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"Developing Your Defense”


Read: Acts 21:40-22:29

This week, we continue in the last major section of the book of Acts.  In this section, Luke records the four instances where Paul defends himself against the trumped up charges the Asian Jews had leveled against him.  Ultimately, this section and the book concludes with him arriving in Rome where Paul is about to make his defense before Nero the Roman Emperor.  Last week, we read Luke’s account in chapter 21 of a Jewish mob in Jerusalem that, instigated by some Jews probably from Ephesus very nearly killed him.  If the Roman officials had not arrived to break up this violence and rescue Paul from the grasp of these people, his life would have ended here in Jerusalem.  In God’s providence however, instead of an ending, it’s simply the next step in Paul’s fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction that he would speak his name before kings.  Paul is in what has by now become a familiar venue for him in the text we heard read.  That is—he is speaking the gospel to people who he knows are violently opposed to him and his message.  Today, we hope through God’s Word to become more impassioned to be faithful to the Great Commission here and to the nations.  This text is at least a reminder that at times God will prompt us to speak the gospel to those who we know will probably oppose it. This text encourages us in those contexts most of us will confront at some point.

The first point of encouragement this text offers in speaking the gospel to people we know will be hostile to it is the most foundational and ultimately the most important.  That is—in the boldness of Christ, faithfully speak the truth!  Or, as the Nike commercials say, “Just do it!  Though this text has many other things to say to help us in these contexts, let’s be honest--it’s at its most basic point of application where 90% of us fail.  In the face of even the slightest sign of opposition, we remain silent.  Most of us have a fear of conflict that causes us to want to avoid it like the plague and so often we sinfully allow our fear to shut our mouths—especially when we know we will be speaking to someone we think will oppose our message.  We seldom intentionally put ourselves in situations where we know opposition will come.  That would seem stupid to most of us.  Some in the church even try to justify this evasion theologically.  They rationalize that Jesus commands us not to cast our pearls before swine.  So, when we meet a person we have reason to believe will not appreciate hearing the gospel, we assume him or her to be a “swine” and walk away.  The point of that verse in Matthew is NOT that we should not try to give the gospel to those we believe will be hostile to it.  Rather, (as Don Carson says,) we are commanded to keep silent “only … [with those] persons who have given clear evidence of rejecting the gospel with vicious scorn and hardened contempt.”[1]  That’s a pretty high bar for someone to qualify as a “swine.”  Just because you believe someone will not eagerly receive the gospel doesn’t make him/her “swine” who are unworthy to hear it.  If the person has openly, viciously and scornfully hardened themselves to the gospel, you can safely remain quiet.  If not, we have no excuse not to give them the gospel as we have opportunity.  If Paul had limited himself to preaching the gospel only to those who he felt would be receptive to it, he wouldn’t have planted many churches or written half the New Testament.   

In fact, Paul seems quite anxious to speak to this crowd who, moments earlier, had been viciously accosting him.  This week, I imagined that I was with Paul here in this situation—not a bad thing to do as you try to understand a Bible narrative.  As I thought about it, I’m not proud of what I think my counsel would have almost certainly been to Paul if I had been travelling with him.  I think I probably would have actually been angry at Paul for trying to speak to this crowd.  It would have seemed to me that the only thing that could come from this address would be that this angry mob would re-ignite.  We mustn’t forget that he was under no obligation to address these Jews—this was his request that was granted by the Romans.  He could have simply retreated to Roman custody and wait until his trial to address the Roman courts and a few of his Jewish accusers.  If I had been there as he was standing up, motioning to the crowd to speak to them, I would have been inclined to pull him aside and say to him, “Paul, what on earth do you think you are doing?!  Do you really believe that these people will listen to you?  What can possibly be gained here by you speaking to them?  Every word you speak will be wasted on these people.  Have you forgotten that less than five minutes ago, they were trying to kill you and they came within a hair of succeeding?  The best case scenario here Paul is that they will not try to kill you again and you will be escorted to your prison cell—so let’s just go there now.  Why don’t you just let these people disperse and go home?  Don’t you think you’ve had enough for one day?  Come on, Paul—use your head.”

We see that on a purely human level I would have been right—according to Luke there is no positive response here.  In fact, in the four addresses Paul makes before the Jews and the Roman officials—in all four of these gospel-laden messages, Luke records no converts being made.  Not one.  So why does Paul do this—especially here in this context in chapter 22 where his chances are so infinitesimally small that he will even be allowed to finish his address before the opposition shouts him down?  From what we know of him in his writings, the reason is probably as simple as this—because a crowd of unredeemed Jews has assembled and he has an opportunity to preach the gospel to them. This would have been glaringly simple for Paul.  I doubt very seriously that he was wondering about the possibility of a great harvest among these Jews who had just assaulted him.  And I am certain that he would never see preaching the gospel—irrespective of the context as “wasting his breath.”  He loved Jesus who had commissioned him to preach, he loved the Jews and he loved this message that had so radically and eternally changed his life and given him joy unspeakable.  That was all Paul needed to know to make this decision.  He didn’t waste time allowing his fear to cause him to overthink the issue—he just responded in obedience.  He’s been charged to do this, so he does it.

If he had been told by someone like me that preaching to this crowd  would only be wasting his time, based on what we know about this man from the New Testament, he would have said something like, “A waste of time…preaching the gospel?!”  A waste of time speaking the only words that can bring eternal life.  A waste of time speaking a message the prophets could only dream of preaching—the fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets—the message that most fully exemplifies the glory of God—the only message of hope in this world for both Jews and Gentiles—the only message that can liberate dead, blind, hell-bound rebels and bring them to know God. A waste of time to tell someone—whether one person or a thousand angry Jews--the most important thing that has ever happened to me—about that moment when I met the Son of God.  That’s the crowning joy of my life.  If no one is ever again converted under my ministry, I will continue to proclaim this message because it is the glory of God and the purpose of my life.  How can you possibly say that speaking these words is a waste of time?”

I think he would also say, “And beyond that--how do you know that no one will respond?”  It is God who saves, not man.  Do you think that if God wanted to save one or more of his elect people out of this mob that anyone here could overcome the saving power of the gospel?  The prophet Isaiah’s words—are they unfamiliar to you, “11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” It doesn’t say “his word will succeed, except in the case of active opposition.”  If God wants to bring new life—If God wants to give someone a new heart, nothing in the universe can stop him, much less a bunch of angry Jews.  Isn’t my life proof positive of that?  I was giving myself totally to destroying the church and as I was spewing my venomous hatred—as I was shaking my fist at Jesus; he reached down and saved me.  Knowing my story, how can you ever doubt the power of God to save?  Are these angry Jews stronger than this message that can transform angry rebels into saints?  Don’t you remember that Jesus said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given you…?”  I have far more authority here than these Jews or these Roman tribunes.  Who are you to tell me that no one will respond?”  That’s something like how Paul would respond and those truths are crucial for us to know if we are to think Biblically about this issue.   A second encouraging truth we see modeled here by Paul as he speaks to those he know will oppose him could be stated this way:  Build bridges to those who oppose you by identifying with them. 

One of the reasons this crowd was opposed to Paul was because they believed he was a misguided Jew whose ministry to the gentiles was evidence of his betrayal of the Law and his Jewish heritage.  No good Jew would try to make a Gentile right with God without making him a Jew—one of God’s chosen people.”  These were Jews and Paul’s embrace of Christ brought his loyalty to his people, the Law of God and rabbinic teaching into serious doubt.  He must be some kind of nut to preach this gospel.  Sound familiar?  If we’re honest, we must know that if we are identified as evangelical Christians, we are viewed by many in this world as narrow, intolerant, judgmental nuts who believe nutty things.  They may wonder if we are not sympathetic to people who bomb abortion clinics--if we agree with the evil practices of Westborough Baptist Church—who do all manner of wicked things in the name of God.  Many today see evangelicals as anti-intellectual, knuckle-dragging oafs who, if they only had our brains, they would quickly distance themselves from the many foolish myths they believe. 

Those and a hundred other lies are believed by many folks in our culture and when we open our mouth about the gospel, we often are heard through that filter.  It’s not fair, but in the case of some people, that’s the baggage they bring.  Two truths in response.  First, the power of the gospel to save is stronger than politically correct human prejudice.  The Holy Spirit can easily convict someone of their need for Jesus, even if they bring all that baggage along when they hear the gospel.  God can melt away all those lies in an instant if he is so inclined.  Second, sometimes God wants us to overcome those lies by forming relationships with these people--so they can see they have harbored false biases.  These Jews had a very distorted view of Paul and his alleged betrayal of Judaism.  So, at several points in this message, he brings out those details of his conversion narrative that highlight how much he has in common with these people.  If you read Paul’s telling of this account of his conversion side-by-side with Luke’s account of it in chapter nine, most of the differences in emphasis serve to highlight just how much Paul has in common with these Jews.  The first point of identification with them is in verse 40 where Luke tells us that “he [Paul] addressed them in the Hebrew language…”  By Hebrew, Luke probably means what we would call “Aramaic,” which was the main language of the Jews and was not spoken by most gentiles.  So, Paul through his choice of language is conveying that he is one of them.  A gentile or a Jew who had gone over to the gentiles would communicate in Greek, not Aramaic.  Second, as Stephen did in Acts chapter seven, in 22:1 he addresses them as “Brothers and fathers.” That communicates his racial connection to them through their mutual father, Abraham.  In verse three he reminds them, “I am a Jew…” and then he proceeds to present his Jewish resume, which would have been far more impressive than all or virtually all of these Jews.  He was “brought up in this city”—Jerusalem was his home—though born in Gentile lands—Jerusalem is the city he knew and loved as a good Jew.

He says that he was “…educated at the feet of Gamaliel” who, as we said in chapter five, was the most prominent rabbi of his day and his writings are still studied by orthodox Jews.  He was an academic and intellectual titan. There could be no more impressive Jewish academic credentials than this.  This is the equivalent of a lawyer who had been educated at the Harvard or Yale Law School--like a student of English Literature with a degree from Cambridge or Oxford.  Paul said that he was educated “…according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers…  That means he was educated to be a Pharisee, an expert in Jewish law.  In their pursuit of what they believed was righteousness, the Pharisees sought to bring every area of life under subjection to Jewish law.  Paul says of himself in Galatians 1:14.  14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”  Tom Schreiner says that—as it relates to Jewish leadership—“Paul was headed for the top.[2]   Paul says he was “…zealous for God’s law.”  That would have been self-evident from his background, but he connects himself with these Jews by saying of his zeal for the law, “as all of you are this day.”  Again, he points to their mutual zeal. 

Next, Paul details his former opposition to the church. “4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.”  He picks up this line of thought again in verse 19 where he is saying to Jesus on the Damascus Road, “I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you.  And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.”  Again, he is trying to connect with these Jews by communicating that “the hatred you feel toward me as a follower of Jesus, I once shared and I was far more zealous in my hatred of the church than you.”  There are a few other phrases and statements that Paul uses to help his Jewish audience to identify with him, but you get the point. 

Like Paul, we must also try to help our hearers understand that, although they may think we are actually light years removed from them and their life, we in fact share many things—some very important things in common.  We are formerly deceived sinners who, at one time were at war with God until he turned the lights on.  If they see our similarities—if they can identify with us, then by God’s grace they will begin to see that the message we bring might just be as important to them as it is for us.  A third point of encouragement in bringing the gospel to those opposed to you or the message is:  Make much of your personal encounter with God.  We must follow Paul’s example here and elsewhere to make our gospel presentation as utterly Christ-centered as we can.  Listen for this in Paul’s testimony beginning with verse six. “6 As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’”

If you take Jesus Christ out of that testimony, there is nothing left.  Paul saw his conversion fundamentally about meeting Christ.  The point here is not that we all must have a dramatic Damascus Road experience like Paul’s; but our testimonies must tightly and radically orbit around the person of Jesus and what he has done for us.  Today, what passes for evangelism or giving your testimony within evangelicalism is often not centered on Christ.  A person’s Christianity is shared as something that meets their deepest needs—as something that put them on the straight and narrow, made their life meaningful by filling it with purpose, brings their life into balance or providing them with some sort of warm, fuzzy spiritual security blanket.  Tragically, salvation testimonies often end up being far more about an experience of profound personal growth than about an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Many religions and cults can boast of doing all those things—there’s nothing uniquely Christian about any of those claims.  Those things describe the byproducts of a religion, not a personal encounter with the Son of God.  One reason it’s easier to talk about “having your needs met” or other peripheral “blessings” of Christianity is because the enemy doesn’t care one bit about you sharing a life-enhancing religion because he knows that poses no threat to him.  No one gets saved from a personal religious renewal.  It’s when you begin to speak of Jesus that you feel the opposition because the devil knows that it is Jesus who saves.  Peter says in Acts 4:12, “12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.   Notice that Paul makes much of Jesus—makes him the absolute center of his life and preaching—even though he knew these Jews regarded this crucified man as accursed by God.  He preached him anyway.  Why?  Because he had nothing else to preach and he is confident of God’s power through the gospel to overcome any potential barrier.  Part of what the Spirit used to embolden Paul was the fact that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that, irrespective of what anyone else believed, he knew the truth about Jesus and when you are convinced you have the truth; there is no reason to be apologetic or timid in the face of opposition.  We must remember that when we speak to those who oppose our message.  Do you KNOW you have the truth about Jesus?  Even though the world is continually trying to make us feel as if we are kooks, the tragic truth is that THEY are the ones who are self-deceived, walking in darkness and believing a lie that, apart from God’s grace, will land them in hell.

Also, if you tend to think about Christianity more as a religion, a religious journey, a spiritual self-improvement program or a moral compass, then you have good reason to question your salvation.  I told someone this week, “When someone asks you who Jesus is to you, it’s appropriate to say, your Savior and Lord, but if he isn’t also the love of your life, then you are either very shallow in your faith or perhaps a counterfeit who needs to have a GENUINE saving encounter with Christ.”  As you give your testimony, is Christ at the absolute center?  Does every other truth in some way orbit around him?  If not, then your biggest problem may not be that you are not faithful in evangelism, but perhaps that you yourself are in need of genuinely encountering Jesus Christ.

A final point of encouragement in our proclamation of the truth in a context of opposition is:  Don’t be a spiritual masochist.  That is—don’t go to the other extreme of seeing suffering as a something to be sought after. This doesn’t apply to hardly anyone in America, but it’s clearly communicated in the text.  Read beginning with verse 24.  24 the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. 25 But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.”

The Romans had a more advanced judicial system than many ancient and even contemporary empires, but they were far from our American standards of jurisprudence.  The Romans have no idea what Paul has done that might be illegal but they were intent on “examining” him by flogging.”  The original language makes clear that this was not simply 39 lashes across the back with a whip.  This was a scourging like Jesus received before his crucifixion—a practice which inflicted such trauma on a man, it was not uncommon for it to kill the recipient.  Though Paul would boast in his suffering for Christ because it was his willingness to suffer that set him apart from the false teachers, he was NOT a masochist—someone who took delight in suffering.  When the Romans prepare him for this punishment, he reminds them that he is a Roman citizen and Cicero wrote, “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him an abomination, to slay him [in the name of punishment for a crime] is almost an act of murder.”  It was against the law to scourge a Roman citizen. That’s why when the centurion and the tribune discover Paul is a citizen, they are mortified-- “…the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.”

The point is that Paul had no problem invoking his citizenship to prevent a flogging.  Paul suffered more than perhaps any other believer, but he did not enjoy it and as long as it didn’t mean being silent or compromising the gospel, he avoided it when he could.  In church history, there have been those believers who gleefully ran toward suffering and martyrdom thinking it was noble or virtuous in itself.  Paul doesn’t model that here and although we should never back down from doing that which might cause us to suffer, neither should we seek it out. 

The Holy Spirit wants us to be encouraged by this text to speak to those who might be hostile to our message.  We must remember that the ultimate purpose in speaking the gospel to others is to glorify God, being faithful to Jesus—not necessarily win droves of converts.  We must hope in the power of the gospel to save God’s elect people, irrespective of their current opposition—to remember to build bridges with people, highlighting what we have in common with them—to make sure they know that above all, being a Christian is about knowing and loving Jesus Christ.  As by God’s grace we internalize those truths, we will find it easier to be faithful to speak about Jesus to those who are in opposition to him and our gospel.  May God give us the grace to live these truths out for God’s glory and our joy.

[1] Carson, Don, EBC, Matthew, p. 185.

[2] Class Lecture, 1988, Bethel Theological Seminary.


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