A personal testimony - Acts 21:37 - 22:29
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A few years ago I was given a brochure inviting me to a huge conference called the Gathering of Champions. Naturally, I was intrigued. I was told that at this conference thousands of people would gather together to hear some of the most powerful speakers in the world. One pastor was an exemplary lyricist and composer, and his songs would reach and touch the soul and they had earned him a Grammy award. He was also Senior Pastor of the Perfecting Church that consists of 2,900 members. There would also be another powerful speaker there whose church is 18,000 strong, along with a pastor who runs a church called the Winnersí Chapel claiming to attract 40,000. A further pastor had written over 5000 songs and 57 books. The ministries of these men, I was told, are concerned with challenging people to live lives that lead to success and prosperity. I could be given financial breakthrough, I was assured. I could achieve victory in my spiritual life. The old battles could be laid to rest. I could be a champion.
Well it sounds great doesnít it? Churches of thousands, success and prosperity! Financial breakthrough if only we have enough faith and applied the right practices. And when we read of such things I guess there are a number of things that cross our minds. Perhaps weíre tempted to think that we are missing out. That something is wrong with what we are doing. After all our church is very small in comparison. We donít attract thousands, and people arenít becoming Christians in their droves. Maybe you feel that your Christian life is just one long struggle. There are battles on every front. Battles in the home, battles in the heart, battles at work, battles in church even. Maybe you have not seen so called success in your Christian life. Your friends havenít become Christians, youíre still struggling with the same old sins that have dogged you for years, you feel guilty about the level of your relationship with God. Whatís wrong, whereís the breakthrough, whereís the victory? I would not be being honest if I denied that those thoughts had not crossed my mind from time to time.
But the wonderful thing about the NT is that it is gloriously realistic. For whilst there is great joy and wonderful victories in being a Christian, whilst we can know sins forgiven and new life in Christ, yet the reality is the Christian life is a battle. And as we have progressed in our studies in the book of Acts, itís been abundantly clear that Luke knows how hard the Christian life can be. For his main character, the apostle Paul, life as a Christian is tough. Itís a battle. And those who triumphantly claim victory victory all the way through life this side of heaven are sadly mistaken. It appears they have not read the NT.
And we see that with great clarity as we come to last major section of the book of Acts, chapters 21-28. For here Luke tells how Paul went on a journey that took him from Ephesus to Jerusalem and finally to Rome, a journey which would taken him two years. And that has always been Paulís great goal, to carry the gospel to the heart of the Roman empire, the place where strategically the gospel can spread to the very ends of the earth, exactly what Jesus promised would happen back in chapter 1. But this journey will find Paul having to defend himself on a number of occasions before different audiences, both Jewish and Roman. And it seems that what Luke is wanting us to see is that this good news is something which is defendable against charges of being a distortion of Judaism or of being illegal in Roman eyes. No, this gospel is suitable for all, and there is nothing underhand or dangerous about this good news. It is good news for all people for all times. And yet at the same time, if you or I are to join the battle in proclaiming the gospel to the world, then we have to be prepared for the consequences. We will suffer. It wonít be easy. But it is worth it, because God is the one in control. And his plans can never be thwarted. So letís join Paul as he defends himself for the first time on this final journey, right in the heart of Jerusalem to a crowd baying for his blood. And weíll discover three things from this story which should encourage us to keep going in the battle of the Christian life:
1) Godís people will be persecuted
2) Godís grace will change lives
3) Godís gospel will keep spreading
1) Godís people will be persecuted
So first then, we see that Godís people will be persecuted. Now at first we might think that there is not much encouragement in that, but actually when we understand that truth, it will help us to be far more realistic about what may come our way as Christians. And there is no doubt that the apostle Paul had his fair share of suffering. And that is his experience here in Jerusalem. Now Paul has just come to Jerusalem off the back of a long missionary journey which has seen him spend a lot of time in Greece. And he decides to go to the Temple to fulfil a vow he has made. Paul was never one for breaking Jewish law just for the sake of it. He was a Jew from birth as he will explain later, and he did want to offend his Jewish Christian friends in Jerusalem. But Paulís enemies, of which there many in Jerusalem, use this trip to the Temple as an opportunity to frame Paul for a crime he did not commit. They accuse him of bringing non Jews into the Temple, which was actually a crime punishable by death. So letís read from verse 27 of chapter 21: ďWhen the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, ĎMen of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.íĒ So what happens? Well is dragged out and the crowd try and beat him to death. And Paul is only rescued by the Roman commander whose troops were stationed near the Temple. They carry him to safety from a crowd who would have happily ripped him limb from limb.
Now actually, strange as it may seem, all this has been predicted to Paul as he made his journey from Ephesus to Jerusalem. Twice on his journey he has been told by the Spirit through various prophets that he will face tough times in Jerusalem. And his friends plead with him desperately to change his mind. But in verse 13 of chapter 21, Paul turns round to his friends and says to them: ďWhy are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.Ē You see Paul has understood something very important about his life as a follower of Jesus. He understands that if he follows Jesus, it will mean suffering. To go the way of the Lord Jesus Christ means to go the way of suffering.
Now what is interesting about these final chapters of Acts is that Luke seems to be drawing a direct contrast between Jesus and Paul. When Jesus was on trial in Jerusalem, he would have to explain himself five times to different leaders. And in chapters 21-28, Paul has to explain himself five times. Three times Jesus is said to be innocent of all charges. Three times Paul is said to be innocent of all charges. Both set out on journeys to Jerusalem. Both discover their fates in Jerusalem. Both are rejected by their own people, both are arrested and condemned. Jesusí work in Jerusalem means the gospel can be proclaimed and spread to the ends of the earth. Paulís work in Jerusalem means the gospel is proclaimed and is spread to the ends of the earth. Can you see what Luke is saying. The follower of Jesus walks in Jesusí footsteps. If the Lord was persecuted and suffered, then so will his followers. And just a few years after the events of chapter 22 happened, Paul would write to his younger colleague Timothy these words: ďEveryone who wants to live a godly life will be persecuted.Ē There is no empty triumphalism in those words. No shallow promises, no guarantees of comfort. Just the realism of the fact that if you follow Jesus, itís a road of difficulty.
Now I wonder if we have really grasped this truth as Christians, or do we expect a life of ease as Christians? Do we expect things to go well for us just because we follow Christ? I guess perhaps one problem for us is that the society we live in and the world we inhabit is actually a reasonably comfortable place. We donít have to worry about fear of persecution or fear of suffering for Christís sake by and large. And maybe we have been lulled into a false sense of security. As an interesting parallel, I came across an advertisement for the army this week. It is a poster seeking to encourage new recruits. It goes like this: ďBeing a soldier is an exciting, fast moving career. But the army is more than just a job. Itís a lifestyle. And when it comes to action, travel and adventure, there is nothing to beat it. As a soldier you will travel all over the world visiting countries your mates can only dream about. And you wonít always be on duty. Soldiers play all kinds of sports and enjoy a wide range of activities that most people only read about. The army means great training and pay, great prospects, great mates and a great laugh. What more do you want to know?Ē
Well actually there are all sorts of questions I want to know. What about the tough training, the early mornings, the drill, the harsh conditions, the long hours, the potential of pain and suffering, the prospect of losing friends, the possibility of death itself. You wonít find that on any advertisement will you? Because the advertisers now that to appeal to the present generation you have to say whatís in it for them. Gone are the days where you could appeal to a personís national pride, the joy of serving Queen and country. Now we must attract people by good pay, nice travel, great sports, friendship, all of which are true, but none of which really explain what will expected. And it maybe that we have succumbed to that thinking in the church as well. We forget that the Christian life is the life of a soldier. Itís a battle. It means following the crucified Lord. And for us in England, many centuries of Christian heritage have blinded us to the reality that living the Christian life is hard. Of course brothers and sisters around the world know it. You only have to pick up a copy of Evangelicals Now, a Christian newspaper, to see that suffering is a reality. This month we read that in Iraq Christians have been shot. In Peru a pastor has been murdered. In Pakistan, Christian families have been forced to flee their homes and so it goes on. But for us, we are protected and safeguarded against such extremes. And the danger is we become complacent and think safety and ease is the norm for the Christian. So when tough times come, and we are opposed for our beliefs, then we are taken by surprise. So we are given the cold shoulder at work because weíre thought to be a religious weirdo. Weíre given a hard time because we try and take a stand on Christian morality. Weíre perhaps sidelined in the family for our beliefs about Jesus. But that is the norm for the Christian. We should expect rejection and persecution because we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. And if you are having a tough time at the moment, then be encouraged. Being called to suffer for Christís sake is a great privilege. We are walking in the steps of our Lord and King, and he asks of us no less than what he himself has walked for us. And he will give you the strength and courage to keep going. And if not, then donít be complacent. Donít think that the Christian life is a cushy number. Remember the realism of the NT. As Luke and Paul knew, Godís people will be persecuted!
2) Godís grace will change lives
But thereís a second lesson that we can learn from these verses which help us to press on and that is Godís grace will change lives. Because that is the heart of the remarkable personal testimony that Paul gives in chapter 22. Now Paul has just been rescued from certain death by the commander and he is given an opportunity to speak to the crowd. So what does he do? Well he explains what God has done in his life and he shows that he is a perfectly respectable Jew who has come to know the Messiah Jesus. Notice how Paul explains the gospel in a way that is fitting for this particular crowd. Remember heís been accused of desecrating the Temple, a very serious charge. Heís thought of as being someone who is undermining the Old Testament and therefore someone who opposes God. But he is not at all. He addresses them in Aramaic, not Greek, which instantly got the attention of his hearers because itís the mother tongue of the Jews. And he is gracious and polite. He calls the people brothers and fathers. In other words he goes out of his way to get onto the level of his hearers. He doesnít deliberately antagonise them or alienate himself from them. Paul was a man who understood his audience. He knew that he could not address this Jewish partisan crowd in the same way he addressed the intellectual elite of Athens in Acts 17. He was flexible in presentation but faithful in content. A lesson we too ought to learn. So in our presentation of the gospel we ought to learn from the apostle Paul. We too need to be men and women who commend the gospel by the way we present it. Firmly and courageously yes, but politely and graciously.
So what then does Paul actually say? Well he goes on to give his hearers his very impressive credentials. So letís read from verse 2: ďĎBrothers and fathers, listen now to my defence.í When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: ĎI am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.íĒ Can you see what he is doing? He is defending himself by showing he is a Jew like them. He was trained by Gamaliel, who was the top religious professor in the country. It would be like saying today that you trained as a doctor with a top Harley Street Doctor, or that you were personally coached football by David Beckham himself. As a Jew, Paul had the best education he could get. He was a Jew of Jews. He was totally committed to the Jewish people and the Jewish ways. No-one could accuse him of not taking his religion seriously.
But notice what he goes on to say in verse 4: ďI persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.Ē As a zealous Jew he took his views to the extreme. He hunted out those he thought were being blasphemous to the Jewish faith, the Christians. They needed to be punished, they needed to be pursued, dragged out of their hiding places and either killed on the spot or put in prison, men and women. And behind it all was Paul. He even stood there giving his approval to the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Here was a man whose hatred for Christians drove him to commit atrocities which in todayís world would be classed as ethnic cleansing. Paul would go on trial at the Hague for war crimes. He was a man who had blood on his hands. Oh, he might not have pulled the trigger so to speak, but he was there, he was the orchestrator, he was the man behind the mission.
Now how on earth can someone who hated Christians and Christ so totally become a Christian? How can someone who spilt the blood of believers become one himself? Could you really believe that such a person come become the most loving and gracious of Christian believers? How can this be? Well there is only one answer. And Paul explains in verse 6: ďAbout noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, 'Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?' 'Who are you, Lord?' I asked. 'I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,' he replied.Ē Paul wasnít just persecuting the church. He was persecuting the Lord of the church himself, Jesus Christ. And it was this Lord who stopped Paul literally in his tracks. So Paul is sent into the town and a man called Ananias explains everything to him. And notice Ananias says to Paul in verse 16: ďAnd now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.Ē Well itís incredible isnít it? How on earth can Paulís sins be forgiven just like this? A murderer, a man who opposed Jesus Christ in such horrific ways, a man who had the blood of numerous men and women on his hands! Can his sins be wiped away just like that? Can all his wrongdoing just be forgiven? Well yes, because God is a God of incredible grace. Because the very Jesus who appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus was the same Jesus who just a little while before had died on a cross bearing the sins of Paul and you and me. Jesus, the king and Lord, dying in Paulís place and ours. So it meant that all Paulís wrongdoing had been paid for. Even his most ghastly crimes could be forgiven. The punishment from God that was due to Paul for his life of rebellion against God had been paid. Paul was a free man. Yes he might have been the most impressive Jew of his generation, but he knew what he was. Just a guilty sinner like you and me. All his good works and fine credentials couldnít save him from the judge of the world. The only thing that could was the forgiveness that God offered through Jesus. And that was what Paul explained that day in Jerusalem. They too needed to see that Jesus was the Messiah offering forgiveness and a fresh start.
Now of course Paulís exact experience of the grace of God was unique. No-one else after him would see the risen Lord on this earth. But his experience of the saving grace of God is a great encouragement to us. Because we should realise that Godís grace extends even to the most wretched of sinners. Godís grace is so vast, so deep that even the most vile can be cleaned and forgiven. Just recently I read a very moving story of a man who was chaplain to the 15 Nazi war criminals who attended the Nuremberg Trials after the war. The manís name was Henry Gerecke. He had the unenviable task of pastoring men who had been some of Hitlerís closest allies. These men were responsible for numerous war crimes including mass murder and genocide. As he began his task, Gerecke was overwhelmed. But through Godís strength he managed to get alongside the vast majority of the men. Now there was no doubt they were all guilty. They had committed horrible crimes. But could these men be forgiven by God? Surely Godís mercy didnít extend to them. But Gerecke was convinced it did. He never made light of their crimes, but he did believe that while they still lived, Godís grace was extended to them too. Gradually with prayer and persistence, over half the men in those cells came to accept the grace of God in Christ. One man called Joachim von Ribbentrop was Hitlerís foreign minister. He was at first very sceptical of the Christian faith, but over a number of months, he changed his mind. And this is what he said just before he was hanged for war crimes: ďI place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul.Ē The extraordinary thing about Godís grace is that it is extended even to the worst of sinners. And if we cannot swallow such forgiveness, if we cannot stomach the fact that God could forgive a Nazi war criminal or a murderer like Paul, then we really have not understood the grace of God. And nor can we see that it takes such grace to forgive us of our sins against God. For we too have deeply offended the creator, and though we might not have sunk to such depths as Paul and Von Ribbentrop, yet we too are in the same boat. And itís only the grace of God that can rescue a Paul or you and me. And that actually should be a great encouragement to press on. Because we can be assured that God can rescue even the vilest of sinners. No-one is beyond his reach. Not even if you have done things you are deeply ashamed of. For God is in the business of changing lives. And he can do it today. And itís a wonderful mark of grace and mercy. So donít underestimate his power to change even the most hardened of sinners. Donít believe the lie that lives cannot be changed. Because they can. And the grace of God to change lives is a wonderful reason to keep battling on.
3) Godís gospel will keep spreading
But there is one final reason to keep pressing on and that is that Godís gospel will keep spreading. But what is remarkable about this whole section from chapters 22-28 is that despite the fact that Paul will never again be a free man from this point on, yet he still has ample opportunity to explain Godís word. Again and again he is given wonderful opportunities to explain the gospel to hundreds of people from Roman commanders, to Jewish officials, to the very Emperor himself in Rome. And itís all part of Godís plan. Notice what is said to him by Ananias in verse 15: ďYou will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.Ē Paulís job from now on will be to be a witness to all people of what he has seen and heard in other words the good news about Jesus. And again in verse 21, Paul says that the Lord told him: ďGo; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.Ē Paul will carry the gospel far overseas to different people in different places. But just imagine how you or I might have felt if we had been in Paulís shoes. We might have felt that our job was done. We might have been frustrated that we could no longer do Godís work. Why didnít God rescue Paul like he did in Philippi when he destroyed the prison in an earthquake? When didnít he rescue Paul like he did for Peter in chapter 12? Well the answer is that God has other plans. It was through the arrest of Paul that Paul was able to go to Rome and explain the gospel there. You see the word of God is not chained. Just because Godís servants are imprisoned, just because some doors seem to be shut, does not mean Godís plans are thwarted. He can use even bad events for his good and the spread of the gospel. And that is exactly what happened in Acts. Paulís imprisonment did not mean the end of gospel preaching for him. In fact it opened up numerous other opportunities which otherwise never have been possible.
And that is often the way God works. We might think certain events in the world or even in our lives are a disaster for the gospel. But God is never taken by surprise. He is not forced into a corner. He can use all things for good and his plans will be fulfilled. The gospel will go out to the ends of the earth. So consider what happened in Ecuador in 1956. Five young missionaries were murdered by cannibals in the rain forest, the very people the young men were trying to reach. They had invested months, years into this mission. It seemed like a waste. Five talented godly men cut down in their prime. But in Godís sovereign plan, the example those five young men laid down led to thousands of men and women giving themselves to the mission field in the years ahead. Who knows how many countless people are in heaven because of the impact of the deaths of those missionaries. It looked the gospel plan had been scuppered. But not with God. His gospel will always keep spreading till Jesus returns. Or think of countries in the old Eastern bloc, the other side of the Iron Curtain. Surely in the years after the Second World War it looked as if the gospel opportunity had slipped away. Communism had won. But slowly and surely the gospel spread so that millions were found to be worshipping Christ when the curtain was torn down in the nineties. Can Godís plans be foiled. Never. Nothing can thwart the spread of the gospel. Because God is in control.So do you ever feel discouraged, worn down by the battle? Well if so, then you are not alone. But take heart from Lukeís book tonight. Because the norm for the Christian is a battle. It will mean persecution. But God is a God of grace and he will keep on saving. For his plans can never be thwarted. And he is with his people as they battle on right to end. And then we will enjoy the victory at the right time.
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