A powerful presentation - Acts 24:1-27
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
“Religion by its very nature compels people to behave cruelly and violently. Religion educates its children to hate unbelievers, and its grown-ups to engage in slaughter and conquest in the name of God’s glory. Religion obliges its “true believers” to restlessly circle the globe subduing peoples and nations until the whole world bows the knee.”
Or so says Christopher Hitchens in his latest book: “God isn’t great; how religion poisons everything”. And of course, Hitchens isn’t alone. You may have heard of Richard Dawkins’ latest offering: ‘the God Delusion’. But in the last 12 months, as well as Dawkins and Hitchens, there have been 10 other books by other atheists on similar topics which, between them, have sold close to a million copies.
And the heart of the New Atheists’ case is this: Christians are dangerous. Or at least the fundamentalist ones are; real Christians are dangerous. Why? Because they hate people who disagree with them; they’re violent; they’re trouble makers. In short, these fundamentalists are a threat to our peaceful stable multicultural sorcery and we’re better off without them.
That’s the charge against us my friends. If you regard yourself as a true Christian here tonight, then you’re a violent, hate-filled, murderous fundamentalist and Britain would be a better place without you. How do you feel about that then?
Link to text and Background
Well those were exactly the kind of charges Paul was facing in his trial in Acts 24 which we read earlier. But the understand Acts 24 properly, we need to remember where we’ve got to in whole book.
So if you look on one side of the sermon handout, you’ll see a table laying out the structure of Acts. And the main point is that Acts isn’t primarily about Peter or Paul. It’s about how the risen and ascended Lord Jesus was faithful to His word and built His church. It’s about the living Word spread from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth; to Rome that is.
And the whole book is structured around the Gospel’s progression through these frontiers.
And each section has a key sermon, which we’ve been look at over the past 2 month. But there’s an exception in the final section. Because like Jesus in the Gospels, this final section in Acts is Paul’s sort of passion narrative. And as well as his farewell speech to the Eph elders we looked a fortnight ago, we’ve got 3 main defence speeches; speeches where Paul’s defending himself and the Gospel against attacks, persecution and caricaturing. Yes Jesus had promised that Paul would reach Rome. But he’s also promised Paul that there’d be much suffering on the way.
And that’s what we saw last week when Paul was arrested at the temple in Jerusalem in chapter 21. The Jews tried to kill Paul on the spot, and so the Romans has to take him into custody to protect him. Indeed, through the rest of the book, the Jews are trying to bypass Roman justice and ambush Paul at every turn. They’re not interested in the truth; they want rough justice; they want Paul dead. And that pattern continues as Paul’s case is tried in the Roman court in front of Governor Felix.
Intro to the Trial before Governor Felix
So if you’re not already there, turn back with me to Acts 24 p[ ]. And in v1, we can see the chief prosecuting lawyer, Tertullus. And as well as him, Ananias the HP also brings along some of other Jewish elders; but notice this: there’s no actual witnesses. And that’s interesting; because like our legal system, Roman law didn’t accept second-hand hearsay evidence. If someone was accused of a crime, then eyewitness testimony was necessary. To accuse someone of a crime and not turn up in court to testify was a serious offence.
But Tertullus knows his case is weak; which is why, in his opening statement, he turns into a spin doctor. Look with me at v2:
When Paul was called in, Tertullus presented his case before Felix: "We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. 3Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude.
This isn’t simply flattery. This was a blatant rewriting of history crudely aimed at getting Felix onside as quickly as possible. And it was a good ploy, because Felix was notoriously cruel and corrupt. He’d been born a slave, but managed to win his freedom and work his way up the Roman civil service. Not by merit or by skills of diplomacy. No Felix had forced his way up through sheer force and corruption. At the slightest hint of political opposition, especially from the Jews, he literally crucified his opponents. The Roman historian Tacitus described him as a “master of cruelty and lust who exercised the powers of a king with the spirit of a slave”. The thought of a Jew expressing profound gratitude to Governor Felix for his long peaceful reign in which there’d been great reforms; well that was enough to make most Jews choke on their cornflakes. Even the notoriously cruel Emperor Nero eventually sacked Felix 2 years later because of His excessive cruelty and political ineptitude.
And so Tertullus isn’t simply engaging in flattery. Remember, he’s got no witnesses. What he’s saying is basically this: look Felix me old chap, I know we’ve got no case. But we know you’re pretty straight sort of corrupt chap: we want this Christian crucified and if you go along with us, then there’s going to be something in it for you. OK, get my drift.
And we need to be on our guard against the Tertulluses of our world. They sound great. Indeed, a reviewer of Christopher Hitchin’s book recently said that Hitchens was “simply incapable of writing a dull sentence”. According to the critics, Hitchens, like Tertullus, is a very engaging speakers and writer. But just like Tertullus, when Hitchens claims that Christianity is inherently evil, he’s rewriting history. As the same reviewer put it, “[Hitchens’ arguments do not come close to disproving God’s existence or demonstrating that religions is irredeemably evil”. On the contrary, it was Christianity that laid the groundwork for Western civilisation and democracy, Christians who fought against slavery, child labour and the abuse of women; it was Christians who pushed for reforms of the penal system, set up hospitals, schools and the trade union movement. To argue that Christianity has been a poison in our nation is a complete rewriting of history. It’s a blatant lie. So let’s not be taken in by it or have our confidence shaken. Dear Mr Hitchens: the evidence clearly proves you’re totally wrong.
The Charges against the Christian (v5-9; cf 21:28-29)
But Christians have always been falsely accused of evil. So back in v5-9 we have the charges against the Christian. And as you can see on the handout, the charges were in 3 parts:
First in v5a, Paul’s accused of being a trouble maker. He stirs up riots among the Jews all over the world. Like lots of terrorists in the past that Felix, Pilate and other Roman governors has crucified, this man was whipping up armed dissension among the Jews and is threatening the stable Roman political and economic system. Most excellent Felix, this man’s a dangerous revolutionary and it would be in your best interest to be rid of him. So what makes him a troublesome revolutionary, Felix might be asking?
Well bring on charge number 2 in v5b: He’s a ringleader of the Nazarene sect. He’s a fundamentalist. The Romans permitted people to practice their own religions so long as they didn’t threaten Rome’s political supremacy. And the Roman government had decided that Judaism was OK; there may have been a few extremists who claimed to be Jews; and they’d be dealt with swiftly. But as far as the Romans were concerned, mainstream Judaism wasn’t a threat. And they couldn’t be bothered with internal theological difference between groups like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. But sects are a different matter. Why? Because a sect is a totally different religion. Like JWs or Mormons. Not legitimate variations on the same faith, but a totally new religion. And a new religion linked to Nazareth. Now when we hear of Nazareth, we think of the pleasant place when Jesus grew up learning to be a carpenter in his father’s business. But Nazareth became a hotbed of political dissent. And like parts of Afghanistan, it was home to some pretty bad terrorist training camps. And so a Nazarene sect: well that’s bad news. We’re talking Al Qaeda. We’re back to Christopher Hitchens: true Christians are poison; they’re dangerous fundamentalists who are a treat to the state and their fellow citizens. And so surely the state must do something about them.
But there’s more. Because in v6a, we have the final charge. A charge which is aimed at reinforcing the accusation that this new cult isn’t really Jewish at all. Because the 3rd charge in v6a, as you can see on the handout, is religious desecration. This Paul chap even tried to desecrate the temple by taking uncircumcised gentiles into it. Absolute sacrilege for Jews, and an offence punishable by death by Romans. Only Jews were allowed in the temple. Unclean Gentiles, would desecrate it. And that’s what this troublemaking fundamentalist cult leader has done. Desecrate the Jewish Temple. So hand him over and let’s stone him hear and now.
And again it’s no different today. A vicar in London recently wrote an article in the Guardian titled “not faith but fanaticism”; and in the article, he was criticising the new principal of Wycliffe Hall: the theological college where Melvin, Nathan and Lee all went. According to the Revd Fraser, Wycliffe has been taken over by a “fundamentalist” “ cell of religious extremists”, whose views are “foolish and unpleasant”. Such people’s theology is ‘reactionary anti-intellectualism and does little more than peddle the techniques of Christian salesmanship’. Or in other words, conservative evangelicals like the new principal at Wycliffe and us here at St John’s are desecrating the sacred temple of the Church of England. By our exclusive and clear Bible teaching, we are upsetting the broad apple cart that’s infinitely elastic in belief and practice. We conservative evangelicals are trouble-making, fundamentalist desecrators of true religion: of the broad, middle of the road stuff that is that you’ll find in lots of Anglican churches today.
A Christian Defence (v10-27)
So v5-9 we’ve had the charges against the Christian. And in the rest of chapter 24 we a Christian defence. And although Paul changes his style depending on the audience, in all of his various trials in these closing chapters of Acts, Paul follows the same model of defence again as you can see on the handout: He admits what’s true about the case against him, he corrects what’s false and he presents the Gospel.
So first of all, Paul admits what’s true. In v11 he says: yes, less than a fortnight ago, I did go up to the Temple to worship. And he expands on this in v17:
17"After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.
And yes in v14, I admit that I worship the God of the OT as a follow of the Way; as a Christian that is. All of that I admit is true, so you don’t need any witnesses for that.
And here’s a good warning for us. When we’re attacked we mustn’t be so defensive that we throw out all the charges. Yes we’re right about the fundamentals, but we’re not perfect and we make mistakes. Some of the accusations of the militant atheists might be true: yes the crusades were wrong. Yes the church in Nazi Germany went soft. Where we’re wrong in belief or practice, personally or corporately, we need to admit it with humility. The reformation did end in the 16th C; no Reformed churches are meant to be continually reforming themselves in line with Scripture; and so if we think we’ve arrived as a church, then that means we’ve actually gone soft and dangerously complacent.
So Paul admit what’s true. But he
also robustly corrects what’s false. One by one, he counters
the 3 main charges against him, again as you can see on the handout:
a) Christians are not Troublemakers
So first of all, he refutes the accusation that he’s a troublemaker. Look with me at v12:
12My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. 13And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me.
On the contrary, I came to Jerusalem to bring an offering for the poor and to worship in the Temple. I wasn’t with a crowd of people and I wasn’t making trouble. Rather, Paul’s says in v19, it was the Jews who arrested me and tried to kill me on the spot who should be here facing charges of trouble making. Just as in Ephesus and other places where there've been riots, it’s been the Jews who have responded violently to me. They’re the ones causing the trouble, not me. And at the end of v19, he highlights the fact that the witnesses who arrested him back in Jerusalem were not in court to present their evidence of Paul’s trouble-making.
And we need to so the same. Mainstream Christians are not trouble makers. We’re the ones who’ve improved society by helping the poor, the young, the old, the sick and the weak. Christians are salt and light, not trouble makers.
is not a Cult
Next in v14 Paul defends himself against the accusation
that he’s a cult leader. Mainstream Christianity is not cultish.
On the contrary, Christians believe in everything that the OT Law and Prophets
pointed forward to. And in v15, he highlights that the Christian hope
in the resurrection of the dead on the last day, which is entirely in line
with historic orthodox Jewish belief. My conscience is clear before God
and man he says in v16: or in other words, Christians are the true successors
of orthodox Judaism, not these murderous so-called Jewish elders. Because Christ
is the fulfilment of everything the OT was all about. I am not a cult
leader. I’m a true Jew. Christianity is not a cult. It’s
true Judaism transformed by the coming of the Jewish messiah; the Christ.
is not a desecration of true religion - it is true religion
And the final part of Paul’s defence builds on that. Christianity is not a desecration of true religion, it is true religion. When Paul had first been arrested back in chapter 21, his accusers simply assumed Paul had brought Greeks into the Temple area: why? Because they’d see him with some Greeks in another city: they didn’t bother to check the facts before they began a riot. And Tertullus repeats the same falsehood in court: except of course he dresses it up as desecration. So Paul replies in v18:
18I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me
Even though, as a Christian, Paul was free from the OT ceremonial law, he went out of his way not to offend Jewish sensitivities; He never compromised the content of the Gospel, but Paul was infinitely flexible in how he presented it, as we’ve seen through the book of Acts. And so when he went to the temple, he purified himself according to the Jewish law. And he went alone. He didn’t take any Greeks along with him. As he’s already said in v13: they can’t prove any of these charges because they’re simply not true.
As we’ve seen from recent press articles, conservative evangelicals are constantly being accused of religious sacrilege. And so we need to hold our nerve are remember John Stott’s clear statement that “Evangelical Christianity is true Christianity”. But because today, so many people claim to be evangelical who don’t hold to the classical truth of evangelicalism, we need to clarify Stott’s famous phrase to say this: Conservative evangelicalism is true Christianity. And true Christianity is conservative evangelicalism. Which, by definition, means other brands of Christianity are false. They are not simply different flavours of the same truth. They are different religions. They are cults not us. Conservative evangelicals are true evangelicals. We are the true protestants; and so we are the real successors of the apostolic faith and the early church. We conservative evangelicals are the true successors of the OT Jews. We worship the same God as the OT saints but in the right way now that the Christ has come. No we haven’t got everything right and we need to admit where we’ve gone wrong and carry on reforming ourselves. But on the basic fundamentals of the faith, we are right. We are not desecrator of true religion, because we are the true religion. And so we need to hold our nerve under pressure like Paul.
3. Present the Gospel (v24-25, cf 26:28-29)
In his defence, Paul’s admitted what’s true. He’s correct all the false accusation against him. And finally, in every trial, Paul uses every opportunity to present the Gospel, which is the 3rd main heading on the handout. Look with me at v24:
24Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. 25As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid
According to that Roman historian I mentioned earlier, Felix was a ‘Master of cruelty and lust”. Not only was he cruel & corrupt in his political life. He was also loose and immoral in his sex life. Drusilla was his third wife. And even that marriage had only followed an adulterous affair when Drusilla had been married to someone else. So when Paul discoursed on righteousness and self control in v26 he wasn’t being academic. You Felix have been unrighteous in your work life and you’ve lacked self control in your sex life. And because of your sin, you’re facing God’s judgment said Paul. No wonder Felix was afraid at the end of v25.
And it’s the same message to us.
If you’re sinned then you’re facing God’s righteous wrath. Which is a
problem, because the Bible tells us we’ve all sinned. So we’re all in
the same boat as Felix. That’s the bad news, but back in v24 Paul
had already told Felix the good news. The good news about Christianity
is that through faith in Jesus, all your sins can be forgiven. You don't
need to face God’s judgment when you die, because on the cross, Jesus has already
been punishment for all his people. You too can be saved from God’s certain
judgement, Paul tells Felix. Felix, you can be forgiven.
There’s no need to fear. What do you say?
So what did he say? Well look with me at the end of v25:
"That's enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you."
Felix had his conscience pricked by God’s word. He knew there was something in it. So we learn from v26, that he sent for Paul again and again. And no doubt Paul told him the same message again and again. But Felix’s heart became hardened to the Gospel message. How do we know that? Because Felix’s ended up wanting to see Paul simply in the hope of receiving a bribe. He suppressed his conscience and went back to the old life he knew so well. And so he not only lost his job in v27, as far as we know, he lost his opportunity for salvation and is suffering in hell as we speak.
And so let me plead with you: are you putting off making your mind up about J? If so be warned: you can’t sit on the fence for ever. Why? Because if you don’t decide quickly, then you’re likely to fall off on the wrong side.
But if you are a Christian here this evening and you know the forgiveness Paul was speaking to Felix about: the message to you is to be bold. Felix was a cruel sadistic tyrant. Humanly speaking, he had the power to flog, torture and even crucify Paul. But Paul held his nerve: he defended himself against false accusation and gave a powerful presentation of the Gospel. Paul was following in J's footsteps. He was leaving a model for the Ephesian elders he’d taught and warned back in chapter 20.
And Paul’s conduct is a model of faith and ministry under pressure for every Christian here tonight. if we’re Christians, then like Paul, we have a clear and certain destination: the heavenly new creation. But as Christians, we’ve also been warned of trouble and suffering on the way. Like Paul, we follow a crucified Lord who said: take up your cross and follow me. As Paul later warned his apprentice, Timothy: everyone who wants to live a godly life in CJ will be persecuted in some way. So let’s be warned and prepare for it, so that when it comes, we’re not thrown by it. And on the way, let’s admit what’s true about accusations against us; let’s correct what’s false; and let’s boldly present the Gospel whatever the cost in this life.
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