God's law here. (And, by the way, we know from writing outside the Bible that he was notoriously immoral – eg, stealing huge amounts from temple funds. And he was notoriously vicious and violent – so that on one occasion he was actually cautioned for it by the Romans – which really was the pot calling the kettle black when it came to capacity for being vicious.) But then what do you make of the first half of v3?

3 … Paul said to him, 'God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!' (23.3)

At this point, several people who've written commentaries say very confidently that Paul lost his temper – and isn't that a bad example, but doesn't it remind us that even he wasn't perfect. Which of course he wasn't. But I doubt that's what happens here. Because you don't have to read this as Paul losing his rag. It's not an insult. It's a prophecy – echoing Ezekiel's prophecy against the false leaders of his day (see Ezekiel 13.1-16). Ezekiel said they were like a whitewashed wall, which underneath the whitewash was crumbling and which would one day fall under God's judgement. And that's what Paul's saying here. He's saying that underneath the whitewash of Ananias's apparent commitment to God's law, his life is a crumbling mass of immorality and God will bring him down. And that's what happened: within 10 years of this incident, Ananias was killed by his own people, so hated was he. So what about the next bit? Verse 4:

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

5 Paul replied, 'Brothers, I did not realise that he was the high priest; for it is written: "Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people [which is quoting God's law in Exodus 22.28]"' (23.4-5)

And, again, several commentators confidently say that Paul realised he'd overstepped the mark and needed to apologise. And again, I doubt that. It seems to me there are two ways to take this. One is that Paul didn't know that the man who ordered him to be hit was the high priest, and that in v5 he's not retracting what he said (which was true and prophetic); but showing due respect for the office of high priest, even though the person currently occupying it was a complete charlatan. The other way of taking it (as John Calvin did) is that Paul did know full well that the person who commanded him to be hit was the high priest, and that in v5 he's being ironic – 'Brothers, I didn't realise he could be the high priest – after all, I didn't high priests behaved like that.' But again, end of v5, he respects the office, because he respects God's law in a way that Ananias blatantly doesn't.

Backing off all that detail, the point is: Paul can genuinely claim he's aimed to live with a good conscience before God. And that's a crucial foundation for evangelism. It's always crucial that people can see that – albeit imperfectly – we are sincerely aiming to live what we preach. But it's especially crucial when we're being accused or attacked in some way for our faith. So, eg, I remember speaking on a Durham Univeristy CU mission. And the week started with myself and a few others on a 'Grill a Christian' panel. And this student got very aggressive and accused us all of hypocrisy – 'Eg,' he said (looking at me), 'Jesus told you to sell your possessions and give to the poor. I bet you haven't done that have you? I mean how much of your money do you give away?' And of course Jesus also said you're not to trumpet your giving before others. So I said, 'Well, I do give money away.' And he said, 'How much? Come on. Tell us.' So I said, 'If you ask me privately afterwards I'll tell you the percentage of income that I've given away this year.' And it was striking, because he quietened down – and he didn't come and ask me about it at the end, because I guess he decided from my answer that I was at least sincere.

People are watching us; listening to us; and they may ask us questions like that to see if we're for real. And it will make our evangelism slightly less difficult if we're aiming to live with a good conscience before God. And that's why there's really no conflict between the energy a church puts into evangelism and the energy it puts into building up Christians. Eg, you may be a Home Group leader and wish you could lead Christianity Explored as well – but you haven't got time. Well, please don't tell yourself that you're therefore not really contributing to the church's evangelism. Because the Lord will use your Home Group to help Christians to live more consistently with a good conscience before him – and that's the crucial foundation for evangelism.

Onto the second lesson here. It will make our evangelism slightly less difficult if, when the opportunity comes, we get to the heart of the gospel. So:

2. When the opportunity comes, get to the heart of the gospel (23.6-10)

Look on to v6:

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

9 There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. 'We find nothing wrong with this man,' they said. 'What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?' 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks. (23.6-10)

So some commentators say: Paul knew he'd be safer back in Roman custody; and that if he mentioned resurrection it would create uproar and get him taken back to the barracks. So he did – he threw the theological cat among the pigeons to bring proceedings to a riotous halt. But again, I doubt that. I mean, here is the apostle Paul – the most fearless preacher I can think of. And he's got this extraordinary opportunity to speak to the Sanhedrin (of which he himself was a member before his conversion). So do you think he mentions resurrection merely as a ploy to get back to his cell? I doubt that – especially because of the end of v9 where the Pharisees ask:

'What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?' (23.9)

Now what's prompted that question? I think it must be that Paul hasn't just been talking about resurrection in general – he's been talking about Jesus' resurrection, and making his standard claim that the risen Lord Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus and spoken to him. So the most open-minded haven't got their minds fully around what he's climaing but they at least ask in v9,

'What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?' (23.9)

You have to assume that all the speaking in Acts is highly abbreviated. So when Paul says, end of v6,

'I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead' (23.6)

I think you have to assume he said a whole lot more – and in particular, that he said the way we know we're going to rise from the dead in the 'general resurrection' at the end of time is that Jesus has already risen from the dead that first Easter time. So I doubt this was just a ploy to create uproar – I think Paul was taking this extraordinary opportunity to get to the heart of the gospel with these Jewish leaders. Now, yes he knew that they were divided over their beliefs about resurrection – as v8 says:

8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits [ie, they didn't believe in any personal existence beyond death – they were the theological liberals], but the Pharisees believe all these things.) (23.8)

So, yes, Paul knew that talking about Jesus' resurrection would divide them. But I take it his ultimate aim was to speak the gospel to them – hoping, especially, that his fellow-Pharisees would be open to it (because their worldview did include belief in resurrection) and would side with him. Which explains v9:

9 There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. 'We find nothing wrong with this man,' they said. 'What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?' (23.9)

So the main lesson of this second bit is: when the opportunity comes, get to the heart of the gospel: say something about Jesus and his death and resurrection.

In Chappo's book Know and tell the gospel, he gives some principles on answering questions. Eg, imagine someone says, 'How can you know God is there – isn't it just a matter of blind faith?' How do you answer that? Well, one of Chappo's principles is: answer in a way that gets you to Jesus. So for that question you could say, 'Well, if Jesus did rise from the dead to show he was the Son of God, that answers your question doesn't it? And as Chappo used to say, 'You've then got Jesus out onto the deck.' And you can see how the other person responds. Eg, they might say, 'You don't believe that really happened do you?' And that gives you permission to say more.

So, answer in a way that gets you to Jesus. And I hasten to add: I don't always get this right. Eg, just after Easter, we were visiting my parents, who aren't Christians. And Mum said, 'What do you think of the new Archbishop?' And do you know what I said? 'Time will tell.' Which was a true answer – but a completely hopeless answer, on Chappo's criteria. Because it completely failed to answer in a way that got to Jesus. And having looked at Acts 23, you can now tell me what I should have said. I should have said… 'Well one very good thing about him is that he really believes Jesus rose from the dead and is the Son of God.' I wonder where the conversation might have gone if I'd said that. But I blew it.

So lesson no.1: Aim to live with a good conscience before God. Lesson no.2: When the opportunity comes, get to the heart of the gospel. And lesson no.3 here is:

3. Wherever we are, the Lord has put us there to testify to him (23.11)

So Paul is back in his cell. And you could understand it if he'd been thinking, 'Lord, how does me being stuck here serve your plan to get the gospel to the ends of the earth?' After all, let's remind ourselves what Paul's plan had been. Just turn back to Acts 19.21:

21 After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. 'After I have been there,' he said, 'I must visit Rome also.' (19.21)

And we know from his letter to the Romans (see Romans 15.23-24) that after Rome his plan was to take the gospel to Spain. So you could understand it if he was sitting in custody thinking, 'Lord, how is this getting the gospel any further?' To which the Lord says, v11:

'Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.' (23.11)

Ie, 'Paul, getting you to Rome is my plan, as well – it's just not going to happen the way you thought. But what matters is that wherever I put you, it's so you can testify to me.' So maybe Paul had thought he'd follow up some of his church plants on the way to Rome and then make the church there his base for 'The Big Invite' Latin-style. But what we'll see in the rest of Acts is that he gets to Rome as a prisoner, having appealed his case to Caesar. But on the way, the Lord puts him in the most extraordinary places to testify to him. Eg, as we've seen tonight, to the entire Jewish leadership – they'd never have come to church so the Lord gets them to listen to Paul by Roman command. And as we'll see in the rest of Acts, on his way to Rome, Paul gets to evangelise some of the highest people in the land – who might never have heard the gospel unless he'd come up before them in court. And what Paul wrote to the Philippians from custody in Rome shows how well he grasped this. He wrote:

12 Now I want you to know… that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ… (Philippians 1.12-13)

So the lesson is: wherever we are, the Lord has put us there to testify to him. So, eg, the Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon told the story of a woman who said to him, 'I wish I could go to the mission field – but I have six children.' To which he replied, 'Then you have no need to go – the Lord's given you your mission field already.' And I certainly talk to young Mums at our church who feel they're now doing very little, Christianly, compared to before children came along. But they need to see that that's now their primary sphere of gospel ministry. It may feel like it's only touching a few, but it's touching a few in depth – and one striking statistic is that most full-time ministers and missionaries come from a Christian home. Which testifies to the depth of spiritual foundation that children of Christian parents can receive.

And then this applies to the workplace, as well. I guess many of us feel that work militates against our Christian service. Eg, I was talking to someone here when I was over two weeks back. And he was saying he's heading into middle management in his company, with more responsibility and time and travel-commitments being asked of him. And there's one school of thought that says it would be better for Christians to drop out of jobs like that and just take jobs which give you more time to talk about the gospel – eg, leave that company and re-train as a hair-dresser. But not only does that overlook God's sovereignty over our gifts and our trajectory in life. It overlooks this truth that wherever the Lord puts us, his plan is for it to advance the gospel. So,eg, the one of you I was talking with reckons he's the only Christian in a company of 500. Well, how many of those will meet another Christian outside work? And I wouldn't want the regular business flying any more than he does – but times on planes and trains have given me countless gospel conversations, where people have been remarkably open because I'm a stranger and they know in all probability they'll never see me again. Wherever we are, the Lord has put us there to testify to him – even if we think different circumstances would be better or easier for our gospel sharing. But the Lord knows what he's doing.

Let me end with this. A couple at JPC have a little girl with a serious health condition. And the husband recently said to me, 'I'm the last person I'd have chosen for this situation – I don't feel I'm coping well and I wonder what kind of witness I'm being. But I know another Christian who works with him and she told me that his faith in Christ has been the talk of the workplace – because they knew about it before, but everything he says now, in the new situation, comes with much, much more weight. Because it's not just aiming to live with a good conscience before God that gives our evangelism the ring of integrity. It's continuing to believe our beliefs and speak about them whatever the circumstances the Lord puts us in.

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