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Lesson 66: Two Views Of The Resurrection (Acts 25:13-22)

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On December 17, 1903, when Orville and Wilbur Wright finally succeeded in keeping their homemade airplane in the air for 59 seconds and 852 feet at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they rushed a telegram to their sister in Dayton, Ohio, telling of this great accomplishment. It read: “First sustained flight today 59 seconds. Hope to be home by Xmas.” The sister was so excited that she rushed to the newspaper office and gave the telegram to the editor. The next morning the headline stated, “Popular local bicycle merchants to be home for the holidays.” The editor botched the scoop of the century because he missed the point.

Sometimes we miss the point because we lack the perspective of history. From our vantage point in history, it seems inconceivable that anybody could overlook the first airplane flight and focus on a trip home for the holidays. The Wright brothers’ flight was one of the most significant events in the history of the world, an event that would change the world. But at the time the editor didn’t realize the significance of that event.

Incredibly, in spite of the vantage point of two thousand years of history, there are many people who view the resurrection of Jesus Christ just like that editor viewed the Wright brothers’ first flight. They don’t give much thought to it. Even though it is the most significant event in the history of the world, they shrug it off as inconsequential and go on about life, focusing instead on trips home for the holidays and other trivia. They just don’t get it.

Our text reveals two views of the resurrection, the world’s view and the Christian view. The apostle Paul was under house arrest in Caesarea, awaiting transfer to Rome. Festus, the governor, had heard Paul’s defense before his accusers, the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem. He had asked whether Paul would be willing to go to Jerusalem to stand trial for these charges. Paul knew that he would either be murdered on the way or given a mock trial and condemned. So he exercised his right as a Roman citizen by appealing to Caesar. But that meant that Festus had to send along the charges that warranted taking this case to Caesar.

As Festus pondered this, his friends, Agrippa and his sister, Bernice, arrived for a visit. Since Agrippa was an expert in Jewish matters, Festus told him about the case to get his opinion. Verses 18 and 19 are Festus’ summary of the case to Agrippa. This is shop talk between two rulers. But it reveals the world’s view of the resurrection. We will also look at the Christian view, as represented by the Apostle Paul. We see that …

While the world views the resurrection as inconsequential, the Christian views it as the most important fact in history.

1. The world’s view: The resurrection is inconsequential.

Catch the flavor of Festus’ words: “And when the accusers stood up, they began bringing charges against him not of such crimes as I was expecting; but they simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive.” We could paraphrase, “I thought they were going to accuse Paul of something serious, like murder or treason. But instead they just had some silly dispute about their religion. No big deal—just some dead man whom Paul said was alive.”

If a reporter from the Caesarea Daily News had been there, he probably would have reported the “important” news: “Festus and Agrippa Meet. Historic high-level talks between leaders take place in Caesarea.” Somewhere down in the middle of the article it might have mentioned that, among other things, they discussed various judicial cases. But Paul’s assertion of the resurrection of Jesus would have been skipped altogether. It wouldn’t have been considered very important in light of the really “important” news that Festus and Agrippa had met.

Notice four things about the world’s view of the resurrection:

A. The resurrection is no big deal.

Festus says that the matters the Jews accused Paul of were “not of such crimes as I was expecting” (25:18). He thought it would be something really important, some matter of Roman law. Maybe Paul was a mass murderer or he had plotted to assassinate the emperor. Perhaps he was planning a revolution against Rome and was training his guerilla forces in the desert. But then he found out it wasn’t anything that important. Just a dispute about some dead man whom Paul said was alive. No big deal.

That’s still the world’s view of the resurrection. The pope may make the front page on Easter Sunday with his usual plea for world peace. But it’s just a human interest story, not really as substantial as the important news, such as the latest exchange between the President and some world leader or the score of yesterday’s basketball game. Why get excited about the resurrection of Jesus when there’s so much important news to cover?

B. The resurrection is a matter of private opinion.

Festus says, “they simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive” (25:19).  But Festus was at a loss how to investigate such matters (25:20). In effect he’s saying, “It was the Jews’ opinion against Paul’s opinion, one religion against another. Everyone is free to believe what he wants to about religion. And since there’s no factual way of deciding between one religion and another, what was I to do?”

That’s still the world’s way of viewing Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “This is a free country. You can believe it if you want to, and I’ll believe what I want to. But don’t force your religious views on me.” After all, religion is a matter of private opinion.

When the outspoken Christian, William Wilberforce, was trying to abolish the slave trade in England late in the 18th century, one of his opponents, Lord Melbourne, angrily commented, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade private life.” That’s the world’s view. Other people are free to be religious as long as it doesn’t confront me. They can believe what they want, but don’t let them dare try to apply their beliefs to my life. The world says there’s no way to decide on matters of religion. It’s just one subjective opinion versus the next.

C. The resurrection is not factual.

Festus uses a word for religion that can also mean “superstition.” He may not have intended that nuance out of courtesy to Agrippa, who was nominally a Jew. The Greek word comes from two words, meaning “to be afraid of a god or demon.” It implies that religion is not something verifiable. It’s in the realm of fear of the spirit world, not in the realm of reason or fact.

The world’s view of Christianity has not changed much since then. Christianity is seen as one of the religions of the world, no different than any other. All religions are a matter of faith, not of reason or verifiable truth. Evolution—that’s science; creationism—that’s faith. A recent letter to the editor of our local paper accused right-to-life activists and anti-evolution folks as trying to impose a theocracy on our nation. How dare they think that their views are based on facts! Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, eastern mysticism, Christianity—take your pick or mix and match according to what you like. It has nothing to do with facts. That’s the world’s view.

D. Jesus Christ was not a unique person.

Festus calls Him, “a certain dead man, Jesus” (25:19). To Festus, Jesus was some Jewish religious leader who went too far and got himself killed. Festus knew that Paul thought very highly of Jesus, but that was about as far as it went. Jesus was just “a certain dead man.”

The world still views Jesus that way. Some will concede that He was a great religious leader and a powerful moral teacher. Perhaps they will even call Him a religious genius. But others question whether you can even know the historical Jesus. They contend that it is impossible to separate the real Jesus from the myths that the New Testament writers created. The famous “Jesus Seminar,” for example, meets to vote on which parts of the gospels are authentic and which are fables. To the world, Jesus is not unique. The resurrection is a nice, harmless idea, if you care to hold to it. Easter is a fun spring holiday, when we can feel good about life and full of hope because of the new life in nature. But they view the resurrection as inconsequential.

How do you view the resurrection of Jesus? Perhaps for you, Easter is a nice holiday. The kids and the wife get new clothes and the kids hunt for Easter eggs. You go to church as a family, go out to dinner or get together with extended family, and that’s about it. It’s no big deal. As far as the historical resurrection of Jesus goes, you can believe it if you like. But you? Well, you believe in your own sort of way. Your view is that if you do the best you can, everything will work out okay in the end.

But to view the resurrection in that way is like focusing on the Wright brothers’ trip home for the holidays instead of on their momentous flight. It is to focus on the trivial and miss the most important fact in all of human history.

2. The Christian view: The resurrection is the most important fact in history.

The world says, “The resurrection is no big deal.” The Christian says,

A. The resurrection is the biggest deal in history.

In 1 Corinthians 15:13-17, Paul argues that the whole Christian faith depends on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; your are still in your sins.

In other words, if you want to discredit Christianity once and for all, disprove the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the foundation on which all else rests, the domino that makes all the others fall when it is pushed.

The world would not rank the resurrection among the world’s most important events. I have a book called The Timetables of History (Bernard Grun, Touchstone, 1982). It lists all the great and many not-so-great, but interesting people, facts and events of history in parallel form, so that you can see at a glance what was going on in politics, the arts, religion and philosophy, science, and daily life at any point in history. Interestingly, although it gives an estimated date for the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus, it omits the resurrection. It just ignores the most crucial fact in history by skipping it! But that’s hardly a scientific approach for dealing with what many credible scholars have insisted is historically verifiable!

Paul says that if the resurrection is not historically true, you’re wasting your time to be a Christian. It’s better to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. But if it is true, the resurrection of Jesus is the central fact of human history, not some inconsequential event that can be ignored if you choose. It means that He is the risen Lord, and that He has a claim on your life. And if the living Lord of the universe has a claim on your life, it is a very big deal!

The world says that the resurrection is a matter of private opinion. You can believe it if you want to, but don’t suggest that others must believe it.

B. The resurrection is not a matter of private opinion, but a fact that confronts every person.

When he was preaching in Athens, Paul stated, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). He didn’t say, “This is my opinion for those who care to accept it.” He said, “God is now declaring that all everywhere should repent,” because one day all people will stand before the risen Lord Jesus Christ for judgment.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, that was Paul’s opinion. But how do I know it’s true for everyone?” First, you need to realize that this isn’t just Paul’s opinion, but also Jesus’ opinion. Jesus said that the Father “has given all judgment to the Son in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father” (John 5:22-23, 27). You must either accept the word of Jesus or reject it. There is no middle ground. Either He knew exactly what He was talking about and you must accept it, or He was deluded or trying deliberately to deceive and you must reject it. But as C. S. Lewis pointed out, there is not room for the view that Jesus was just a good, moral teacher. He was a liar or a lunatic or He is Lord of all. It would be a serious mistake to conclude that Jesus was slightly mistaken on a few things, like eternal judgment!

Read the gospel accounts and you will conclude that there is only one option, that Jesus Christ is exactly who He claimed to be. He is obviously not a deluded man nor is He the type of man who would deliberately deceive. He was a man of utmost integrity, who was full of compassion. And yet He spoke words of sober truth concerning the judgment to come. God has furnished proof of Jesus’ appointment as the Judge of all by raising Him from the dead. The resurrection is not a matter of private opinion, which you can believe or reject as you like. Rather, it is a fact of history that confronts each person with the sober reality that one day you will stand before the risen Lord Jesus Christ, either as your Savior or as your Judge. Before you die, you must choose which it will be.

I mentioned that there is proof of the resurrection. The world says that the resurrection is not factual or verifiable. It’s just a subjective religious idea. But the Christian view is:

C. The resurrection is based on factual, verifiable evidence.

Festus points to this when he states that Paul “asserted” Jesus to be alive (25:19). Paul didn’t say it might be true or that he hoped it was true or that he believed it was true regardless of the evidence. He asserted it to be true. He wasn’t presenting speculation or subjective religious ideas that warm the souls of all who are simple enough to believe. He was presenting testimony as an eyewitness of the risen Christ.

Paul had met the risen Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road, and his life was turned around. He had been a rising young Jewish leader, bent on persecuting Christians and stamping out this pernicious new teaching. He had a promising future, status in the community, a good living ahead of him. But he gave it all up when the risen Lord Jesus confronted him that day.

“But,” you say, “that could have been a hallucination. Many people have such mystical experiences.” But what about the changed lives of all of the other apostles? They all were depressed, disappointed men who were not expecting a resurrection. They easily could have returned to their former occupations and slipped quietly out of sight. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose by their testimonies to the resurrection. Yet they suffered beatings, went to prison and many were killed because of their testimony that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead. They were all men of honest character and integrity, who did not profit financially, but rather gave up everything, in their role as apostles. Why else would not only the twelve, but Paul and thousands of other early Christians live as they lived, unless they knew, based on abundant eyewitness testimony, that Jesus Christ was risen?

If they were all deluded, you still have to explain away the empty tomb. If Jesus’ body had been in that tomb, as soon as the apostles began preaching the resurrection, the Jewish leaders could have produced the body and ended the foolish myth right then. But clearly, there was no body to be found. The tomb was empty.

If Jesus’ enemies had stolen the body, they would have produced it immediately. If the Roman guards had been bribed to hide the body elsewhere, it meant their lives when the Jewish leaders protested to their commander. The Jewish leaders never accused the Roman soldiers of stealing the body or of allowing it to be taken by the disciples. Rather, they accepted the guards’ testimony concerning the resurrection and then bribed them to keep quiet (see Matt. 28:11-15). If the disciples somehow stole the body, then they would have slipped quietly away and forgot about preaching the gospel, especially once persecution began. Why give your life for something you know to be a hoax, especially if it’s not going to make you rich or famous?

There is clear, compelling evidence that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a fact of history. And the Jesus who arose is not just “a certain dead man,” no different than other religious leaders.

D. Jesus is the unique, eternal Son of God.

The hundreds of Old Testament prophecies, the unique events of His birth, His life, His teaching, the miracles He performed, and His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven all bear witness to the fact that Jesus is not a mere man, but that He is God in human flesh, the unique, eternal Son of God. When He died in accordance with the Scriptures, His death was unique in that He was the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He was the fulfillment of what the sacrifices in the Old Testament typified.

When you stand before God (and we all will!), either you will bear your own sins and face God’s judgment, or your trust will be in Jesus to bear your sins. If your trust is in Jesus’ death for you, God’s holy justice has been satisfied and He will welcome you into heaven. If your trust is in anything else, including your good works, you will face God’s judgment for your sins on that day.

Conclusion

The real issue is right here. Most people do not reject Christ because of a lack of evidence. The Jewish leaders in His day had plenty of evidence. People reject Christ because they don’t want to turn from their sins and selfish ways. They want to cling to their pride that tells them that they are good enough to get into heaven. Their pride convinces them that their good works will merit eternal life. But the Bible declares that none of us by our good works can earn a place in heaven (Titus 3:5).

This morning you are the editor. The story has come across your desk: “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead; children hunt Easter eggs; restaurants crowded on Easter Sunday; retail sales climb ....” You must decide which story is trivial and which is crucial. Will you, like the Ohio editor in the Wright brothers’ day, ignore the crucial and focus on the trivial? Or will you face the most important fact of history, that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and put your trust in Him as your Savior and Lord?

Discussion Questions

  1. Someone tells you, “It’s fine for you to believe in Jesus, but I have my own beliefs that are valid for me.” Your response?
  2. If Christianity rests on a fact of history, where does faith fit in? Why is it necessary?
  3. Some say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you believe in something.” But why is it crucial for our faith to rest on the facts about the person of Jesus Christ?
  4. Some believe in Christianity as long as it “works” for them. But if trials hit, they turn elsewhere. How does an understanding of the resurrection counter this shallow approach?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Easter, History, Resurrection

Lesson 67: Your Response to the Resurrection (Acts 25:23-26:32)

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Years ago, Reader’s Digest [11/82] carried the story of one of the nation’s leading chest surgeons, Dr. Paul Adkins, who looked at his own chest X-ray and realized that he was looking at his own obituary. He was dead four and a half months later, at age 55, from lung cancer, the disease that he had attempted to treat in hundreds of other patients. The sad, ironic fact was that Dr. Adkins himself had smoked up to a pack and a half of cigarettes daily for 40 years. His mother had smoked and lived to an old age, and so Dr. Adkins had foolishly concluded that he could do the same. Even after he realized that he had lung cancer he continued to smoke, against the strong warnings of his colleagues.

If anyone knew the dangers of smoking, Dr. Adkins did, but he did not apply that knowledge to himself. Knowledge is of no use if we do not apply it. The same is true spiritually. We can know the truth, but if we do not apply it personally, it does us no good.

I’m concerned because I read that anywhere between one-third to one-half of Americans claim to be born again Christians, and yet there is no appreciable difference in how they live. There is no difference between professing Christians and the American culture regarding how much or what TV shows we watch; our rate of sexual immorality; or our divorce rate.

The current issue of World (3/30/02) has a cover story on evangelical pastors who become sexually involved with women whom they are counseling. They cite a 1984 survey that one out of five theologically conservative pastors admits to sexual impropriety! I have read other surveys that put the number at one out of eight, which is still shocking! The most disturbing example they report is about a pastor who remains in his pulpit, who is scheduled to speak at a major Campus Crusade conference this summer, but who has never repented of serious sexual sins. Truly there are many who will say to Jesus on judgment day, “Lord, Lord,” only to hear Him reply, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23)!

Our text gives us the longest of Paul’s defenses in the Book of Acts. This one is before Festus, Agrippa, and his sister/lover, Bernice, along with many important dignitaries from the Roman capital, Caesarea. It is the third time that Luke repeats Paul’s testimony of his conversion. Paul especially focuses on the commission that the risen Lord Jesus gave to him, to go to the Gentiles so that they might repent and turn to God (26:18, 20). As in all the apostolic witness in Acts, Paul’s testimony rests on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His message to us is:

Our response to the fact of Jesus’ resurrection should be repentance.

In other words, to say, “I believe in the risen Savior,” but to go on living in the same way as this wicked world lives, does no more good than for a chest surgeon to say, “I believe that smoking causes lung cancer,” but to go on smoking his pack a day. If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, our lives will show it. Repentance is not optional for the believer. Those who separate God’s grace in salvation from repentance pervert the gospel (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Acts, 2:383). Like the false prophets of old, they heal the brokenness of people superficially and give false assurance by saying, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer. 8:11).

Paul’s defense here makes two main points: (1) The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a fact; (2) Repentance is the only rational response to this great fact.

1. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a fact of history.

Paul is speaking here before a skeptical audience, and so he presents his case inductively. He does not state up front, “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” He would have been hooted out of the room. Even when he finally states this great truth, Festus interrupts to say that he’s out of his mind (26:24). So Paul begins with the possibility of resurrection in general. Then he describes his own encounter with the risen Lord Jesus, and the changes that took place in his life as a result. Then he asserts that his message is completely in line with the Jewish Scriptures, of which Agrippa had some knowledge. Finally he comes to his point, that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. He gives four proofs of the resurrection:

A. The resurrection is possible because of God.

Paul begins by telling of his early life in Judaism and identifying himself with the hope that God had promised the Jews, namely, the coming of Messiah and His kingdom. That promise would have been worthless to the Jews that had died in past generations if there were no resurrection of the dead. Yet it was for this Jewish hope that Paul’s Jewish kinsmen were accusing him. Thus he interjects, “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?” (26:8).

In other words, if you believe in the God of the Bible, you must necessarily believe that He has the power to raise the dead. And, as Paul will go on to assert, the fact that God raised up Jesus proves that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Paul’s logic here is solid: If you believe in the God who created all things and who spoke life into existence, you must also admit that God has the inherent power to raise the dead.

B. The resurrection is proved by eyewitness testimony.

Paul goes on to recount again his own dramatic encounter with the risen Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road (26:12-15). As I mentioned last week, critics might say that Paul only saw a vision or hallucination, not the actual risen Lord Jesus. If Paul had been the only one to make such a claim, perhaps we would have to concede the point, or at least not build our case on it. But in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, Paul states that the risen Lord appeared to Peter and the other apostles, as well as to over 500 followers at one time, most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote. Floyd Hamilton states (cited in Teacher’s Manual for the Ten Basic Steps Toward Christian Maturity [Campus Crusade for Christ, 1965], p. 104, italics his),

Now it is perfectly possible for one man to have an hallucination, and two men might have the same hallucination by a singular coincidence, but that eleven men of intelligence, whose characters and writings indicate their sanity in other respects, or that five hundred men in a body should have the same hallucination and at the same time, stretches the law of probability to the breaking point!

Or, as J. N. D. Anderson wrote (“The Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Christianity Today [3/29/68], pp. 5, 6),

The most drastic way of dismissing the evidence would be to say that these stories were mere fabrications, that they were pure lies. But, so far as we know, not a single critic today would take such an attitude. In fact, it would really be an impossible position. Think of the number of witnesses, over 500. Think of the character of the witnesses, men and women who gave the world the highest ethical teaching it has ever known, and who even on the testimony of their enemies lived it out in their lives. Think of the psychological absurdity of picturing a little band of defeated cowards cowering in an upper room one day and a few days later transformed into a company that no persecution could silence—and then attempting to attribute this dramatic change to nothing more convincing than a miserable fabrication they were trying to foist upon the world. That simply wouldn’t make sense.

Someone may be thinking, “That’s great for those who saw the risen Christ. But I’ve never seen Him. How do you expect me to believe?”

I expect you to believe because there is reasonable evidence to believe. We all believe in things we cannot see and in people we do not know. You trusted that the people who packaged the cereal you ate for breakfast did not poison it. You trusted that the mechanic who fixed your brakes did a good job. You trust the teller at the bank to deposit your money in your account and not steal it. If you accept the witness of men, the witness of God concerning His Son is greater (1 John 5:9). He will rightly hold us accountable if we reject the eyewitness testimony that He has given us regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

C. The resurrection is proved by the changed lives of the witnesses.

Paul had been devoted to destroying Christians. He says that he was “furiously enraged” at them (26:11). And yet here he is, a prisoner for the cause of Christ, having endured numerous hardships because of his faith in Christ, and yet there is not a trace of bitterness or hatred in him toward his enemies. How did this man who had been driven by hate change into a man driven by the love of Christ? The only explanation is that he had seen the risen Savior. The same is true of the transformation in all of the apostles.

D. The resurrection is supported by the fulfillment of prophecy.

Paul affirms that he is saying nothing except that which Moses and the Prophets had said would take place, “that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He should be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (26:22-23). Probably Paul went into more detail here, quoting from Isaiah 53, Psalm 16, and Psalm 22, all of which predicted Messiah’s death and resurrection centuries before these things took place.

Thus Paul’s point is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a historical event. Such a miracle is possible because God exists. It is proved by eyewitness testimony and by the changed lives of the witnesses. It is supported by the Hebrew Scriptures.

But, so what? What difference should this fact make?

2. Repentance is the proper response to the resurrection.

Paul shows this both by his own example and by his direct preaching. When Paul believed in Jesus Christ, he did a 180-degree turnaround. From then on he preached that all men must repent (26:20). Repentance is a turning of the whole person away from sin and toward God. It involves a change of mind, but it is more than merely a change of mind. It involves a change of the mind, the will, and the emotions, resulting in a change of behavior. Repentance is not separate from saving faith, but is rather the flip side of faith. If you truly believe that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior, you cannot remain the same. You will turn from yours sins to God. Note four things about repentance implied in Paul’s words here:

A. Repentance involves a change of understanding: from darkness to light.

God sent Paul “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light” (26:18). Apart from Christ, all people, no matter how brilliant their minds, are “darkened in their understanding” (Eph. 4:18). The “god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). They cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God, which are spiritually appraised (1 Cor. 2:14).

People in this naturally fallen condition cannot grasp the awesome holiness of God. If you had asked Paul before his conversion whether he believed that God is holy, I’m sure that he would have answered, “Of course!” He knew that fact intellectually. But only when the light brighter than the sun shone from heaven did Paul realize that God was far more holy than he had ever imagined. Previously, Paul thought that his own good deeds as a Pharisee would qualify him for dwelling in God’s presence in heaven. But the instant the light of God’s holiness struck him to the ground, Paul, like Isaiah, was undone. He realized that his own holiness was like filthy rags in the sight of God.

At that same instant, Paul saw that he was far more sinful than he had ever imagined. Again, if you had asked Paul before his conversion if he were a sinner, he would have replied, “Of course, all men are sinners.” He probably would have thought, “I’m glad that I’m not like Gentile sinners! I tithe, I pray, I fast” (see Luke 18:10-12). But when the light from heaven blinded him, Paul instantly realized that he could never qualify for heaven by his own good deeds. Further, he realized that he needed atonement for his many sins, and that all of his supposed good deeds could never pay for his many evil deeds.

Years after his conversion, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). He did not say, I was chief, but I am chief! As C. S. Lewis pointed out, “When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less” (cited by Nathan Hatch, Christianity Today [3/2/79], p. 14). Thus repentance is not just a one-time experience at the moment of conversion. It is the ongoing experience of every believer who walks in God’s holy light.

If sin and Satan blind people so that they cannot see the light of God’s truth regarding His holiness and their own sin, how can they change? The biblical answer is, only God can change them. As Paul said, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). God brings this change through the preaching of the gospel. Thus the risen Lord tells Paul that he will open their eyes (26:18), although obviously, only God’s power through Paul’s preaching of the gospel can do that.

God not only opens the sinner’s eyes to the holiness of God and to the depths of the sinner’s depravity, but also to the abundance of God’s grace in Christ, who bore the penalty that sinners deserve. Thus even Paul, the chief of sinners, found mercy at the cross. That same mercy is available to all who will repent.

B. Repentance involves a change of masters: from Satan to God.

Everyone by nature is born into this world as a captive to Satan’s evil domain of darkness (Col. 1:13). As Charles Wesley put it, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night” (“Amazing Love”). We all were held captive by Satan to do his will (2 Tim. 2:26). Both Jesus and Paul describe our condition as being slaves of sin (John 8:34-35; Rom. 6:17, 20).

How can anyone break free from so strong a master? Jesus said, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Paul says that God “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). It is God alone who can free us from slavery to sin and make us slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:17-23). Or, as Wesley put it, “Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”

This means that if you have not experienced a definite change of masters, from sin and Satan to holiness and God, you had better examine yourself to see whether you have truly repented of your sins. Repentance means turning from Satan’s dominion to God.

C. Repentance involves a change of relationship: from condemnation to forgiveness and acceptance as heirs.

Paul continues, “that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (26:18). Before repentance, we were under God’s just condemnation because of our sins (John 3:18, 36). But the instant that we repent and believe in Christ, God sets us apart (“sanctified”) and grants us forgiveness of sins and all of the riches that are in Christ. At that moment, we enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Rather than being afraid of God because of our sins, now we can come boldly into His presence through Christ’s blood to receive grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4:16; 9:22-28). Thus if you have turned from your sins and trusted in Christ, you now enjoy God’s forgiveness and every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3-8).

Thus repentance involves a change of understanding, from darkness to light; a change of masters, from Satan to God; a change of relationship, from condemnation to forgiveness and acceptance as heirs. Finally,

D. Repentance involves a change of behavior: from sin to deeds appropriate to repentance.

In verse 20, Paul tells of his obedience to this heavenly vision. He kept declaring both to Jews and Gentiles, “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” Whether you have been a religious person (as Paul and the Jews were) or a raw pagan (as the Gentiles were), the message is the same: Repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.

As G. H. Lang put it, “None more firmly than Paul rejected works, before or after conversion, as a ground of salvation; none more firmly demanded good works as a consequence of salvation” (The Gospel of the Kingdom, cited by F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts [Eerdmans], p. 493). Biblical repentance is not just a change of mind or an intellectual decision. It is a turning of the whole person from sin to God, resulting in a life of obedience to God from the heart (Rom. 6:17).

Paul personally addresses Agrippa (26:27) with the question, “King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets?” Before Agrippa can respond, Paul answers his own question, “I know that you do.” Yes, Agrippa believed the prophets in an intellectual sort of way, just as many Americans “believe in Jesus.” But it made no difference in the way he lived. But Paul was not just preaching for intellectual assent. He was preaching for repentance.

So am I! Repentance means that you believe in the risen Savior with such conviction that it turns around the way you live. Instead of living in darkness, you now live in the light of God’s holy presence and His Word. Instead of living under Satan’s domain, you now live under the Lordship of Jesus. Instead of living for yourself and sinful pleasure, you now live to please Jesus Christ.

Now Paul had Agrippa in a corner. If he denied his belief in the Prophets, he would lose face with the Jews. If he agreed with Paul, he could see that the next question would be, “Why don’t you believe in Jesus Christ as the risen Savior?” He wasn’t ready to go there! So he skated out of this embarrassing dilemma with a mildly sarcastic humorous dodge, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian” (26:28). The NIV may be correct in making it a question, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” And so to save face in front of this pompous crowd, Agrippa threw away his opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness and gift of eternal life!

Conclusion

Probably almost everyone here believes that seat belts save lives. But that belief does not do you any good in a crash unless you had actually fastened your seat belt. Those who buckle up are those who truly believe that seat belts save lives. How would you like your obituary to read, “He believed in seat belts, but he was not wearing one at the time of the crash”? Your belief is worthless if you don’t personally apply it.

Do you believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead? Good for you! You do well so to believe, because it is true! But if that belief has not led to a life of repentance from sin, it won’t do you any good on the Day of Judgment. Your response to the fact of Jesus’ resurrection should be repentance.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it important to assert the factual basis of the Christian faith? In other words, if believing in Christianity gives us a happy life, what difference does it make whether it’s true?
  2. Some evangelicals argue that to require repentance for salvation is to add works to faith alone. Why is this not valid?
  3. If God must grant repentance (Acts 11:18), is it a vain exercise to call people to repent? Why/why not?
  4. Can true Christians be enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:17, 22)? Cite biblical evidence to support your answer.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Confession, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 68: Who’s Crazy? (Acts 26:19-29)

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Newsweek [10/22/90] reported in 1990 that Princess Diana had spent more than $1.9 million for her wardrobe since her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981. That averages out to over $200,000 a year! It included 95 evening gowns, 176 dresses, 178 suits, 54 coats, 141 hats, 71 blouses, 29 skirts, 28 sweaters, 350 pairs of shoes, and 200 purses. She also had spent $22,950 on underwear and $11,475 on stockings. Millions of women worldwide would have swapped places with Princess Diana in an instant! But just a few short years later, it became public knowledge how deeply unhappy she was. Her tragic death should have revealed how vain it is to live for this world’s fame and fortune.

“For what does it profit a man [or woman] to gain the whole world, and forfeit his [or her] soul?” (Mark 8:36) These profound words of Jesus sum up the scene in Acts 26. Luke describes how Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice entered the auditorium amid great pomp, accompanied by the commanders and the prominent men of the city (25:23). If you’ve ever watched the Oscar Awards night on TV, you have some idea of the glitter and glamour of the rich and famous, who are all trying to impress one another and the world. Into this superficial scene the guards bring a little Jewish man in chains, the apostle Paul, to speak about eternal truths.

It was not a trial per se, but more like entertainment. Festus needed to know what charges he could write to the emperor. Agrippa, who was somewhat an expert in Jewish matters, wanted to hear this man who had stirred up such vehement opposition among the Jewish leaders. It would be fun to hear the man’s quaint story and discuss it afterwards over drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

In the middle of the proceedings, after Paul had proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, Festus reached his limit. He blurted out loudly, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad.” Paul calmly replied, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth” (26:24-25). Paul proceeded to target King Agrippa, seeking to bring him to personal faith and repentance.

This exchange, which puts Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice on one side, with all of their worldly pomp and show, and Paul the prisoner for Jesus Christ on the other side, makes us ponder the question, “Who’s crazy?” Is Paul crazy to give up all that this world offers to follow Jesus Christ? Or, are those who live for all that this world offers—riches, fame, and pleasure—crazy, who die without repenting of their sins? The biblical answer is,

The crazy person lives for this present world, whereas the sane person obeys Jesus Christ and lives in light of eternity.

1. The crazy person lives for this present fleeting world.

Martin Luther said, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all. But the things I have placed in God’s hands, I still possess” (cited without reference by Ray Stedman, Expository Studies in 1 John [Word], p. 109). Or, as Jim Eliot, who was martyred at 28, wrote in his journal at age 22, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose” (Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty [Zondervan], p. 15).

Those comments make perfect sense to the believer, and yet each of us would have to admit that this present world holds a strong attraction for most of us. Few of us who know Christ would abandon our faith in favor of the world, but many professing Christians try to live with one foot in each realm, hoping to get the best of both worlds. Even Demas, whom Paul at one point called his fellow worker (Philemon 24), later deserted Paul because he loved this present world (2 Tim. 4:10). Thus we all need to remember Jesus’ words, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13); and John’s warning, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

Why would a person live for something as superficial and short-lived as this evil world? A brief glance at the lives of Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice will uncover at least six factors that should serve as a warning to us:

1) A wrong view of success can cause us to live for this present world.

Once when Marla and I lived in Dallas during my seminary years, President Ford came to town and was having lunch at the mansion of a businessman who lived just about a mile from our humble apartment. We rode our bikes over to the entrance. Secret Service agents had cordoned off the sidewalks and were shouting to the crowd as to where they could and could not stand. Soon we heard the roar of motorcycles, and about a dozen police in formation rode in front of the presidential limousine. A dozen more rode behind the vehicle. Secret Service agents stood on the running boards. As they turned into the driveway of the mansion, we got a brief glimpse of President Ford, waving out of the window. He went through the gate to have lunch with a rich, successful businessman. It would be very hard to be either the President or that wealthy businessman and not let it go to your head!

It must have felt great to Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice to be surrounded by armed guards, to step out of the royal chariots in their expensive robes and wave to the common people as they went up the steps into the auditorium. All of the invited guests bowed before them and greeted them respectfully. Servants stood by to wait on their every whim and need. In the eyes of the world, they had it made! Ah, the sweet smell of success!

But those whom the world considers successful are soon dead and forgotten. Festus would be dead within two years. If he, Agrippa, and Bernice had not had their names recorded in the Bible, no one today would know anything about them. Paul, whom most people in Caesarea wouldn’t have walked across the street to see, was the truly successful man in the room that day, because he lived his life in the light of eternity.

2) Trying to impress others while forgetting God can cause us to live for this present world.

Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice were like all the rich and famous, trying to impress others with their own greatness. But their fatal mistake was that they did not give any thought about how to live so as to please God. And, while few of us here would ever be as superficial as these worldly people were, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to impress others and forget that our focus should be on pleasing God, who examines our hearts. We should always keep in mind the Lord’s words (Isa. 66:3, NIV), “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

3) An over-emphasis on reason without factoring in God’s power can cause us to live for this present world.

Festus was a rationalist. For him, the notion that Jesus or anyone else could rise from the dead was just plain crazy. He thought that in spite of Paul’s great learning, saying such things proved that the man had lost his mind. He believed in philosophy and logic, not in religious superstition.

Festus’ mistake was that he had not factored in God, who spoke the universe into existence by the word of His power. Reason is fine to a point; God gave us minds capable of thinking, and we should use them. His Word gives us many truths that require careful thinking to grasp. But if we exalt human reason to the point that we exclude God and His power or set aside His revelation in His Word, we fall into error. To leave God out only leaves this present world as all that there is. If this world is all there is, then we should eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow we die.

4) Embarrassment about what others might think without regard for what God thinks can cause us to live for this present world.

When Paul backed Agrippa into a corner with his pointed question (26:27), to save face Agrippa made light of it by saying, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian” (26:28). He was embarrassed in front of all of these important people. What would they think if he took seriously what this controversial Jew was saying? So with no regard for what the living God might think, Agrippa joked away his opportunity for eternal life!

Peer pressure has always been a powerful force to draw people away from God and to keep them in this world. You don’t want the other kids at school to think that you’re weird! So don’t take a stand for Christ. Just go to all of the parties and have a few drinks like everyone else. Just laugh along with the dirty jokes. At work just cut corners and fudge the truth like everyone else. Just go with the flow! But the flow is heading straight toward hell!

5) Living for and loving material things can cause us to live for this present world.

In their day, Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice had what everyone else wanted. They lived well. They had plenty of money, the finest clothes, the best food, and the most comfortable places to live. Paul owned no property, had no investment portfolio, and probably could pack all of his earthly belongings in one suitcase. But who was truly wealthy? As Jesus taught us, the one who piles up this world’s goods and is not rich toward God is the fool (Luke 12:15-21). While we can legitimately enjoy the material blessings that God has given us, we need to be on “guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (1 Tim. 6:17-19; Luke 12:15). We need to remember that we are stewards of what God has entrusted to us. When we stand before Him, we will give an account of how we invested it in light of eternity.

6) Living for sensual pleasure in violation of God’s Word can cause us to live for this present world.

It was rumored that Agrippa and Bernice were living together in incest, which was even scandalous in worldly Rome. Later she married a petty monarch, divorced him and then became the lover of the Roman general Titus. These worldly rulers were living for sensual gratification without regard for God’s moral standards.

You can’t stand in line at the supermarket without being bombarded by magazines with pictures of sensuous men and women and articles promising ten new ways to please your lovers. The power of the flesh, especially when you are in the beauty and strength of youth, is a strong temptation, even for Christians. But if we yield we are crazy, because we gain momentary pleasure, but long term misery and pain. The lives of Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice show us that the crazy person is the one who lives for this superficial, fleeting world.

2. The sane person obeys Jesus Christ and lives in light of eternity.

Contrary to the charge of Festus’ outburst, Paul was the sanest man in that room! He calmly counters Festus’ charge by saying, “I am not out of my mind, most noble Festus, but I utter words of truth and rationality” (26:25, lit.). As we saw last week, Paul’s faith (along with the faith of all of the apostles) rested completely on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was not an irrational leap in the dark, but was based on their eyewitness testimony. It was Paul’s encounter with the risen Savior that converted him and changed him from insanity to sanity Note three things about the sanity of obeying Jesus Christ in light of eternity:

1) Sanity begins with conversion.

Paul was insanely driven when he persecuted the church, but it was on the Damascus Road that Paul began to live in light of God’s eternal kingdom, which is the only sane way to live.

If Paul had viewed Agrippa through worldly eyes, he would have thought, “The man has everything he needs. He’s wealthy, he’s powerful, he’s successful—what do I have to offer him?” But Paul viewed his audience that day through God’s eyes: They were lost, enslaved to sin, and under God’s condemnation. While Agrippa had a superficial belief in the Old Testament prophets (26:27), he needed to repent of his sins and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. So Paul sought to bring him to saving faith, which necessarily includes repentance.

Often, there is an intense struggle involved in a person’s coming to saving faith. The Lord describes that process for Paul as “kicking against the goads” (26:14). A goad was a sharp stick, sometimes with a metal tip, which was used for prodding oxen, especially as they were harnessed to a plow. To resist serving its master by kicking against the goads would only hurt the oxen. The only safe and sane path was to submit and obey. Paul apparently went through a time of resisting and kicking against the truth of the gospel, perhaps after he witnessed the death of Stephen.

The point is, to fight God on the matter of conversion is insane. It is only to wound yourself. The path to blessing both now and for eternity is to quit fighting God, to repent of your sins, and to trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.

2) Conversion manifests itself in radical, lifelong obedience to Jesus Christ.

As I said, repentance is an essential part of conversion. Paul preached that people “should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (26:20). Repentance means doing a 180, turning from sin toward God. Before conversion, we all were living for self and for the things of this world. After conversion, we live to please and glorify Jesus Christ and to seek first His kingdom. Paul describes his own repentance in Philippians 3:7-8,

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.

Here Paul describes his life after conversion: “I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision” (26:19). That vision included his commission to preach not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles (26:17, 20), which was the reason the Jews hated him. It took radical obedience for a zealous Jew like Paul, who thought that any contact with Gentiles was defiling, to devote his life to reaching Gentiles for Christ and to teach that they had equal standing in the church. But Paul obeyed the Great Commission.

Such radical obedience is not just the calling of the super-committed. Jesus said, “if anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). He told us that, instead of seeking after all of the worldly comforts that worldly people seek, we should seek first His kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:31-33). Each of the Gospels and Acts record His Great Commission, that we should go and make disciples of all the nations, teaching them to observe all that He commanded us (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46-48; John 20:21; Acts 1:8).

I fear that many American Christians have dismissed the Great Commission as pertaining only to those who are called as missionaries to foreign lands. Since they have never sensed that call, they pretty much ignore Christ’s command and get on with their careers, their families, and their private pursuits and interests. Once in a while they drop a few bucks in the offering plate to do their bit for the cause. Church is a nice slice of the good life that they enjoy as Christians. But they don’t live with radical obedience to the Great Commission. It plays little if any part in how they live their lives. In fact, they hardly ever give it much thought at all.

But the Bible clearly teaches that every Christian should put Jesus Christ and His kingdom at the center of their lives. Knowing Him and making Him known, both locally and globally, should be our passion in life. I like the way John Piper’s church, Bethlehem Baptist, puts it:

We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. One of the Biblical truths that drives us is great news that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

And this vision of reality radically frees us from passing and dying trinkets of the world and compels us (as joy always does) to spread what we love the most through radical acts of love. We long to see those who do not treasure God now, whether in the American urban centers or suburban sprawls or among the unreached peoples of the world, to come to know true and forever Joy -- which is only found in God. (From their web site, http://bbcmpls.org).

You don’t accidentally fall into that kind of radical obedience to the Great Commission. It must be your deliberate focus. You’ve got to keep shrugging off the enticements of this world in order to be obedient to the heavenly vision. One final observation:

3) Radical obedience to Jesus Christ only makes sense in light of eternity.

As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” The world lives as if this life is all that really matters. The obedient Christian says, “No, if this life is all there is, I am crazy!” We put all of our eggs in the eternity basket. We say, “If Christ is not risen, and if there is no hope beyond the grave, please pity me, because I’m nuts!” Would the way that you obey Jesus as Lord, the way you spend your time, and the way you manage your finances cause a worldly person to say, “You’re a bit off”? If not, perhaps you need to rearrange your priorities in the light of eternity. Because Jesus is risen, it’s the only sane way to live.

Conclusion

Peter Cameron Scott, a gifted young vocalist, was on the steps of an opera house ready to pursue a career as a singer, when God challenged him, “Will you seek a life of self-glory and applause in the entertainment world, or will you dedicate your life to My service?” He obeyed God’s call, received some missionary training, and at age 23 he sailed for Africa. Within a few months, his brother joined him, but the harsh African climate and environment that became known as “the white man’s graveyard” took its toll. His brother died. Peter built a crude coffin, dug the grave himself, and buried his brother. Alone at the grave, he recommitted himself to preach the gospel in Africa.

His own health broke, and he went first to England and then back to the U.S. to recruit others for the cause. In 1895, at age 28, he established the Africa Inland Mission. But just 14 months after he and his party had landed on African soil, Scott fell ill and died.

After Scott’s death, the mission nearly failed as one after another of the workers died. By the summer of 1899, only one missionary remained on the field. But they persisted, and ten years after the mission’s founding, there were 31 missionaries on the field. In the early years, more missionaries died from the harsh conditions than people came to Christ. But still more missionaries came, arriving with their goods packed in coffins. The Africans were amazed at such determination. They said, “Surely only a message of great importance would inspire such actions.” By 1971, there were a million and a half members in the Africa Inland Church. (Story culled from “The Global Prayer Digest” [10/84] and from Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya [Zondervan], pp. 300-304.)

Who are the crazy ones? Those who live for this present world and all it offers. Who are the sane people? Those who obey Jesus Christ and live in light of eternity!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know when we are “worldly”? What does this mean biblically?
  2. Is it permissible to enjoy the luxuries of American life? How can we know when we “love the things of the world”?
  3. Are all Christians responsible to obey the Great Commission, or are just some called to do so? Give biblical support.
  4. Practically, what does it mean to seek first the kingdom of God? How can a person do this and hold down a full-time job?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 69: Weathering Life’s Storms (Acts 27:1-44)

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One of the most unforgettable, worst days of my life took place in November, 1972. The 82-foot Coast Guard Cutter on which I did my reserve duty had to go out in 60-mile-per-hour gale-force winds to rescue a man and his daughter in their sailboat somewhere beyond Catalina Island. Forty-foot waves caused our boat to tilt so far over that I was sure we would capsize. The screws would come out of the water, revving the engines to full throttle. Then the whole boat would shudder and we would start back in the other direction. A desk, chairs, and file cabinets inside the cabin shifted from side to side with each roll. The only thing that kept me from being scared to death was the thought, “You never read about Coast Guard vessels going down in bad storms.”

After nine hours of heaving my insides out, we saved the man and his daughter, who would have died. I use the term “we” loosely, as in the night that Chicago Bulls rookie forward Stacey King scored one point and Michael Jordan scored 69. King said, “I’ll always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined to score 70 points” (Reader’s Digest [10/91], p. 22). I’ll always remember the day that my crew mates and I saved that man and his daughter. They saved him while I made a steady path between my bunk and the toilet!

If you’ve ever been in a terrible storm at sea in a smaller vessel, you can identify with Luke’s description of the shipwreck in Acts 27. He and Aristarchus accompanied Paul (“we” resumes at 27:1, from 21:18) on this difficult journey to Rome. Scholars have wondered why Luke goes to such lengths to describe the details of this event, since at first glance it does not seem to fit into his purpose. Part of Luke’s reason may be that the details reveal just how harrowing this experience was. Against the human helplessness of this frightening adventure stands the sovereign hand of God, who had promised Paul that he would testify in Rome (23:11). Since an angel repeats that promise to Paul here in the midst of the storm (27:24), Luke’s main purpose is to show that God’s purpose cannot be thwarted, even by such powerful forces of nature.

Also, Luke shows Paul’s calm, practical leadership in the midst of this crisis. Even though he was a prisoner, Paul is the dominant figure in the chapter. Because of him, all 276 people on board the ship were saved from death. Paul’s testimony, both by his calm demeanor and by his words, would have had an unforgettable impact on the people on board.

Even if you’ve never been in a storm at sea, you have been and will be in many storms in life. In some of them, you may despair of life itself, even as everyone on board here did (27:20). Paul’s experience teaches us that …

If we will trust in God’s sovereign care for us in life’s storms, He will use us to bear witness to many.

There are three main lessons here:

1. God is sovereign over the storms of life.

The biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty over all things is one of the most practical truths for us to apply in times of trial. There are those who teach that it is not God’s will when some tragedy hits. I have heard a pastor in our town declare at a funeral that the person’s death was not God’s plan! I think that by saying that, he was trying to make God look good and to comfort the grieving family members. But he did neither! If it wasn’t in God’s plan, then God is at the mercy of some greater power that got the upper hand, which is a blasphemous thing to say about God! And, it hardly gives comfort to the grieving to think that somehow God was momentarily overpowered just when our loved one needed protection! It is far more comforting to believe what the Bible teaches, that God is absolutely sovereign over everything that takes place, even over the most tragic events in history (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). There are three practical truths that stem from this:

A. When things are out of our control, they are never out of God’s control, no matter how humanly impossible the situation.

This ship was out of control (27:15-20), at the mercy of this fearsome storm. The power of the wind and waves in such a storm is awesome! Even in a modern Coast Guard vessel, you realize very quickly that your control over the situation is minimal. But in Paul’s day, they were completely out of control and helpless. They did everything they could to keep the ship from breaking apart (27:17), but beyond that, there was nothing else to do. Since they had no compass or other instruments, and they couldn’t see the sun or stars, they were lost in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. They were fearful that they might drift 350 miles to the south, where there are dangerous sandy reefs off the coast of Libya (Syrtis, 27:17). They jettisoned a lot of the cargo and even the non-essential ship’s tackle. But after doing all that they could do, they were not in control.

But God was in control! He always is! This storm did not take Him by surprise. He was not in heaven in a panic, summoning His angels to come up with a rescue plan for Paul. God caused the boat to drift 476 miles from the small island of Clauda to Malta, another speck in that vast sea. Although the sailors were not in control, God was!

In the 19th century, an experienced Scottish yachtsman, James Smith, made a careful on-site study of this narrative. He asked experienced Mediterranean navigators what the mean drift of a ship of this kind would be in such a gale. He learned that it would drift about 36 miles in 24 hours. Even today, the soundings mentioned in verse 28 indicate that the ship was passing Koura, a point on the east coast of Malta, on her way into St. Paul’s Bay. Smith calculated that a ship leaving late in the evening from Clauda would, by midnight of the 14th day, be less than three miles from the entrance to St. Paul’s Bay. He also reported that no ship can enter St. Paul’s Bay without passing within a quarter of a mile from the point of Koura, where the sailors would have heard the breakers, thus surmising that they were nearing land, as Luke reports in verse 27 (cited by F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts [Eerdmans], pp. 514-515).

This shows the perfect accuracy of Luke’s narrative and that we can trust in God’s Word. When things in our lives are out of our control, they are never out of God’s control. Trust in the promises of His Word of truth!

B. We aren’t necessarily out of God’s will when we get caught in a storm.

Sometimes when we find ourselves in the midst of a sudden storm in life, we wonder if we’re out of God’s will. We may be, especially if we got into the storm because of sin in our lives. But we may be exactly where God wants us to be. The Lord had told Paul that he would testify for Him in Rome (23:11), but He had not bothered to mention the little detail of this storm and shipwreck!

Matthew 14:22 reports that immediately after feeding the 5,000, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away.” The word “made,” which means “to compel by force or persuasion,” shows that the disciples didn’t have much to say about what they were doing. The following verses show that Jesus was deliberately sending them into a storm at sea! He knew that that storm was coming, but He wanted to teach them His power over storms by walking to them on the water. So even though they were in a fierce storm, they were precisely in the will of God for them at that moment.

Just about every time that I have made a major move, I have experienced unusual trials. When Marla and I went to Dallas so that I could finish seminary, we got caught in a major snowstorm in southern New Mexico on the way. We got to Dallas, finally found an apartment, and three days later got mugged at gunpoint. The gun sight on the robber’s pistol tore my hand open. I wondered if I had somehow missed God’s direction.

When we moved to Flagstaff, we had major problems with our house in California. When it finally sold, we had trouble finding an affordable house here. Just as we moved in, a major controversy erupted between the former elders and me, threatening my continuing in the ministry here. But in each storm, I’m convinced that we were in God’s will for us at that time. The point is, God’s will for His children sometimes includes storms.

C. We aren’t ever out of God’s care when we get caught in a storm.

Even though the sailors did not know where they were and had no control over the situation, God knew exactly where they were. They never went off of His radar screen. And He cared for all of them, even for those that did not know that He exists, as seen by the fact that He spared all of their lives. Of course He especially cared for His children on board, Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus. If my kids are all on board a ship or a plane, I care about everyone on board, but I especially care about those three children of mine. If you are God’s child through faith in Christ, you can be assured that He cares for you in every storm that He takes you through. Peter combines God’s sovereignty and His care when he tells us to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, and then adds, “casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:6-7).

So God’s sovereignty over everything that happens is a source of great comfort for the believer in the storms of life. But God’s sovereignty never negates our responsibility. To conclude that since God is sovereign, whatever will be will be, and thus to kick back and do nothing, is not biblical.

2. Our responsibility in the storms of life is to trust openly in God’s care for us.

Our text reveals four aspects of trusting openly in God’s care:

A. To trust openly in God’s care is not opposed to using prudence and common sense.

Paul was a man of great faith, and he specifically testifies that he believes God in this trial (27:25). So we can assume that he was trusting God in verse 10 when he advised the men in charge not to continue with the trip due to the lateness in the year. The “fast” (27:9) refers to the Day of Atonement, which was in early October that year. Any time after September 14th was risky for sailing in the Mediterranean, and no one sailed after November 11th until the end of winter, because of the frequent storms (Bruce, p. 506). So we need not assume that Paul had had a revelation from God warning him about the storm. Rather, he was just using common sense. After all, he had already been in three shipwrecks, including a night and a day spent drifting in the deep (2 Cor. 11:25)!

But the pilot and ship owner did not like the harbor of Fair Haven for the winter, and along with the centurion decided to try to make the 40 miles to Phoenix. The moderate wind that came up fooled them into supposing that they had gained their purpose, and so they launched off into what would shortly become a major disaster. So much for expert opinion! As Spurgeon observed, that was not the only voyage that commenced favorably and ended disastrously (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 11:436).

But the point is, there was nothing wrong with Paul’s using good judgment and common sense. Sometimes people imply that trusting in the Lord necessarily means casting reason to the wind and doing something absurd. Sometimes the Lord does expect us to do something by faith that those in the world consider foolish because they do not trust in God. But we had better be sure that the Lord is behind such things, or we end up looking awfully stupid in the world’s eyes! Trusting God and using your brain are not necessarily opposed to one another.

B. To trust openly in God’s care means that we will be different in the storm than those who do not know God.

Paul stands out above all others in this desperate situation because of his calm faith in God. It seems that for a while, even Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus lost hope and were fearful, because Luke states, “from then on all hope of our being saved was gradually abandoned” (27:20). The angel’s word to Paul, “Do not be afraid” (27:24), implies that he was afraid. After all, he was only human, and when we are overwhelmed by a catastrophe of this magnitude, even the strongest believers can momentarily falter.

But the angel reminded him of God’s earlier promise that he would bear witness in Rome, and he also promised Paul that all on board would be saved. So Paul stood up and reminded them of his earlier warning, not just to say, “I told you so,” but to establish his credibility. Then he gave them all a word of encouragement concerning God’s promise. Later, Paul encouraged them all to eat some food so that they would have the strength to get to shore (27:34). He openly thanked God for the food before he ate, unashamedly showing these rough sailors, soldiers, and fellow prisoners his open trust in God.

If we want to stand out in a time of trial from those who do not know the Lord, we’ve got to have a daily walk of seeking God before the trial hits. In Proverbs 1:24-29, wisdom personified warns us that if we refuse to seek her during normal times, she will laugh at us when our dread comes like a storm and when distress and anguish come upon us. But if we daily seek God and His wisdom during normal times, when a storm hits, we will be different than those in the world, because we know and trust our God.

C. To trust openly in God’s care is not opposed to using the means that God gives to get us out of the storm.

The angel promised Paul that everyone on board would be saved (27:24). But during the final night, the sailors were trying to escape from the ship in the dinghy, under the pretense of laying out anchors from the bow (27:30). Paul saw what was happening and realized that those on board needed the sailors’ expertise to get to land in the morning. So he said to the centurion, “Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved” (27:31). By now the centurion had come to respect Paul’s wisdom, and so he ordered his soldiers to cut the lines to the ship’s boat, so the sailors could not escape by themselves. Also, Paul realized that for everyone to be saved, they needed strength. But no one had eaten anything for two weeks, due to seasickness and perhaps due to the difficulty of preparing food. So he took bread, gave thanks to God, and ate, encouraging all of them to eat also, telling them that the food was for their preservation (27:34-36).

In other words, although God promised that everyone would be preserved alive, Paul did not assume that it would happen apart from the use of proper means. The sailors could not escape, and everyone needed the strength that came from eating. In the same way, God has promised that some from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will be in heaven because Jesus purchased them with His blood (Rev. 5:9). But they won’t be there unless we labor through our prayers, our giving, and our sending some to go and tell them the gospel. God is sovereign to save His elect, but He does it through the means that He has appointed.

D. To trust openly in God’s care means that we will bear verbal witness as God gives opportunity.

When God encouraged Paul through the angel’s promise, Paul didn’t keep it to himself. Neither did he make everyone think that he was just a positive person, and that they all should keep a positive outlook as well. He used the situation to tell them about God, about his trust in God, and to promise that God would spare all of their lives through this ordeal. When he encouraged them all to eat some bread, Paul could have thought, “These are pagan men. Why ask God’s blessing on the food in front of such rough men?” But rather, he openly gave thanks to God in the presence of all (27:35).

In times of trial, people are especially open to spiritual things. When life is out of control, and nothing seems to be working, people are open to hear about a God who is in control. We should not hesitate to be bold to tell them about the true and living God and the eternal life that He offers them through His Son, Jesus Christ.

3. God will use our trusting Him in the storm to bear witness to many.

As long as men can devise human ways of coping with the storm apart from God, they will do so. These sailors had heard Paul’s testimony that God would deliver them all, but they were going to use their own ingenuity to save themselves. But God only has one way of salvation, which is the Lord Jesus Christ. He won’t let people save themselves in their own ways, or add anything to the way that He has provided. Because Paul trusted God and bore witness to God’s promise of deliverance, the other 275 passengers on that ship heard about God. No doubt in the days and winter months to follow on Malta, Paul was able to give them the gospel more fully and clearly than he could do on board during the storm. One man who trusts God in a storm of life can have a major impact on others who see the reality of God in his life.

Conclusion

In late 1735, a ship made it’s way to the New World from England. On board was a young Anglican minister, John Wesley, who had been invited to serve as a pastor to British colonists in Savannah, Georgia. A storm hit and the ship found itself in serious trouble. Wesley, who was chaplain of the vessel, feared for his life.

But he noticed that the group of German Moravians, who were on their way to preach to American Indians, were not afraid at all. In fact, throughout the storm, they sang calmly. When the trip ended, he asked the Moravian leader about his serenity, and the Moravian responded with a question: Did he, Wesley, have faith in Christ? Wesley said he did, but later reflected, “I fear they were vain words.”

Wesley’s experience in Georgia was a failure, both personally and ministry-wise. A bitter Wesley returned to England. After speaking with another Moravian, Peter Boehler, Wesley concluded that he lacked saving faith. On May 24, 1738, he had an experience that changed everything. He described the event in his journal:

In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (From the web site, http://www.christianitytoday.com/holidays/fourthofjuly /features/wesley.html).

God used those Moravians’ trusting Him during that storm at sea to bring about the conversion of the great evangelist, John Wesley. If you’re going through a storm, He wants you to trust Him. He is sovereign over your storm. If you trust Him openly, He will use you to bear witness to many who need to know the Savior, who alone can deliver us from the storm of God’s wrath that is sure to come on the whole earth.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty very practical in life’s storms? Why is a denial of it a serious error?
  2. If we can’t determine God’s will by the absence of trials, how can we know that we are in His will?
  3. Exactly how should Christians be different than the world in the midst of trials? Is it wrong to cry or express grief?
  4. Someone asks, “If God is totally sovereign, why pray or evangelize?” Your response?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Faith, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 70: Encouragement in Life’s Storms (Acts 27:2-3, 21-26, 33-36)

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A passenger on an ocean liner was enduring a rough Atlantic crossing. As he leaned over the rail, his face a shade of green, a steward came along and tried to encourage him: “Don’t be discouraged, sir! No one’s ever died of seasickness yet!” The nauseous passenger looked up at the steward with horror and said, “Don’t say that! It’s only the hope of dying that’s kept me alive this long!”

That’s probably how Paul’s fellow-passengers felt after two weeks of enduring the storm at sea. Not only were they sick; after not being able to see the sun or stars for many days, they had lost all hope of being saved (27:20). In the same way, when people go through severe storms in life, often they lose all hope.

Into this bleak picture, the encouraging words of the apostle Paul brought a ray of light. In verse 22, he urges everyone to keep up their courage, promising that there would be no loss of life among them. Again in verse 25 he says, “Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told.” Yet again in verse 33 we read that “Paul was encouraging them to take some food.” The result was (27:36), “all of them were encouraged.”

Someone has said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Those who do not know Christ need encouragement. Paul describes them as having no hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). They need the hope that only Christ can give. The Lord’s people need encouragement. Discouragement is one of Satan’s greatest tools, causing many in Christian service to give up and drop out of the ministry. Our families need encouragement. As husbands and fathers, we need to set an atmosphere of encouragement in our homes. The apostle Paul’s experience here shows us first, how to receive encouragement from the Lord in the storms of life; and, then, how to pass God’s encouragement on to others who desperately need it.

Those who have received God’s encouragement in life’s storms should encourage others to look to God.

Paul wasn’t just an upbeat, positive person who never felt down. Luke’s words in verse 20 imply that Paul, Aristarchus, and Luke felt the same as everyone else on board, that there was no hope of their being saved. This is reinforced by the angel’s words to Paul (27:24), “Do not be afraid.” If Paul had not been discouraged and afraid, he would not have needed this encouraging word. But once he experienced God’s encouragement, he then passed it on to others. Before we can pass God’s encouragement along to others, we must personally experience it ourselves.

1. We all need personally to experience God’s encouragement in the storms of life.

Howard Hendricks often says, “You cannot impart what you do not possess.” So how do we receive God’s encouragement when we’re going through a difficult time? Seven ways:

1) We receive God’s encouragement by being with His people.

Paul did not have to face this difficult voyage to Rome alone. He was accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, and Luke, the beloved physician. Sir William Ramsay, in his book St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen ([Baker], p. 316), argued that to get permission to accompany Paul as a prisoner, Aristarchus and Luke would have had to pass themselves off as his slaves. Aristarchus was one of Paul’s traveling companions who had been dragged into the theater during the riot in Ephesus (19:29). He accompanied Paul on his journeys through that region (20:4). Later, writing from Rome, Paul refers to him as a fellow-prisoner (Col. 4:10). This faithful young man was willing to be Paul’s slave and to go to prison with him! No doubt Paul was greatly encouraged by such a loyal friend and fellow-worker (Philemon 24).

As the journey to Rome began, the ship put into port at Sidon, and the centurion allowed Paul to visit his friends and receive care (27:4). We often think of Paul as giving care to others, but he also needed to receive care. He taught that we all are part of the body of Christ, where each member both gives and receives from the other members in order to function properly (1 Cor. 12:12-27).

The current World magazine (4/20/02, p. 14) reports that radio evangelist Harold Camping is telling his listeners that they should drop their church memberships, leave their congregations, and just listen to the radio. And many of his listeners are doing what he says. At a conference of some 100 pastors, each one reported losing members because of Mr. Camping’s teachings. As the article goes on to point out, the idea has a certain appeal. Sleep in on Sunday, no meetings, no obligations, no messy involvement in the lives of other Christians. But, of course, it is in direct disobedience to Scripture, which tells us not to forsake assembling together, but rather to encourage one another (Heb. 10:25). We receive encouragement by being with God’s people.

2) We receive God’s encouragement when we remember His presence with us.

In this case, it was not the Lord Himself who appeared to Paul (as in 23:11), but His angel (27:23). But it had the same effect, to remind Paul that God was always with him, always aware of the trials that he was going through. When He gave the Great Commission, our Lord promised, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Here Paul again experiences the reality of that promise.

He had experienced it when he was afraid in Corinth. The Lord appeared to him and promised, “for I am with you” (Acts 18:9-10). Paul had also experienced it when he was in custody in Jerusalem, and the Lord stood at his side and said, “Take courage,” and promised that he would bear witness at Rome” (23:11). He would later experience it at his final imprisonment, just before his execution. He told Timothy that no one supported him, but all deserted him. Then he added, “But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me” (2 Tim. 4:17). Each of these experiences of the Lord’s presence came at times of crisis in Paul’s life.

I’ve never seen the Lord or an angel, and I believe that such experiences are quite rare (1 Pet. 1:8). But I have felt His presence with me in times of great need, and it has flooded me with encouragement. Even if we do not have literal visions of Christ or His angels, we have His promise, and it should give us encouragement.

Late in his life, the great pioneer missionary to Africa, David Livingstone, received an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University. As he rose to speak, he was gaunt and haggard as a result of the hardships he had gone through in tropical Africa. He left arm, crushed by a lion, hung helplessly at his side as he announced his resolve to return to Africa without misgiving and with great gladness. He added, “Would you like me to tell you what supported me through all the years of exile among a people whose language I could not understand, and whose attitude toward me was often uncertain and often hostile? It was this: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.’ On these words I staked everything, and they never failed!” (“Our Daily Bread,” Fall, 1984.)

3) We receive God’s encouragement when we remember that we are His possession.

Paul tells these rough men on board that he belongs to God (27:23). If you have trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, you belong to Him. He purchased you with something far more valuable than silver or gold, namely with His precious blood (1 Pet. 1:18-19). You can be assured that He is going to take care of His expensive purchase.

If you pay a lot of money for something, you don’t carelessly toss it into a drawer and forget about it. You put it in a special place and you check on it often. In some cases, if it is very valuable, you rent a safe deposit box at the bank and put it there. God purchased you with the blood of His Son, and He isn’t about to abandon you. That should give you great encouragement in the storm.

4) We receive God’s encouragement when we remember that we are His servants.

Paul calls God the one “whom I serve” (27:23). The Greek word refers to service to God, sometimes with the nuance of worship. It is used of the Old Testament priests offering their service to God (Heb. 13:10). And so it refers to a life that is lived with a God-ward focus. All that we are and do should be offered to the Lord as a living sacrifice to Him (Rom. 12:1-2).

Every Christian, not just those in so-called “full-time Christian service,” should view himself or herself as the Lord’s servant, always on duty. Every contact is an opportunity to represent our Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout the day we should, “Through Him … continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16).

If we see ourselves that way, as the Lord’s servants, we can be encouraged in the storms of life, because the Lord looks out for His servants. We’re doing His business, and just as a company looks out for its workers, even more so the Lord looks out for His workers. He has the best employee benefit package of all!

Thus we receive God’s encouragement in the storms of life by being with His people; when we remember His continual presence; when we remember that we are His possession; and when we remember that we are His servants.

5) We receive God’s encouragement when we remember His promises.

Paul relates the angel’s words, “you must stand before Caesar.” These words are simply a reminder of what the Lord already had told Paul in Jerusalem (23:11). The word “must” points to divine necessity. When God says, “you must,” you know that it will happen. He is always faithful to His promises.

During Donald Grey Barnhouse’s student days in France, he led a girl to Christ who later married a French pastor. She often came to the Barnhouse home and saw them taking verses from a promise box—a small box that held about 200 promises from the Bible printed on heavy paper curled into cylinders. They would take one out and read it when they needed a word of special comfort. So this French woman made her own promise box, writing these same verses in French.

Years later, during the war, this French family had no food except for the potato peelings from a nearby restaurant. The children were hungry and were almost in rags, and their shoes were worn through. In one of her lowest moments, this woman turned in desperation to the promise box. She prayed, “O Lord, I have such great need. Is there a promise here that is really for me? Show me, O Lord, what promise I can have in this time of famine, nakedness, peril, and sword.”

Her tears blinded her, and in reaching for the box, she knocked it over. The promises showered down around her, on her lap and on the floor. Not one was left in the box. At that moment, the Holy Spirit flooded her with divine light and joy as she realized that all of the promises were indeed for her in that hour of her greatest need (Barnhouse, Let Me Illustrate [Revell], pp. 253-254).

And so it can be for you in whatever storm you are going through. As the Lord promises (Isa. 43:1-3),

But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

6) We receive God’s encouragement when we remember that God answers prayer.

The angel told Paul, “Behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you” (27:24). The words, “God has granted,” imply that Paul had prayed, not only for himself, but also for all on board, that they all would be saved from death through the shipwreck (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Acts, 2:401). God could have saved Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus, but let the others perish. But instead, He graciously granted to Paul the lives of all on board. The world never knows the protection that it receives because of the presence and prayers of God’s people! Scripture doesn’t tell us how many of those on board eventually came to saving faith in Christ, but I think that many did.

Whenever you are going through a storm, not only pray that God will deliver you, but also that He will grant you the souls of others with whom you have contact during the storm. He may be taking you through the storm for the very reason that He wants to use you to bring the gospel to others “on board” with you. The fact that He graciously answers prayer for the salvation of others should encourage us in the storm.

7) We receive God’s encouragement by believing Him.

Paul tells the others on board to keep up their courage and then adds, “for I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told” (27:25). God’s promises don’t do us any good unless we believe Him, that He will do just as He has said, in spite of our current overwhelming circumstances. As the encouraging Hebrews 11 reminds us, it was by faith that the men and women of the past saw God do mighty things on their behalf. When the waves of the storm are breaking over us, we can be encouraged by believing the One who merely spoke the word, and the wind and the sea instantly obeyed (Mark 4:39-41).

So the first thing we need is personally to receive God’s encouragement in our storm. Then, having received it, …

2. We need to encourage others to look to God.

When we’re going through a storm, our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves and our problems, and forget about others and their problems. But Paul didn’t do that. He didn’t keep God’s encouragement to himself, or just share it with Luke and Aristarchus. He shared it with everyone on board, and repeatedly encouraged them to take courage on the basis of God’s promise of deliverance.

Some of the men on board may have been condemned prisoners, headed to Rome to die in the arena with the lions (Richard Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles [Baker], p. 480). They desperately needed Christ. As pagans, if they had made it through the storm, they would have praised their good luck or offered sacrifices to their favorite idols. But Paul wanted to make sure that they knew that it was the living God who delivered them (Calvin, p. 400). And so he made it clear where the source of deliverance came from. I can only briefly touch on them, but notice five ways that we can encourage others in the storm:

1) We can encourage others by being with them in the storm.

As I mentioned, Luke and Aristarchus were with Paul, not only here, but also in prison in Rome. And all three men were on board with the others in the storm. Often the Lord puts His people into a storm for the good of others. Although Luke and Aristarchus probably said much to encourage Paul, none of it is recorded. The only thing recorded is their presence, and it was no doubt a source of great encouragement to Paul.

Sometimes we hesitate to visit someone who is going through a difficult trial because we don’t know what to say. Don’t worry about that—just go and be there. Remember, Job’s three friends did just fine for the week that they just sat there silently. It was when they opened their mouths that they got into trouble!

2) We can encourage others by praying for them.

After Paul’s advice not to continue the voyage had been rejected, he easily could have got his feelings hurt and said, “If that’s how they want to be, they deserve to perish!” But he put his feelings aside and prayed that all would be delivered. No doubt these sailors were not nice men with high moral standards. They probably swore a lot, as sailors are notorious for doing. The soldiers guarding Paul and the other prisoners showed their true colors by wanting to kill all the prisoners just prior to the shipwreck. But Paul knew that they all needed the Lord, and so he prayed for them. Even so, we should pray for people in the world who do not deserve God’s grace. None of us do!

As we learned in the “Praying for You” seminar several years ago, most unbelievers will respond favorably if you ask, “May I pray for you?” Everyone has needs, and even the most hardened unbelievers will often say, “Well, it can’t hurt!” Your kindness may open a door for the gospel. And with fellow believers who are going through the storm, it will encourage them to know that you are praying for them.

3) We can encourage others by practical ministry to their needs.

Paul encouraged these men to eat some food so that they would have the strength to swim to shore (27:34). It was a practical matter, not directly spiritual. But the men were encouraged by it. Often, the most encouraging thing you can do is to take a meal to someone who has been ill, or clean their house or go grocery shopping for them. Don’t say, “If you have any needs, let me know.” They won’t ask. Just put yourself in their place and ask, “What would I want someone to do for me?” Then do it for them.

4) We can encourage others by setting a good example.

Paul was literally in the same boat with these pagans! He probably got seasick, just as they did. He had been discouraged and fearful, just as they were. But when he received encouragement from the Lord, he openly shared his experience to encourage the others. He gave thanks to God for the bread in front of everyone and then ate, setting the example. The others were encouraged to follow. Especially in our families, our kids follow our example. If we panic and fall apart in a storm, they learn to be fearful. If we trust in God, they learn to trust Him in their storms.

5) We can encourage others by telling them of God’s greatness and power to save.

Paul didn’t just tell them to keep a positive outlook or to have faith in faith. He told them that he believed God and the promise of deliverance that God had given. Many in this world have faith that everything will turn out okay just because they are positive, optimistic people. But the fact is, if they do not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior, everything will not turn out okay! Those who believe in God’s Son have eternal life, but those who do not believe in Him will perish (John 3:16). So it’s not enough to encourage people in a storm by telling them that everything will turn out okay. We must tell them about God and His power to save them from their sins through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

From his cell in Bedford Jail where he was imprisoned for preaching the gospel, John Bunyan wrote, “This prison very sweet to me hath been since I came here; and so would also hanging be, if Thou didst then appear.” Bunyan was saying that if his trial revealed more of Christ to him, it was worth all the pain.

If God used this storm to reveal more of Christ to Paul or to bring any of the men on board to Jesus Christ, the life-threatening ordeal would have been well worth it. If God encourages you in the storm, reveals more of Himself to you, uses you to bring someone to Christ, or to encourage one of His people, it will be worth it all.

Discussion Questions

  1. Trials can make us either better or bitter. What makes the difference?
  2. Is it a sin to be discouraged? Why/why not?
  3. It is easy in a trial to feel angry toward God. Is this ever permissible? If so, how? If not, how do we deal with it?
  4. Sometimes our attempts to encourage someone fail. How can we offer genuine encouragement in Christ? Are there things that we should avoid saying or doing at such times?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

From the series: Acts PREVIOUS PAGE

Lesson 71: Mission Accomplished (Acts 28:1-31)

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Gicomo Puccini was a great composer whose operas number among the world’s favorites. Even after he was stricken with cancer in 1922, he was determined to write a final opera, “Turandot,” which some consider his best. As his illness grew worse, his students implored him to rest and save his strength, but he persisted. At one point he remarked, “If I do not finish my music, my students will finish it.”

In 1924, Puccini went to Brussels to be operated on, where he died two days after his surgery. His students did finish “Turandot,” and in 1926 the premiere was held in Milan under the baton of Puccini’s favorite student, Arturo Toscanini. All went brilliantly until they came to the point in the score where the teacher had been forced to put down his pen. Toscanini, his face wet with tears, stopped the production, put down his baton, turned to the audience and cried out, “Thus far the master wrote, but he died!”

After a few moments, his face now wreathed in smiles, Toscanini picked up his baton and cried out to the audience, “But his disciples finished his work!” They finished the opera.

The Book of Acts is the story of “all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day that He was taken up to heaven” (1:1, 2). The work that He began was to be completed by His disciples, who were to be His “witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (1:8). When we come to the end of Acts, Luke leaves us with the apostle Paul preaching the gospel in the capital of the empire, “with all openness, unhindered.” And so, in one sense, the mission was accomplished, with the gospel going to the remotest part of the earth.

And yet in another sense, Luke leaves the story open and ongoing. Jesus’ followers have been carrying on the mission for almost 2,000 years, but it is not yet thoroughly accomplished. We know that one day in heaven there will be some from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, whom Jesus purchased for God with His blood (Rev. 5:9). There have been encouraging advances in the cause of world missions in recent years. For example, the Jesus Film has been shown to about 5 billion people. A year ago, film project director, Paul Eshelman, estimated that 90 percent of the world, about 5.6 billion, could listen to the film in their native tongue (Mission Frontiers, [3/01], p. 39).

But as yet there are still close to two billion that have not heard of Jesus Christ. We have the privilege of joining the Lord in accomplishing His purpose of being glorified among all the nations! In that sense, the Book of Acts is still being written. Acts 28 shows us how God accomplishes His mission:

God accomplishes His Great Commission by protecting, providing for, and empowering His servants who obediently proclaim the gospel to all people.

Alexander Maclaren put it, these verses show the Christian’s place in the world, as an object of divine care and a medium of divine blessing (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 12:371).

1. God accomplishes His Great Commission by protecting, providing for, and empowering His servants (28:1-16).

Paul and his fellow shipmates discovered that they were shipwrecked on Malta, a small island about 18 miles long and 8 miles wide, located about 60 miles south of Sicily. It was cold and rainy, and the men were wet from swimming ashore. The natives showed them extraordinary kindness by kindling a bonfire and eventually helping the men find lodging for the winter. These verses show us God’s protection, provision, and power:

A. God accomplishes His Great Commission by protecting His servants.

Paul didn’t see himself above helping out in mundane tasks. As he was collecting sticks for the fire, he didn’t notice (perhaps due to his poor eyesight) that among the sticks was a viper, somewhat stiff from the cold. The warmth of the fire caused it to loosen up and it fastened on Paul’s hand. He calmly shook it off into the fire. The natives concluded that Paul must be a murderer, and that even though he escaped from the sea, justice had not allowed him to live. They waited and watched for him to swell up and fall down dead. But when nothing happened, they changed their minds and concluded that he was a god.

Although there are now no poisonous snakes on the island of Malta, that does not mean that there were none in Paul’s day. When I went for a hike in Romania with some of the students that I was speaking to, they warned me that there is a viper there whose bite will kill you within minutes. Clearly, the natives on Malta had witnessed the effects of such poisonous snakes before. Luke tells the story to show how God miraculously protected Paul, because God’s purpose was that Paul would bear witness in Rome (23:11). Nothing, whether shipwreck or poisonous snake, can thwart God’s purpose for His servants until their work is done.

After the winter, the shipwrecked men set sail for Rome on another ship. Here Luke includes another detail that may just be an interesting fact, but it may hint at something more. The ship had for its figurehead the Twin Brothers (28:11), which refers to Castor and Pollux, whom the mythical god Zeus supposedly transformed into gods represented by the constellation Gemini. Sailors considered them a sign of good luck in a storm. Luke may mention this detail to contrast pagan superstitions with the true protection that believers have through God’s providence. The reason for their safe voyage from Malta to Rome was not the mythical Twin Brothers, but rather the protection of the living God.

B. God accomplishes His Great Commission by providing for His servants.

God provided for His servants through the unusual hospitality of the natives on Malta. Publius, the leading man of the island, entertained all 276 men for three days, and then he apparently found them lodging for the winter. As the men departed, the islanders honored them with many gifts and supplies (28:10).

God also provided for Paul through a week of fellowship with the believers in Puteoli, about 140 miles south of Rome. The centurion was especially kind to allow Paul to visit these saints. God further provided through the Christians who came out as far as the Market of Appius (44 miles from Rome) and Three Taverns (33 miles) to escort Paul into the city. Can you imagine what the rest of the travelers in Paul’s company thought when they saw these people welcoming this prisoner as an important dignitary! Paul thanked God and took courage when he saw these Christians whom he had longed to see for several years (Rom. 15:23). God also provided for Paul by permitting him to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him, in rented quarters. Through the generous gifts of the Philippian church and others, Paul’s financial needs were met (Phil. 4:10-18).

Paul’s case was not unique. If you read missionary biographies, you will find story after story of how God meets the personal and financial needs of His servants who are taking the gospel to the remotest parts of the earth.

C. God accomplishes His Great Commission by empowering His servants.

Although Luke was the physician, the Lord used Paul to heal miraculously many of the sick people on Malta. The first was the father of Publius, who was sick with fever and dysentery. He may have had Malta fever, which could last from four months to several years. In 1887 it was discovered to be caused by a bacterium in the milk of Maltese goats. After this, many others also came for healing. Probably this gave Paul and his companions many opportunities to tell people about Christ.

While the gift of healing to the extent we see here seems to have been limited to the apostles, I have read many stories of miracles from modern missionaries. God seems to grant miracles to a greater degree on the frontiers of the gospel, where people need powerful authentication of its truthfulness.

One of the most gripping missionary stories I’ve read is Bruchko, by Bruce Olson (Creation House, 1978). He left his Minnesota home at 19 with no support and no contacts to take the gospel to the murderous Motilone tribe in the jungles of South America. They shot him with arrows, but he survived. At another point, he was far into the jungle, suffering badly with hepatitis, when two men in an oil company helicopter, out for a joyride over the dangerous Motilone territory, spotted a blond man in the clearing below. One of the men turned out to be a doctor whom Olson knew from years before. They took him to a hospital, where the doctors said that in six hours he would have been dead. They also told him that he would be in treatment for over six months, and that his liver was so permanently damaged that he could never go back into the jungle.

But Olson knew that God wanted him to reach the Motilones, and so he told the doctors, “You’re wrong, I’m going back!” Three weeks later he was released, and a week after that he walked back into the jungle. On the third day, he began to feel dizzy. The chest pains returned. His urine was dark. As he fell asleep that night, feeling terrible, he prayed, “Father, You brought me here to work with the Motilone Indians. Please, God, heal my body.” The next morning he woke up feeling fine, with no more pain. His urine was clear (pp. 125-127). He made it back to the Motilones, where he has seen God do many more miracles (pp. 155-162). But the greatest miracle he has seen, he says, has been the changed lives of the Motilones through the power of the gospel (p. 161). His story is a modern example of how God accomplishes His Great Commission by protecting, providing for, and empowering His servants.

2. God accomplishes His Great Commission through His servants who obediently proclaim the gospel to all people (28:17-31).

It seems odd that Luke never reports that Paul preached the gospel on Malta, nor does he report any conversions. Other than the fact that Luke is pressing quickly toward his conclusion in Rome, I do not know why he omits these important details. But I think we can assume that Paul, who never missed an opportunity to tell others about Christ, was not silent for these three months.

When he finally got to Rome, Paul quickly summoned the Jewish leaders to explain why he was a prisoner there. It seems strange that they had not heard anything about Paul, and their knowledge of Christianity, while negative, seems somewhat secondhand and distant (28:22). Perhaps since Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome just a few years before, they were being diplomatic and cautious about saying too much. But they were open to hearing Paul’s views, and so a time was set.

Paul spent the entire day testifying about the kingdom of God, which refers not only to Christ’s future reign on earth, but also to the gospel that brings people under His rule. There was probably a lot of interaction both ways, as Paul tried to persuade them concerning Jesus, that He is God’s promised Messiah. Paul’s source of authority was the Law of Moses and the Prophets (= Old Testament). He probably took them to the texts in Moses that describe the Jewish sacrificial system, showing that these sacrifices pointed ahead to Jesus. He would have taken them to Psalm 16, which both Peter and Paul used to show the truth of the resurrection (Acts 2:25-28; 13:34-37). He no doubt took them to Psalm 22, which describes death by crucifixion centuries before this was known as a means of execution. He would have taken them to Isaiah 53, which describes the death of Jesus with amazing detail.

The outcome was, as in many of Paul’s previous experiences, some were being persuaded, but others would not believe, leading to a dispute between the two groups (28:25). Before they left, Paul gave his parting shot, quoting Isaiah 6:9-10. Just after Isaiah’s rare vision of God, exalted on His throne, and Isaiah’s commission to preach, the Lord spoke these words to Isaiah, warning him of the hardness of heart of the people of Israel.

This important text is quoted six times in the New Testament (Matt. 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Rom. 11:8; & here). Three of those times are in reference to the parable of the sower in the synoptic gospels, where Jesus explained why He spoke in parables, to conceal truth from scoffers, but to reveal truth to seekers. Another time John cited it and then commented, “These things Isaiah said because he saw [Jesus’] glory, and he spoke of Him.” The main idea of these verses is that if people close up their hearts to God’s Word through His messengers, the Lord will confirm their rejection by hardening them even further. Israel had a sad history of rejecting and even killing the prophets that God sent to turn them back to Him. Finally, and most tragically, they killed God’s Son. God’s judgment would shortly fall on Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and the Jews would be scattered for 19 centuries.

Paul uses the quote to support his calling to take the gospel to the Gentiles, adding, “they also will listen” (28:28). God’s purpose is to be glorified through the preaching of the gospel to all peoples. He accomplishes that purpose through His servants’ willing obedience to the Great Commission. Israel should have been a light to the nations, but their idolatry and sin caused them to fail.

Hardness of heart prevents sinners from responding in faith to the gospel, but it never thwarts God’s ultimate purpose. There is a mystery here, in that sinners are always responsible for their stubbornness and unbelief, but if they turn in repentance and faith to the Lord, it is not their doing, but only because He has granted it to them (Acts 11:18). In other words, we are solely responsible for our unbelief, but if we come to faith in Christ, it is solely from God, so that none can boast.

While Israel was cut off because of unbelief and the Gentiles were grafted in, God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew (Rom. 11:2). One day Israel will again be grafted back in, “for God is able to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:23). As Paul explains, “a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” But after this, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26). There will be a future time of great blessing for the nation Israel, when God will pour out on them “the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on [Him] whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son” (Zech. 12:10). Israel will turn en masse to their Messiah Jesus Christ.

But, meanwhile, like Paul, we should commit ourselves fully to God’s purpose in the Great Commission. Just as the Lord told Paul that He had many people in the city of Corinth, and thus Paul should go on speaking so that these would come to faith, so we know that He has some from every people group who are His elect (Rev. 5:9). Whatever the hardships, we should commit ourselves to get the gospel to all who have not yet heard.

Though Paul was in chains in Rome, the gospel was not chained. Luke’s final word in the Greek text (as in the NASB) is, “unhindered.” As he later wrote to Timothy, even though he was imprisoned as a criminal, the word of God is not imprisoned. For that reason, Paul endured “all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).

Luke never tells us the final outcome of Paul’s trial or anything about his subsequent life. Probably Paul stayed in custody for about two years (until 62), during which time he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. When his accusers did not show up, he was released on default. Some think that he eventually made his way to Spain, as he hoped (Rom. 15:24, 28). He probably visited again some of the churches, perhaps even seeing the Ephesian elders once more, contrary to his earlier prediction. He sent Timothy there to help correct some problems. He visited Crete and left Titus there to minister. During these free years, he wrote 1 Timothy and Titus. Perhaps he was betrayed by someone such as Alexander the coppersmith and arrested again. He was taken to Rome, where he anticipated that things would not go well. From prison, he wrote 2 Timothy. About 67 or 68, Nero executed the great apostle who had fought the good fight, finished the course, and kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7). Paul accomplished his mission.

Conclusion

Each of us needs to ask, “What about me? Am I as committed to the Great Commission of my Lord as I ought to be? Since God has protected and provided for me, am I relying on His power to do all that I can to see as many people reached for Christ, both locally and worldwide, as I am able?” I close with seven action points that will help you move in the right direction:

1) Ask God to burden your heart with the lost.

Put it on your prayer list. If we are apathetic about those who are perishing, we are not like Jesus, who had compassion on the lost (Matt. 9:36) and who wept over the unbelieving city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41).

2) Get some training so that you can confidently share the gospel.

We are offering an Evangelism Explosion class this summer and again in the fall. There are many books that teach you how to share your faith. Memorize the verses you need to know to lead another person to faith in Jesus Christ.

3) Inform yourself about the cause of world missions.

Take the Perspectives Course if it is offered again in town. Subscribe to Mission Frontiers (U.S. Center for World Mission, 1605 E. Elizabeth St., Pasadena, CA 91104, 626-398-2249; web: www.missionfrontiers.org). It will teach you about the unreached people groups around the world and what efforts are underway to reach them. Also, Operation World is an excellent informative book to help you learn about and pray for the nations of the world. Global Prayer Digest (available in our narthex or through the U.S. Center for World Mission) is a daily prayer guide for the unreached peoples. Become a “world” Christian (not to be confused with a worldly Christian)!

4) Read missionary biographies.

The thrilling stories of those who have taken the gospel to the remotest parts of the earth will strengthen your faith and will encourage you to get fully behind our missionaries. Read about Jim Elliot and the men who gave their lives taking the gospel to the Auca Indians. Read about John Paton, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, William Carey, Bruce Olson, and others.

5) Pray for world missions.

The tools mentioned above will help you be faithful in prayer. Sign up for missionary prayer letters and emails so that you can pray as special needs arise.

6) Give sacrificially toward world missions.

We have about 75 young people going out on mission projects that need support. Many of our missionaries are lacking full support. Invest your treasure in missions and your heart will follow your treasure.

7) As God directs, go as a short or long term missionary.

You don’t have to be gifted as an evangelist, translator, or teacher to be used in missions. Many missions are desperate for support personnel, as our friend from Wycliffe shared several weeks ago. God can use both young and old in the cause!

A familiar legend tells of a conversation between Jesus and the angel Gabriel after the Lord ascended into heaven. They talked of what had happened down here—of Christ’s birth, His life and ministry, His death, and His resurrection. Then Gabriel asked, “And how will the people of the world hear about all of this?” Jesus replied, “Well, I have a little company of friends there whom I have asked to publish it.” “But what if, for any reason, they let You down and fail to do it?” To which the Lord answered, “I have no other plan.” We’re it! Let’s commit ourselves to accomplish the mission the Lord has entrusted to us!

Discussion Questions

  1. Is world missions supposed to be the responsibility of all Christians, or only of those whom God so calls?
  2. Agree/disagree: Missions is the ultimate reason the Lord has left the church on earth.
  3. How can a person know where he or she fits in to God’s purpose in the Great Commission?
  4. If a person is apathetic toward world missions, should he conclude that he isn’t called? Or, could there be a more serious problem?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Empower, Evangelism

Zechariah

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This 17 part expository study of Zechariah was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2003. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson (excepting lesson 16 which does not have audio.).

For permission to reproduce/distribute these resources from Steve Cole (including the Word document and audio files found on the individual lesson pages below) please see Bible.org's ministry friendly copyright and permissions page. Likewise, to reproduce/distribute PDF/audio versions of his messages which may be found on Flagstaff Christian Fellowship's website see their permission statement.

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come), Prophecy/Revelation, Spiritual Life

Lesson 1: Returning to the Lord (Zechariah 1:1-6)

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Clark Clifford, who was White House counsel during the Truman Administration, was at a White House banquet one night when one of the guests turned to the woman next to him. “Did I get your name correctly?” he asked. “Is your name Post?”

“Yes, it is,” the woman said.

“Is it Emily Post?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Are you the world-renowned authority on manners?” the man asked.

“Yes,” Mrs. Post said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because,” the man said, “you have just eaten my salad.” (“Bits & Pieces,” [1/85], pp. 14-15.)

Knowing something and applying it are two different matters. It is possible to be an expert on manners and yet eat the wrong salad! It is possible to be an expert on the Bible and yet not apply that knowledge in your daily life.

Perhaps you noticed the title of this message, “Returning to God,” and thought, “This one won’t apply to me. It will be great for someone who does not know Christ, but I do know Christ. It will also hit the mark with a backsliding believer, but I’m not backsliding. So I’ll eavesdrop on the message, but there won’t be much in it for me.”

The people to whom Zechariah brought this “word of the Lord” (1:1) were probably a lot like you. They were, for the most part, believers who would have voiced their allegiance to God. They were a remnant of 50,000 Jews who had made the difficult commitment to return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C. In 536 B.C. they had begun reconstruction of the devastated temple. But opposition had mounted, and for 16 years the work had been set aside.

Meanwhile, the people got caught up in the busyness of life. It was probably not an intentional decision. They meant no harm to God. But God raised up the prophet Haggai to ask the question, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” (Hag. 1:4). The people responded to Haggai’s message and began to work again on the temple.

Two months into the project, “in the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah the prophet” (Zech. 1:1). That date is significant! Two months into any volunteer project of this magnitude, people need a word from the Lord! They need hope and encouragement. They need the motivation that comes from knowing that this project is worthwhile. That is especially so when the people are a bunch of refugees returning to a devastated country, still surrounded by hostile neighbors.

Zechariah’s prophecy was directed to such people. He has been called the prophet of hope. His message is filled with the encouragement that God will keep His promises to His people, especially His promises regarding the Messiah. Zechariah has more Messianic prophecy than all of the other Minor Prophets combined and he is second only to Isaiah in the number of references to Christ. The New Testament cites or alludes to Zechariah at least 41 times (Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 1:1545). His message is that even though God’s chosen people had been scattered among the nations because of their disobedience, God still loved them and His purpose for them would still be accomplished.

While Zechariah gives hope, he is not naively optimistic. As Joyce Baldwin (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi [Tyndale O.T. Commentaries] [IVP], p. 60) says,

The book prepares God’s people for the worst calamity they can ever face, the triumph of evil over good. Even God’s representative dies at the hand of evil men. There is no room in Zechariah’s thinking for glib optimism, but when evil has done its worst the Lord remains King, and will be seen to be King by all the nations.

The book falls into two main parts. The first part (chapters 1-8) is specifically dated. The second part (chapters 9-14) is not. After the introductory theme (1:1-6), chapters 1-6 consist of eight night visions that came to Zechariah in 520 B.C. The overarching theme of these visions is that God is again working on behalf of His people and that He will bring judgment on the heathen nations that had afflicted His people. These visions encouraged the Lord’s people to continue working to rebuild the temple.

In chapters 7 and 8, dated two years later, Zechariah gives a reply to a delegation of priests from Bethel concerning certain religious fasts. The thrust of his message is to show that God is concerned about hearts that are right before Him, not just about outward religious observance. It serves as a warning to the people that as the temple was completed, the danger would be to fall into outward religion without inward reality.

Chapters 9-14 are not dated and probably were written many years (perhaps 40) later. This section consists of a number of Messianic prophecies that reveal the importance of the rebuilt temple, since Messiah will come to this temple. Even though powerful nations will arise and threaten God’s people, His prophetic plan of the ages will be carried out. Because of these prophecies, Zechariah has been called the Revelation of the Old Testament. Like Revelation, it is a difficult book to interpret. But the overall message is plain: It is an encouragement to God’s discouraged and frightened people to walk in reality with Him, because He will keep His covenant promises.

You can remember the theme of the book if you will jot down the Hebrew meanings of the three names in verse 1. Zechariah means, “whom the Lord remembers.” Berechiah means, “the Lord blesses.” Iddo means, “at the appointed time” (Charles Feinberg, God Remembers [American Board of Missions to the Jews], p. 17). God raised up Zechariah to proclaim that God remembers His chosen people and that He will bless them in His appointed time.

That message applies to us, especially if you are discouraged. When you look around at the evil in the world and the apathy or hostility toward the gospel, you may feel as if God has forgotten you. But He remembers! He will bless in His appointed time! Our job is to be obedient and faithful to Him.

In the introduction (1:1-6), Zechariah answers a basic, crucial question: How can we experience God’s blessing? Remember, this was written to people who knew God and were in the process of rebuilding His temple. Zechariah did not offer a new or different message. But since we do not always apply what we already know, he starts with a basic principle:

Returning to the Lord is the key to experiencing His blessing.

Dr. Charles Feinberg notes, “This call to return dare not be passed over lightly, for it is the basic and fundamental plea of God throughout the Bible to all sinful men” (God Remembers, p. 18). The Hebrew word “return” is the word for “turning” or “repentance.” We first come to God in repentance and faith, but it is not a one-time thing. A walk with God is marked by continual repentance or returning to Him. Zechariah’s audience had returned to the land. They were rebuilding the temple. They may have thought, “Why do we need to return to God?” He begins by answering that question.

1. Returning to the Lord is necessary because of His wrath against all sinners (1:2).

It may seem odd that Zechariah would begin a message of hope and encouragement by talking about God’s fierce anger toward sinners! The Hebrew expression is very strong. Three grammatical devices emphasize the intensity of God’s anger. First, the verb, “to be angry,” is placed first in the sentence for emphasis. Second, the Hebrew uses what is called the cognate accusative, “he was angry with anger,” which means, “God was really ticked off!” Third, the Hebrew word itself means to be full of wrath (see 2 Kings 5:11; Esther 1:12).

Does the picture of God being very angry against sinners fit with your view of Him? We live in a time that emphasizes God’s love to the neglect of His holy wrath against sin and against sinners. We glibly say, “God hates the sin, but, loves the sinner” as if somehow the sinner will never experience God’s wrath against him, but just against his sin (as separate from him)! Merrill Unger rightly observes, “Those who abuse the truth that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16) and make Him a doting indulgent Father to those who sustain no genuine relationship to Him as sons, forget that ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29)” (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 21).

Certainly, God is full of love and mercy to every sinner who repents. But in His holiness, God cannot and does not wink at our sin or treat it lightly. His terrible wrath against all unrepentant sinners, as seen especially in the fearful doctrine of eternal punishment in hell, should cause us to fear sinning because we fear God!

But how is this message about God’s anger a word of encouragement or hope? Dr. Unger (p. 21) answers that question this way: “The warning of divine wrath is a prerequisite to the acceptance of divine grace.” In other words, a person must sense the serious danger that he is in before he gratefully accepts the offer of being rescued from that danger. When you see that you are about to perish because of your sins, the offer of God’s mercy takes on a new light!

Pastor Ray Comfort illustrates this (video, “Ten Cannons of God’s Law”) by picturing people on a commercial flight. The stewardess comes along and says, “Sir, would you like to put on this parachute? It will make your flight more comfortable.” The guy wants to have an enjoyable flight, so he puts it on. But the thing is very uncomfortable. It is heavy. The straps chafe his neck and shoulders. He can’t sit back in his seat. The other passengers laugh at this silly-looking guy. Finally, he tears off the parachute in disgust, thinking, “This thing is a big nuisance!”

What will change his opinion of that parachute and make him eager to put it on, in spite of any discomfort or ridicule? The captain comes over the intercom and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that we have just lost power to all of our engines. We will need to abandon the plane immediately. The stewardess is coming around with some parachutes….” Everyone would eagerly be grabbing those chutes, because they know that they will perish without them!

It is only when sinners realize that they are under the fierce, eternal wrath of God that they will cry out, “What must I do to be saved?” Concerning his own salvation experience, the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon put it this way; “He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed” (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:54). Thus when we realize God’s great wrath against us as sinners, we will be desperate to find the remedy. The way to avail ourselves of that remedy is in verse 3:

2. Returning to the Lord is the human response that opens the supply of God’s personal grace (1:3).

Returning to God means turning from my sin, which is repentance. It is impossible to cling to my sin and reach for God’s salvation at the same time. To grab His salvation, I must let go of my sin. It is not just a one-time thing, of course. The first time any sinner repents and trusts in God’s sacrifice for sin, Jesus Christ, God pardons him completely. But since sin keeps creeping back in, we must continually repent or return to God, not to get saved, but to walk in fellowship with the Holy One. Thus repentance or returning to God will characterize every true Christian. The Bible warns that without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). Holiness is impossible if we do not develop a lifestyle of repentance or turning from sin to God.

It is important to note that God takes the initiative in this process. He invites us to return to Him. Three times in this single verse, Zechariah refers to God as the Lord of hosts to underscore His sovereign authority. None of us would dare to saunter into the presence of a powerful world ruler without an invitation or appointment. How much less should we think that we can just go to the holy Lord of hosts, God over every created power in the universe, unless He invites us! But the good news is, He does invite us! He is not waiting for us to make the first move. God has made the first move by extending the offer of pardon to us. It is our responsibility to respond.

Scripture is clear that even though repentance is our responsibility, we cannot do it in our own strength. It is the gift of God, and we must depend on Him to grant it (Acts 5:31; 11:18). As John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Zechariah, p. 21) rightly observes, “for if everything which God requires were in our power, the grace of the Holy Spirit would be superfluous.” So we must cry out to God for mercy and strength to do what He justly requires of us, namely, to return to Him.

Please note that the Lord of hosts does not say, “Return to keeping My law” or “Return to your religious duties.” Rather, He says, “Return to Me!” It is a personal appeal. I am not suggesting that we can disobey God’s standards of holiness and yet claim to be following Him. But I am saying that at the heart of repentance is the fact that we are returning to a personal God who loves us and relates to us on a personal level.

One of the most beautiful pictures of this in the Bible is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. He had sunk so low in his sin that he could only hope that his father would take him back on an impersonal level as a hired hand. But when he came limping home, his father saw him from afar (he was looking!), felt compassion for him, ran to him, embraced him and kissed him. He welcomed the young man back on a personal basis as his son, not as a hired hand!

God calls every sinner to a personal relationship: “Return to Me, that I may return to you.” You may think that your sins disqualify you from ever drawing near on a personal level to a holy God. But if you will trust in Jesus’ blood, your sin is forgiven, the door is wide open, and the invitation is personal: “Return to Me.” Charles Simeon put it this way (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 10:431-432): “Search the inspired volume, search the annals of the whole world, and find, if you can, one mourning and believing penitent whom he cast out; or find, if you can, any limit to his mercy and grace.”

Thus Zechariah shows us our desperate need to return to the Lord, namely, His fierce anger against those who persist in sin. He then shows that when we return to the Lord on a personal level, it opens the floodgate of God’s grace. He personally turns to us. Then Zechariah cinches his opening message with a history lesson:

3. Returning to the Lord is what we should learn from the history of God’s people (1:4-6).

The prophet brings up three warnings from their history: the warning about disobedience (1:4); the warning about delay (1:5); and, the warning about divine discipline (1:6).

A. The history lesson about disobedience should teach us to return to the Lord (1:4).

By “fathers” (1:2, 4, 5, 6) Zechariah means their ancestors, but especially those who had been responsible for the Babylonian captivity. Their problem was not that God had not spoken. God spoke plainly and repeatedly through His prophets about their evil lifestyle (“ways”) and deeds. But the people refused to listen and obey.

No where is this more blatant than in Jeremiah 42 & 43. Even though the people asked Jeremiah to ask God what they should do, and they assured him that they would obey, he no sooner told them the word of the Lord than they falsely accused Jeremiah of making it up himself. It was evident that they only wanted Jeremiah to approve what they were already determined to do. More often than we care to admit, we’re just like they were! We say that we want to do God’s will until His will crosses our will!

The divine warning is not to be like our fathers in their stubborn disobedience. Most of us are far more affected by the sins of our parents and grandparents than we realize (Exod. 34:7). If we have been blessed with godly parents, then certainly we should follow their godly example. But we should never follow our parents in their sins. The problem is, most of us have already fallen into our parents’ sins before we realize what we’re doing!

When one of our kids was about two, riding in the car seat behind me, I came around a blind curve in the mountains and nearly rear-ended a car that had stopped in the middle of the road to admire the scenery. I slammed on the brakes, hit the horn, and yelled, “You jerk!” From the car seat behind me, a little voice echoed, “You jerk!” It grieved me to see my sweet little child picking up the sins of her father! I have often prayed for my children, that God would protect them from my sins.

B. The history lesson about delay should teach us to return to the Lord (1:5).

Zechariah’s point in verse 5 is that spiritual opportunity does not last forever. Their fathers had died. The prophets also had died. Guess what? We also soon will be dead! If we do not respond obediently to the Lord today, we may not have tomorrow.

It’s so easy to be a spiritual procrastinator! We deceive ourselves, “I’ll deal with this sin later! I’ll get right with God after I work through the issues I’m facing right now.” But that is often fatal! If the Lord is tugging on your heart today, saying, “Return to Me,” don’t put it off for later. Do it now! “Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Cor. 6:2).

C. The history lesson about divine discipline should teach us to return to the Lord (1:6).

The people who repented (1:6) probably refers to those who suffered the consequences of the captivity. After the nation was destroyed and they went into captivity, they came to their senses. They realized that God’s prophets had been right, and they had to admit that God had done to them just as He had said he would do. God was right and they were wrong. True repentance always exonerates God and accepts full responsibility for our own sin.

The main idea of verses 5 & 6 together is, “Although your fathers died and even God’s prophets died, His Word is still with you, and it is always true.” When God’s Word warns of His discipline on our sin, it is not an idle threat. God’s Word overtook their fathers. The word “overtake” has the idea of relentlessly pursuing and hunting down (Deut. 19:6; 28:15, 45). The idea is, “be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23)! God always wins, so it is futile to think that you can get away with your sin!

You cannot dodge God’s Word when it warns, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7-8). The history of God’s dealings with His people should teach us to return to the Lord.

Conclusion

“‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:24-25). That word tells us of a God who judges all sin, but who invites us to return to Him, not for judgment, but for blessing. And we must return, not just once, but over and over, as often as we sin. I know that you know that. But make sure that you’re eating the right salad!

Discussion Questions

  1. The idea of God’s wrath is not popular in our times. Should we emphasize it more, both in witnessing and with believers who fall into sin? Defend biblically.
  2. Someone says to you, “I believe in a God of love, not in a God who gets angry about sin.” How would you respond?
  3. Does God’s grace nullify the principle of sowing and reaping? Does repentance stop the harvest? Defend biblically.
  4. Some argue that repentance has no part in the gospel, which is solely by faith. How would you refute this biblically?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, History, Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Prophecy/Revelation, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 2: When God Seems to Have Forgotten You (Zechariah 1:7-17)

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If you have been a Christian for very long, you have had times when it seemed that God had forgotten you. You were seeking to please God with your life. You were not engaging in any known sin. And yet you had major trials. Your prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling. God must have forgotten you!

To make matters worse, you noticed many pagans who seemed to be doing quite well. They had no regard for God or His ways. They were bragging openly about their sins. And yet they seemed to be enjoying everything that life has to offer.

I remember a time when I had dropped out of seminary with some frustration and was trying to figure out what the Lord wanted me to do with my life. I was in my mid-twenties, single, and very lonely. Most of my friends were married, but I had gone through two failed romances and had no prospects on the horizon.

I was living two blocks from the beach. My neighbor two doors down was a young man with blond hair that went well below his shoulders. I heard that he was a drug dealer. He had a beautiful girl friend living with him, who would come out in the morning in her bikini and hop on her bike to ride down to the beach. As I sat there alone, reading my Bible, I echoed the words of Asaph, who saw the prosperity of the wicked, but said of himself, “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, … for I have been stricken all day long, and chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:3, 13-14).

Your details may vary, but it’s the same plot: you’re trying to follow the Lord and have nothing but trials. Meanwhile, someone you know thumbs his nose at God and seems to be having a grand time. You wonder, “What’s going on? Has God forgotten me? Why do the wicked prosper and the godly suffer?”

The Jews to whom Zechariah ministered were struggling with that issue. They were a group of about 50,000 refugees who had returned from the Babylonian captivity to a war-devastated land. They were surrounded by aggressive neighbors who opposed their efforts to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. By faith they had responded to Haggai’s message and had begun to rebuild the temple. Two months later, God had raised up Zechariah with the message, “‘Return to Me,’ declares the Lord of hosts, ‘that I may return to you,’ says the Lord of hosts” (1:3).

Then, on the 24th day of the eleventh month, five months to the day from when the people had begun to rebuild (Hag. 1:14-15), the Lord revealed to Zechariah eight night visions to encourage His forlorn people. All eight visions (1:7-6:15) develop the same theme, which is stated in 1:14-17, that God remembers His chosen people and that He will punish the wicked and bless His people in His appointed time. As I said last week, you can remember the theme of Zechariah by remembering the Hebrew meaning of the three names in 1:1 (and 1:7): Zechariah means, “whom the Lord remembers.” Berechiah means, “the Lord blesses.” Iddo means, “at the appointed time.” Today we will look at the first night vision (1:7-17). Applied to us, the message is:

When it seems as if the wicked are at ease and the godly are forgotten, Christ encourages us with His powerful presence, His prayer for us, and His promises for our welfare.

The vision is described (1:7-8), explained (1:9-11), and applied (1:12-17). Before we look at its application for us, let me explain some of its features.

The vision is described as “the word of the Lord” to Zechari­ah (1:7), which points both to the origin and authority of the message. It comes from God Himself. Zechariah saw a man riding a red horse, standing in a ravine among some myrtle trees, with other horses (and riders implied) standing behind him. The rider on the red horse is clearly the prominent one. Verse 11 identifies him as “the angel of the Lord.” In the Old Testament, the angel of the Lord is Jesus Christ in preincarnate form (Gen. 16:7-13; implied in 18:1-33; 22:11-12; Exod. 3:2-6; Judges 6:14, 22; 13:9-18, 22). The other riders were lesser angels. There is another lesser angel who serves throughout the visions as the interpreting angel to Zechariah (1:13, 14, 19; 2:3; 4:1, 4-5; 5:10; 6:4; see E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament [Kregel], pp. 267-269).

Commentators agree that the myrtle trees in the ravine symbolize God’s lowly people, the Jews. They are not stately cedars on a mountaintop, but humble myrtles in a ravine, under Gentile domination. The myrtle is an evergreen that can grow to about 30 feet. It exudes a fragrant aroma from its berries and leaves (when crushed), and from its flowers. Its branches were used in the Feast of Booths (Neh. 8:15). The horses symbolize God’s activity in governing the earth. The red horses point to war and bloodshed (Isa. 63:1-6; Rev. 6:4). The white horses symbolize victory (Rev. 6:2). The sorrel (light brown) or dappled (Hebrew meaning is uncertain) horses may refer to a mixture of judgment and mercy.

Zechariah asks the interpreting angel what the vision means (1:9). The angel explains that the riders on the horses are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth. As John Calvin points out (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Zechariah, p. 35), God doesn’t need angels to inform Him as to the state of things on earth, but He employs this language in order to stoop to our weakness. When the Bible says that God Himself is our refuge, it does not add anything to say that His angels encamp around us (Ps. 34:7), or that He has an entire army of angels at His disposal. But it helps our weak faith to see that He is mighty over our enemy and his forces.

This vision of Christ and His angels in the midst of God’s oppressed people is given to encourage God’s people with the reality of His powerful presence with them, even in their trials. The angel of the Lord’s intercessory question (1:12) should encourage God’s people that He cares for them. And, the Lord’s gracious and comforting words about Israel’s future (1:12-17) are also given for encouragement. I will explain more details as we go through the text.

1. There are often times when it seems that the wicked are at ease and the godly are forgotten (1:8, 11).

When the patrol angels report that “all the earth is peaceful and quiet” (1:11), we need to understand it in terms of God’s promise through Haggai (2:6-7, 22) to shake and overthrow the powerful nations that dominated the world scene. When the Persian ruler Darius came to the throne, he faced numerous rebellions. A godly Jew may have thought, “This is it! Our oppressor will soon be overthrown!”

But according to an inscription and bas relief that has been found, Darius boasts that in 19 battles he had defeated nine rebel leaders and subdued all his enemies (cited by Kenneth Barker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 7:611-612). So Israel’s oppressor was boastfully at ease. The same Hebrew verb (“quiet”) is used both of Moab (Jer. 48:11) and Sodom (Ezek. 16:49) in negative ways to refer to the careless ease of the wicked. So the Jews were left wondering, “Did God forget about us? Doesn’t He know that the pagan empires are peaceful and quiet, while His chosen people are despised and downtrodden?”

That is a common picture throughout the Bible. For 400 years, God’s chosen people were slaves in Egypt while God waited for the iniquity of the Amorites to be filled up (Gen. 15:13, 16)! During the times of Christ, Israel had been under foreign domination for over four centuries. Then God judged the Jews for rejecting their Messiah and scattered them around the world for 19 centuries, culminating with the Holocaust. Only then, in 1948, did they again become a nation and begin to return to the holy land (Zech. 2:12 is the only reference to the “holy land” in the Bible).

When you get to the Book of Revelation, the picture is still that of God’s people being persecuted and oppressed, while the ungodly thrive right up to the eleventh hour (Rev. 6:9-11, with the same cry of “How long, O Lord”; 18:1-24). Right up to the end, it seems as if God has forgotten His chosen people and as if the wicked are literally getting away with murder. But in the bottom of the ninth, so to speak, God will hit a grand slam home run and win the game.

This consistent picture in Scripture and in our text should teach us three lessons. First, we should not be surprised when our personal experience is identical with God’s persecuted remnant in Scripture. As Hebrews 11 recounts the exploits of the great people of faith, don’t overlook the fact that all were not victorious in this life. Some “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated” (Heb. 11:35-37). None of these received in this life what was promised. But they lived by faith in God’s promises, and so should we.

Second, don’t let the apparent ease and prosperity of the wicked deceive you. Like Asaph in Psalm 73:17-20, go into the sanctuary of God and consider their final end, how God will cast them down to destruction in a moment. Rather than being enticed by their temporal prosperity, we should urgently warn them of their impending eternal danger!

Third, when you don’t understand your circumstances, follow Zechari­ah’s example and ask God for clarification. The Lord was gracious to explain the meaning of things to the prophet so that he could comfort God’s people with the same comfort he experienced. With Asaph, if you’re losing the right perspective, take some sanctuary time and meet with God. His eternal perspective helps us get our bearings. Our text reveals three truths we need to remember when it seems as if the wicked are prospering and the godly are forgotten:

2. Christ encourages us with His powerful presence, His prayer for us, and His promises for our welfare.

A. Christ encourages us with His powerful presence (1:7-10).

The beautiful picture here is that of Christ in the midst of His people in their humiliation as their defender, surrounded by militant angels ready to do His bidding. Christ’s taking His place with His people in the myrtle grove in the ravine reminds me of the three faithful Hebrew men whom Nebuchadnezzar threw into the fiery furnace because they would not bow before his image (Daniel 3). When he looked into the furnace, he did not see three bound men, but four, “loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth [was] like a son of the gods” (Dan. 3:25). I believe that the Lord Jesus Christ personally went into the flames with His three faithful witnesses.

The picture of the angels on the war horses in Zechariah’s vision reminds me of the story in 2 Kings 6:8-23, where the king of Aram was upset because Elisha was telling the king of Israel his every move before he made it. So he foolishly sent his army to surround the city where Elisha lived. When Elisha’s servant went out to get the morning paper (that detail is not in the text), he ran back inside in alarm. Elisha calmed him by saying, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then he prayed for God to open his servant’s eyes, and the servant saw that the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

God doesn’t always open our eyes to see the unseen world, but Scripture assures us that His angels keep watch over His chosen people (Ps. 34:7; 91:11; Dan. 6:22). And not just His angels, but Jesus Christ Himself promised to be with us to the end of the age as we take His good news throughout the world (Matt. 28:20). When it seems as if the wicked are prospering and you are suffering, trust in God’s promise of His powerful presence with you in every circumstance and you will be encouraged.

B. Christ encourages us with His prayer for us (1:12).

Before Zechariah can even think of what to pray in light of the godless nations being at ease, the angel of the Lord (Christ) intercedes with the question that was undoubtedly in the prophet’s mind: “O Lord of hosts, how long will You have no compassion for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been indignant these seventy years?” Isn’t it beautiful that the Lord does not rebuke Zechariah for thinking, “How long?” but He even asks the question on his behalf! The nation certainly deserved God’s punishment for their many years of gross sin. But here is the Lord, taking His place with them in the ravine, pleading with the Father to have compassion on them!

What a beautiful picture of the abundant grace of our Lord! Even after we believed in Him for eternal life, we all have sinned so many times that we deserve any temporal punishment that He sends our way. Even the most godly Christians feel as if their prayer life is woefully inadequate. Who can say, “I pray as often and as faithfully as I should”?

But in spite of our many sins and shortcomings, the New Testament assures us, “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:33-34). As Paul goes on to ask, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” His resounding answer is, “No one!” Hallelujah!

Robert Murray McCheyne, the godly 19th century Scottish pastor, wrote, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet the distance makes no difference. He is praying for me!” Someone else has observed that it is a great blessing to have a godly father or mother who prays for you. But how much greater a blessing to have the Son of God, who knows your every need, praying for you! When it seems as if the wicked prosper and God has forgotten you, remember that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, interceding for you!

Thus Christ encourages us with His powerful presence and with His prayers for us.

C. Christ encourages us with His promises for our welfare (1:13-17).

God rightfully could have said, “This people does not deserve My compassion. Let them suffer longer!” But instead, the Lord answered the angel’s plea with “gracious words, comforting words” (1:13), which are spelled out in 1:14-17, where He says three things.

(1) The Lord of hosts emphatically affirms His jealous love for His people (1:14).

Just as the Hebrew grammar in verse 2 emphasized the intensity of God’s anger with the Jews because of their sins, so here the grammar emphasizes God’s fierce jealousy for Jerusalem and Zion. The word “jealous” is put first in the sentence for emphasis. Also, the Hebrew uses the cognate accusative, “jealous I am with jealousy.” The Hebrew verb stem (Piel = intensive) means to burn or glow red in the face. As if that were not enough, the Lord adds the word “exceedingly”! So the overall idea is that God has some very strong feelings about His relationship with His chosen people!

Calvin (p. 44) says that the picture is of God as a husband fighting for his own wife. He then applies it by saying that we should not think that God is indifferent when He delays and defers His aid, just because He doesn’t act as quickly as we may want Him to. He says, “We may therefore be fully persuaded, that even when God withholds his aid, he is not otherwise affected towards us than the best of fathers towards his own children.” The only reason for His delay is that “it is not always expedient for us to be delivered soon from our troubles” (pp. 44-45). Thus the Lord encourages us by His fiercely jealous love for us as His chosen people.

(2) The Lord asserts His fierce anger towards the nations that oppressed His people (1:15).

God used the pagan nations to bring judgment on His sinning people, but the nations went too far. When God says that He was “only a little angry,” He may be referring to the time of His anger towards His people, not to its intensity (1:2; so Unger, p. 31). Or, as Calvin interprets it, God’s “little anger” refers to His anger toward His elect, whereas His fierce anger (1:2, plus Ezek. 14:14) refers to His anger toward the unbelieving among Israel.

It is a mystery of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility how God can direct pagan nations to punish His sinning people, and then hold those nations accountable for going too far in their cruelty. Since the second vision (1:18-21) elaborates on God’s judgment on the nations, I will say no more here, except that Scripture assures us that no wicked person or nation will escape God’s certain judgment. That truth should encourage us when we feel as if the ungodly are prospering in spite of their persecuting God’s people.

(3) The Lord reaffirms His compassion for His people and His promises for their future blessing (1:16-17).

God promises that His house (which they were working on) would be built and a measuring line would be stretched over Jerusalem, not for judgment (2 Kings 21:13), but for rebuilding. The cities of Israel would again overflow with prosperity. And the Lord reaffirms His comfort for Zion and His choice of Jerusalem.

While these promises were partially fulfilled in Zechariah’s era, the ultimate fulfillment still awaits the return of Christ and the establishing of His millennial kingdom. It’s interesting that Charles Simeon, writing in the early 1800’s, affirmed that the Jews would return to the land, even though this event was over a century away (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 10:440-441). This part of God’s reply is amplified in the third vision (2:1-13).

Even though the Jews still have not experienced the fulfillment of all of these promises some 2,500 years later, they are still true. God gave them to this discouraged people to encourage them with His compassion, comfort, and choice of them as His people. His encouraging words apply to us as well. We may die without seeing the fulfillment of His promises, but they still are true. As we trust Him, we will experience His compassion and love in the midst of our trials. He has not forgotten His chosen people!

Conclusion

A Jewish fable tells of a rabbi who went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. At nightfall, they came to the cottage of a poor man and his wife, whose only earthly treasure was a cow. The man and his wife welcomed the strangers, fed them their best food, and put them to bed in their own bed, while the hosts lay down before the kitchen fire. But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.

The next evening the rabbi and Elijah came to the house of a wealthy merchant. He treated them coldly, fed them bread and water, and put them to bed in a cow shed. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for what he had done and sent for a mason to repair one of the rich man’s walls, which was falling down, as a return for his kindness.

The rabbi could not keep his silence. He asked the prophet to explain the treatment of the two hosts. The prophet replied, “In regards to the poor man, it had been decreed that his wife would die that night, but in reward for his kindness, God took the cow instead of his wife. In regards to the rich miser, I repaired his wall because a chest of gold was concealed near the place, and if the miser had repaired it himself, he would have discovered the treasure.” The moral of the tale was: Do not say to the Lord, “What are You doing?” But say in your heart, “Must not the Lord of all do rightly?” We don’t always see the big picture as God does!

When it seems as if the wicked are at ease and you are forgotten, be encouraged by Christ’s powerful presence, His prayer for you, and His promises for your welfare.

Discussion Questions

  1. According to 1 Peter 5:8-10, when are we especially susceptible to Satan’s attacks? How can we be on guard?
  2. When we suffer at the hands of wicked people, our feelings are often dominant. How can we put faith ahead of feelings?
  3. Is it wrong to desire God’s punishment on the wicked? How do we apply the imprecatory Psalms (10, 109, 137, etc.)?
  4. A person asks, “How can I know that I am one of God’s chosen people?” Your answer?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Empower, Prayer, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 3: God Our Strong Defender and Benefactor (Zechariah 1:18-2:13)

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When you look at the church of Jesus Christ, whether in history or in our own day, the very fact of its existence is a strong evidence of both God’s existence and the truth of Jesus’ words. He promised, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).

Throughout its history, the church has been battered by storms of persecution without and scandalous weaknesses within. There have been times and places where evil tyrants tried to eliminate Christians and God’s Word from the face of the earth, but the tyrants died and the church and the Word live on. There have always been false teachers within the church, spreading destructive heresies that lead many astray. There have also been Christian leaders who have fallen into horrible sins, bringing shame to the name of Christ. The modern church in America is rife with false teaching and moral scandals. And yet God has a remnant that is faithful to Him in spite of all of the problems.

Not only the church, but also the existence of the Jewish people and their presence in the Promised Land, is a witness to God’s existence and the truth of His Word. About 4,000 years ago, God promised Abraham that He would make him into a great nation, and bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him (Gen. 12:1-3). Down through history, Israel as a people has been surrounded by fierce enemies whose aim was to wipe them off the face of the earth (Ps. 129:1-2).

The Holocaust under Hitler and the present Islamic terrorism both stem from intense hatred of the Jews. Millions of Muslims hate the United States and cheered when al-Qaeda hit our nation because the U.S. is friendly towards Israel. The entire Arab world is united in its desire to see the Jews expelled from the Promised Land and even eradicated as a people. Although they have not turned back to God, the Jews still exist and are in the Promised Land as a testimony to the truth of God and His promises! Scripture predicts a glorious future for the Jews (Rom. 11:25-27).

When you come to a text such as ours today, commentators tend to go in one of two directions. Either they spiritualize the promises to Israel here by applying them exclusively to the church; or, they apply them exclusively to Israel without mentioning any application to the church. I was pleased to find that Charles Spurgeon (“The Man with the Measuring Line,” sermon # 604, Ages Software) first acknowledges its application to the future of Israel before applying it to the church. I believe that these promises will yet be fulfilled for Israel as God’s chosen people. Verses 11 & 12 will be fulfilled literally when Jesus Christ returns to reign on David’s throne in Jerusalem.

At the same time, if we only applied it to Israel and not to God’s church today, we would miss some great promises that God gives to encourage us as His people. Please keep both of these applications in mind as we examine the second and third night visions to Zechariah. Together, they show that…

God will defend and bless His chosen people in His time.

The second vision (1:18-21) amplifies 1:15, where God expresses His anger toward the nations that had gone too far in punishing Israel for her sins. The third vision (2:1-13) amplifies 1:16-17, where God reassures His people of His compassion and future blessing for them, especially in sending them His Messiah.

Both visions assume God’s absolute sovereignty and right to cast off certain nations in order to establish His chosen people according to His purpose. If God were dependent on human will to accomplish His will, He could not assert what He is going to do in the terms that He uses here. He is very definite in His plans to defend and bless His people for His own glory.

But at the same time, these visions exhort God’s people to obedience as their responsibility. God does not accomplish His sovereign plan apart from the willing obedience of His people, but rather, through it. The Bible always affirms both God’s absolute sovereignty and human responsibility. So must we!

1. God defends His chosen people in His time by punishing the wicked who oppress them (1:18-21).

In this second vision, Zechariah sees four horns. The type of animal is not specified; it could have been a wild ox, a bull, a ram, a goat, or some combination of these. But it doesn’t matter, because the focus is on the horn, not on the animal. In biblical imagery, the horn symbolizes strength and power, especially of nations or of Gentile kings (Ps. 75:10; Jer. 48:15; Dan. 7:24; 8:3ff.). Zechariah asks the angel what these horns are and the angel answers, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.”

Commentators differ on the identification of these four horns. Some say that the number four represents the four compass points, thus indicating that Israel is surrounded by hostile enemies, without any specific enemies in view. Others say that the four horns are either Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, and Medo-Persia (past and current oppressors of Israel) or Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome (Daniel 2, 7, in which case the last two powers were still future in Zechariah’s day). These last four are the four major powers that dominate the Jews during the times of the Gentiles.

Then the Lord shows Zechariah four craftsmen. The prophet asks, “What are these coming to do?” The Lord tells him that these four craftsmen have come to terrify and throw down the four horns that have scattered Judah.

What can we learn from this vision? First, we learn that God’s people should expect severe hardships and opposition simply because they are His people in this evil world. Whether it is the nation Israel or the church, the Bible is clear that God’s enemy will stir up opposition right up to the final victory of Christ. The Christian life is pictured as warfare, and as we know from the current war in Iraq, warfare is not a Sunday School picnic! We are commanded to put on the full armor of God so that we may be able to stand firm in the evil day (Eph. 6:10-20). Not only do we have to be ready to fight the enemy without, but also we must be ready to fight against the enemy within, “the fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).

Warfare requires a certain mindset. You don’t go into battle with a casual manner, thinking about other things. You gear up your mind for action (1 Pet. 1:13) and stay vigilant and focused so that you don’t get ambushed. Far too many Christians wander into the world as if they’re going to a Sunday School picnic rather than as if they are going into mortal combat. When trials or opposition hit, they are caught off guard and don’t handle it well. Expect enemy opposition if you are a part of God’s people!

Second, know that God will be the strong defender of His people and that He will punish the wicked in His time. For each horn, God raised up a craftsman to throw it down. In some cases, His people suffered for years before He brought the deliverer. It wasn’t always on their desired timetable! But the point is, He will defend His chosen people and punish the wicked in His time! While many of God’s faithful saints have died martyrs’ deaths, the cause of Jesus Christ will prevail. There is no doubt as to the final outcome. Therefore, we should commit ourselves to it fully.

But perhaps you still wonder, “Why does God permit this kind of strong opposition against His people?” There can be multiple reasons. One reason (this was true of Israel in Zechariah’s time) is, God uses opposition to chasten His people for their worldliness and unfaithfulness. The Babylonian captivity was directly linked to Israel’s many years of disobedience to God.

Another reason God allows opposition is to teach us that we cannot prevail in our own strength, so that we are forced to rely on God alone. We all are prone not to trust God fully until we are forced to do so. Powerful opposition drives us to the Lord for protection and defense. Coupled with this, God permits opposition to develop godly character qualities in His people. As the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” puts it, “The flames shall not hurt thee, I only design, thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” So whatever the form of the opposition, remember that it will not ultimately prevail. God will judge all who oppose His people, and He will deliver and vindicate His people. But He does it in His time, not in our time!

2. God will bless His chosen people in His time as their defender and benefactor by sending His Messiah (2:1-13).

The vision is presented in 2:1-5 and applied in 2:6-13.

A. The vision presented (2:1-5).

In his third vision, Zechariah sees a man with a measuring line who is going out to measure Jerusalem. Many commentators think that this man is the angel of the Lord, but others view him as a man who is mistaken in his attempt to measure the city, in light of 2:4. Since the text does not identify him, we cannot be dogmatic. Another angel meets Zechariah’s interpreting angel and tells him to run and say to the young man (some understand this to be the man with the measuring line, but more likely, it is Zechariah), “Jerusalem will be inhabited without walls because of the multitude of men and cattle within it.”

Then a word from the Lord assures His people, “For I will be a wall of fire around her, and I will be the glory in her midst.” The wall of fire recalls the pillar of fire that God used to illumine and protect Israel from her enemies in the wilderness (Exod. 14:19-24). Also, shepherds would sometimes build a fire around their flock to protect them from wolves at night. The picture is that God will surround and defend His people from their enemies.

God also promises to be the glory in the midst of His people. The Shekinah glory had departed from the temple because of the people’s sin (Ezek. 10:18; 11:22, 23), but now it would return through the presence of the Lord Himself. This is a reference to the second coming of Christ and the New Jerusalem, which will have “no need of the sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).

But even though its ultimate fulfillment awaits the future, there is certainly an application for the church today. While elders are exhorted to guard the flock from predators (Acts 20:28-31), and we should do all that we can to obey that charge, the Lord Himself must be the defender of His church or it would have failed centuries ago! Concerning His glory in our midst, we will never experience now anything close to the glory of God’s presence that we will know when Jesus returns. But even so, we still should strive so to exalt Jesus Christ in His church that those who come among us will declare that God is certainly in our midst (1 Cor. 14:25).

Both promises are related to our obedience. If we want God to be a wall of fire around us and to be the glory in our midst, we must walk in holiness before Him each day, allowing His purifying fire to cleanse our hearts of all sin. We must be captivated with the beauty of His glory as we grow to know Him more and more.

B. The vision applied (2:6-13).

The vision is applied with three commands. The first (2:6-9), “Flee,” is given to the exiles who are still living in Babylon. The second (2:10-12), “Sing for joy,” is directed to the “daughter of Zion,” which refers to believing Jews who are looking for Messiah. The third (2:13), “Be silent before the Lord” is directed to all people (“flesh”) of the earth.

(1) Flee Babylon (2:6-9)!

Babylon was to the east of Jerusalem, but it is called the land of the north because the invaders followed the Euphrates River to the north and then swooped down on Jerusalem from that direction. God repeats the command twice to His people to emphasize the importance of it: Flee Babylon! Escape while you can!

This command took faith to obey. Babylon (or the Medo-Persian empire, which had conquered Babylon) was then prospering. It was the hub of the civilized world. Jobs, culture, comfort—Babylon had it all! But Jerusalem was a heap of rubble. There were no walls of defense. Hostile neighbors threatened every attempt to rebuild it. Yet God says to His people, “I’m going to bless Jerusalem and judge Babylon. So flee Babylon while you can!”

Then we come to verse 8, which one commentator (Joyce Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p.109) calls “one of the most difficult verses in the book.” There are two interpretive problems: What does “after glory” mean? And, who is the “me” who is sent? Without going into all of the possibilities, I think that the “me” refers to Messiah, who is one in essence with the Lord of hosts, and yet distinguished as to person. Thus the Father sends the Son to restrain the nations that plunder His people (this is Calvin’s view, among others). The phrase “after glory” “describes the ministry of Messiah in which He vindicates and demonstrates the glory of God, particularly as He will punish Israel’s enemies and deliver and establish His own people in kingdom blessing” (Merrill Unger, Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 49, italics his). Thus the first part of verse 8 explains why God’s people should flee Babylon: Because God will send His Messiah to vindicate His glory by conquering the worldly nations that have oppressed His people.

Then the Lord adds the reason why Messiah will do this: “For he who touches you, touches the apple of His eye.” This shows how much God loves and cares for His people! “The apple of His eye” refers to the pupil, which is probably the most sensitive part of your body. You guard your eye more than anything, because it is so important and so vulnerable. God says that His people are like that to Him. As John Calvin puts it, “the love of God towards the faithful is so tender that when they are hurt he burns with so much displeasure, as though one attempted to pierce his eyes” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Zechariah, p. 71). Thus God’s love for His people is given as a strong motivation to flee Babylon.

The command to flee Babylon is of more than academic value to us. In the Scriptures, Babylon represents the world system as opposed to God. Even as God’s people, it’s easy to dwell there. It has many enticements: money, pleasure, status, the good life—and you can experience it all right now! The church, world missions, the kingdom of God—that’s all nice, but not nearly as enticing as what the world dangles in front of us. But the Bible clearly warns us, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). It’s a matter of God’s love! You will either love this evil world and all that it offers, or you will renounce the world because by faith in Christ, you are now the apple of God’s eye.

It takes faith to obey God on this matter. Right now, the world looks mighty appealing. The church looks pretty drab in comparison. But in the final chapters of Revelation, God reveals the outcome of Babylon compared to that of the church. Babylon and all her wealth are destroyed in one hour. The church rejoices over Babylon’s destruction and enjoys the marriage supper of the Lamb (see Revelation 18 & 19).

May I ask: Are you dwelling in Babylon or Jerusalem right now? Are you living for this world and what it offers, or are you seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness? Are you storing up treasures on earth, or are you committed to building God’s temple in the Spirit? A sure-fire way to answer those questions is to examine where you spend your time and money. If you are committed to building God’s temple, you will spend significant amounts of time and money to further God’s work both here and around the world. To repeat the Lord’s appeal, “Escape, you who are living with the daughter of Babylon” (2:7).

(2) Sing for joy (2:10-12)!

The flow of thought here is repeated in Revelation 18:20, where after God’s judgment falls on Babylon, the saints are commanded to rejoice. In Zechariah, the focus of their joy is the coming of Messiah and the salvation of the nations, when God will possess Judah as His portion in the holy land (the only reference to “the holy land” in the Bible). In Zechariah 9:9, God’s people are told to rejoice over Messiah’s coming, but the reference is to His first coming, when He will be “humble and mounted on a donkey.” But here the focus is on Messiah’s second coming, when He will dwell literally in the midst of His people and the nations will find salvation in Him.

While there is no good reason to deny the literal future fulfillment of this promise in Christ’s millennial kingdom, we also should apply it to the church today. God’s purpose is to be glorified among the nations. He has called us to find our joy in Him and then to take that joy to the ends of the earth. We have His promise that His kingdom will prevail, in spite of the difficulties and setbacks that we may encounter as we seek to proclaim Christ to the nations. So heed the command to sing for joy and be glad over the promise of His coming. But don’t keep that joy to yourself. Take it to the nations through your prayers, your giving, and (in some cases) your going with the good news of Christ the Savior who has come and is coming again.

(3) Be silent before the Lord (2:13)!

The command to flee Babylon is given to God’s people dwelling in the world. The command to sing for joy is given to those who are daughters of Zion, who eagerly await the Lord’s coming to dwell among them. The command to be silent before the Lord is given to all flesh. It is saying, “In light of everything that has been said to this point, in light of the certainty of God’s future judgment of the nations and the establishing of Messiah’s kingdom, hush up, people! Be in awe, because God is aroused and about to act!”

The picture is that of a sleeping giant who is now aroused and ready to take care of his enemies. But it is only an apparent image, because “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). Even though God’s judgment is delayed and it seems to us as if He is sleeping, the day is certainly coming when He will be aroused to judge all flesh. Verse 13 is similar to Psalm 2:12, “Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” So it is a command to believers not to despair at God’s seeming delay of judgment and a command to unbelievers to make haste to submit to God before it is too late.

Conclusion

How you apply this message personally depends on where you are at. If you profess to know God, but are living with the daughter of Babylon, God’s word to you is, “Get out of there quickly!” “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15)!

If you are dwelling in Jerusalem, but discouraged over the trials you are experiencing, God’s word to you is, “Sing for joy and be glad, for behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst” (Zech. 2:10). Rest in the promise that you are the apple of His eye and that He will judge those who harm you.

If you are not one of God’s people, His word to you is, “Submit your life to Jesus Christ now, before He comes in judgment and it is too late!” No matter how great your sins, He invites you to trust in Christ as your sin-bearer, to join yourself to the Lord and become one of His people.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does God delay His judgment of the wicked so long? (See 2 Pet. 3:9 for starters.)
  2. What is “worldliness”? How can we evaluate ourselves on this and extricate ourselves from it?
  3. How does God’s guarding His people fit in with all of the persecution down through history?
  4. Trials don’t feel like God’s blessing! How do we know whether He is blessing us if not by the absence of trials?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Christology, Prophecy/Revelation, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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