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7. Week Seven: Using Hardships As Opportunities

Soul Food

God’s servant must not be argumentative, but a gentle listener and a teacher who keeps cool, working firmly but patiently with those who refuse to obey. You never know how or when God might sober them up with a change of heart and a turning to the truth.

Timothy 2:24-25 MSG

This pandemic of 2020 sent tens of millions of people home so we wouldn’t spread the virus at work, retail, gyms, entertainment centers, schools and churches. An unexpected consequence has been the increased usage of outdoor space where people walk, run, cycle or simply sit and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. My husband and I have had opportunities to speak with some neighbors whom we’ve never met before—at a safe distance, of course.

We make a choice when we confront hardships—we can get into a funk over them or look in faith for opportunities that God brings through them. (Of course we’re to mourn over what we lose, our sins and those of the church. I don’t want to minimize those responses, but I’m highlighting what God can do in the midst of our difficulties.)

We’ve seen Paul’s race involve opposition at every turn from both Jews and Gentiles. From the time Paul embraced Jesus as the Messiah, many of his fellow Jews consistently resisted him and his message. In addition, Roman officials persecuted him for preaching Jesus is Lord, likely considering it sedition against Caesar and/or a threat to the Roman gods. Although discouragement could have sidetracked him, Paul continued running, loving those who opposed him and taking every opportunity to share God’s message with them.

This week’s lesson follows Paul through the rest of Acts, returning to the chronological story at the point of Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem at the completion of his third missionary journey. Pay attention to his responses as he faced hardships of many kinds.

Part One Study

Although there’s a long section to read, try to read it slowly, picturing the scenes and considering what Paul was going through. Note that Luke must have accompanied Paul, as he uses the plural pronouns us and we. Remember to make notes on the chart you’ve partially completed, “Paul’s Final Journeys” found in the Appendix on p. 61.

Read Acts 21:15-23:35.

The Roman commander in Jerusalem was frightened to hear that Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-29). Dr. Darrell Bock explains: “The beating in Acts 22 is known as a flagellatio, since whips (flagella) would be used. … The flagella were used on noncitizens and slaves.” He also quotes Cicero saying that “to bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him an abomination, to slay him is almost an act of murder.”1

Now Journal Your Thoughts On These Questions:

  • What scene most stood out to you and why?
  • How would you describe Paul’s responses to those who attacked him—groups and individuals? Compare your answer to Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, our Soul Food for this week.
  • How do you see God at work to protect Paul?

Imagine the night Paul was whisked away from Jerusalem with a group of Romans who accompanied him: When “forty Torah-zealous Jews swore a solemn oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul …. The tribune … ordered two centurions with a hundred soldiers each, seventy horsemen, and an additional two-hundred light-armed guards to take Paul to Caesarea, the best part of a hundred miles away.”2

*** Although Paul had insisted to the prophets who warned him of prison in Jerusalem that it was what he was meant to do, he still did all he could to avoid being arrested. Record your thoughts about that. What practical wisdom do you see Paul employ as he attempted to avoid/ end the conflict he faced in Jerusalem?

Part Two Study

This section’s reading describes the major events that occurred while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, home to the Roman provincial governor.

Who’s who in this story?

Felix was governor of Judea from A.D. 52-59.3 Acts 24:27 tells us that he kept Paul in prison for two years before Felix was replaced by Festus, known historically as a fair governor.4

King Herod Agrippa II appears in our reading also. He was the son of Herod Agrippa I who killed the Apostle James, brother of John (Acts 12:1-2). Agrippa II’s great-grandfather was Herod the Great, the Jewish ruler who met the Magi and killed babies in Bethlehem in an effort to destroy the King of the Jews who was born there (Matthew 2:1). Also mentioned in the story are his two sisters Drusilla, Felix’s wife, and Bernice, his companion.5

Read Acts 23:33-26:32, Noting Major Events In Caesarea On Your Chart In The Appendix And Journaling Your Thoughts In Light Of The Questions That Follow:

  • How did Paul use his imprisonment in Caesarea as an opportunity?
  • How would you describe the simplicity of the way Paul defends himself before these powerful people?
  • Reread Acts 9:15-16, the Lord’s words to Ananias concerning Paul’s call. How did events in Caesarea fulfill those words? What does this tell you about God? And about Paul’s insistence to go to Jerusalem?
  • What is God saying to you through Paul’s story?

*** Compare the charges against Paul in Acts 24:5-6 with those against Jesus in Luke 23:1-2, 5. Why do you think the Jews would bring similar trumped-up charges as they argued before the Romans? As you consider Paul’s defense, what arguments does he include that might be more helpful before secular Roman rulers than before the Jews in Jerusalem?

Part Three Study

As you’ll read, after Agrippa, Bernice and Festus heard Paul tell his story, arrangements were made for Paul, along with Luke and Aristarchus, to sail to Rome. Use this free online map6 to follow their journey from Jerusalem to Rome. Add notes on your chart in the Appendix as you go through the story.

Read Through To The End Of The Book (Acts 27-28).

Sometimes I miss something that should be so obvious and need a commentator to point it out. N.T. Wright mentions the story in Malta, saying, “It explains what otherwise might be puzzling, namely, how the whole party, presumably now without money or other means to rent accommodation, was able to last through the winter months of 59/60 before it was once again possible to sail.”7 I wonder if they gave them enough provisions for the time in Rome as well.

In Light Of These Questions, Write Down Your Insights From The Passage You Read.

  • In what ways did God encourage Paul along the way? What does this tell you about God?
  • How did Paul continue to take advantage of the opportunities he had during his travel to and stay in Rome?
  • What is God saying to you from Paul’s story?

You’ve likely noticed on the chart “Paul’s Final Journeys” other events not mentioned in Acts. As scholars through the years have pieced together a timeline of his life from their study of Acts and his epistles, comparing events and people with known historical dates and figures, many of them have been convinced that Paul was released in Rome and continued traveling. One reason for that is because the description of Paul’s time in custody in Rome doesn’t jibe with that of his imprisonment in 2 Timothy, written just before his death. Our chart uses what many scholars believe is a best guess about the end of Paul’s life.

*** Compare Paul’s situation in Acts 28:16-17, 23, 30-31 with his descriptions of his circumstances in 2 Timothy 1:8, 15-18; 2:8-9; 4:9-18. Write down your insights into the differences in these imprisonments and your thoughts about the character of Paul.

A Runner’s Story: You

Yes—your story!

If you’re a follower of Jesus, you have a faith story just as Paul did. Most of our stories aren’t quite as dramatic as his, but they belong to us and reveal the way that God intervened in our lives to bring us to faith and more maturity. Be prepared to share a short version of your story with your small group this week.

If you haven’t ever written out the story of God’s work in your life, consider watching this series of three free videos8 or listen to the conversation on the BOW podcast9 by searching for “Sharing Your Faith Story” with speaker Donna Skell of Roaring Lambs Ministry. Donna provides an easy outline mixed with lots of encouragement.

1 Bock, 664.

2 Wright, 360.

3 ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), Note on Acts 23:24, 2136.

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