A longer reading than customary this evening. You should consider yourselves fortunate. My first Sunday evening at Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen the service lasted two and a half hours and Mr. Still made it through some 13 chapters of Jeremiah: with extended comments at several places that I, in my naiveté, took to be the sermon…which was still coming!
Now, we begin the story of Paul’s imprisonment. It is a piece of history that Luke devotes an amazing amount of space to in his early church history (21:27-26:32 and, indeed, to the end of the book if one counts the entire episode of Paul’s imprisonment) given the fact that it would appear that the gospel advance — at least that part of it for which Paul was responsible — was on hold for these two years or more. Six of 28 chapters — amounts to more than one-firth of the total narrative of Acts.
We might begin by asking why Luke thought it so important? Well, perhaps a number of reasons.
- The narrative will establish — indeed, it is a major theme of the rest of the book of Acts — the intransigence of the Jews, their determination not to believe in Christ no matter what. They had no case and still they came after Paul, willing to invent testimony to see him destroyed. This may be intended to be a further justification of the Gentile mission and of Paul’s eventual dismissal of work among the Jews. It certainly confirms the picture Jesus painted in his preaching and the justice of that judgment that would befall them in A.D. 70.
- Further, this narrative, in a very interesting and important way, will demonstrate the invincible character of the Christian apologetic for Christ and his resurrection. "These things were not done in a corner," Paul will tell Festus and Agrippa in 26:26. Paul, you see, is tried again and again but no one is able successfully to attack his basic premise, that Christ is risen and is calling his church from all nations. Contemporaries, witnesses of Christ’s life and work, were not able to undermine the Christian claim any more at this time than in Acts 2-5! The Book in that sense ends where it begins, with unbelievers unable to quell the flood of new converts.
- What is more, it is a great tale of divine providence coming to the assistance of Paul and the gospel, a great encouragement to those who find themselves in the thick of the battle. God has his servants everywhere and "the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head."
- But, perhaps especially, these chapters cast Paul in the role of a witness for Christ and the gospel and demonstrate the character and nature of that witness. If Acts is, in its telling of early church history, teaching the church of all ages how it is to live and work in the world, then these chapters are of great importance as demonstrating and describing the witness which the church is called to be.
Jews from Asia would, of course, have known about Paul’s ministry from his three years in Ephesus. What is more they apparently recognized Trophimus. [We will hear of Trophimus again in 2 Timothy 4:20, when miracles were, apparently, no longer occurring: "Trophimus, I left ill at Miletus."] The accusation was that Paul was undermining, if not positively attacking, the great symbols of Jewish national solidarity: the race of the Jews, the law, and the temple.
The charge is ironic, given that Paul was at that time undergoing purification precisely so that he would not defile the temple! The temple was divided then into several concentric rectangular courts. The Gentiles were allowed in the outer court, which was even called the Court of the Gentiles. But the were not allowed into the next court, the Court of the Women, and still less into the Court of Israel, which was separated from the Court of the Women by a low barrier threatening death to violators. That the Romans were, at this time, prepared to execute death sentences even on Romans who violated the sanctity of these courts is evidence of how deeply the Jews felt about the temple and its purity (in spite of the hypocrisy of so much of what they allowed: the money-changers, etc.).
The charge is trumped up. Paul wouldn’t have countenanced it, of course, and, as one commentator put it, the idea that Trophimus would have wandered accidentally into the inner courts is as likely that someone would "wander" into the private spaces of the Kremlin as a sightseer.
The Roman garrison was stationed at the NW corner of the temple area and was connected by two flights of steps to the Court of the Gentiles. They hadn’t far to come.
The garrison in Jerusalem was a "cohort," consisting normally of 760 infantry and 240 cavalry and commanded by a tribunus militum (the equivalent of a Major or Colonel). This man, wisely, it turns out, acted promptly and forcefully, bringing down a force of soldiers under their NCOs, forcing the crowd to fall back and stop their beating of Paul.
Paul was arrested as the cause of the trouble and handcuffed, so fulfilling Agabus’ prophecy in 21:11.
The same cry they had made regarding Jesus, some twenty-seven years or so before (Luke 23:18). "If they hated me, they will hate you also."
Greek was the language of Egypt at this time, so the question that begins v. 38 might well be translated, following upon v. 37, "Surely, then, you are, or must be the Egyptian…?"
Some three years before this, according to Josephus, an Egyptian appeared in Jerusalem claiming to be a prophet. He gathered a following — there are always followings to be gathered by such "pretenders" — (Josephus says 30,000, but he frequently exaggerates such numbers; the 4,000 here is no doubt the more accurate figure even if it is the report of a Roman military officer. This man promised that if they marched on Jerusalem, the walls of the city would fall at his command, and they would overthrow the Roman garrison. The Roman governor, unimpressed, sent a detachment of soldiers against the insurrection, killed a few, took some prisoners, and the Egyptian himself wisely disappeared. The Roman commander thought that Paul might be that man, just discovered by the mob.
He was a Jew and a citizen. In other words, he was not some local tough likely to start a riot in the temple.
Addressing them in Aramaic was a most effective way to command their attention. A Jew addressing Jews. Many Diaspora Jews could not speak Aramaic or Hebrew. The greatest Jewish scholar of the first century, Philo of Alexandria, could not read the Books of Moses — on which he wrote vast commentaries — in their original Hebrew. Here is another good reason to be sure our children learn to speak another language than their own! One of the great regrets of my life. What effect it brings to witness! Parents think about this. It enlarges your children’s view of the world and is a witness born to them that you would have them able to speak of Christ to others in some other language and so be part of the equipment of the church for its witness to the world.
Stephen wasn’t the only martyr; cf. 26:10.
He begins with his credentials as a loyal Jew, even a rabbi. And, so far as the Christians were concerned, he was the leader of their persecutors. An interesting tidbit of personal information is given here, by the way. Paul was from Tarsus — and must have maintained connections with the city because he went back there after his conversion — but he was raised in Jerusalem.
Ananias, also a major player in this history, was a devout Jew and known to be so by the Jewish community in Damascus.
"The God of our Fathers" identifies the God who revealed himself to Paul with Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and "the righteous one" identifies Jesus as the Messiah.
History is repeating itself. It is interesting that Paul puts this in his "defense" as it might well be thought likely to offend the Jews he is speaking to. But, it gives Paul the opportunity to explain what he said to the Lord in return, which serves once more to underline his credentials as a loyal Jew. Why would the Jews want to persecute a Jew as loyal as I am?
Paul’s departure from Jerusalem, therefore, was not only for his safety’s sake, but as well because God wanted to reach the Gentiles.
The speech is cut short before anything is actually said about the specific charges that were brought against him, viz. defiling the temple. But that charge was a pretext in any case.
Paul is now going to be presented to us, over an extended time, as a witness for the truth of the gospel, as a witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God and Savior of the world.
It is good for us to think about this witness, all the more as we are thinking about speaking to others these Lenten weeks in anticipation of Easter. So, this evening, let us consider together two aspects of Paul’s witness as an example for ourselves, and, I hope, as an encouragement and spur.
- First, Paul bore witness to Christ from his own experience.
That is, he spoke of what he knew personally. "Come and let me tell you what the Lord has done for me!" Now, you may say to yourself, well, of course Paul did that, for what an experience to relate! If I had been converted as he was, I would shout that story from the housetops too!
And there have been others with experiences, if not so objectively supernatural as Paul’s was, at least wonderfully dramatic and making a great story. In fact, church history seems to suggest that often men whom God intends to use in particularly powerful ways in bearing witness to the gospel, he furnishes with powerful experiences of conversion, both for their sakes and the sake of their witness: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Great Awakening men,
Spurgeon, etc. come to mind. Some of you have stories of God’s coming to you and revealing himself to you that are like these stories, if not, perhaps, so dramatic in the telling.
But, fact is, many very faithful and many influential witnesses for Christ did not have such dramatic stories to tell of their own faith in Christ. Origen and Chrysostom in the early church were powerful evangelists, Thomas Boston among the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards among the revivalists of the 18th century, William Carey and David Livingstone among the missionaries were all great winners of souls, but they had no dramatic story to tell of their conversion. Most of them were Christians from childhood.
We are all to bear witness to Christ and we can all do that personally. Remember that is what a "witness" is: someone who has some personal knowledge that he or she can relate. And every Christian has that! Every Christian knows the truth and knows its power in his own life, its reality, its conviction. And that is the key. Paul is not interested in telling this crowd about himself. He is telling them about Christ and what Christ has done and who Christ is. That is the thing! And you and I can do that.
Indeed, in some ways, it is all the more important in our day, to be sure we are bearing witness to the truth and not simply telling another story about ourselves. In our day, stories about salvation abound — they are everywhere. Religions tell them, advertisers tell them — salvation from too much weight, from ring around the collar, from boredom, from yellow teeth, and all the rest. The "before I was…but now I am" motif is common to all of these stories.
And in our day, the concentration on this way of bearing witness to Christ has led to both a superficiality in the telling of the tale — a superficiality that is not too hard to detect in many cases [the story has to be dramatic to have any punch] — as well as to a diminished interest in the truth such stories are presumably told to communicate. Less and less is Christianity embraced as the truth, the truth that must be believed by all men, a doctrine that explains God, human life and salvation. More and more it is presented as a solution to our problems, to this problem or that, but in that it must compete with the thousands of other solutions to our problems that jostle for everyone’s attention in our pragmatic day. Indeed, on these terms, Christianity can even be embraced without real faith in its truthfulness, as something that might produce some particular good effect for us: help us with our loneliness, our drinking problem, our homosexuality, our sense of ennui or rootlessness in life, etc.
Remember C.S. Lewis’ famous statement, but think of how strange these words would seem to many folk today:
"If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be; if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all." [God in the Dock, 108-109]
In our day usefulness is everything. And the church has too much capitulated to that state of affairs and allowed God to be presented as existing for man. As one sociologist has written [R. Quebedeaux, By What Authority, 152]:
"Modern American religion, very simply, doesn’t care about doing anything for God. It wants only to use him. Even the popular exclamation ‘Praise the Lord!’ is little more than a thank-you note to God for having been useful in helping ‘me’ acquire something ‘I’ wanted. God is the giver, I am the receiver, but not vice versa. When God becomes a divine Santa Claus, our relationship with him — even with God himself — is superficial, in that it stresses taking but not giving. Both are necessary to any deep relationship."
That is another reason why the witness to the truth must be paramount for Christians and for the church. The world needs witnesses to the truth, for it is the truth that sets men free. The truth concerning what God has said about man and about the future. "I know this to be true," the Christian says. And there is a great deal to this truth, it bears on every aspect of life, it can be brought into any conversation at any time in respect to any subject. We must know it, of course, to use it so well, but that is our job.
And we can be content with being such witnesses, even confident in this role, because, in the second place,
- Paul’s witness is only an instrument in the hands of the Almighty.
The remarkable thing about Paul’s witness was that it didn’t, in this particular case, convert anyone, at least as far as we know. (It is interesting to note, by the way, from the earlier accounts of Paul’s preaching in Acts, that his own experience did not apparently figure very largely in his preaching. It was the truth of the gospel that he sought to communicate either from Scripture to the Jews or by instruction and argument to the Gentiles.)
But, the story Paul tells here, arresting as it seems to us and so powerful an argument, did not tell with the Jews who first heard it. As soon as he began speaking about including the Gentiles in the work of God’s grace in the world, they gnashed their teeth against him and, if they had paid any attention to what he had said so far, they promptly forgot it in their outrage. Paul will tell the story of his conversion once more in Acts 26 and to no more effect, apparently.
This is the hard truth of the matter. No one refuses to believe what you tell them about Christ because the truth itself is inadequately persuasive. They do not believe because, as Paul says in Romans 8, they will not believe. Here the Jews are unwilling to hear any message, however impossible for them to contradict, if it crosses their proud patriotism and threatens their favored place in the economy of God. This is exactly what Paul explains to have been the real issue in Romans 11 and what the Gospels often said the real issue was: pride and envy.
I was reading an account of a conversion this week in the Newsletter of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. As a young man he had followed the course of Eastern mysticism as many young people did in those days with varying levels of seriousness. But as his confidence in those views began to wither he was challenged by Christian acquaintances to consider more seriously the Christian claim for Jesus Christ and the gospel. He read books defending the faith and books recounting the conversions of Christians. He was fighting a battle within himself, in large part because he didn’t want to become a Christian. As he put it in this article, "I did not want a faith that restrained my sexual liberty, recreational drug use, or that claimed to be the only way. I did not want to face the disapproval and ridicule of my friends who[m] I had known since childhood." The Lord wonderfully overcame those objections to belief, but it was another wonderful illustration of what we have here in v. 22. People, of course, never represent their state of mind in this way until after they become Christian. The Jews would not have said that they were angry with Paul because of their prideful attitude toward Gentiles or because they were responding in fear to their diminished stature in the world. But, fact is, that was the problem, as Jesus said it would be and Paul said it was. [We evangelicals today.]
It is interesting that in v. 9 Paul seems to be intentionally injecting this perspective into his speech. God speaks to and God summons whom he will. So far as we know, Paul was the only one of the men on the road to Damascus that day who became a follower of Jesus Christ. Only Paul heard the summons of Christ. The light, the thunderous sound, even the remarkable change in Paul and his explanation of what had happened to him, were, so far as we know, insufficient to convince his friends and colleagues. And Paul soon proved over and again in his gospel ministry that the same witness, as he would put it in 2 Corinthians 2, would produce life in one man and death in another. It is not the witness, it is the hardness of man’s heart or the saving will of God. The witness is just the means God uses.
You don’t have to save anyone, you have only to speak the truth you know! All we have to do, is to be as faithful as we can to seize the opportunities life affords us to speak something of Christ and his salvation to others. The Lord will do the rest.
Let me tell you a story to confirm this. I told you the other Lord’s Day about Thomas Cranmer and, in the course of that history, mentioned two of his Reformation colleagues, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. Latimer was the great preacher of the English Reformation. But his history was very much like Paul’s. Before his conversion he was an out-and-out enemy of the gospel!
In fact, before his conversion, Latimer was as rabid an advocate of the ceremonies of the church and the authority of the Pope as anyone in Cambridge University. The Reformation was already underway, the writings of Luther were causing a great stir, and there was already formed a society of Reformed Christians in the University. Latimer made it his business to do what he could against them. He would debate them, ridicule them, and work against them in the workings of the University. The one prominent professor who had embraced the reform was a particular target of Latimer. He insulted him, he urged the young men not to attend his lectures, attended them himself and made public gestures of disagreement and distaste, and preached against him in the pulpits of the University. "I was then," he said later, "as obstinate a papist as any in England."
But there was a young man in Cambridge who had thoroughly embraced the change, Thomas Bilney. He had been watching Latimer and had been impressed by his zeal even if it was zeal without knowledge. He wanted to win Latimer to the gospel, but how? Latimer would not even stand to listen to an evangelical like Bilney give an account of his faith.
But then he struck on a method. He went to Latimer and asked him to hear his confession. Latimer was overjoyed, of course, because he knew Bilney was one of the heretics and figured that he wanted to confess his errors and return to the fold. And so he willingly agreed to hear Bilney’s confession. The young man got down on his knees before the scholar and told his story, –I’m reading now from Merle D’Aubigne’s, The Reformation in England, vol. I, 203-204 –
"the anguish he had once felt in his soul, the efforts he had made to remove it; their unprofitableness so long as he determined to follow the precepts of the church and, lastly, the peace he had felt when he believed that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. He described to Latimer the spirit of adoption he had received, and the happiness he experienced in being able now to call God his Father…. Latimer, who expected to receive a confession, listened without mistrust. His heart was opened, and the voice of the pious Bilney penetrated it without obstacle. From time to time the confessor would have chased away the new thoughts which came crowding into his bosom; but the penitent continued. His language, at once so simple and so lively, entered like a two-edged sword. Bilney was not without assistance in his work. A new, strange witness –the Holy Ghost– was speaking in Latimer’s soul. He learned from God to know God; he received a new heart. At length grace prevailed: the penitent rose up, but Latimer remained seated, absorbed in thought…. Like Saul on the way to Damascus, he was conquered, and his conversion, like the apostle’s, was instantaneous. … I learned more by this confession, he said afterwards, than in many years before. From that time forward I began to smell the word of God…" "Latimer viewed with horror the obstinate war he had waged against God; he wept bitterly; but Bilney consoled him. ‘Brother,’ he said, ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’ These two young men, then locked in their solitary chamber at Cambridge, were one day to mount the scaffold for that divine Master whose spirit was teaching them. But one of them before going to the stake was first to sit on an episcopal throne."
Tell the truth you know. God will do the rest according to his will.