MESSAGE FOR November 6, 2011 FROM ACTS 21:27-39
Read: Acts 21:27-39
This week we move deeper into Acts 21 as we continue to trace Paul’s time in Jerusalem. This is a city that the Spirit had both constrained him to go, but also through prophets warned him that after he arrived, he would be bound and imprisoned by the gentiles. As we read earlier, it took about a week after Paul’s arrival for him to end up in jail and handed over to the Gentiles by Jews…just as the prophecies had predicted. Last time, we saw the church at Jerusalem—those Jews who had trusted Christ, opposing Paul based on false reports spread about him. This week, it’s not the believing Jews who have it in for Paul; it’s the Jews who had rejected Jesus as their Messiah. Verse 27 sets the stage for us. “27 When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him,” The reference to “seven days” refers back to earlier in the chapter where James and the Jerusalem church elders told Paul to undergo a seven day purification period to convince the Jewish believers that he was, contrary to rumor, still a good Jew—supportive of the Law and the temple. However, when the Jews from Asia who were visiting in Jerusalem see Paul in the temple they immediately move against him.
The Jews from Asia are probably some of the Jews from Ephesus (in Asia) who had violently opposed him earlier and started a riot there. We think that because in verse 29, Luke tells us that these Asian Jews assumed Paul had taken “Trophimus the Ephesian”—a gentile into the temple. The fact that Luke mentions this man’s name and his city of origin probably is his way of connecting this man to these men he has called “Jews from Asia.” Having been frustrated in their attempts to destroy Paul in the Ephesus riot, they see another opportunity here in Jerusalem. The main message of this text is: Though Satan viciously attacks the church; God causes her to overcome opposition.
Paul writes in Romans 8:31, “31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? …verse 35, 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We must understand that when Paul writes of God’s overcoming power in the face of opposition—when he says, “If God is for us, who can be against us”—that is not a theoretical statement. This is not just something he’s been reading in the Old Testament or the rabbinic writings. He writes out of his own brutally painful, yet overcoming experience in Christ. These truths were deeply chiseled into Paul’s soul. He had walked through the fire and not been burned. He had been “…afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” That is a description of Paul’s life and it is rooted in experiences like this one Luke records here in Acts 21. Last time, we looked at ways in which the church can preserve unity in the midst of satanic attack. Today, Luke presents a case study in how Satan attacks the church from those outside the church and what God does to protect his people. First, I see five markers or indicators of satanic, evil opposition to God’s people. Many of these are found, not only when Satan violently attacks the church, but are also present in any uprising intended to bring chaos and evil into this world. Some of these markers you will recognize from the evening news.
The first marker indicating the presence of satanic attack against the church is: A coalescence of existing, disgruntled people who ignite fiery opposition against the church. There must be this initial group of people who are mad or very frustrated and who form some kind of unified opposition group. In this account, that role belonged to these Jews from Ephesus who already hated Paul for all the money they had lost--as Ephesian believers rejected idol worship and turned to Christ. As you may recall from chapter 19, in the eyes of these Ephesians, Paul had “deposed the magnificence” of the “great goddess “Artemis.” They were still carrying a grudge against Paul. We know their anger was not due to anything Paul had done to them in Jerusalem. Here he posed absolutely no threat to “Artemis,” yet they still instigate this uprising against him.
We know the perpetrator behind the scenes here is Satan from Ephesians 6:12, “12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Paul had shown himself to be a huge threat to Satan and his kingdom and he posed a serious threat to him here in Jerusalem. In spite of repeated, violent opposition, Paul had for years been a powerful instrument of Christ to purge many gentile souls from Satan’s kingdom and even more importantly, he had planted churches in major gentile cities along the Mediterranean that were continuing to push back the forces of darkness. Satan doesn’t want Paul anywhere, but he certainly doesn’t want him in Jerusalem, strengthening the elders and other apostles in the Jerusalem church. Even more, he didn’t want him being used as a unifying agent between the Jewish and Gentile churches. Satan wanted to divide the church into two camps and Paul and his ministry is the most important bridge connecting the two sections of the church. So, the enemy instigates these Asian Jews, who were already mad at Paul, to initiate this riot that almost killed Paul and brings his arrest.
This is one of countless reasons why holding onto grudges--hanging on to resentment against others is so destructive. When we do that, we become potential human time bombs Satan can embed into the church to destroy unity and other brothers or sisters. If you have been hurt by someone, go and tell them. But don’t allow the wound to fester and bring the bitterness that causes long-standing grudges. Wherever there is a deposit of disgruntled activists, whether it is in the streets of Cairo, Oakland or Jerusalem, there is the potential for much evil because Satan can have free reign in those chaotic contexts. A second marker for a satanic attack against the church is revealed in verse 28-29. Luke records that these Asian Jews were, “28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.” These verses show us another marker is: An irrational, emotion-driven appeal to spread the hatred to other people who will want to help a “terrible wrong” to be righted.
These men accuse Paul of teaching “everyone everywhere” against “the people, and the law and this place.” By “people” Luke means the Jews and “this place” is the temple which Paul is alleged to be against—in addition to his alleged opposition to the law of God. This is a fairly well established laundry list of accusations by this point in the New Testament. In addition to the gentiles who riot in Ephesus in Acts 19, the Jews also accuse Stephen of this in Acts chapter six. Luke records that that hostile Jews “11…secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 …13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” At the trial of Jesus before the Jewish council, Matthew tells us, “59 Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61 and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’ ”
As we see in Acts repeatedly, why do those who oppose the gospel use the Jews, the law and the temple in their accusations against gospel preachers? The reason is because all three had a very strong emotional connection to the Jews and could incite much anger if someone was accused of threatening any one of them in any way. The Jews were God’s chosen people, the apple of God’s eye—if you were against them, you were against God. The Law was not only what held them together as a people under Roman rule; it was an infallible expression of their covenant God. Opposition to the law meant opposition to God. And the temple was almost equal to God because God had made his dwelling there. If you were against any of these three, you were attacking the sacred. Many of these riots, as well as the ones we see today in the Middle East, are promoted as a sacred war against the defilement of God or his sacred book. If you can successfully convince religious people (like these Jews in Jerusalem or contemporary Muslims in the Middle East) that God’s name, God’s honor is at stake that is a viscerally powerful motivator. These Jews from Asia wanted the other Jews in Jerusalem to hear this and think, “I have a moral obligation to help bring God’s judgment on this blasphemous infidel.” Sound familiar? There is nothing new under the sun—Satan uses the same methods now as he did two millennia ago.
They accuse Paul of bringing a Gentile—Trophimus the Ephesian, into the temple and this was forbidden under penalty of death. Gentiles were forbidden to enter the temple. These Asian Jews knew that when they charged Paul with opposing the Jews and defiling the law and the temple, that would ignite this crowd. So they accuse Paul in such a way as to spur the most immediate, violent, emotional response possible. Satan loves the murderous hatred these charges would have instantly generated. He hates reasoned discussion because the truth might be spoken there and that is never good for him. However, when anger and hatred and other negative emotions are kindled and are controlling the situation, he has a huge opening because there is much spiritual darkness in those contexts. And because he rules—he has authority over darkness, then he has the power to greatly influence those situations where hatred reigns. When people become irrational, he can get them to do wicked things they would not normally do.
Verse 30 says, “The all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together.” The word translated by the phrase “stirred up” in the original language literally means, “to shake.” He wanted to shake these people out of rationality and into a frenzied state where they would trample over normal procedures as chaos and mob rule took over. We know that this kind of irrational chaos reigned because when the Roman Tribune comes as inquires what Paul has done, Luke records in verse 34, “34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.”
We see another example of this confusion in verse 38 after Paul’s arrest, but this time Satan works to bring his murderous influence on the Roman official in charge. Luke says the Roman tribune asks Paul, “38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” This Roman official jumped to a conclusion here and identified Paul as someone who would have incited a strong emotional response if he had not been quickly corrected. We know that about three years before this incident, an Egyptian who claimed to be a prophet led a large band of followers in and around Jerusalem. This man wanted to overthrow Roman rule in Jerusalem, but the Roman officials discovered his plan. They killed several of his followers and imprisoned others, but the Egyptian himself escaped.
This Egyptian would have been an extremely unwelcome person in Jerusalem where the Roman officials were concerned. So, when Paul, who is at the center of this current riot, is arrested this man just assumes it is this Egyptian. Where do you suppose he got that idea? How did he jump to that unwarranted conclusion? The point is that Satan wants to incite emotional, irrational responses because in that context he is free to bring much evil. Likewise, when we lose control at home or at work or wherever, we invite dark, satanic influence into our lives. The second marker of Satan’s evil influence is an irrational, emotion-driven appeal to involve a wider circle of people who will right a gross wrong. A third marker of Satan’s attack against the church is: Utilization of people who identify themselves with God to perpetrate evil. This is transparently satanic because this particular marker is an explicit expression of Satan’s personal hatred of and opposition to God. Satan wants to make God look bad—he wants to influence people to implicate or even directly involve God in their sin. This is why the sin of sexual immorality is so evil. Paul gets to the heart of this wickedness in First Corinthians 6:15. He says, “15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”
Paul is saying that when you sin sexually, you are involving CHRIST-- a member of Christ--your body—perhaps even joining a member of Christ to a prostitute. You are in a unique way bringing a holy God into your sin. Verse 19 finishes the thought. “19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?...” When you involve your body in sexual sin, you are defiling the dwelling place of God. That is—humanly speaking, putting a thumb in God’s eye. This is much spiritual darkness here and the fact that our culture accepts sexual sin as inevitable—the norm--reveals how much we as a nation have allowed spiritual darkness to reign here. The example in Acts 21 shows these Jerusalem Jews who identify themselves as God’s people are trying to kill a choice servant of God.
In Ephesus, Satan stirred up the pagan gentiles against Paul. But what is happening here in Jerusalem is so much more delicious to the evil one because in the minds of these lost Romans, this violence is occurring between one group of God’s people who are warring against a leader of another sect of God’s people. The Romans would not have seen this as a satanic expression of the counterfeit people of God opposing a member of God’s genuine, blood bought church. No, they saw this as an expression of war between God’s people, the Jews—Paul was a Jew—he had been to the temple! This corrupts the witness of the church to these Roman officials. On a human level, this makes God look bad and this has occurred throughout church history with tragic regularity. The corruption of the church in the Dark Ages and the ghastly, awful things that were done in the name of God during that time. The crusades—where alleged representatives of Christ’s church were fighting a holy war against the infidel Muslims and in the process perpetrating horrific evil. On a smaller scale, the wickedness perpetrated by so-called Christians in the Salem Witch trials, the drowning of Baptists by Catholics and Lutherans in post-Reformation European and today, the scandals involving the leaders of huge media ministries who shout with the loudest voice their allegiance and love for God while at the same time, lying, cheating and stealing in their private lives. As believers, we must always remember that there is a big target on our chests because Satan loves to utilize people in his evil schemes who identify themselves as God’s people.
A fourth marker of satanic attack against the church is: A willingness to lie to destroy opposition. I don’t want to labor this one because we treated it last time when the church had believed a lie about Paul. As we said then, Jesus reveals in John chapter eight that Satan is a liar and the father of all lies. If you trace a lie back to its original source, you will find Satan. It simply wasn’t true that Paul was, as the Asian Jews claimed in verse 28, “…teaching everyone everywhere against the people, the law and [the temple].” False. We saw this kind of dishonesty in Jesus’ trial before the Jewish leaders. “59 Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61 and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’ ” There is a shamelessness that characterizes these kinds of attacks. A person is about to be killed (or almost killed in Paul’s case) and with respect to the charges that will bring about his execution—the truth doesn’t matter! It doesn’t have to be TRUE. If the truth will not hang someone, a lie will do. As long as they hang, truth is optional.
A fifth and final marker of satanic influence is: Taking swift, accelerated action to prevent the unwanted intrusion of rational influence. From 2000 years away, we may lose the fact that these kinds of events tend to happen very rapidly in Scripture. We see the utilization of a lightning pace of evil in the passion of Christ. At about nine or ten o’clock Thursday night, Jesus is on the Mount of Olives praying and by 9 am on Friday, he’s stuck to a cross and by 3pm, he’s dead. In about 12 hours’ time he is tried, had witnesses testify against him, convicted, sentenced and executed. Speed is of the essence here because if you do not act swiftly, the emotional surge will weaken. If you those perpetrating this kind of evil don’t move fast, other people who are more rational might move into the situation and say, “Hey, wait a minute here—where is due process?!” When it all happens rapidly, a crowd is able to steamroll over all that, not losing any evil momentum. If the Asian Jews had their way, it would have taken only a few minutes to pass from their initial false accusation against Paul to his death. The clock is no friend to mob violence—it allows rational voices to enter the discussion and if enough truth is allowed to be inject into a situation, Satan’s influence is neutralized and reversed. A hurried process stiff-arms the intrusion of truth. That’s a rundown of Satan’s markers. Now, let’s briefly look at two ways God stopped this gross injustice and how he works in many of these kinds of cases.
The first way God often thwarts evil is: Through the use of civil authorities working under his Providence. This situation models that explicitly. It was the Roman civil authorities that God used to rescue Paul from certain death. In the providence of God, the Roman tribune—the leader of 1000 men, heard about this riot very soon after it began and along with perhaps 200 men, broke up the mob and carried Paul to safety. We shouldn’t think there is anything strange about God using unsaved civil authorities to protect his people. Paul says in the first four verses of Romans 13, “1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” God is behind the civil authorities.
A second way God thwarts evil (and this will happen to all evil eventually) is through the removal of his enemies. You may wonder--"where in this text are these enemies of the church removed?" When you look at the broader context of Acts, I think you will find this in verse 30. “…They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut.” Many scholars (and I agree with them) believe that Luke includes this detail about shutting the gates of the temple to tell a broader message than simply that Paul was barred from further entrance into the temple. The reasons for this understanding are simple. First, this is the last reference to the temple in Acts and after the speech Paul delivers to the Jews in chapter 22 in reference to this event, Jerusalem is permanently in Paul’s rear-view mirror. Jews from Jerusalem continue to follow him during his trial in other cities, but Jerusalem plays no further role in Acts. It’s predominantly negative role in Acts has played out at this point. I think the glory of God left the temple when the curtain separating the Holy of holies was ripped in two at Jesus’ death. One commentator says this about Jerusalem in connection with this narrative, “The bulk of Jerusalem has now reacted against Jesus, Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul. For Acts, this is the final, key rejection of the gospel.” Another reason this may indicate God’s removal of this particular enemy is we know that in less than 15 years from this incident, this entire city will be sacked and destroyed by the Romans. God will have removed this city that kills the prophets and New Testament saints. God doesn’t always or even frequently remove the enemies of the church but he does sometimes and in the future—he will remove all his enemies when he comes again to reign.
The point of this story is not just for us, but for our children. Let’s be honest. At the rate our culture is decaying—(who would have thought even a decade ago that we would voting to define marriage as between a man and a woman)—at the rate our culture is decaying, it will not be long before a faithful follower of Christ will live in some degree of danger. In Canada today, condemning homosexuality on religious grounds is considered hate speech. As parents, in ways that no other generation of American believers has had to do--we must be speaking with our children about the cost of following Christ. Without scaring them, we must, over time work to prepare them for a level of hostility from the world in response to their faith that we have never experienced. There are reasons why so many of these texts in Acts record Paul’s response to persecution and one of them is so that we will learn from them and do likewise when opposition comes to us as believers. Along with words of warning, we must even more remind the next generation that “if God is for us, then who can be against us”—that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” That our suffering is “a momentary, light affliction.” “We are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus.” God will prevail over all his enemies, but as Paul repeatedly shows us—that does not mean Satan’s opposition will be easy and we must know not only the overcoming ways of God, but also the ways of the enemy for our joy and God’s glory.
Page last modified on 11/13//2011
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