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Lesson 59: The Ups and Downs of Witnessing (Acts 22:23-23:11)

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If you have been a Christian for very long, you have blown it as a witness. I still remember an incident during my sophomore year of college (a long time ago!). I was taking a group discussion class. Each group was evaluated by our classmates. To get good evaluations, we would choose controversial subjects to arouse interest: sexual issues, drug use, etc. On every issue, I was the conservative member of the group.

There was a guy in our group named Ralph. On every issue, he took the libertarian side of things. He was in favor of free sex, homosexuality, experimenting with drugs, and every other issue that I was opposed to. One day after class, Ralph looked me in the eye and asked, “Hey, man, are you for real, or are you just putting us on in there?” Instantly I knew that this was an opportunity to tell Ralph about Christ, but I was tongue-tied. All I could do was mumble, “Yeah, I’m really that way.” I felt terrible, knowing that I had failed the Lord.

That failure led me first, to pray for Ralph over the years when he has come to mind, that God would save him in spite of my failure. Also, it led me to get some training in how to share my faith. But in spite of all of the training and the books that I’ve read on the subject over the years since then, I still find that witnessing is an up and down sort of thing. Sometimes I do okay, but sometimes I still don’t do so well.

Paul’s story here should encourage every Christian in the ups and downs of witnessing. Even though Paul probably could have handled things better than he did, the Lord graciously appeared to him when he was discouraged and said, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also” (23:11). The lesson is,

If we will speak out for Christ, even if we blow it, He will graciously encourage us and give us further opportunities to speak out for Him.

In Acts 22:1-22, Paul had taken the opportunity to preach to the Jewish mob that had tried to kill him. They listened until he told them how the Lord told him to leave Jerusalem, which would not accept his witness, and go to the Gentiles. At the mention of the word “Gentiles,” the crowd went wild, like a pack of wolves trying to get to their prey.

Since Paul had been preaching in Aramaic, which the Roman commander probably did not understand very well, he didn’t know what had set the mob off again, but he was determined to find out. He brought Paul into the barracks and was going to examine him by torture to get it out of him. Scourging was a brutal punishment of beating a man on his bare back with a leather-thonged whip that had pieces of metal or bone attached to it. It would leave a man severely crippled and could result in death. This was the treatment that Pilate inflicted on Jesus just prior to the crucifixion. As the soldiers stretched Paul out to tie him for the beating, he asked the centurion, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?” (22:25). Paul was exercising his legal right to protect himself from persecution, and there is nothing wrong with doing that.

The centurion quickly informed the commander of the situation. Alarmed, the commander came to Paul and discovered that he was indeed a Roman citizen. In fact, Paul was born a citizen, whereas the commander had obtained his citizenship by paying a large sum of money. Since it could have cost him his position to scourge a Roman citizen without a trial, the commander quickly had Paul untied.

But since he was responsible to maintain peace in Jerusalem, the commander still wanted to find out what was going on between Paul and the Jews. So he called together the Jewish Sanhedrin and brought Paul in before them to get to the bottom of this conflict (so he thought). But it wasn’t long until the Council itself erupted in such an uproar among themselves in response to something that Paul had said, that the commander again had to rescue this troublesome man! This story teaches us three main lessons:

1. We all are responsible to speak out for Jesus Christ when He gives us opportunities.

If you have trusted in Christ as Savior, then you are His witness. You may not always be a good witness, but His name is identified with you, so that by your actions, attitudes, and words, you are a witness for Him. As He gives you opportunities, you should bear verbal witness. As 1 Peter 3:15-16 exhorts us, “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” In 22:1-22, Paul had given his defense (22:1) with a good conscience (23:1).

Paul’s experience teaches us three practical lessons:

  • We should always be alert for opportunities to speak out for Christ.

Paul had just been mobbed and badly beaten, but when he got rescued, his first thought was to address the crowd and tell them about Jesus. When he stood before the Jewish Council, again he would attempt to tell them about his experience with Christ, although he didn’t get very far. When later he would have audiences with the Roman governors, he would tell them about Christ.

This didn’t just happen by chance, or because Paul was a natural preacher. In 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, he explains, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” It was a matter of deliberate purpose or aim. If we want to imitate Paul in obedience to our Lord, we need to make it our frequent prayer, “Lord, give me opportunities to speak out for You, and give me the words to say when the opportunities come.”

  • We should know what to say in advance so that we can bear witness effectively.

As we saw last week, Paul basically shared his testimony: his life before conversion; his conversion; and his life afterwards. Even if you don’t have a dramatic story (as I do not), you can tell people what God has done for your soul and what He will do for them. Beyond that, you should be armed with the basic facts of the gospel and the accompanying Scriptures to present it clearly. Learn some simple illustrations that help to clarify. Learn how to respond to the common objections that people raise. Much of our fear of witnessing is that we don’t know what to say. Some basic training can offset that fear.

  • Our lives should back up our words.

Paul begins his witness to the Jerusalem Council by saying, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day” (23:1). He will later tell Felix, “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men” (24:16). He told the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:4), “For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.”

Some have wondered how Paul could say such things in light of his record of persecuting the church and other sins. But to have a good conscience before God does not mean to have lived perfectly, but to live openly, confessing our sins and turning from them when God convicts us of them. Also, our conscience must be informed by God’s Word or it will be a faulty guide. Paul was acting in good conscience when he persecuted the church (1 Tim. 1:13), but he was terribly wrong because his conscience was informed more by his Jewish culture than by the Scriptures. If a person deliberately violates his conscience repeatedly, it will lead to a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2), insensitive to all wrongdoing. It is only the blood of Christ applied to our hearts that gives us a clean conscience (Heb. 10:22; 1 Pet. 3:21).

But the point is, if we speak out for Christ, we should not be aware of any wrong that we have committed, either against God or men, that we have not repented of and made right. Otherwise, our witness will be used against the Lord and the gospel, because unbelievers will shrug us off as hypocrites. If you are not seeking to maintain a clear conscience before God and men, please do not let anyone know that you believe in Jesus! And, you may want to examine yourself to see whether you truly do believe in Him!

2, Sometimes when we speak out for the Lord, we will blow it or things will not go as we had hoped.

If you haven’t blown it witnessing, you must not be witnessing! But you can’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from saying anything. You learn from your mistakes and you trust God to overrule and use your mistakes for His purpose.

Paul began his witness before the Council by looking intently at them, which probably involved both eye contact and trying to read their faces. Facial expressions and body language can tell you a lot about where people are at. I’ve had people in church sit with their arms folded, glaring at me with a grim expression on their faces. I don’t need a Ph.D. in communication to realize that they are not friendly toward my message! Then Paul made his opening statement about living with a good conscience before God. The Greek verb translated “lived my life” means to live as a citizen. In this context it has reference to Paul’s life as a Jew in the Jewish theocracy. He is denying the charge leveled against him of bringing a Gentile into the exclusively Jewish section of the temple.

We can’t be sure where Paul was heading from there. Perhaps he would have gone on to show them how even though he had been sincere in persecuting the Christians, he had been sincerely wrong. From there he could have appealed to them to acknowledge their errors, however sincerely they had made them. But Paul didn’t get a chance to go further, because Ananias, the high priest, ordered those standing beside Paul to strike him on the mouth.

Remember, Paul had just been badly beaten by the angry mob. His face was probably sore and bruised. The blow must have both shocked Paul and hurt terribly. Also, the high priest’s command was grossly unjust and revealed that he was not interested in justice, but only in getting Paul condemned. Ananias was a notoriously corrupt high priest. According to Josephus, he stole from the common priests and used violence and political power to further his goals. The Jewish nationalists hated him because of his pro-Roman leaning. During the Jewish revolt against Rome, some Jewish loyalists assassinated him.

As soon as he was hit, Paul shot back, “God is going to strike you, you white-washed wall! And do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?” (23:3). When some bystanders expressed their shock that Paul would thus revile the high priest, Paul replied that he had not been aware that he was the high priest, and admitted his error by citing Exodus 22:28: “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.” Scripture commands us to respect the office, if not the man.

The puzzling question is, why didn’t Paul know that Ananias was the high priest? Three answers have been proposed, none of which are completely satisfying. Some say that Paul’s eyesight was so bad that he could not see who had given the order for him to be struck. Verse one seems to contradict this, unless you take “looking intently” to mean that he squinted at them without being able to see them clearly. But even if he couldn’t see, wouldn’t Paul have known that the command came from the leader of the Council?

A second view is that Paul was being sarcastic, saying in effect, “He was acting so contrary to the character of a high priest that I didn’t recognize him.” The problem with this view is that his Scripture quotation seems to acknowledge his wrongdoing.

The third view is that Paul had been gone from Jerusalem so long that he didn’t know who the high priest was. But even if he didn’t know Ananias by sight, he should have known that the leader of the Council was the high priest. So we really don’t know why Paul didn’t recognize him, but we have to take his word for it that he did not. The lesson for us to apply is:

  • When we blow it and realize our error, we should be quick to admit it and correct our mistake.

If we stonewall it, we’ll only reinforce people’s prejudice that Christians are phonies and hypocrites. If we confess our mistakes, people will get the message, Christians are not perfect, but they are willing to admit their mistakes and make things right. Perhaps they will learn that there is reality in walking with God.

When we lived in California, we had a collie that for some unknown reason went crazy with barking at our neighbor’s truck when he drove by. One morning, the neighbor reached his limit. When Christa, who was about 12, went outside to calm the dog, the neighbor yelled at her, using some foul language. I’d like to think that if he had yelled at me, I would have remained calm. But using foul language on my 12-year-old daughter pushed my “Defend-your-daughter” button, and I got really mad. I went outside and told him to keep his foul mouth shut and we exchanged some angry words.

This happened on a Sunday morning, just before I left for church! As I walked out to go to church, the neighbor and his daughter’s boyfriend, who lived with her there, drove by. They were glaring at me and looking menacing. I held up my hand to stop them. They screeched to a halt and jumped out of the truck with their fists clenched, ready for a fight. Again I held up my hand and said, “I’m sorry that I yelled at you a few minutes ago. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” Instantly, the neighbor melted and offered an apology for his own wrongs. After that, we always waved in a friendly manner to each other.

That neighbor probably knew that I am a pastor. If I had not asked forgiveness for my wrong response, it only would have reinforced his negative bias against Christians. I pray that the Lord used my confession to open the way for the gospel to come through to him through some other means. That’s a second lesson:

  • When things do not go as we had hoped, we must trust God to use it anyway.

After his admission of wrong, Paul took another tack. Perceiving that some of the Council were ardent Pharisees and some were equally ardent Sadducees, Paul cried out, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” (23:6). This led to a free-for-all among the Council. As Luke explains for his non-Jewish readers, the Sadducees deny the resurrection, angels, and spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. So the Pharisees immediately came to Paul’s defense, while the Sadducees attacked them and Paul. The commander, who probably wondered why everyone was in such an uproar, finally had to rescue Paul by force again.

Scholars debate whether Paul was right or wrong to use this tactic to divide the Council and deliver himself. Some accuse him of using deceit (claiming still to be a Pharisee) to save his own neck. If that was Paul’s scheme, then he was wrong. Others say that he knew that he would never get a fair trial before the Sanhedrin, and that they were too hostile to listen to the gospel. Thus he used this ploy to deliver himself from certain condemnation.

But it’s also possible that Paul’s intent was to use his background as a Pharisee to establish a common ground with the Pharisees who were present, and then to try to move from there to bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the gospel. If this was his intent, his strategy didn’t work out as he had hoped.

Whatever Paul’s intent, we’ve all had times when we tried a certain approach in witnessing, but it did not go as we had hoped. Perhaps the person reacted in an unexpected way and told us that he never wanted us to talk to him about religion again. At that point, all we can do is trust God to use our feeble attempt, and to remember that God doesn’t need perfect disciples to accomplish His sovereign plan. To say this is not to excuse our weaknesses, but rather to exalt God’s greatness and power.

Thus we all are responsible to speak out for Christ, but sometimes we will blow it or things will not go as we had hoped. Finally,

3. When we blow it as a witness, the Lord graciously encourages us and gives us further opportunities to speak out for Him.

That night as Paul lay awake in bed, he was discouraged. Things had not gone well in Jerusalem. The church had not received his gift in the spirit that he had hoped. Then they got him involved in the scheme to look like a Law-keeping Jew, which led to his arrest and getting beat up. His witness before the Sanhedrin had not gone well. And the future looked uncertain and bleak. He didn’t know if he ever would get to Rome, as he had hoped.

At that moment, the Lord Himself stood at Paul’s side and said, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.” What words of encouragement and hope! I don’t have time to give adequate attention to these words now, but I want you to see the grace and encouragement that the Lord extends to His servants. This was the fourth time that the Lord had appeared to Paul (9:4-6 & 22:14; 22:17-18; 18:9-10). Just when Paul needed it, the Lord came and spoke these words of encouragement.

If such appearances of Christ were rare for Paul, they are extremely rare (if at all) for the rest of us. I have heard stories of persecuted prisoners who have seen a vision of the Lord, and I do not doubt such experiences. But the normal way the Lord encourages us when we feel that we’ve blown it is by bringing us to an encouraging verse of Scripture, or through an encouraging word or note from someone who may not even know that we needed it at that moment. Our gracious Lord is aware of our discouragement and He wants us to be encouraged by the promise of His presence and the assurance that He will use us again in the future.

Conclusion

Some time ago, I shared with you how I blew an opportunity to witness. It was on Thanksgiving Day, and I had just run in the Turkey Trot race at Buffalo Park. As I was catching my breath, a middle-aged man walked up and without introducing himself said, “When was the last time you had your prostate checked?” He went on to tell me that he was 53 years-old and had terminal cancer that had begun in his prostate. He was going around handing out pamphlets to every man there to get his prostate gland checked regularly. I was so startled by the encounter that I let him walk away to talk to others before I could say anything about the Lord. I stood there feeling that I had failed as a witness. I didn’t even get his name, so all I could do was pray that somehow he would hear the gospel before he died.

After I shared that story in a sermon, a woman in the church told me that she knew this man and that her husband had shared the gospel with him! I was encouraged with the faithfulness of the Lord and reminded of the fact that He will work out His sovereign purpose in spite of my failures and mistakes. I want all of you to be encouraged, even if you’ve blown it as a witness, to get back up to the plate and swing again. Our gracious Lord will use you in spite of your mistakes if you will speak out for Him!

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some ways to turn a conversation toward spiritual things?
  2. What are your main fears about witnessing? How can these be overcome?
  3. Why is it important for Christians to acknowledge their sins and ask forgiveness, even before unbelievers?
  4. When is it right to stand up for our rights, and when should we back off?

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, Spiritual Life

Lesson 60: The Lord Who Encourages (Acts 23:11)

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A retired teacher shared with “Dear Abby” an incident from many years earlier, when she was teaching junior high math. The class had worked hard on a new concept all week and the students were obviously stressed. To take a break, the teacher asked the students to take out a sheet of paper and write down the names of the other students in the class, leaving a space between each name. Then she told them to write down the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates.

She collected the papers and that weekend wrote the name of each student on a separate piece of paper, followed by what the students had said about that person. On Monday, she gave each student his or her list. Before long, everyone was smiling. She overheard one student whisper, “I never knew that meant anything to anyone. I didn’t know anyone liked me that much!”

Years later, the teacher had to attend the funeral of one of those students, a promising young man who had been killed in Vietnam. The church was packed with many of the man’s friends who had been in that junior high math class. Afterwards, at the parents’ home, the parents said to the teacher, “We want to show you something. Our son was carrying this in his wallet when he was killed.” The father pulled out that list of all the good things that the boy’s classmates had said about him. “Thank you so much for doing that,” the mother said. “As you can see, he treasured it.”

A group of the former classmates heard the exchange. One smiled sheepishly and said, “I still have my list. It’s in my top desk drawer at home.” Another said, “I have mine, too. It’s in my diary.” “I put mine in my wedding album,” said a third. “I bet we all saved them,” said a fourth. “I carry mine with me at all times.”

That poignant story illustrates how much we all need encouragement. As George Herbert, an English pastor and poet, said, “Good words are worth much, and cost little.” To give a word of encouragement to someone who is feeling down is to be like our Lord Jesus. In our text, He stands by the side of the apostle Paul in his prison cell and says, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.” He is the Lord who encourages His people. The Lord encouraged Paul in three ways here that we can apply to ourselves:

The Lord encourages His servants with His presence in their difficult circumstances, His praise for their past service, and His promise of their future service.

1. The Lord encourages His servants with His presence in their difficult circumstances.

This was the fourth time (and last, so far as we know) that the Lord appeared personally to Paul. One time after this (27:23) an angel appeared to him. The first appearance of the Lord was Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road, just before he was struck blind (9:4-6; 22:14). It is possible that during his three years in Arabia the Lord appeared repeatedly to Paul to teach him (implied in Gal. 1:11-17). The second definite time was in the temple in Jerusalem, three years after his conversion, when the Lord told Paul to go to the Gentiles (22:17-18). The third time was when Paul was fearful in Corinth. The Lord appeared to him in a vision at night, telling him to go on speaking, promising His presence and protection, and assuring him that He had many people in that city (18:9-10). And now here, the Lord came and spoke these words of encouragement to Paul in his difficult circumstance. We can learn four lessons about His presence in our difficult times:

A. The Lord knows all of our difficult circumstances.

The Lord didn’t need to send out a team of angels to find out where Paul was. The prison cell and the guards didn’t hinder the Lord from finding Paul. He knew exactly where His servant was and what he needed at that moment. And even though Paul didn’t yet know it, and the Lord didn’t tell Paul about it in advance, the Lord knew of the plot that the Jews were forming against Paul, not to eat or drink until they had killed him. The Lord knows all of our difficult circumstances, and the enemy can only go as far as the Lord permits, and no farther. As Isaiah 54:17 proclaims, “‘No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper; and every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their vindication is from Me,’ declares the Lord.”

You may be in a prison of difficult circumstances—a physical illness, a financial crisis, the heartache of a loved one who has no place for God in his life—where you feel that no one knows what you’re going through. Whatever your circumstances, and even if no other human being knows, Jesus knows and He cares for you.

B. The Lord is with us in all of our difficult circumstances.

The Lord stood at Paul’s side! Most likely, none of us will ever see a physical manifestation of Jesus until either He comes again or we stand before Him at death. Such visible appearances are extremely rare (1 Pet. 1:8), and we should not count on them.

But the Lord is present with us spiritually, and to say that is not to cop out. After giving the Great Commission, Jesus promised, “And, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Or, as Hebrews 13:5-6 promises, after exhorting us to have our way of life be free from the love of money, “for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,’ so that we confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What shall man do to me?’”

When we are in the fiery furnace, the Lord Himself stands with us, if not physically as He did with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (Dan. 3:19-27), very much spiritually, where you can sense His presence. Sometimes He manifests Himself in a special way through His Word. Sometimes it comes through a word of encouragement from another believer. I have experienced both, and they have been precious times, in spite of the difficulties.

In my message on Acts 18:9-10, I shared with you how in my ministry in California, I was going through the most difficult time of criticism that I had ever experienced. I had changed my view from being in favor of “Christian” psychology to being against it, and that change resulted in a barrage of angry letters attacking me and calling for my resignation.

One night, as I was sitting on the edge of the bed feeling discouraged, the reference “Acts 18:9-10” popped into my mind. I had not been reading in Acts and so I don’t know how that verse came to my mind, except that the Lord put it there. I grabbed the Bible beside my bed, opened to those verses, and read how the Lord appeared to Paul in Corinth. He said, “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” I was flooded with the sense of the Lord’s presence and His confirmation of the direction of my ministry.

I also began to detect a pattern during that time. It took me a while to notice, but once I began to notice, it was very consistent. Every time that I received a letter attacking me, often in the same day’s mail, or at least within a day or two, I would receive an encouraging letter. It was the Lord saying to me, “Take courage! I am with you. Just keep on being faithful to My Word.”

As many of you know, shortly after I began in the ministry here, a severe controversy developed between four of our former elders and me. It was a very distressing time. I think it’s fair to say that they were trying to force me out of the church. Many of you sent me encouraging notes, expressing your support for my ministry, which meant much to me. But the note that meant the most came from our then 13-year-old daughter, Joy. She wrote,

Mom & Dad, I just want you to know that I really appreciate you even though some other people don’t! Don’t listen to them. They don’t know what they’re talking about! Dad, I’m really glad you only preach the truth and don’t compromise what the Bible says. Your sermons have helped me lots! A lot of other people have said the same.

Just hang in there and both of you keep up the good work! Look up these verses: they’ve been an encouragement to me: Jeremiah 29:11; Romans 8:28. I love you lots! Love always, Joy.

Whatever you’re going through, if you’re a child of God, He is there with you. He will show you His presence through His Word and through the encouraging words of other believers. Lean on His promise never to desert or forsake you! He knows all of our difficult circumstances and He is there with us in them.

C. The Lord understands how we feel in all of our difficult circumstances.

The Lord does not waste words. He does not say, “Take courage” unless He knows that His servant is discouraged. Paul was disappointed over the way things had gone in Jerusalem. The church had not really appreciated his ministry there. He had been falsely accused and had been beaten by the mob. Now he was feeling the depression that usually follows physical injury. He was alone in his cell. He was feeling uncertain and fearful about the future. Would he ever get to preach in Rome, as he wanted to do? Perhaps he was even wondering where the Lord was in all of these trials. After all, he was only human.

The Lord did not condemn Paul for feeling discouraged, but neither did He let him stay there. He understands our feelings, because He is fully human. As Hebrews 2:16 states, “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, he is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.” So He fully understands how we feel, but He wants us to learn to deal with our feelings in a godly manner.

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Feelings aren’t right or wrong; feelings just are.” There is both truth and error in that statement. The truth of it is, we shouldn’t deny how we feel in an attempt to look more spiritual. Perhaps I’m feeling angry, but I know that my anger would be sinful, and so I say (with clenched teeth), “I’m not angry!” But it’s obvious to everyone else that I’m steaming mad! We need honestly to own up to how we feel.

But the error in the statement is the implication that feelings are morally neutral, and that we’re not responsible for them and we can’t do anything about them. The Bible is clear that many of our feelings are sinful and need to be confronted and put aside. Anger is usually sinful. Sometimes, depression is sinful, when it stems from self-pity or from not trusting God. Anxiety is sinful, even when we’re in the midst of a storm at sea and are afraid that we’re about to die! Jesus rebuked the disciples in that situation for their lack of faith (Mark 8:35-41)! Bitterness is always sinful, no matter how badly we’ve been hurt. So once we’ve admitted how we feel, we need to process our feelings biblically. That’s the fourth lesson:

D. The Lord gives us a gracious command to encourage us in our difficult circumstances.

“Take courage!” Six out of seven uses of this verb in the New Testament are on the lips of Jesus. To a paralytic, lying on his bed, Jesus said, “Take courage, My son, your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2). To the woman with the hemorrhage who touched the fringe of Jesus’ coat, He said, “Daughter, take courage; your faith has saved you” (Matt. 9:22, lit.). To the disciples, who thought that Jesus walking on the water was a ghost, He said, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27; parallel, Mark 6:50). To the disciples on the night He was betrayed, Jesus said, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The only other usage was when the bystanders told blind Bartimaeus, “Take courage, arise! He is calling for you” (Mark 10:49). Truly, Jesus is the Lord who encourages those who are discouraged and without any other hope!

But note that it’s a command. It’s a gentle and gracious command, but it is a command. That implies that we can choose to obey it or disobey it. We disobey it when we stubbornly refuse the help that He sends us through the promises of His Word or through a fellow believer who tries to encourage us. We obey it when we say, “Thank You, Lord, for Your faithful love,” and trust His Word. Thus the main way that the Lord encourages us is with His presence in our difficult circumstances.

2. The Lord encourages His servants with His praise of their past service.

The Lord tells Paul that he has solemnly witnessed to His cause in Jerusalem. He was no doubt referring to Paul’s courage when he addressed the mob that had just tried to kill him in the temple precincts. But I think the Lord also was referring to Paul’s testimony before the Sanhedrin, although seemingly it had not gone well. In neither instance is there any record of there being any conversions. But making converts isn’t our job. Our job is to bear witness for the Lord, and to leave the results to Him.

All too often, we judge our service for the Lord by the results that we can measure or see. How many showed up at the meeting? How many made decisions for Christ? How many gave us positive feedback about what we did? If we consistently receive negative feedback or no visible results, we probably should evaluate whether our manner or methods are somehow wrong. But in some cases, such as with Jeremiah, we may faithfully serve the Lord for many years with many negative and few positive responses.

The main criteria for evaluating our work for the Lord are: Was I faithful to God’s Word? And, was I relying on Him and acting in obedience to what I believed He wanted me to do? If you can answer yes, then, even if you catch criticism, you know in your heart that the Lord was pleased with your service. You offer it up to Him, and you will hear from Him, “Well done!”

The Bible has many promises that the Lord commends His faithful servants. Here are two: Hebrews 6:10 says, “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.” And, 1 Corinthians 15:58, in the context of the resurrection of the body and the Lord’s return, says, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” Whatever you do to serve Him, He remembers and He will reward you for it. Even if no one else appreciates what you have done, the Lord says, “Thanks for standing for My cause!”

The Lord encourages His servants with His presence in their difficult circumstances and with His praise for their past service.

3. The Lord encourages His servants with His promise of their future service.

“So you must witness at Rome also.” The Lord doesn’t bother to tell Paul of the impending plot to kill him or of the two years that he will sit in custody in Caesarea. He doesn’t tell him of the shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea or of the fact that he will go to Rome as a prisoner. But He does tell Paul that he will bear witness at Rome. Even if Paul made a mistake by going to Jerusalem (as some say) or by going along with the scheme of going into the temple to participate in a Jewish ceremony and sacrifice (as I think he did), there is no word of rebuke for that here. Rather, the Lord commends Paul for his past service and promises that He is not through with him yet.

Note the word “must.” The Greek word means, “it is necessary.” Luke uses it about 22 times in Acts. The Lord uses the same word again through the angel who appeared to Paul in the storm just before the shipwreck and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar” (27:24). When God says, “you must,” you know that it’s a done deal. It’s going to happen. As someone has said, “You are immortal until your work for the Lord is done.”

During that time of intense criticism that I went through in California, one evening when I was feeling down, I went into our bathroom to get ready for bed. Our oldest daughter, Christa, who was about 14, had put a post-it note on our mirror that quoted her favorite verse at that time (Jer. 29:11, NIV): “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” What an encouragement! That was God’s promise through Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon, that after 70 years of captivity, God would visit them and fulfill His word to bring them back to the Promised Land.

But that is also His promise to all of His servants who may feel exiled in some distant Babylon, set aside from His purpose. It is His word to those who feel forsaken in some literal or figurative prison, nursing the bruises that they have received in their service for Him. The Lord says, “I have plans to prosper you, plans to give you hope and a future!” “Take courage, for you must witness at Rome also.” Even though you’re wounded and tired, if you’re still breathing, God isn’t finished with you yet. Take courage!

Conclusion

In a sermon on the Lord’s words, “Take courage” (The Westminster Pulpit [Baker], pp. 18-20), G. Campbell Morgan asks the question, “How are we to obey Him?” How can we take courage when we feel fearful or discouraged? He concludes that the only way is to get a clear vision of the Lord Himself. It is to see Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who endured such hostility of sinners against Himself (Heb. 12:2-3). He observes, “All our fear and all our panic result from a dimmed vision of the Lord, a dimmed consciousness of Christ” (p. 19). A few paragraphs later he states, “There is no refuge for the soul of man other than the Lord Christ” (p. 20).

If you’re discouraged about your present difficult circumstances, or feeling down about past mistakes you have made, or anxious about the future, the Lord wants you to take courage. He is with you in your trials, He commends you for your past service, and He promises to use you again in His service as you continue to walk with Him.

And as the Lord encourages you, seek to be His channel of encouragement to others. Remember George Herbert’s words, “Good words are worth much, and cost little.” If you encourage others, you are acting like the Lord Jesus.

Discussion Questions

  1. If we don’t sense God’s spiritual presence with us, how can we gain it?
  2. Is it okay to nurse wrong feelings for a while, or should we confront them and seek to put them off immediately? How can we know whether our feelings are sinful or just “human”?
  3. When have you been most encouraged? How can you best offer encouragement to someone who is feeling down?
  4. Is our future service for the Lord limited somehow by our past mistakes? If so, how? Is it sometimes enhanced by our past mistakes? Give biblical examples.

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, Empower, Rewards, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 61: God’s Providential Protection (Acts 23:12-35)

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“What rotten luck I’ve been having lately!” “I’m having a bad day!” “Oh, well, whatever will be will be, and there’s nothing that we can do about it!”

You’ve probably heard people say all of the above. Perhaps you’ve even said or thought something similar yourself at times. But all of those declarations are at odds with biblical truth, because each statement goes against the truth of God’s providence. There is no such thing as luck or pure chance. If we have a bad day, it is because the Lord ordained these circumstances for our benefit. Bad days don’t just happen! “Whatever will be will be” reflects a view of our circumstances as being caused by impersonal fate.

The Bible often teaches and illustrates the doctrine of God’s providence (I will give a definition later), and it should be a source of great comfort and instruction for every believer. It means that God is not distant, passive, or unconcerned with the daily events in our lives. Rather, as our loving and caring Heavenly Father, He actively governs the daily events of our lives, usually behind the scenes, without in any way robbing us of the duty of making responsible choices.

The story before us contains no exposition of biblical doctrine, no exhortations, and no commands. Rather, it illustrates for us the doctrine taught and illustrated elsewhere of God’s providence. The governing verse for this and all of the events before Paul reaches Rome is verse 11, where the Lord promises Paul that he must witness at Rome also. God has declared His sovereign purpose, and we will see it unfold in the chapters ahead. Here, we learn that …

When we face trials and opposition in our service for the Lord, we should trust Him to protect us by His providence and to work out His sovereign plan for our lives.

God declares that Paul will bear witness for Him in Rome. Over 40 Jewish terrorists determine that even if they die in the process, they will not eat or drink until they assassinate Paul. Guess who prevails? It just “so happens” that Paul’s nephew gets wind of the plot and tells Paul, who sends him to the commander, who is willing to listen to the boy’s story and act on it. He calls together 470 armed troops to escort Paul safely to the Roman governor, Felix, at Caesarea. God wins! There are two practical lessons:

1. We all will face trials and opposition in our service for the Lord.

A. No servant of Christ is exempt from trials and opposition.

Paul was not what you would call an ordinary believer. God has not used any other man in the history of the church as mightily as He used the apostle Paul. That being the case, you would think that God would grant this great man smooth sailing so that he could accomplish as much as possible. But if you have read your New Testament, you know that that is far from the truth. Here is how Paul himself catalogued what he had gone through:

… in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:23b-28).

If Paul, who was one of God’s choicest servants, went through such trials, then none of us are exempt. And yet often believers are surprised when they encounter trials in the course of their service for the Lord. They think, “If I were living for myself, that would be one thing. I would expect God’s hand of discipline in that case. But here I am trying to serve the Lord, and now this happens! What’s the deal?”

The deal is that God nowhere promises His servants a pass that exempts them from trials and opposition. In fact, His Word often describes the Christian life as warfare, and warfare is hardly a promise of a smooth, easy existence! So whenever you attempt to do anything to serve the Lord, whether it is a behind-the-scenes kind of helping ministry or a visible, up-front ministry, you should expect that the enemy will oppose you and be trying to take you out of service. It just goes with the turf!

B. The trials and opposition that we face often comes from those who are religious rather than from the pagans.

Paul’s opposition here came from the Jews, and not just from the average, go-to-synagogue Jews, but from the Jewish leaders. These zealots who intended to kill Paul engaged in a religious activity, fasting, to show their zeal and dedication to God. They no doubt justified their evil aim by arguing that the cause is so important that it doesn’t matter what means are used to achieve it. This renegade Jew who went around the Roman Empire preaching that Gentiles could know God without becoming Jews needed to be silenced. If they couldn’t silence him legally, they would have to kill him. If some of them died at the hands of the Roman guards protecting Paul, so be it. If it required deception to the Roman commander to pull it off, then they would use deception. The necessary end justified the wicked means!

Luke skillfully contrasts the kindness and lawful protection of the Roman commander with the murderous conniving of these religious Jews. This pagan man kindly took Paul’s nephew by the hand, led him aside where they could talk privately, and listened to what he said. He could have scoffed at it as the wild imagination of a young boy, but he didn’t do that.

Rather, he used his authority and the troops at his disposal to protect this Roman citizen so that he would receive a fair trial. And so a pagan Roman soldier shows far more kindness to Paul than his own kinsmen did. It calls to mind the story of Jonah, where the pagan sailors showed Jonah much more kindness than the disobedient prophet was willing to show towards the pagan people of Ninevah.

The Roman commander, in his letter to the governor, bent the truth a bit to make himself look good (23:27). But he also declared Paul innocent of breaking the Roman law (23:29). If Paul’s enemies had a valid case against him, they would not have had to resort to violence. When people attack a man, it is often because they cannot refute his doctrine, and that doctrine convicts them of their sinfulness before God.

The application for us is, don’t be surprised when your strongest critics and opponents of your service for the Lord come from within the church, rather than from outside. There are many in evangelical churches who simply “use” God as a covering for serving their own selfish purposes. They teach the Bible because it makes them feel important and gives them a public platform. They serve in some capacity because they love the recognition and praise that they get from it. They follow Jesus to the extent that He “meets their needs.” But at the heart level, they have never dethroned self and enthroned Jesus as Lord.

The stumbling-block of the cross was at the heart of the Jewish opposition to Paul. If we were not sinners who deserve God’s eternal wrath, then Jesus the Savior did not have to die for our sins. To receive Him as Savior requires that we acknowledge that we are sinners who deserve God’s wrath. And, it is ridiculous to say that we can receive Jesus as Savior, but that submitting to Him as Lord is optional! If He is the eternal God who took on human flesh to die for our sins, then we owe Him everything.

So the first lesson is that we all will face trials and opposition in our service for the Lord.

2. When trials and opposition hit, we should trust God to protect us by His providence and to work out His sovereign plan for our lives.

The Lord had just appeared to Paul and told him that it was necessary (literal Greek for the word “must”) for him to bear witness in Rome. As I mentioned last week, so far as the text reveals, the Lord didn’t say a word to Paul about this impending plot against his life, or about any of the other trials that would be involved in getting him to Rome. He just announces His plan, that Paul would bear witness in Rome, and leaves it for Paul, seemingly by “happenstance,” to discover this plot against his life. Paul’s nephew (this is the only direct reference to any of Paul’s relatives in Scripture) “happens” to be in the right place at the right time to learn about this plot. God uses this to save Paul’s life. There are four lessons here for us to apply:

A. God has a sovereign plan for each of us, that we would glorify Him in the sphere that He appoints for us.

As the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet states Law One: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Whether He calls you to be a bricklayer or a businessman, a school teacher or a missionary, a truck driver or a preacher, His plan is that you would live in such a manner that your life brings glory and honor to His name.

As we also saw last week, the Lord promised His exiled people through Jeremiah (29:11), “I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” Or, as the prophet Isaiah (8:10) declares to the nations that threatened Israel, “Devise a plan, but it will be thwarted; state a proposal, but it will not stand, for God is with us.” Wicked men may plan to destroy God’s servants, but unless God permits it as a part of His sovereign plan, they will not succeed. God’s plans overrule the plans of men, no matter how powerful they may think they are. Even of kings, God says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1). Proud men may plan out their lives, but “There is no wisdom and no understanding and no counsel against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30). This means,

B. No force, no matter how evil, can thwart God’s sovereign plan for us.

These more than 40 men who bound themselves under oath to murder Paul were terrorists. The literal Greek of 23:14 is, “We have anathematized ourselves with an anathema to taste nothing until we have killed Paul.” They knew that killing Paul while he was under Roman guard would probably mean that at least some of them would die in the attempt. If the others could be apprehended, they would be tried and executed for attacking Roman soldiers who were occupied in their duty of guarding a Roman citizen. But these men were like modern suicide bombers; they were willing to die for their cause. But as David declares (Psalm 2:1-4):

Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!” He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them.

Sometimes God’s sovereign plan for us includes martyrdom, as it later did for the apostle Paul, and as it has for hundreds of thousands of saints down through history. But when the wicked succeed in killing God’s servants, it is only because God has a higher plan and because He permits it. As Isaiah 54:17 promises, “No weapon that is formed against you will prosper.” We can take great comfort in the fact that no evil person, government, or force can thwart God’s sovereign plan for our lives.

C. God’s providence is the means by which He carries out His sovereign plans.

The word “providence” does not occur in the Bible, but the doctrine is stated and illustrated as a major theme throughout Scripture. As you probably know, it is the theme of the Book of Esther, which never mentions God directly. And yet His providential hand is behind the twists and turns of the story, preserving His chosen people from destruction.

Deists deny God’s providence by asserting that He created the world, but He is no longer actively involved in it. Others say that God is active in the events of the world, but that He is not sovereign over evil. Rather, evil is the result of free will. But the Bible teaches that God is actively controlling or directing even evil events and evil people in such a way as to accomplish His sovereign will, and yet He is not the author of evil and is not responsible for it (as Eph. 1:11 states). But no evil person or act changes or thwarts God’s sovereign will (see the discussion in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], p. 322-331).

Here is how theologian Wayne Grudem (ibid., p. 315, italics his) defines God’s providence:

God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.

John Calvin puts it (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John McNeill [Westminster Press], 1:16:4), “providence means not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events.” As Grudem’s definition outlines, there are three aspects of God’s providence in the Bible (I’m following his treatment and quoting him, pp. 315-354, here).

First, God’s providence means preservation, that “God keeps all created things existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them” (p. 316). Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Christ “upholds all things by the word of His power.” The Greek word translated “uphold” means to carry or bear. Grudem says, “It does not mean simply ‘sustain,’ but has the sense of active, purposeful control over the thing being carried from one place to another” (ibid.). Colossians 1:17 also asserts that “all things hold together” in Christ. If Jesus were to “let go,” the entire universe would instantly disintegrate! Thus God did not just design the laws of science and nature and step away from them. Rather, He actively maintains such laws.

Second, God’s providence means concurrence, that “God cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do” (p. 317). This includes God’s causing things to happen that we would think of as merely “natural” occurrences. For example, the Bible says that God causes the rain and snow to fall on earth, along with the wind to blow and the lightning to flash (Job 37:6-13; Ps. 135:7). God also gives food to the wild animals and birds (Ps. 104:27-29; Matt. 6:26).

God governs what we might call random chance events, such as the casting of lots (Prov. 16:33). Also, God causes things to happen where His creatures also play a role. For example, I may water and fertilize my grass or a farmer his crops, but God causes them to grow. I can put water into the freezer, but God makes it freeze (Job 38:27, 29-30).

God also governs human affairs. He determines the time, existence, and boundaries of the nations (Acts 17:26). He sets up rulers and takes them down again (Dan. 4:34-35; Ps. 22:28). He governs every aspect of our lives (Jer. 10:23; Prov. 16:9; 20:24), including the number of days that we will live (Ps. 139:16). He is even sovereign over evil, although He is not tainted in any way by it nor is He responsible for it (Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; 1 John 1:5). But He uses evil men and events to carry out His sovereign plan, even as He is doing in our story with this evil plot to kill Paul.

Third, God’s providence means government, that “God has a purpose in all that he does in the world and he providentially governs or directs all things in order that they accomplish his purposes” (p. 331). “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan. 4:35). God “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11).

The doctrine of God’s providence is very practical and comforting on a daily basis. If we live in a world of random chance, it is a most scary place to be! You never know what bad things might happen to you or your loved ones, and so all you can do is hope for “good luck.” Or, if as some Christians believe, God is not sovereign over evil, then when terrorists fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and kill thousands of people, or a crazy gunman kills your loved one, that’s tragic, but there was nothing that God could have done about it, since He gave them “free will.”

But if even that evil event was under God’s providence, then we know that He can work it together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). Those who lost loved ones can know that those wicked men did not in any way thwart God’s sovereign plan. Rather, those evil men were inadvertently carrying out His sovereign plan for history and they will face God’s eternal judgment!

Thus, God has a sovereign plan for each of us. Evil men cannot thwart God’s purpose. God carries out His sovereign plan through His often behind-the-scenes providence. Finally,

D. Trusting God to work sovereignly through His providence does not mean being passive or doing nothing.

God had promised Paul that he would bear witness at Rome, but when his nephew told him about this plot to kill him, he did not say, “Don’t worry! God has promised that I will go to Rome, so we don’t need to do anything about it!” No, Paul sent him to the commander, and then he thankfully used the horses and 470 armed soldiers that the commander provided to get him safely out of Jerusalem to Caesarea.

The Bible teaches that God ordains both the end and the means to the end. Some Christians wrongly conclude, “If God has ordained that a certain number of elect people will be saved, we don’t have to do anything about it, because they will get saved.” The fallacy in that statement is that God ordained that His elect would be saved through the preaching of the gospel to every nation (Matt. 28:19; Rom. 10:14-15). As Paul said, “For this reason I endure 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). Paul had to suffer what he went through in order to preach to God’s elect so that they would get saved. God also ordains that we pray in order to see His kingdom come, even though it will certainly come (Matt. 6:10).

Conclusion

Hopefully no one here has (or ever will have) a band of assassins sworn to kill you! But you may be in difficult circumstances, perhaps even in connection with your service for the Lord. God wants you to see Him in all of your circumstances, orchestrating events to fulfill His plan for your life. As Harry Ironside comments on our text, “God is never closer to his people than when they cannot see his face” (Lectures on the Book of Acts [Loizeaux Brothers], p. 545). So we can submit to Him and His will as He deals with us through our circumstances.

But don’t fall into the error of passively submitting to circumstances as if fate or determinism were true. God expects you to use the means that He has provided as a part of His providential care for you. As you work out your salvation with fear and trembling, you will see that it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).

Discussion Questions

  1. Is there a difference between God’s permitting evil and His ordaining it? If so, what?
  2. Why is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over evil more comforting than the view that He can’t control evil since it stems from man’s free will?
  3. How can God actively direct all things through His providence and yet hold people accountable (see Rom. 9:9-24)?
  4. How can we know whether God expects us to wait passively on Him or to take action ourselves (see Exod. 14:10-31).

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, Faith, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 62: A Life of Integrity (Acts 24:1-23)

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Years ago, 20th Century-Fox advertised for a salesman and got this reply from an applicant:

I am at present selling furniture at the address below. You may judge my ability as a salesman if you will stop in to see me at any time, pretending that you are interested in buying furniture. When you come in you can identify me by my red hair. And I will have no way of identifying you. Such salesmanship as I exhibit during your visit, therefore, will be no more than my usual workaday approach, and not a special effort to impress a prospective employer (“Bits & Pieces” [3/85]).

I don’t know if that young man got the job, but he demonstrated a quality that is rare, although it shouldn’t be—integrity. It’s easy to talk about integrity. In a 1980 Sports Illustrated, a well-known athlete said, “Fame is a vapor, popularity is an accident and money takes wings. The only thing that endures is character.” That was O. J. Simpson speaking!

But talking about character and living it are two different things. When we find a man whose life radiates integrity, we should pause and learn from him. The apostle Paul was such a man. In his defense before Felix to the charges that the Jewish leaders brought against him, Paul proclaimed his integrity by saying, “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men” (24:16). But he not only proclaimed his integrity; he lived it. The proof of Paul’s integrity is the great impact he has had on so many down through the centuries.

Luke contrasts Paul’s integrity with the glaring lack of integrity of a certain lawyer, Tertullus, who was willing, for a fee, to take up the Jewish leaders’ slanderous accusations against Paul. And, although Luke does not say anything derogatory against the Roman governor, Felix, it was common knowledge that he was a scoundrel. I will deal more with him next week, but for now I will say that he was a slave who gained his freedom and rose to power through his connections. The historian, Tacitus, described Felix as one who reveled in cruelty and lust, and wielded the power of a king with the mind of a slave. His rule over Palestine was marked by unrest and turmoil. He dealt with insurrection by crucifying hundreds of rebels. If Tertullus could convince Felix that this renegade Paul was a seditious man, it would not bother Felix’s conscience in the least to crucify him or lop off his head.

And so we have here a man of integrity up against a lawyer, a group of Jewish leaders who had tried to assassinate him, and a governor who notoriously lacked integrity. Paul teaches us that …

We can live with integrity by speaking the truth, by living in line with Scripture, and by keeping a blameless conscience before God and men.

Before we look at these factors, we need to take to heart another lesson that is evident from our text:

*A life of integrity does not shield us from being falsely accused.

If this world were made up of basically good people, a man of integrity would be well loved and have no enemies. But since this world is made up of sinners who love darkness rather than light, and since a life of integrity exposes their evil deeds, sinners will often slander the man of integrity. We are naïve if we think that if we live with integrity, we will be protected from false accusations and slanderous attempts to bring us down.

In 24:1-9, Tertullus presents his shaky case against Paul. Nearly half of his speech consists of his obvious flattery toward Felix. It is one thing to be polite towards the one in authority; Paul does that (24:10). But Tertullus’ flattery goes so far beyond credulity that probably Felix himself was thinking, “Come on! We all know that you’re lying. Get on with your case!” Tertullus promises to be brief, as if to say, “This case is a no-brainer! Just grant us what we ask by getting rid of this pesky fellow and we can all get on with more important matters.”

He brings three charges against Paul. Although the Jewish leaders’ main gripe was religious, they knew that religious charges would not get far with the Roman governor. Rome took charges of political unrest seriously, and if Paul were guilty of sedition, he could be executed. So they framed the first two charges in terms of political sedition: (1) Paul was a plague, spreading unrest among the Jews throughout the empire. (2) He was a ringleader of a heretical sect that was not recognized as a legitimate religion by the Roman government. And, (3) since he had tried to desecrate the Jewish temple by taking a Gentile beyond the Court of the Gentiles, Rome should hand him over to the Jews to execute him. Rome had granted the Jews that right, even if the Gentile in question was a Roman citizen (Richard Longenecker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 9:522).

Tertullus’ strategy was to hope that, based on the Jews’ testimony, Felix would act in his usual insensitive manner and have Paul executed (ibid., p. 540). Tertullus flatly lies when he states that the Jews arrested Paul in the act of trying to desecrate the temple (24:6). The fact was, the Jews mobbed Paul with the intent to kill him, but the Roman commander intervened to save his life. But in spite of such blatant falsehood, all of the Jews joined his attack, asserting that the charges against Paul were true (24:9).

The best manuscripts omit verse 6b through 8a. The addition of these sentences would have Tertullus complain against Lysias’ intervention, and would urge Felix to examine Lysias’ testimony. The exclusion would urge Felix to examine Paul’s testimony. Probably the words in brackets were not original (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [United Bible Societies], 2nd ed., p. 434). Thus Tertullus is telling Felix that if he examines Paul, he will find him to be the liar that he really is.

The application is to keep in mind that living with integrity does not shield us from being falsely accused. Read the Psalms to see how often David was slandered. Remember that he is often a type of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was without sin and yet was constantly slandered. You could probably state it as a rule: the more godly the man, the more he will be slandered!

With that in mind, let’s look at three factors that went into Paul’s integrity:

1. We can live with integrity by speaking the truth in every situation.

Paul’s integrity enabled him to give a calm, straightforward reply to the accusations against him. He lived openly before God and men, and thus he didn’t have to weave a tale of half-truths or misleading statements to defend himself. He simply spoke the truth, refuting each of the charges in order.

To the charge of stirring up sedition, Paul pointed to the facts. It had only been 12 days since he went up to Jerusalem to worship. Although it is debated as to when the starting point was of Luke’s “after five days” (24:1), Paul’s irrefutable argument is that he simply had not had time to stir up sedition, as his accusers had charged. Furthermore, his purpose in going to Jerusalem was not to stir up the crowds, but to worship. Thus he had not preached or even carried on a group discussion in the temple, nor in synagogues, nor anywhere in the city (24:12). His accusers could not prove their first charge.

Regarding the second charge, of being the ringleader of a heretical sect, Paul did not deny his commitment to the Christian faith, which he calls “the Way,” but he denies that it is a heretical Jewish sect. He affirms his full belief in everything written in the Law and the Prophets (the entire Old Testament). He also affirms the Jewish hope (denied by the Sadducee wing of his accusers) “that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (Dan. 12:2; John 5:28). This is the only time that Paul explicitly states that the wicked will be raised for judgment. Paul is saying that as a Christian, he was acting as a true Jew, in line with the Hebrew Scriptures. Felix would have missed it, but Paul is also taking a swipe at his Sadducee accusers, implying that it was they that were the Jewish heretics. In denying the resurrection, they denied their own Scriptures.

Regarding the third charge, that he had desecrated the temple, Paul pointed out that his reason for coming to Jerusalem was to bring alms to his nation and to present offerings. “Offerings” may be a repetition of “alms,” referring to his gift that he had collected from the Gentiles for the poor Jewish believers. Or, it may refer to the offerings that he was about to offer in connection with the vows of the young men. But his point is that he had come to Jerusalem for noble purposes and had gone through the ritual purification. As he was going about his business, certain Jews from Asia who recognized him stirred up the crowd against him.

By pointing out that his accusers should have been present (24:19), Paul was raising a point of Roman law, which imposed heavy penalties on accusers who abandoned their charges. “The disappearance of accusers often meant the withdrawal of a charge” (Longenecker, p. 541). Paul concludes by pointing out that the only supposed misdeed that any of his accusers had against him was his statement of being on trial before them because of his belief in the resurrection of the dead. So Paul answered his accusers by speaking the truth.

Being a person who consistently speaks the truth is a freeing concept! If you’re in the spin business, of making yourself look better than you really are, then you have to remember what you said to whomever, and hope that those you’re trying to impress don’t start comparing notes. But if your life is a single fabric and you habitually speak the truth, you don’t have to worry about what you said to whomever. You just speak truth to everyone!

Earl Long, a former governor of Louisiana, once said of another politician: “You know how you can tell that fellow is lying? Watch his lips. If they’re moving, he’s lying.” I’m sure that all of you were, as I was, disturbed several years ago when our former President looked straight at the camera and told us with great vehemence that he had not had sex with “that woman.” But what bothered me even more was that when it came out that he had even lied about this under oath, the majority of our political leaders and the majority of Americans polled shrugged it off as if it didn’t really affect his ability to govern our nation!

As Christians, we are commanded to speak the truth (Eph. 4:25). The devil is the father of lies (John 8:44), but God is the God of truth, who cannot lie (Titus 1:1-2). Jesus Christ claimed that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can come to the Father, except through Him (John 14:6). As His followers, we must become people who speak the truth in every situation.

A small boy was on the witness stand in an important lawsuit. The prosecuting attorney cross-examined him and then delivered what he thought would be a crushing blow to the boy’s testimony. “Your father has been telling you how to testify, hasn’t he?”

“Yes,” the boy quickly replied.

“Now,” said the attorney triumphantly, “just tell us how your father told you to testify.”

“Well,” the boy said modestly, “Father told me the lawyers would try to tangle me in my testimony, but if I would just be careful to tell the truth, I could repeat the same thing every time.” (Author unknown.) Well said!

2. We can live with integrity by living in line with Scripture.

Paul asserts his obedience to Scripture when he tells Felix that he served “the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law, and that is written in the Prophets” (24:14). Becoming a Christian for Paul did not in any way mean jettisoning the Old Testament. When he wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), Paul was referring mostly to the Old Testament, since the New Testament was not yet widely recognized and accepted as Scripture.

While the Old Testament must be properly interpreted in light of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and in light of the transition from law to grace, we would greatly err if we set it aside as irrelevant or impractical. While the Jewish ceremonial laws were fulfilled in Christ and are set aside under the New Covenant, God’s moral law stems from His holy character and is always our standard for godly living. Being under grace never means setting aside God’s moral law. We will grow in integrity and godly living only as we grow to know and understand all of God’s Word of truth.

3. We can live with integrity by keeping a blameless conscience before God and men.

In light of Paul’s hope in God and in light of the certainty of the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked, Paul sought to maintain always a blameless conscience before God and before men. The concept of maintaining a good conscience is an important one in Scripture. Paul later tells Timothy, “But the goal of our instruction [lit., “commandment”] is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). He tells Timothy to keep faith and a good conscience, warning him that some have rejected these qualities and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith (1 Tim. 1:19). So it is crucial for us to understand what it means to maintain a good conscience and to practice it daily.

I offer this definition of what it means to live with a blameless conscience: In the light of Scripture and the coming judgment, we examine our hearts and are not aware of any sin of thought, word, or deed that we have not confessed and turned from; or of any person that we have wronged and not sought to make it right. Consider these four aspects:

(1) We need to inform our consciences by God’s Word.

Because of the fall of the human race, the conscience by itself is not a safe guide. Jesus told the disciples that the day would come when those who killed them would think that they were offering a service to God (John 16:2). His words applied to these Jewish leaders who sought to kill Paul. Paul himself had once thought that he was serving God by persecuting Christians. If we compare ourselves with others, rather than with Scripture, we can conclude that we’re doing okay. But God’s Word penetrates like a sword down into our innermost being, judging the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, laying us bare in God’s holy presence (Heb. 4:12-13). So we must grow in our understanding of God’s standards as revealed in His Word.

I had a humorous illustration of this in the church I pastored in California. My associate pastor was standing in line in a convenience store behind a man who had just started attending the church. This new guy, who was not from a Christian background, was buying a six-pack of beer and $5 worth of lottery tickets. The cashier only charged him $1 for the lottery tickets. He pointed out her error and then turned and said to my associate, “After Steve’s sermon, what else could I do? I have to be honest!”

Hopefully after he grew to know God’s Word, he would get convicted about his drinking and gambling, but at least he knew that he needed to be honest!

(2) We need to live before God on the heart level, confessing and turning away from every wrong thought, motive, attitude, word, and deed.

If we only live outwardly before men, we are hypocrites. It’s very easy to fake it in front of others, but we cannot fake out God, who examines our hearts (1 Thess. 2:4-5). Jesus said that all sin begins in the heart (Mark 7:21-23), and so we need to get in the habit of judging it at that level before it goes any farther. If we do not develop this habit, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that we are walking with God. It is especially important to avoid rationalizing and excusing our sin by blaming others. Having a blameless conscience before God means that I quickly confess and turn away from any sin that His Word or His Spirit convicts me of, no matter what others may have done to me.

(3) We need to ask forgiveness of those we have sinned against and take steps to avoid future offenses.

There should not be anyone who could say to us, “You sinned against me and have never made it right.” We don’t need to go to another person if our sin against them was only in our mind. We should repent of that sin before God, but if the other person is not aware of it, we don’t need to ask his or her forgiveness. But if we know that we sinned against the person directly or behind his back (through gossip or slander), we need to ask forgiveness and seek to avoid repeating the same sin again.

Bill Gothard has some helpful teaching on this subject. He emphasizes the importance of using correct wording so as to reflect full repentance and sincere humility. It is best to call or to go directly to the person, rather than to write a letter. Do not say, “If I was wrong, please forgive me.” As Bill points out, this is like saying, “If my personality (for which I’m not responsible) has offended you, there must be something wrong with your ability to get along with others. But I’ll be big-hearted about this and assume that maybe it’s my fault (which I’m not fully convinced it is) and ask you to forgive me—if you still think I’m wrong, that is” (“Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts Manual,” Clear Conscience, p. 28).

Rather, you should say, “God has convicted me of how wrong I’ve been in ___ (basic offense). I’ve called to ask, ‘Will you forgive me?’” (ibid., p. 29).

(4) The motivation for a life of integrity is the reality of eternity and the coming judgment.

Paul states that his practice of seeking to maintain a blameless conscience before God and men stems from the certainty of the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (24:15-16). If there is no God, no resurrection, and no future judgment, then you are a fool to live as a Christian. Those aren’t my words; those are Paul’s words (1 Cor. 15:19). If there is no eternity, then live for all the immediate pleasure that you can get, because you will die soon (1 Cor. 15:32). But if God lives and if He is going to raise every person to stand before Him in judgment, then everyone should repent of his sins, trust in Christ as Savior, and live all of life with a blameless conscience before God and before men. If you cannot go from here today with such a clear conscience, your greatest and most urgent need is to get right with God!

Conclusion

As we’ll see next week, Felix was a sad case, and here he waffles. He knows that Paul is innocent and should be released. But he also knows that the Jews won’t be happy if he lets Paul go. He can’t afford any more unrest among his constituents. So he does what many politicians do: He punts! He postpones the case with the excuse that he will decide it after he hears the testimony of Lysias, the commander. This gets the Jews off his back and out of town. He salves his guilty conscience by giving orders that Paul’s custody should be fairly comfortable and free.

This shows us that we have no guarantee that everything will go well with us when we walk uprightly before God. Joseph acted with godly integrity when he resisted the seductive moves of Potiphar’s wife, and it landed him in prison for several years. But the Lord was with him there, and it’s better to have the Lord with you in prison than to have sinful pleasure without the Lord. It’s better to be in custody with a clear conscience, as Paul was, than to have power and money, but be alienated from God, as Felix was.

So devote yourself to living with integrity by speaking the truth in every situation; by living in line with God’s Word; and, by keeping a blameless conscience before God and men. However difficult your circumstances here, you will sleep well, knowing that you will dwell in heaven with God throughout eternity.

Discussion Questions

  1. Since many of God’s servants are slandered, how can we avoid being taken in by slanderous accusations?
  2. Does speaking the truth require that we divulge all that we know about a situation? How can we speak truth and yet keep appropriate confidences?
  3. Why is the phrase, “Let your conscience be your guide” only partially true?
  4. Living with a clear conscience before God and men is the mark of every true Christian. Agree/disagree? Why?

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, Spiritual Life

Lesson 63: No Time for God (Acts 24:24-27)

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A legend tells of the devil summoning his evil forces to consider how best to keep the world on his side. One demon said, “Send me. I will tell them that there is no God.” Satan replied, “They will never believe you. Most of them know that there is a God.” Another said, “Send me. I’ll tell them that there is no heaven or hell.” Satan shook his head, “That will never do. They know that there is life after death.” Then a third spoke, “Send me. I’ll tell them there is a God, a heaven, and a hell, but there’s no hurry to decide.” “Ah,” said Satan with satisfaction, “that is the best plan!” He was sent out into the world to spread this lie (source unknown).

That demon was surely at work in the case of Felix. Here was a man with the opportunity of a lifetime, to listen to none other than the apostle Paul preach the gospel to him and his wife personally. But Paul’s preaching went to meddling and got a bit too close for comfort. Felix should have responded as the trembling Philippian jailer did, by asking, “What must I do to be saved?” Instead, Felix became frightened and told Paul, “Go away for the present, and when I find time, I will summon you” (24:25). He did summon Paul often after that, but he never trembled again. He missed the opportunity to be saved because of the excuse that he didn’t have time for God.

Each of us needs to ponder Felix’s excuse, “when I find time.” We all live busy lives. Many things crowd into our daily schedules. We all know that we should make time for God, but we’re prone to think, “I’ll do that later, when I find the time. Right now, I’ve got too heavy of a schedule.” “As soon as the semester is over, I’ll find time for God.” “As soon as I get through the current pressured time at work, I’ll make time for God.” “As soon as the kids get into school, I’ll make time for God.” “When I’m older, after I’ve had some fun in life, then I’ll make time for God.” And so life slips by, the things of God fade from view, and we miss our opportunity, just as Felix did.

Felix and his wife Drusilla were colorful characters whose lives sound like a modern TV series. He was a slave in the household of Antonia, the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia and the mother of the Roman emperor Claudius. Felix and his brother, Pallas, were given their freedom and rose to positions of great influence during Claudius’ reign. Pallas became the chief accountant to the public treasury and amassed enormous wealth. Through his connections in high places, Felix got appointed as governor of Judea, a position that he held probably from A.D. 52-59.

In his personal life, from a worldly point of view, Felix had not done badly for a slave. His first wife was the granddaughter of Antony and Cleopatra. Drusilla was his third wife, a famous beauty whom he seduced from her husband, a king in Syria. She was about 18 or 19 when Paul spoke to them here. She was the daughter of Herod Agrippa I, who executed James and planned to do the same to Peter (Acts 12). She was the sister of Agrippa II and Bernice (Acts 25:13 ff.), who were rumored to be living together in incest. Bernice later became the lover of the Roman general Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Drusilla and Felix had a son who was killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. You can see why I said that their story sounds like a modern soap opera!

This vignette of Paul’s encounter with Felix and Drusilla gives us some principles that will enable us to find time for God:

To find time for God, we must seize present opportunities, deal with known sin, and establish proper priorities.

Each of these principles is illustrated positively in Paul and negatively in Felix and Drusilla.

1. To find time for God, we must seize present opportunities.

I once saw a cartoon that showed Martin Luther sitting in front of a TV set with the remote in his hand. He’s thinking, “Should I write those 95 theses? Nah, let’s see what’s on the tube.” The caption said, “What would have happened if Luther had had TV.” All too often, we allow procrastination to rob us of spiritual opportunities, whether for our own growth or for the advance of the gospel. Note the contrast between Paul and Felix.

A. Paul seized present opportunities for spiritual advance.

Here is Paul, a prisoner who is innocent of the false charges against him, coming before the man who had the power to release him or execute him. Paul easily could have been tempted to argue for his release, but to say very little about the Christian faith. But Paul acted according to his stated purpose, of doing all things for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23). Even in presenting the gospel, he could have been tempted to go very lightly, being sure not to say anything offensive to this powerful man and his wife. Maybe he should present the gospel in a user-friendly fashion, showing them how Jesus could help them have a happier life. He could bring out his best stories to warm their hearts and maybe Felix would even let Paul out of prison.

But Paul didn’t know anything about a user-friendly gospel! He didn’t give Felix and Drusilla an inspiring message that left them feeling good about themselves. He went for the jugular! He spoke about the faith that is in Christ Jesus (24:24, lit.). And he didn’t just say to them, “Don’t worry about your sins. Just believe in Jesus and you’ll have eternal life.” Look at what he spoke about as he explained the Christian faith: “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” (24:25). The verb translated “discussing” means “to reason with.” Paul didn’t bypass their minds and go for heartwarming stories. He appealed through their minds to their consciences. The gospel should make people think, convicting their consciences, leading to a rational decision to trust in Christ. An emotional appeal that bypasses the mind may get decisions, but they will be flimsy, at best.

Where did Paul come up with these topics for a message to this unbelieving couple? Did he need some instruction on how to present the gospel more sensitively? No, he was doing what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do through His followers: He would convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). Paul couldn’t have aimed this message any more directly at his hearers than he did! They might have expected a safe, interesting, comfortable lecture on the Christian religion. But Paul went for their consciences, bringing the message pointedly to bear on their corrupt, immoral, worldly lifestyles.

When he spoke of righteousness, Paul probably spoke on the perfect righteousness of God and the absolute righteousness that God demands from every person as revealed in His holy law. Everyone has sinned and falls short of God’s perfect standard. Paul’s words on the need for self-control hit this couple with their own sins of lust, adultery, greed, and selfish indulgence. Perhaps he said to them, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present world” (Titus 2:11-12). The judgment to come pointed them to the fact that God “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 17:31).

We don’t know how far Paul got, but you can be assured that if he was allowed to keep going, he spoke on the need for faith in Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection provide the payment for the penalty of sins that every sinner needs. Paul saw the opening for the gospel, and he went through it with full force.

But perhaps before Paul was able to point to the Lord Jesus, Felix became visibly frightened over Paul’s message and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time, I will summon you.” Here we see that …

B. Felix disregarded present opportunities for spiritual advance.

“When I find time”—what a sad excuse! Here Felix was, talking with none other than the apostle Paul, who could have answered any spiritual question that Felix had asked. His fear would seem to indicate that the Holy Spirit was bringing conviction of sin to his conscience as he felt the force of Paul’s words. Yet he sent Paul away with a lame excuse about finding time later. He often did talk with Paul after this, but he never trembled with fear after this. He missed his opportunity to respond to the gospel.

When your body is in pain, it’s a warning that something is wrong. If you dull the pain with drugs without fixing the root problem, you may be in for more serious trouble later. It’s like the warning lights on the dashboard of your car. When they go off, you need to find out what the problem is and fix it. Continuing to ignore the warnings can destroy your engine.

It is the same way spiritually. God may use His Word, the preaching of the Word, or someone’s godly words or behavior to prick your conscience. You can pay attention to the warnings and take appropriate action, or you can ignore the warnings by making up excuses and pretending that the problems don’t exist. Felix should have allowed his fear to drive him to ask, “What must I do to be saved?” Instead, he blocked out the warning and missed his opportunity for salvation.

Every week, we all face opportunities for spiritual advance. There is the opportunity to set your alarm a few minutes early to get up and spend time with the Lord. Or, you can sack in and miss that opportunity. There is the opportunity to read some spiritually enriching Christian books that will change your life. Or, you can sit mesmerized in front of TV shows that pollute your mind with filthy humor, which the Bible plainly commands us to avoid (Eph. 5:3). There is the opportunity to get your finances in order as a good steward of what the Lord has entrusted to you, and to give generously to His cause. Or, you can squander those resources on American junk. There is the opportunity to meet with other believers to grow in your faith. Or, you can forsake assembling together with the saints. There is the opportunity to talk to a lost person about the Savior. Or, you can busy yourself with less important things. With Paul, will you seize present opportunities for spiritual advance or, with Felix, will you make up excuses and miss those opportunities?

2. To find time for God, we must deal with known sin.

It is often difficult and painful to root sin out of our lives. But if we ignore sin, it doesn’t just quietly go away. It grows like cancer, until it finally destroys us. Note again the contrast between Paul and Felix.

A. Paul dealt with sin in his life.

As Paul testified, “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience before God and before men” (24:16). Part of maintaining a blameless conscience is to confess and turn from our sin as soon as the Holy Spirit convicts us of it.

In the current situation, Paul easily could have rationalized a little bribe to get himself out of prison. Just think of what he could accomplish if he were free! He could preach at Rome and go on to evangelize Spain. All he had to do was to say the word and his friends could be there shortly with a bribe for Felix. Prayer for Paul’s release didn’t seem to be working. Besides, the system worked through bribes. Since it was for the furthering of the gospel, why not go with the flow? But Paul would not use corrupt means, even to achieve a noble cause. He was a man of integrity, who did his best always to maintain a clear conscience.

This point is connected to the first. If you don’t deal with your sin and maintain a clear conscience, you won’t be able to see and seize the spiritual opportunities that God puts in front of you. Your spiritual callousness will dull your conscience or your guilt will hinder you from responding. To find time for God, you must deal with any known sins in your life.

B. Felix refused to deal with his sin.

Felix apparently knew a lot about Christianity (24:22), but he liked to keep things in the realm of safe intellectual discussions. Perhaps he called for Paul so that as a governor, he would be more knowledgeable about this rapidly growing new religion. He could impress his colleagues with his understanding.

But when Paul started getting personal, talking about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment, the discussion suddenly got too close for comfort. For Felix to repent of his sin, he would have had to turn his back on his entire way of life. Felix had been living to accumulate all of the money and possessions that he could get. He was keeping Paul in prison with the hope that Paul’s wealthy friends would come up with a bribe to set him free. But Paul was saying that the Christian faith meant seeking God’s righteousness, not this world’s riches. Felix had been giving in to every sensual whim and pleasure. But Paul was saying that he needed self-control. Felix had been living as if this life were all there is. But Paul was saying that there is a judgment and eternity to come. Felix refused to deal with his sin, and missed the opportunity to receive eternal life.

I know that the thought of dealing with your sin is threatening. But which is more threatening: to deal with your sin now, through repentance and confession, and receive God’s mercy? Or, to have to face your sin at the judgment, and receive eternal punishment? If you bring your sin to the Lord now, in repentance, He is rich in mercy and abounding in love. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). He promised, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Come to Jesus in repentance and He will welcome you!

To find time for God, we must seize present opportunities and we must deal with known sin. Finally,

3. To find time for God we must establish proper priorities.

Again, note the contrast between Paul and Felix:

A. Paul had established proper priorities.

Paul’s priorities shine through here and everywhere else that you see him in action. His life was committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel. Everything that Paul did was with a view to furthering the kingdom and glory of Jesus Christ. As he told the Ephesian elders, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (20:24). He told the Philippians (1:20-21) that in his imprisonment, his aim was that “Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

As I have already mentioned, it would have been tempting for Paul to set aside the gospel and focus on his release. After all, if he could get out of prison, many more could hear the gospel. Why risk offending this powerful couple with the gospel? Why not at least give them a more pleasant version of things? Why focus on righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come? The answer is, because Paul’s priority was, as ours should be, to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

Paul’s straightforward presentation of the gospel and his refusal to bribe Felix resulted in his staying in prison for the next two years. God didn’t reward Paul’s faithfulness with a quick release. But Paul would not compromise his priority of testifying to the gospel of Jesus Christ, both by his words and by his life. He lived in light of the coming judgment, and he trusted that God would deliver him from prison if and when it was God’s will to do so. Otherwise, what were a few years in prison in comparison to eternity with Christ?

Do you live every day in light of standing before the Lord in all His glory and hearing, “Well done, good and faithful slave” (Matt. 25:21)? Your number one ambition should be “to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:9b-10). How awful it would be to hear on that day, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23)!

B. Felix had established wrong priorities.

Felix was a rags to riches, Horatio Alger, all-American success story! He went from slave to governor; from being a piece of property with no rights, to owning much property; from being powerless to powerful. He had friends in the highest places of the Roman Empire. He had a string of beautiful princesses as his wives. Isn’t that what every person should aim for? If you buy into the American dream, yes! But if you live for Jesus Christ, no!

Felix was successful in the world’s eyes, but from God’s perspective, he was a man whose god was self. His only standard was his own advancement and pleasure. If the Jews rebelled, crucify the rebels! If people got in his way up the ladder, push them off! If a married woman looked sexier than his current wife, dump his wife and seduce the other wife from her husband. If a prisoner would give him a bribe, his release could be arranged. Otherwise, let him stay in jail, especially since it pleased the political constituents. After all, one’s political career is more important than a prisoner’s life!

I trust that no one here is as ruthless as Felix was. But I fear that there are many American Christians that have gotten caught up in the pursuit of the American dream. They profess to be Christians, but other than attending church and living a relatively moral life, they’re not much different from the world in their goals. They’re living the good life, accumulating all that they can, and dreaming about the day when they can retire and live totally for themselves! They give no thought to advancing God’s kingdom.

Many American Christians spend their time just as the world spends its time. Polls reveal that American evangelical Christians watch the same amount of TV and the same programs as the population at large! After sleep and work, the thing that Americans do the most is watch TV! If you watch just two hours per day (the national average is much higher), in 70 years you will have spent almost six years, day and night, watching TV! Can you imagine hitting 75, looking back on your life and thinking, “What have I accomplished with my life? I’ve spent six years watching television!”

Conclusion

In one of his plays, Shakespeare describes a dying man calling on God. He makes the narrator say, “I, to comfort him, bid him he should not think of God. I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet” (in Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], Acts 13-End, p. 293). That is the way the world thinks: Don’t trouble yourself with God until you’re at death’s door. But God’s way is very different: “Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Cor. 6:2).

This very day, God is giving you a great spiritual opportunity through the fact that you’re hearing His Word. It may be to trust in Christ for salvation. It may be to deal with some sin in your life. It may be to get your priorities in line. Don’t be like Felix and miss it! Be like Paul and seize the day for God’s glory!

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the proper balance between grace and salt (Col. 4:6) in witnessing? How “salty” should we be?
  2. Can Christians pursue the kingdom of God and the American Dream at the same time? Why/why not (biblically)?
  3. How can a procrastinator overcome his problem?
  4. Do you have written spiritual goals for your life? If not, write a life purpose statement and some goals to help you move in the right direction.
  5. Felix’s activities, ambitions, and anxieties reveal his priorities. What priorities do your activities, ambitions, and anxieties reveal?

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, Hamartiology (Sin), Sanctification, Spiritual Life

Lesson 64: God’s Delays (Acts 24:24-27)

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A man, toolbox in hand, rang the doorbell. “Good morning, ma’am, I’m the plumber. I’ve come to fix the pipe.”

“But I didn’t call a plumber.”

“You didn’t? Aren’t you Mrs. Foster?”

“No, she moved away a year ago.”

“How do you like that? They call for a plumber, claiming it’s an emergency, and then they move away!”

Sometimes it seems as if God responds to our emergencies like that plumber responded to that call. We’re in a crisis and we cry out, “Help, God!” Silence. “God, I need You right now!” No answer. “God? Are You there?” Nothing.

If you have been a Christian for very long, you have experienced God’s delays. David experienced them. He wrote, “I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched; my eyes fail while I wait for my God” (Ps. 69:3). Again he wrote, “My soul waits in silence for God only; from Him is my salvation” (Ps. 62:1).

Waiting is especially difficult in light of the shortness of life. The older you get, the quicker life seems to fly by. I’ll be 55 in three weeks, and it’s amazing to me to think that all our children are grown now. I wonder how all of those years went by so quickly. Some wag observed that life is like a roll of toilet paper: the closer you get to the end, the quicker it goes!

Because life is so short, it’s difficult when the Lord makes you wait. Paul must have struggled as he remained in custody in Caesarea. The notice we get seems almost like an insignificant passing comment: “But after two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus; and wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned.” You can read that comment in a few seconds, but it represents two long years of Paul’s life, and he wasn’t getting any younger. You’ll look in vain for any mention of God in the verse. It sounds so capricious. To gain some political capital, a selfish politician leaves God’s number one apostle to the Gentiles in prison. The preaching of the gospel among the Gentiles will have to wait. As Paul waited and prayed and prayed and waited, he must have wondered, “Why doesn’t God get me out of here?”

There are many lessons that we can learn from our times of waiting for God’s delays, but I would like to focus on two:

God uses His delays to teach us to trust Him more fully and to submit more thoroughly to His lordship over our lives.

1. God uses His delays to teach us to trust Him more fully.

Paul was a great man of faith, but no one graduates from the Lord’s school of faith in this lifetime. Paul had post-doctoral degrees, but there were still more courses to take! This course had at least four lessons in faith that God was refining in Paul:

A. When God delays, we must trust Him by submitting our agendas to Him.

We learn of Paul’s agenda in Romans 15:25-29, which Paul wrote just before he went to Jerusalem. His plan was to deliver the gift that he had collected among the Gentile churches and then to go to Rome for some ministry before he headed west to Spain. This was not a self-centered agenda. After all that he had suffered for the cause of Christ, I couldn’t blame Paul if his plan had been to retire to a nice seaside resort and write his memoirs.

But Paul was seeking to serve the Lord by spreading the gospel where Christ had not yet been named (Rom. 15:20). That was a godly agenda, but it was not God’s agenda, at least not in the way Paul envisioned it. He would eventually get to Rome, but not as quickly as he had hoped. Maybe he went on to Spain; we don’t know for sure. But while Paul sat in prison in Caesarea, he had to submit his agenda to God and trust God to work out His agenda in His time.

There is nothing wrong with godly desires and hopes for the future. We all should dream about what God may do through us in the future. We should plan, as much as we’re able, by setting godly spiritual goals for our lives. But after all the planning and goal-setting are done, we have to bow and say, “Lord, not my will, but Your will be done with my life. I trust in Your agenda for me.”

B. When God delays, we must trust Him to accomplish His will through us by His power.

As I said, there is no mention of God in verse 27. Paul must have wondered, “Where is God in all of this? Why isn’t God answering my prayers?” After all, Paul wasn’t trying to get out of prison so that he could go do his own thing. He wanted to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. But here he sat, confined in jail, day after day, month after month, for over two years. As he sat there, Paul had to deepen his trust in God to accomplish His sovereign will in his life through God’s power.

In Acts 23:11, the Lord had appeared to Paul and told him that as he had witnessed to His cause in Jerusalem, so he would witness at Rome also. But then, as far as the text tells us, the Lord sort of checked out, as far as any visible or audible messages to Paul. He didn’t tell Paul in advance about the plot on his life by more than 40 bloodthirsty Jews. He didn’t tell him about the false accusations that would be brought against Paul in Felix’s courtroom. He didn’t mention that Paul would be incarcerated for two years in Caesarea, and then transported to Rome as a prisoner. He didn’t bother to relate the little detail about being shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea and spending a winter on Malta. In all of those trials and delays, Paul had to trust God’s promise to him and wait on Him to work through His power in His time.

Did Felix’s politically motivated injustice of leaving Paul in prison frustrate God’s plans for Paul? Of course not! No self-centered, corrupt politician, no matter how powerful, can even put a bump in the road of God’s sovereign plan for His people. But, God wants us to trust Him when it seems as if some evil person is blocking our ability to move forward with our plans for serving the Lord. We usually don’t understand the reason for God’s delays, but we need to trust that He knows what He is doing, and that He is not frustrated in the least by the whims and foibles of wicked men.

C. When God delays, we must trust in Him, not in our circumstances.

Even though we are seeking to trust in the Lord, it is so easy to put our hope in our circumstances instead of in the Lord Himself. Every time that Felix called for Paul (and it was often, 24:26), Paul’s hopes must have soared. Maybe today Felix would trust in Christ and this whole time of imprisonment would finally make sense! Just think of the influence for Christ that this powerful man would have! Paul easily could have thought, “That must be the reason God has me in prison. Felix is going to become a Christian.” Or, perhaps when Felix called for Paul and they had an enjoyable conversation, Paul went back to his cell and thought, “Maybe now he will release me so that I can get on with my ministry.” But Felix never became a Christian and he did not release Paul.

If we trust in our circumstances, we will have a roller coaster type of Christian experience. When things are looking up, we will be up. When things look down, we will be down. But it was a few years after this that Paul, still a prisoner, wrote that great epistle to the Philippians. The repeated theme of that letter is, “Rejoice in the Lord” (Phil. 3:1; 4:4). In spite of all of his years of trials, Paul was full of joy, not in his circumstances, but in the Lord.

In 1812, Adoniram Judson and his new bride, Nancy, left their familiar and comfortable New England surroundings to take the gospel to far-off Burma. After a difficult four-month voyage, they arrived in India only to hear discouraging reports about Burma and to learn that they could not stay in India. They spent a year moving from India to Mauritius (off the coast of South Africa) and back, to avoid deportation. Finally, against all advice, they managed to get aboard a ship heading for Burma. En route, Nancy gave birth to a stillborn child and almost died herself.

They finally arrived in Rangoon and began the arduous task of learning Burmese. They found the Burmese people to be committed to Buddhism and totally uninterested in and opposed to Christianity. The only other English-speaking couple in Rangoon left, leaving the Judsons alone to struggle with the language and the mission. The birth of a son brightened their lives, but when he was eight-months-old, he became ill. With no medicine or doctors in Rangoon, the baby died. The Judsons buried him in their back yard and plodded on through their tears.

After six years, they finally baptized their first convert. A handful more trickled in over the years, but mostly, they faced fierce opposition from the Buddhist monks and the government. In 1824, the British went to war against Burma, and Judson was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned on false charges as a spy. The conditions and torture in the prison were terrible. As he suffered with fever in that dark prison, Judson’s wife delivered a letter from a friend that asked, “Judson, how’s the outlook?” He replied, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God.”

Wow! There was a man who had learned to trust in God, not in his circumstances! Judson later was released from prison only to face the deaths of his wife and his two-year-old daughter. He fought intense depression and struggled against numerous setbacks. But he plodded on in faith until he died at age 62. Today, over 600,000 Burmese Christians trace their roots back to Adoniram Judson, a man who hoped in God.

When God delays, we must trust Him by submitting our agendas to Him. We must trust Him to accomplish His will through us by His power. We must trust in God, not in our circumstances. Fourth,

D. When God delays, we must trust Him by doing right, even if we do not reach our goals.

As we saw last week, Paul was a man of integrity who would not use corrupt means, even if they would have accomplished a good end. A bribe would have sprung Paul from prison. It would have freed up this great apostle to get on with his ministry. He had so much to accomplish. Why not just pay off Felix and get on with his great goals?

Why not? Because Paul knew that doing right and not reaching our goals is better than doing wrong in order to reach them. Remember, Paul’s goals were godly. He wanted to preach the gospel in the regions that had never heard of Christ. But he would not compromise his integrity in order to reach a godly goal. He trusted God by doing what he knew to be right, even though it seemed at the time to sacrifice his goals for the gospel.

General Robert E. Lee was once offered $10,000 a year for the use of his name in connection with a state lottery at a time when money was a pressing issue for him. That was a lot of money back then, but Lee’s reply was, “Gentlemen, my name is all I have left, and that is not for sale!”

So the first major lesson in God’s delays is to learn to trust Him more fully.

2. God uses His delays to teach us to submit more thoroughly to His lordship over our lives.

Yogi Berra used to say about baseball games, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” The same is true of sanctification. It isn’t over until we meet the Lord in heaven or in the air. So even if we’ve yielded our lives totally to Jesus as Lord, there’s always more to yield. God’s delays often expose areas where we need to yield further to Him.

A. We submit to God’s lordship by acknowledging that He is God and we are not.

Paul told the Romans that he had for many years a longing to come to visit them (Rom. 15:23). Finally, it looked like he would be able to realize that dream. He would just deliver the gift to the church at Jerusalem, and then he would head for Rome. He wasn’t doing anything in Jerusalem to stir up controversy or risk a riot. He was just quietly going about his business in the temple when some Jews from Asia “happened” to spot him and start the riot that led to his imprisonment. Suddenly Paul’s plans were put on hold for over two years.

We all like to think that we’re in control of our circumstances, but the reality is, we are not in control. God is in control. As I said, we can and should make plans in dependence on Him, but as the psalmist said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain” (Ps. 127:1). When you make careful plans in dependence on the Lord, and the plans get foiled by what seem like random chance (there is no such thing), you have to bow and say, “Lord, you are God and I am not. I submit to You and will wait for You to accomplish Your plans in this situation.”

B. We submit to God’s lordship by not grumbling while we wait.

It was while Paul’s imprisonment dragged on beyond the two years in Caesarea into his time in Rome that he wrote to the Philippians, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14-15). In his current circumstances, Paul easily could have grumbled, “I obeyed God by preaching the gospel to Felix and his wife and by not bribing them, and look where it got me! I’m still in this prison and my prayers have not been answered.” He could have grown bitter and disappointed with God.

But even though Paul’s prayers were not answered as quickly as he wished, he learned to be contented in God’s sovereign plan for his life. He submitted to the lordship of Christ by not grumbling, even though Felix was wronging him by not releasing him.

If you’ve been in the military, you’re familiar with the phrase, “Hurry up and wait.” They get you out of bed at 5 a.m. so that you can stand in formation for 45 minutes to wait for breakfast. Then you march to your class 20 minutes before class starts so that you can stand in line waiting for the other class to be dismissed so that you can go in. Everyone grumbles, “Hurry up and wait!”

Paul says that if we don’t grumble, but rather rejoice in the Lord, our lives will shine as lights in this dark world. The world won’t be able to figure us out! Grumbling is natural for those who don’t know Christ, but it ought to be rare for those who submit to Jesus as Lord. When we grumble, it brings dishonor on the Lord’s name. In effect, we’re saying to the world, “You wouldn’t want to serve my God, because He treats you really poorly!”

God was angry with Israel in the wilderness because of their grumbling. He had dramatically delivered them out of Egypt through the parting of the Red Sea, where He drowned the Egyptian army. He provided His cloud to protect them from the burning sun during the day, and His pillar of fire to keep them warm and to let them see at night. But they grumbled about their conditions and wanted to return to Egypt. Because of their grumbling, the Lord said, “For forty years I loathed that generation, and said they are a people who err in their heart and they do not know My ways. Therefore I swore in My anger, truly, they shall not enter into My rest” (Ps. 95:10-11). If we want God’s rest in our hearts, we must not only submit to Him in times of waiting, but submit joyfully. We must repent of our grumbling.

C. We submit to God’s lordship by taking advantage of present opportunities while we wait on Him.

The well-known New England preacher, Phillips Brooks, was normally a man of poise and calm. But at times he suffered moments of frustration and irritability. One day a friend saw him pacing the floor like a caged lion and asked, “What is the trouble, Dr. Brooks?” “The trouble is,” Brooks replied, “that I’m in a hurry, but God isn’t!”

Paul was probably in his mid-fifties at the time of this imprisonment. Speaking firsthand, when you’re in your mid-fifties, you often think about the fact that you may not have many years left to serve the Lord. I think about the fact that John Calvin died at 54, Martin Luther at 62, Jonathan Edwards at 55, and Charles Spurgeon at 57. Even if the Lord enables me to serve until I’m 75, it isn’t all that far off. So I often ask myself what I need to be doing with the remaining time that the Lord gives me. Spending a number of years in jail isn’t part of my vision for the future!

But Paul no doubt used this time for spiritual advantage. He probably met with many visitors from the churches around Judea and used the meetings to instill his vision for reaching the Gentiles. He had many talks with Felix, although it didn’t yield any results that we know of. He had time for quiet reflection, communion with the Lord, and for further study of God’s Word. I am certain that he studied during this time because during his final imprisonment in Rome, as he awaited execution, he wrote to Timothy, “When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13).

Charles Spurgeon (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 11:386) comments on that verse:

He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books!

I would only add, “He’s facing imminent execution, and yet he wants books!” Paul used his time in confinement to deepen his knowledge of God through His Word and, perhaps, through other books. We should use times when God makes us wait to deepen our roots with Him.

Luke also probably used this time in Caesarea to research the material that he used in his gospel and the Book of Acts (Luke 1:1-4). Someone has said that the key to patience while you’re waiting at a doctor’s office or wherever is to have something to do while you wait. I agree. I’ve watched people just sit there doing nothing! I always take something with me to read if I expect to wait.

So when God brings delays into our lives, we should learn to trust Him more fully and to submit more thoroughly to His lordship over our lives.

Conclusion

A reporter once asked Mrs. Einstein if she understood the theory of relativity. She replied, “No, but I know Albert and he can be trusted.” As Christians, we may not understand why God makes us wait at times when it seems that we need immediate answers. But we do know the Lord Jesus Christ and He can be trusted.

David wrote, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:13-14).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does God sometimes delay answering prayers that seem so urgent to us?
  2. How can we know whether we’re supposed to wait for God to act or take action ourselves? See 1 Sam. 13:1-14.
  3. How can we keep our focus on the Lord rather than our circumstances, especially when our circumstances seem overwhelming?
  4. Is it hypocrisy to rejoice in the Lord even when you feel like grumbling? Why/why not? How do we rejoice in Him when we don’t feel like rejoicing? Should we fake it?

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, Faith, Spiritual Life

Lesson 65: God’s Protective Hand (Acts 25:1-12)

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Many years ago, the painter John Sargent was in Italy. He learned that his train would be quite late. Others who were waiting for the train paced back and forth at the station, complaining about the heat and the delay, expressing their frustration.

But Sargent sat down, set up his easel, took out his paints, and began to capture a scene of a yoke of oxen on a street nearby. He literally turned the delay and potentially frustrating circumstances into a masterpiece.

As Christians, we will often face circumstances that can either be frustrating or fruitful for the Lord, depending on how we handle it. If we see things only from a human perspective, we’ll grow impatient and frustrated as we think, “What a waste of time!” But if we see God’s sovereign hand orchestrating all of our circumstances according to His plan, then we can rest in Him, knowing that He will work it together for good according to His purpose.

Paul easily could have become frustrated while he waited in prison in Caesarea. Felix knew that Paul was innocent, but he kept him in prison, hoping for a bribe from Paul’s wealthy friends. When that didn’t come, and Felix was recalled to Rome because of the complaints of the Jews, to gain some political capital, he left Paul imprisoned.

Felix’s successor Festus was a more upright ruler than Felix (according to Josephus). He was a man of action. He had barely arrived in the capital of Caesarea before he went up to Jerusalem to familiarize himself with the situation there. Paul’s Jewish opponents there took advantage of the governor’s newness on the job to present their case against Paul and urge that he be brought to Jerusalem for trial. Their real intent was to resurrect their foiled plans from two years before and murder him on the way. But Festus wasn’t going to let the Jews get the upper hand by telling him how to manage his affairs, so he told them that they could come to Caesarea and present their case against Paul.

When Paul found himself standing before the same angry accusers who had tried to get him executed two years earlier, he easily could have become frustrated. It seemed like more of the “same old same old.” These guys just wouldn’t quit! They didn’t have anything new to say. Their charges, which they couldn’t prove, were basically the same as before, that Paul was violating the Jewish law, that he had desecrated the temple, and that he was a threat to the Roman government (25:8; cf. 24:5-6). Paul could have impatiently thought, “When will this ever end, so that I can get on with the more important task of taking the gospel to the Gentiles who have never heard about Christ?”

But Paul didn’t grow frustrated or impatient. Instead, he calmly defended himself before this same angry group of Jews and before the new governor. As the trial progressed, Festus saw a way that he could now gain some political capital with the Jews, and so he reversed his earlier decision and offered to move the trial to Jerusalem. Paul could see that he would not get a fair trial there, if he even got there alive, and so he was forced to appeal his case to Caesar. Through this, God sovereignly was working to get His apostle to Rome.

When Festus granted Paul’s appeal to go to Caesar, he was probably relieved to get this sticky case out of his jurisdiction. But he also created a problem for himself, in that he had to give sufficient rationale to Caesar to trouble him with this case. About that time King Agrippa and his sister (and lover) Bernice, arrived at the capital to pay their respects to Festus. He was still puzzling over what to write to Caesar, and so he ran the case by Agrippa, who wanted to hear Paul. And so God used these potentially frustrating circumstances not only to get Paul to Rome, but also for Paul to bring the gospel before these influential leaders.

To understand the spiritual perspective of these events, you must read the story in the light of two texts. In Acts 9:15, the Lord had predicted of Paul, “He is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” Here Paul bears witness before all three groups. And, in Acts 23:11, the Lord had told Paul, “for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.” God was at work behind these potentially frustrating circumstances and repeated false charges to fulfill His purpose for His servant, Paul. The lesson for us is that …

God will protect His servants from the forces of evil and use us according to His sovereign purpose.

There are two main lessons:

1. Satan arrays his evil forces against those who serve the Lord.

The enemy of souls is not passive when a faithful servant of the Lord like Paul is seeking to preach the gospel. Here he brings two forces against Paul: the Jews, who are militantly hostile; and Festus, who is seemingly benign, but potentially lethal, if Paul had gone along with his suggestion of moving the trial to Jerusalem. But neither enemy is a problem for God to dispose of when they oppose His purpose for Paul.

The Jews illustrate for us the implacable hardness of the fallen human heart. These men were the religious leaders of Israel, God’s chosen nation. They were the only people on earth who had received God’s covenant promises and who were able to read His revelation in the Scriptures. They knew the history of the nation, how God had called Abraham, how He had preserved Abraham’s descendants through four long centuries in Egypt, and how He had brought them out of Egypt with a mighty deliverance. They knew how God had protected Israel in the wilderness and had displaced the fearsome Canaanites and had given Israel the promised land. They knew the faithfulness of God in restoring them to the land after the punishment of the Babylonian captivity. They had access to God’s presence through worship in the temple. Yet in spite of all of their knowledge and privileges, they had killed the Anointed One whom God had sent to save them from their sins. And now they were intent on murdering God’s servant Paul, one of their own countrymen, who had done them no wrong.

When men stubbornly refuse to submit to God’s truth, they will seek to eliminate it from their lives. The light exposes their evil deeds, which they don’t want to face. Rather than coming to the light in repentance, they try to snuff it out so that they can continue living as they please (John 3:19-21). So we see these men, who were supposed to uphold God’s holy law, trying to set up an ambush to murder God’s servant. If they couldn’t murder him, they would slander him with false accusations and lies.

Paul himself, of course, had formerly been one of them. He was bent on destroying all who followed this new sect called the Way. What had changed Paul from persecutor and murderer to the ardent apostle who now said that he would even be willing to be cut off from Christ, if it meant their salvation (Rom. 9:1-3)? The only thing that can transform hearts so hardened by sin is the power of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. God stopped Paul in his tracks, imparted new life to him, and claimed him as His servant. Even as God temporarily blinded Paul’s eyes physically, He opened them spiritually to see the light of the glory of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead (see 2 Cor. 4:4-6; Gal. 1:13-16). That same power of God can still transform any sinner who comes to the cross for mercy.

Festus was an evil tool of Satan in a different way than the Jews were, in that he was more positive and subtle. He seems to have been a decent ruler. He wasn’t willing to turn Paul over to his enemies without a trial. Perhaps he naively thought that moving the venue to Jerusalem would not compromise justice, although probably he knew the potential danger to Paul’s life. But if Paul had been lulled into compliance with Festus’ suggestion, it would have spelled certain death.

Festus’ weakness was that he was a people-pleaser at the expense of doing what he knew to be right. Probably he had read Lysias’ report to Felix about the plot to kill Paul. Felix had probably briefed him on the pending case. But Paul was only one man, and Festus had to live with these Jewish leaders. If Paul’s life “accidentally” got snuffed out in transit to Jerusalem, that would be a pity. But if it gained some favor with the Jews, then why be unpopular by taking a hard line for truth and justice?

Sadly, I know of many evangelical pastors who compromise the hard truths of Scripture in order to be popular. They know that the Bible thunders against sin, but if you tell people that, some will get offended. So they play it down. They know that the Bible threatens a terrible eternal punishment in hell for those who reject Christ, but that’s not a popular truth for our day. Besides, people like to come to church so that they can be uplifted and feel good, not to be confronted with sin and judgment. So they skirt around the heart of the gospel in order to gain favor with people. Unwittingly, like Festus, they are often the more dangerous enemy of the gospel than those who are militantly opposed to Christ.

The application of all of this is, if you are serving the Lord in some capacity (and every Christian should be serving!), expect that Satan will oppose you, either with open hostility or with subtle compromises that are equally destructive. Don’t be surprised when it hits. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

2. God works, often behind the scenes, to protect and use His servants according to His purpose.

If we had to face Satan’s frightening forces in our own strength or wisdom, we would despair. But thankfully, the Lord surrounds His servants, protecting them until it is His time to call them home. Our text reveals two ways that God protects us.

A. God protects His people through His providential power, directing even those who are opposed to Him.

We have already seen God’s providential hand at work in protecting Paul from the plot against his life, but here we see it again. Although God is not overtly seen, He is covertly at work, orchestrating circumstances and people to accomplish His sovereign purposes through the gospel. (I am indebted to my friend, Bob Deffinbaugh, “Acts: Christ at Work Through His Church,” www.bible.org, for many of the following insights under this heading.) God has used Paul’s love for his people and his strong desire to unify the Gentile and Jewish wings of the church to bring him to Jerusalem. He used the counsel of the Jerusalem church leaders, misguided though it may have been, to get Paul into the Temple. He brought along the Jews from Asia at just the right moment to spot Paul and stir up the riot against him. He used Lysias, the commander, to rescue Paul from the angry mob.

He used Paul’s nephew overhearing the plot of the Jews, along with Lysias’ protection, to save Paul’s life and get him safely to Caesarea. He used the self-seeking scoundrel Felix to put the Jews at bay for two years, during which time Paul had further influence among the Jewish Christians and Luke had time to research his gospel and the Book of Acts. And now He uses the inexperienced governor’s suggested compromise to set up an appointment for Paul to preach to Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice, as well as to get him an all-expenses paid trip to Rome.

From a human standpoint, all of these events could seem like a comedy of errors for Paul. His gift to the church at Jerusalem had not been well-received, as he had hoped. Their scheme to go into the Temple had backfired, resulting in the riot and Paul’s arrest. His interviews with Felix had not resulted in Felix’s conversion or in Paul’s release. And now, Festus’ misguided suggestion forced Paul to appeal to Caesar, further delaying his release from custody.

But from God’s standpoint (remember, we must read this story against the backdrop of God’s prophetic declarations in 9:15 & 23:11), God was working all things together for good for Paul according to His purpose of being glorified through the gospel, before the Gentiles, kings, and the Jewish people. He was working to bring His apostle to Rome, where many in Caesar’s household, and probably even Caesar himself, would hear the gospel.

The key for applying this to your life is to view your circumstances, however seemingly frustrating and confusing, from God’s sovereign, providential perspective, not from the human perspective. From Paul’s perspective, he was hemmed in and restricted. He had not planned these events in his personal three-year goals, nor was he the prime mover in bringing them to pass. But from God’s perspective, God was setting up for Paul the witnessing opportunities of a lifetime, to preach the gospel to the most influential people in Israel and in Rome.

Often the greatest opportunities for ministry that God gives us come disguised as frustrating or confusing circumstances, where we seem to be restricted from reaching our goals. If we view those circumstances from the human perspective, as just so much “bad luck,” we will grumble in discouragement and miss the opportunity for ministry. But if we submit to God’s mighty hand, He can use us in such a way that He alone gets the glory.

B. God protects His people through human government, which He has ordained.

God has ordained human government to protect those who do right and to punish those who do evil (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). Even though human governments are run by self-serving men like Felix, Festus, and Nero, God still uses them in His purposes. He commands us to submit ourselves to such governments and their laws, unless the government demands that we do something that violates God’s commandments (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29).

It is not wrong for Christians to serve in government or to use the government and its judicial system to obtain due process and legal protection. Some argue that Christians should have nothing to do with government, because it is worldly or evil at its core. They say that we are citizens of heaven, not of this world. But I believe that the examples of Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah argue that some believers can and should serve in government. Paul’s example here shows that it is proper for us to use the government to protect us and to uphold our rights as citizens.

Paul acknowledges that if he has committed the crimes that he was accused of, he was willing to die. This (as well as Romans 13:4, “bear the sword”), argues that the government has the right of capital punishment in certain cases. For the government to take the life of a convicted criminal who has committed serious offenses does not violate the sixth commandment, which is properly, “You shall not murder” (rather than “kill”). Certainly, the judicial process needs to be extremely careful to establish guilt beyond the shadow of doubt through a fair trial. But to abolish capital punishment in cases of first degree murder because “it is barbaric,” actually results in greater barbarism, because it cheapens rather than elevates the value of human life.

Also, Paul’s defense here (25:8) shows that it is not wrong for a Christian leader to defend his innocence against false charges. In my former ministry, I was being falsely accused of some things and I defended my integrity. An elder there, who holds a doctorate in theology, told me that I should not defend myself, but rather be like Jesus who was silent against His accusers. But Paul was not silent, because in addition to several defenses in the Book of Acts, he also wrote Galatians and 2 Corinthians to defend his ministry. Satan tries to discredit the gospel by slandering those who preach the gospel. There is no virtue and much damage to the cause of the gospel if a faithful man allows false charges and slander to stand without defense or explanation.

Conclusion

I conclude by giving four practical lessons from our text:

(1) If we have a clear conscience, then we can know that God is for us in spite of the slander or opposition of others.

Paul had maintained a blameless conscience both before God and before men (24:16). He knew that he had not committed any offense against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar (25:8). Thus he could calmly state the truth and know that God was his shield and defender. The glory goes to God, not to me, but I know firsthand the peace that comes from a clear conscience when you are under attack. Shortly after I began my ministry here, four of the former elders sought to have me fired because I opposed one of them for being pro-choice on abortion. I told Marla, “Even if I have to get a job flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s, I have peace in my heart that I did the right thing and that God will take care of us.” As Paul puts it (Rom. 8:31-34),

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 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.

He goes on to show that there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from God’s great love in Christ Jesus our Lord!

(2) If we know the sovereign God, then we can trust Him to defend and protect us according to His purpose.

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is not a point for theological debate; it is a precious reality that brings great comfort to the believer. This week Dan Barton and I had lunch with our friend and fellow pastor, Chuck Ballard, who was visiting from Texas. He shared with us that his father, who was an unbeliever, had committed suicide some years ago. Chuck said that the Scripture that sustained him through that difficult time was Romans 9, where Paul shows so clearly that the primary cause of salvation is God’s choice, not man’s choice. It is a most comforting truth that the sovereign God is orchestrating all of the circumstances of our lives, no matter how frustrating or confusing they may seem to us. We can trust Him to work all of the trials together for good for us, because we love Him and are called according to His purpose.

(3) If we have personally received mercy at the cross, then we should view every circumstance, no matter how frustrating, as an opportunity to proclaim God’s mercy to others.

If Paul had been focused on his frustrating circumstances, he would have thought, “Not this again! How long do I have to put up with these same enemies and these same false charges?” And he would have missed the opportunity to bear witness for Christ. If we put our focus on our frustrating circumstances, we will miss the opportunity to tell others of our great Savior and of the mercy that He offers every sinner at the cross.

(4) If we follow the Savior who laid down His life for us, then we should be ready and willing to pay the price of our commitment to Him.

Paul did not consider his life of any account as dear to himself, in order that he might finish his course and the ministry that he received from the Lord Jesus, to solemnly testify of the gospel of the grace of God (20:24). You may think, “But if I didn’t compromise the truth, it would cost the company a lot of money and my boss would fire me.” Which is more important: a job, or to hear “Well done, good and faithful slave”?

Life presents us with many temptations to compromise our commitment to Jesus Christ. If we will stand for Him, even if it means imprisonment or death, we can know that His protective hand is upon us and that He will use us for His glory according to His sovereign purpose.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it crucial and very practical to see every circumstance as under God’s sovereign control?
  2. How can a people-pleaser learn to take a stand for God’s truth? Where is the biblical balance between truth and love?
  3. How far should Christians go in using the government to uphold righteousness? How far can we go in legislating biblical standards in a secular and pluralistic culture?
  4. If God is sovereign over frustrating circumstances, is it wrong to seek to get out from under them? Why/why not?

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, Faith, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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)

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