MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 4, 2011 FROM ACTS 24:1-27
As we continue to work through Luke’s record of the early church in the book of Acts, today we meet Paul in yet another courtroom defending himself from charges leveled by the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. As we saw last week, Paul has escaped an attempt on his life and arrives safely in Caesarea where his case will be heard by Felix, the governor of Judea. After five days, the prosecution arrives in the person of Ananias the Jewish high priest, some members of the Jewish ruling council and a professional trial lawyer who represents the Jewish leaders against Paul. This text, like so many in Acts is a study in contrasts. Luke clearly divides the main players into two camps—Paul the godly follower of Jesus, and two other groups, both of whom oppose Paul, but in different ways.
First, there are the godless men represented by the high priest and the Jewish elders who come down to Caesarea to prosecute Paul. These are evil men who, as evil men often do, mask their sin with religion. They claim to have faith in God and are in their minds doing God’s work even they violently oppose God. The second group, which we will more tightly focus on next week, is Governor Felix and his wife Drusilla. Although Drusilla has a Jewish background, she was certainly not a practicing Jew and doubtless felt right at home as the wife of a godless and corrupt Roman governor.
Luke allows us to peer into the hearts of these religious but godless enemies of Christ. Their lawyer is speaking for them and verse two says, “2 And when he had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying:[to Felix] “Since through you we enjoy much peace, and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation, 3 in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude. 4 But, to detain you no further, I beg you in your kindness to hear us briefly. 5 For we have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him. 7 8 By examining him yourself you will be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.” 9 The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming that all these things were so.”
As we contrast Paul with this group, our aim is that we might be able to more clearly see those areas in our own lives that resemble these enemies of Christ and be encouraged to live more like Christ as Paul does here. The contrast between the Jewish leaders and Paul is stark in this narrative. When in the Roman judicial system, you addressed the judge in a court case; the cultural convention was that you would speak a few words of honor to him. Today in the west we do this by referring to the judge, not by his/her name, but as “your honor.” However, the lawyer for the Jews goes far beyond convention, crossing well over the line into the realm of insincere flattery. If we are guilty of insincere flattery of others, we meet ourselves here in these religious leaders. These words of praise for Felix were horribly misplaced. Felix was infamous for his brutal treatment of any Jew or Jewish group that opposed Rome. The Jewish leaders hated this man and the Jewish populous was horrified of him. Yet, Tertullus tells him that “…through you we enjoy much peace, and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation, in every way and everywhere we accept this with gratitude.” No one who knew of Felix’ relationship to the Jews would have described him that way.
Felix was barbarous and these words betray not only the facts, but the many Jews who had been slaughtered at his order. Truth is nowhere in sight here—just the words of a flatterer who is far more concerned with condemning an innocent man than he is with the truth. Contrast that with Paul who in verse 10 simply says, “Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense.” Paul still nods to the cultural convention—he doesn’t malign the judge—but he is constrained by the facts about Felix’s experience. By this time, Tertullus would have been governor for about five years and was well experienced in the courtroom. Paul acknowledges that.
Next, Tertullus assaults Paul with open and groundless condemnation. He says in verse five, “For we have found this man a plague…” That is--Paul is a growing, spreading and deadly disease on the Jewish nation that must be eliminated. Plagues in the ancient world were terrifying and broadly destructive to many people. Paul counters that charge in verse 11 by telling the judge, “You can verify that it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem.” It’s also true and Tertullus would have known that for the past five days, Paul had been incarcerated in Caesarea. That left this man only about seven days of exposure to the Jews. Paul is saying, “I’m a plague? I’ve only been in Jerusalem for a week!” He points out the groundless nature of the charge by pointing to the ridiculous over-reach by the Jews.
In verses five and six, Tertullus continues on the attack with brazen deception. He calls Paul, “…one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world…” And, “He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him.” For those who have been here, you’ll recall that although riots often attended Paul’s ministry, he was never guilty of stirring them up. Others—whether Jews or Gentiles stirred them up to try to kill Paul. He was never the instigator. You’ll also recall that the closest Paul came to profaning the temple is when some Jews saw him with a Gentile from Ephesus [21:29] while he was in the Jerusalem. That’s a long way from defiling the temple by bringing this Gentile into the temple—which as a Jew who wanted to reach Jews with the gospel, Paul would never do. These charges are not even remotely rooted in fact. “Riots erupt around Paul. Therefore, Paul instigates riots. We saw Paul in the company of a Gentile in Jerusalem. Therefore, he defiled the temple by taking him into it.” Those are huge leaps. Paul responds to the charges in verses 12-13. “and they did not find me disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd, either in the temple or in the synagogues or in the city. Neither can they proved to you what they now bring up against me.”
With no evidence to prove their case, all Paul needs to do is to deny the charges—it’s their word against his and they cannot substantiate their claims. This is a purely circumstantial case and a horribly thin one at that. It had no business in a Roman court and if the plaintiffs had not been the highest Jewish authorities in Israel, it would have been summarily dismissed. Paul has stated his case sufficiently to prove his innocence. He could have stopped at this point and it would have been over. But, he knew that God’s main reason for the trial was not to get him acquitted. He had a much higher purpose. That is—to provide Paul with a venue to preach the gospel. This illustrates an important truth for us to know and live out. That is—What God is doing in our hearts and ministries is far more important than the difficult circumstances we may face. We can so easily live exclusively in the material realm of current circumstances. We assess our lives—whether they are good or bad--based on whether the circumstances we now confront are difficult or easy.
If you genuinely believe two basic theological truths, you could never live this superficial way consistently. First, that God is absolutely sovereign over our circumstances and second, that God’s primary concern in this life is not our material welfare, but our spiritual growth or sanctification. If a person believes those two truths, then they will not—could not live solely in the realm of their outward circumstances. When you genuinely believe these truths, you will of logical necessity be asking questions like, “God, I know you brought this circumstance into my life—what do you want to do in my soul through this? What lessons am I to learn from this?” It is a grievous thing for so-called believers to live their lives only on what I call the “first floor” or “first story.” The first floor of a person’s life is the arena of their circumstances. This is the realm where the circumstances of life play out. People are born, die and in between go through a host of both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances—that’s the first floor. But the believer always has a second story that sits on top of the first story. This is the realm where they spiritually process what has happened on the first floor. The second floor is the area where they ask, “Lord, what is your purpose for this person you have sent into my life? What are you trying to teach me through this trial? Show me the idols in my life that are causing this to relatively minor offense or incident to hurt me so badly. Lord, what fruit of the Spirit are you trying to strengthen in me through this difficulty?” Those are all second story questions and as believers, we need to spend as much time on the second floor as we do on the first.
In Second Corinthians chapter four we see this two-story dynamic clearly. Paul is speaking of his trials and the impact they are having on himself and on the Corinthian believers. He says, “8 We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” That’s Paul’s first floor. “My life is hard on every front—physical afflictions, emotional despair—psychological frustrations, spiritual attack—but God brings me through all of them.” That’s all about his circumstances. He continues in verse 10. “10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, [that’s a summary of all these first floor trials that involve great suffering] so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. [That’s the second story—this is what God is doing—he’s allowing me to suffer for your benefit so that you will see the redemptive impact suffering has on me] Verse 11 continues, “11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, [another first floor summary statement] so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” [There’s the second story—these trials enable you to see that it’s only through Christ can I bear these sufferings with joy] 12 So death is at work in us, [first floor] but life in you” [second floor].
Paul knew that the real event of this trial was not the prosecution or his defense. It was his opportunity to bear witness to Christ. The trial was only a venue for God to work. Is that the way you look at the circumstances of your life—as the context through which God is at work in you and others? When you are going through the meat grinder, don’t spend all your time focusing on the circumstances. Spend much of it working to spiritually process what God is doing through them. Sometimes we don’t know the specific reason for trials, but we know the truth of First Thessalonians 4:3, “3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” We may not know all the specific reasons for the trials, but we know the ultimate reason is--God uses them as his tools to remove everything in us that doesn’t look like Jesus. Most of us know the powerful “second story” verse in Romans 8:28. “28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That verse is so comforting—God is at work in all things—that is a second story truth par excellence from Paul. But how we define the good that God is doing in “all things” is very important to understanding Paul and proving the point. In verse 29 he says, “29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” The connecting word “For” tells us that Paul here is explaining what is the good that God is working together in all things. That is—being “conformed to the image of his Son”--sanctification. All the rooms and hallways in our second story lead toward our sanctification—conformity to Christ.
There are at least two reasons why many in the church spend little if any time on the second story of their lives. First, they just don’t know this spiritual dynamic. They live life purely on the first floor because they haven’t yet plugged into the implications for them that God is sovereign and his ultimate goal is their sanctification. They just haven’t yet put it all together. Second, some people don’t process their lives this way because frankly—they are far more concerned that their first floors are neat and clean and worry-free than they are in their sanctification—that is, how Christ wants to use their trials to make them more like him. If Christ-likeness is not a higher priority than our comfort, then we will never see trials as anything but bad. Please don’t misunderstand. There are some people who wrongly live almost exclusively on the second story—that is—they think that being spiritually mature means ignoring the pain of their circumstances while singing empty praise songs of triumph to others. That may appear to be very spiritual, but it is not what Jesus did. When he stood before the tomb of Lazarus, he wept in the face of the suffering of those he loved. In the garden of Gethsemane, he felt all the horrible pain, but experienced victory in the midst of it! He didn’t ignore the trials or pretend they weren’t happening. People who live like that have forgotten that God gave them tear glands for a reason—to cry and mourn BUT in the midst of the crying and mourning, to trust in Christ and the good he is bringing through the trial. Paul knew that this trial in Caesarea was simply a venue—a stage—the first floor—an opportunity for the gospel to go forward and fulfill the promise Jesus made to Paul at his conversion—that he would carry his name before kings.
Paul continues his defense, skillfully weaving his message into it in verses 14-21 but first, let’s see the pattern for this in his words to Timothy in First Timothy 4:16. He tells Timothy, “16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Paul is trying to see Felix and Drusilla saved and so he reveals in his testimony, not only his teaching or his doctrine, but also his life. He continues, 14 But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, 15 having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. 16 So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man. 17 Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings. 18 While I was doing this, they found me purified in the temple, without any crowd or tumult. But some Jews from Asia—19 they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, should they have anything against me. 20 Or else let these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, 21 other than this one thing that I cried out while standing among them: ‘It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day.’ ”
First, he speaks of his doctrine, countering their claims that his religion was a “sect”—a term that here probably he means “heretical sect.” In his doctrinal teaching, he wants his audience to see the strong doctrinal continuity between Judaism and Christianity. He says—“I worship the same God as the Jews—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I base my beliefs in the same sacred book—the law and the prophets.” He names one specific area of continuity--the resurrection of the dead, which is a clear reference to Jesus and points to the universal hope that God has broken the power of death. People who trust in Christ—don’t remain dead and will not die the second death of God’s judgment. Paul stresses the resurrection here in part to communicate that his doctrine is like the Jews’ except that the hope of the Jews—with resurrection as their highest hope—has been fulfilled in Christ.
In addition to his doctrine—where he seeks to identify with the Jews—“I’m just like them in many ways,” Paul reveals his life—where implicitly he seeks to distance himself from the Jews—“I’m not at all like them in many ways.” A second truth we pull from Luke’s account here is, Followers of Christ must not only believe the correct things, but live Christ-like lives. Don’t miss the flow of Paul’s argument. In verse 15 he speaks of the hope rooted in a theological truth—“that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” That’s the doctrine. Then, in the next verse he says, “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man. Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and present offerings.” Paul is saying that the hope that he has in the resurrection has a radical, life-altering impact on him. His doctrine powerfully influences his life as it should in all of us. There is today a lie being widely propagated in the church that it is possible to have a church where doctrine is not taught but that church can still be healthy. That is Biblically unsupportable because one of the contributors to spiritual maturity is having a good doctrinal understanding.
Paul says in Colossians 1:28, “28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Paul states his goal for ministry is “present[ing] everyone mature in Christ.” That’s sanctification. How does he accomplish this goal? Proclaiming Christ—“…warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.” The way to maturity is to teach about Jesus—that’s doctrine. That’s Christology and that encompasses the doctrine of salvation which involves eschatology—the study of the end times. In order to understand these well, you must connect these teachings to the doctrine of God—theology proper, the doctrine of man--and the doctrine of sin. If you don’t know doctrine; you will not be mature in Christ. When people think of doctrine, they tend to think of stuffy professors who don’t live in the real world. They assume doctrine is of no practical, day-to-day importance to them. The truth is--doctrine is intensely practical.
Paul says one reason the Corinthians are committing sexual immorality is because their doctrines of the church and the Holy Spirit are weak. First Corinthians 6:15-19 says, “15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the embers 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.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him [that flows from the doctrine of the church as the body of Christ]. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,” [they don’t know that the body is a temple of the Spirit and their ignorance impacts their sexual activity]. Paul roots their sexual sin in part to their shallow doctrine.
Now, Acts 24 also demonstrates that just knowing doctrine in no way guarantees spiritual maturity. You can know doctrine backwards and forwards and in full knowledge of it, rage against God. The point here is not that doctrine produces maturity, but maturity is not possible without doctrine. Doctrine is necessary for maturity, but it is not sufficient for maturity. We see that in Acts 24 with these Jewish leaders who, although having sound doctrines, are in open rebellion against God and are betraying the doctrinal hope of the resurrection they claim to believe. Back to Colossians, Paul says—in light of my doctrinal understanding, “16 …I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” The two great commandments are to love God and others with everything in you. Paul says that on both fronts, “my conscience is clear” and that his clear conscience is grounded in the teaching he has received.
In verse 17 he continues, “17 Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings.” This is part of Paul’s defense too, but it’s also a way of communicating to the governor and his wife that his faith impacts his life in profound ways including his pocket book. He knew this would distinguish his faith from the Jewish leadership because as we’ll see next week, Lord willing--they were known for their greed and tight-fistedness. This desire to sacrificially give your money away is where many in the church reveal the true condition of their hearts. This area exposes a lot of false converts. When Jesus saves you, he opens up your pocketbook. Zaccheus is saved and in response gives half of his money to the poor and pays back those he had cheated four times what he owed them—that’s sacrifice—that expresses that your treasure is no longer in this world, but in heaven. A changed heart always means a radical realigning of attitudes toward material wealth. This is where the rich young ruler is exposed as a counterfeit. He was looking good—even stellar as a potential disciple until Jesus told him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus wasn’t fooled by his outward profession. He saw his heart and his love for money—his idol and Luke continues, “But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.” As with doctrinal knowledge, sacrificial generosity isn’t a fool-proof indicator of your love for Jesus. A willingness to sacrificially give is necessary to show a love for Christ, but it is not sufficient. Other indicators are also important.
As we close today, let’s think about three questions. First, do you have a second story? That is—as you live life, do you process the first floor circumstances through a spiritual filter, or do you just tend to be happy when things are easy and complaining when things are hard? The answer to that question is crucial if you are to know if you are growing toward Christ-likeness. Second, are you a student of Christian doctrine? This is a non-negotiable for maturity. It’s not sufficient by itself and in some people it can work against them. Paul warns us that knowledge alone puffs up—makes us proud. But if you are serious about Christian maturity, you will be a student of doctrine. Many good books are available. The other elders or myself would be happy to reference you. There will be a doctrine class for adults offered next quarter on Wednesday nights.
Finally, does your life match your profession? There are plenty of nice people who don’t get drunk, don’t use profanity, don’t sin sexually, go to church and are generally all-around good people and who have a perfectly orthodox, believable professions of faith. But that does not mean the miracle of new birth has occurred. Remember, Jesus in a person’s life brings him from death to life. It’s a fairly big distance between being dead and being alive—it would be hard to think of two more polar opposites. With that in mind, can you think of a time when your thoughts, attitudes, actions and desires were so different than they are now, that you would describe them as “like death compared to life?” That’s the transformation Jesus makes in a person. If you haven’t experienced that, you must discover why not. May God give us the grace to look at life through his eyes, love the truth and live a life reflective of a genuine spiritual resurrection for our joy and his glory.
Page last modified on 12/14//2011
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