Before Paul was converted, when God was commanding Ananias to go tell Saul of Tarsus what he must do to be saved, the Lord had told Ananias, Acts 9:15 “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” Paul had brought the Gospel to lots of places, almost always at personal peril; now, he was on the path to fulfill the Lord’s word about bearing His name before kings, ultimately Caesar — a purpose that Paul understood: Philippians 1:16 “the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.” The three chapters of our reading today record three separate such defenses.
A gutsy defense — Acts 22
Paul had been falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the court of Israel, an offense that could really get you killed legally. Separating the court of the Gentiles from the court of the women and of Israel was a low wall with a number of stone signs warning: “No foreigner is to go beyond the balustrade and the plaza of the Temple zone. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his death which will follow.” And the Jews meant it; after grabbing Paul, they began to beat him. It was only because of the Romans’ intervention that Paul appears to have even survived. I don’t know about you, but if I’d just been arrested under this charge, I’d have been tempted to simply but loudly deny having done such a thing (as, in fact, he had not). But Paul was a man with a mission to defend the Gospel. He tells the story of his conversion and specifically his special mission from God, “Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” This sent the mob into a frenzy!
Recently I was in a conversation with a good brother in Christ, who told me that it was his aspiration to have everyone like him, because (in his view) this was the mark of a good Christian. I had to disagree, not because I think being disagreeable is Christ-like; but the truth is that Jesus warned how His message would divide sometimes even the closest of family relations. This is not God’s desire, of course, but it is a fact of life — telling the truth even with the most kindly and noble and loving spirit will still cause some not to like us. Paul knew this, expected this, but knew that these men needed to know it: Romans 10:14, 15 “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!”” It was a gutsy defense. What would you have said?
A resurrection defense — Acts 23
After the Roman commander discovered that Paul was a Roman citizen, he decided that he needed to get to the bottom of why Paul had been accused, so he called the Sanhedrin to assemble so that Paul could defend himself. But after being struck in the mouth without just cause, Paul perceived that this was going to be a kangaroo court and showed himself again “shrewd as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.” “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees, I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” he exclaimed, which caused an uproarious debate among the members of the Sanhedrin. So seeing that Paul was again in danger from the heated and almost riotous exchange between the Pharisees and Sadducees that followed, the Roman commander pulled Paul out of the fray and put him in protective custody.
The next day 40 zealous plotters pledged to not eat until they had killed Paul. Providentially, Paul’s nephew overheard the plot and its details and reported it to Paul, who then passed the info along to the commander. The Roman commander’s main job was the protection of Rome’s interests and citizens and clearly Paul was a hot potato in need of more protection that he could muster; so he transferred him, heavily guarded, by night to Caesarea to await the priests’ arrival from Jerusalem to make formal accusations.
I make mention of these just to once again point out the wisdom that Paul chose to exercise in difficult situations. It is possible to use our wits and God’s providence to escape the evil designs of the enemy. In Paul’s case, he thought that there might be those in the Temple crowd that might listen to God’s message; but knew that the same Sanhedrin who had condemned Jesus, who had ordered Paul struck in the mouth, and with whom he had personally plotted to eradicate Christianity would not listen. He treated them in different ways. In one case he preached the good news, but in the other he used an issue he knew they’d argue about to escape their condemnation. “Shrewd as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.”
A scary defense — Acts 24
The priests did come and make their accusation, but the governor opted to wait for the commander’s testimony before coming to any decision. So in waiting for Lysias, the Roman commander in Jerusalem, to testify, Paul was given a little bit of freedom and a great opportunity to come discuss faith in Jesus. Sadly, however, when Paul began talking about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment it shook Felix, the governor, enough to interrupt Paul’s teaching and tell him, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.” As far as we know, Felix never found that time and never became a Christian.
Felix’s reaction is not uncommon. There are scary things about the Gospel. Righteousness, not just moral living, but all the good deeds that we need to be actively engaged in, can be scary, when we compare our real lives with God’s expectations — it’s easy to think that we’re good until we look at what we should be doing. Self-control, is as easy to talk about as the latest new year resolution, but as difficult as January 3. And the more luxury we allow ourselves, the softer self-control often becomes and the harder exercising it is. And then judgment — the worst of all considerations, because knowing about how far short we have fallen in righteousness and self-control, the last thing we want to consider is to actually answer to God about it. Especially to a pagan governor, this was scary stuff. To a worldly friend it is still scary stuff.
But I’ve got a theory. I don’t think that Felix let Paul really talk all that long. I have long maintained that for the Good News to really be good, you have to tell the bad news first. The bad news is that we are sinners and lost — on our ways to Hell. The good news is that we don’t have to suffer such a fate, because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. Make sure you tell the bad news, but be sure to emphasize the good news, too.
See you tomorrow, Lord willing.