The gospel, preservation and persecution
THE GOSPEL, PRESERVATION AND PERSECUTION (ACTS 23)
5 ways God sustains Paul in his service amidst rising persecution
Luke-Acts is a 2 volume series which according to Luke 1:4 was inspired by God to give his readers confidence concerning the gospel message they had heard and believed. So Acts is written in story form, as a history of the spread of the gospel and the establishment of the church, but it has a theological purpose – to give us confidence in the gospel message.
The text we will look at this morning, Acts 23, is a chapter which shows growing opposition and persecution against Paul. Very much like opposition to Jesus grew and grew until the nation as a whole decisively rejected Him and crucified Him – so Paul’s ministry is following a similar pattern. Just like Jesus escapes every plot and plan and attempt to destroy and derail Him until His hour had come – so we will see God carrying Paul through every plot and plan until his hour comes….
So I guess this passage is a challenge and a comfort for us.
· It challenges us to embrace God’s primary purpose for our lives – which is to bring glory to Christ, be witnesses to Christ.
· It comforts us by showing that God will preserve, protect and sustain us in that mission until we reach our destination and our hour arrives to go home. We are invincible until God takes us home. But it’s not a kind of invincibility that protects us from the hardships and pains and struggles involved in serving Christ – but it is the kind of invincibility which sustains us through them all.
As we go through this pandemic – we need the perspective that this text provides, we need this divine exhortation to stay focussed on our gospel mission and to trust God to sustain us even through things may get difficult for a while. The fact that things get heated and hard, doesn’t mean Christ has forsaken us, doesn’t mean things aren’t going according to Chris’s plan, doesn’t mean we won’t get through it. Look at this text and see God’s sovereign protection and manifold provision – even in the midst of very trying circumstances for Paul and know that you serve the same king in the same mission…
5 means God uses to protect and strengthen Paul to be a witness amidst mounting persecution. 5 C’S CHRIST USES TO SUSTAIN PAUL IN HIS SERVICE.
We pick up on the narrative in Acts 22. You remember from last week that Paul has arrived at Jerusalem. Jews from Asia have come down and excited the Jewish masses against him saying that he is undermining their law, their heritage and their nation. Paul is eventually rescued from the mob by a Roman tribune and he makes his defence in which he shares his Jewish heritage and his testimony of how he came to faith in Christ. In 22:14-16 he is converted and commissioned to be a witness to the Gentiles. It’s really this mention in 22:22 that he has specifically been commissioned by Christ to be a witness to the Gentiles that sends the mob into further up roar and now his life is in danger all over again.
The words in 22:22 should ring a bell. These are the exact words the crowds shouted in Lk 23:18 when they ordered Pilate to crucify Jesus. Again Luke is wanting us to make these connections so includes many such parallels in his account.
· In the last chapter we saw the similarity between Jesus journey up to Jerusalem and Paul’s journey
· Here we see that both Jesus and Paul were rejected by their own people, arrested without cause, imprisoned, and unjustly accused.
· Both were slapped in the face by the high priest
· Both were victims of Jewish plots
· Both were subjected to 5 different trials before Jewish and Gentiles rulers
· And both heard the angry mobs cry, “Away with him.”
There are too many parallels to be co-incidence. This is Luke showing that Paul picked up his cross and followed Christ in the way of the cross. He was a true believer and true Apostle and his persecution, rather than undermine the message – actually proved its validity because he was suffering the same kinds of persecution that Christ himself suffered.
APPLICATION: TAKE UP YOUR CROSS
Again its reminder to us all that Christ does call us to suffer here in our service of Him. Life is not always going to be easy here and is sometimes going to be especially difficult because we are believers and our message is not popular in the world.
1 TIM 3:12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it
24: The tribune has been trying to get to the bottom of things from the beginning. 21:33-34 he enquired what Paul had done from various people in the crows, but he couldn’t get a clear answer. Then he had allowed Paul to make his defence before the crowd – but that had only caused a greater uproar. So another avenue open to him was torture.
· This flogging was a leather whip with a wooden handle. It had pieces of bone and metal tied into the thongs and was really a methods of torture rather than a measured punishment. Often victims would die from the flogging, but certainly somewhere along the line the truth would come out.
· But Jesus has ordained to rescue Paul from this using something that was completely out of his control ….his Roman Citizenship
· One of the ways Rome kept control over the empire was by giving special privileges to Roman citizens. So Roman citizenship was prized and people didn’t want to lose their citizenship which they would lose if they got involved in any criminal activity or political opposition.
· If a city was particularly law abiding and submissive, then they would be made a Roman colony which means that all its citizens would become Roman citizens which was a way to motivate provinces to co-operate with Rome.
· As we see in vs 25 – its was not lawful to punish a Roman citizen without a fair trial which they were about to do here with Paul. In fact he should never have been arrested and detained without trial.
· And as we see in vs 28 it was possible for citizenship to be purchased and the tribune makes it clear that it has cost him a fortune to buy his citizenship. But to be born a citizen was a cut above. It’s like being born a citizen of a country compared to acquiring permanent residence.
· Paul was the real deal. We saw last week that he was a Jew of Jews from a prominent Jewish city with a prominent Jewish upbringing and that could be summoned to his defence against accusations that he was undermining Jewish culture and heritage. Here we see that he is a Roman of Romans which can be summoned in his defence against unjust treatment.
· Paul’s heritage and training is a perfect fit for the mission to which Christ has called him as an Apostle to the Gentiles, as the one who would cross the cultural gap between Jew and Gentile… And he had no control over this. This was not at all his doing- but here it certainly comes to His defence.
APPLICATION: CHRIST CONTROLS YOU CITIZENSHIP
Again just realizing, God determines where we are born, the family we are born into, the economic means we have, the education we receive. All of these things have been planned by Christ to serve the unique calling He has for us. The job you have, the company you have, the financial means, the country you live in – this things are not by chance, but by Christ’s planning and purpose so that you can serve Him in the unique way He has planned for you.
Christ uses Paul’s citizenship. Secondly his character, His blameless character
2: Character (22:30-23:5)
So the tribune is trying to get to the bottom of things here to find out what Paul has actually done and why the crowds are so bent on killing him, but nothing is working. So the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin was his next best move. The Sanhedrin were the Jewish governing body, the Jewish leadership who made rulings in regard to Jewish law and Jewish crimes and its seemed that Paul was guilty of something along those lines.
23:1 Paul can look these judges in the eye and say – I am innocent. I have lived a blameless life and more than that, I have a pure conscience before God. Paul could affirm the same thing in Phil 3 – as to the righteousness that is under the law, blameless. That is quite something to be able to credit to your account – innocence.
APPLICATION: LIVE GODLY LIVES
Too often, we as Christians are on trial for what we have done wrong. The accusations against us are valid. We have gossiped, or slandered someone, or treated them harshly or unfairly. Too often, we are guilty as charged. We are not getting persecuted, we are just getting what we deserve.
But part of what God uses to preserve and sustain Paul’s ministry is his integrity. His accusers literally couldn’t find fault with him. If we want to serve Christ, then we must make it our aim to live lives of integrity. We can’t live just like the world, and then expect Christ to come to our rescue to rescue us from the consequences of our sin…..
It’s not clear why the High Priest hits him in vs 2. How dare this man address them as brothers, or how dare he claim that as a Christian heretic he is blameless in God’s sight, or how dare he imply that the accusations him were false. What we do know from ancient history is that this particular high priest was known for his cruelty and corruption. He didn’t need much of a reason. We do know that Paul’s prediction that God would deal with him came to pass and within a few years he was killed by Jewish zealots.
Of course the main significance of these events is how they parallel Jesus own trial before the Sanhedrin in which he was also struck and also didn’t recognize the High Priest but willingly submitted to his authority. Even when unjustly treated, neither Jesus, nor Paul reviled back but they both willingly entrusted themselves to God who judges justly as 1 Pet 2:22 explains.
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
That’s our model….
Application: entrust yourself to God
We tend to feel that we must fight for our rights and we must never yield to injustice. And Paul certainly did appeal to his rights as a Roman citizen. But in the face of injustice, sometimes our rights are not upheld and there is nothing we can do about it short of sinning. But what we should always be doing is recognizing the supreme authority of God and entrusting ourselves to Him who judges justly. We must never let hardship or unjust treatment lead us to question God’s justice of God’s goodness or tempt us to take matters into our own hands. God is able to make all wrongs right and he is able to preserve and protect us against injustice if that’s His will.
What does God use to preserve, protect and sustain Paul amidst growing persecution: citizenship, character, convictions.
Doctrinal Convictions (23:6-10)
Read vs 6-10
· The background to this passage is a long standing dissagreement between these two major parties within Judaism.
· The Sadducees were the political rulers, the ones with political influence and power. They believed that only the first 5 books of our O.T were God’s Word, so they only held to the doctrines and practices that could be supported from these first 5 books of Moses as they are sometimes called.
· The Pharisees were the religious leaders with social and moral influence over the people. They believed in all the books of our OT and therefore also in the resurrection of the dead, in Angels and demons and a number of doctrines and practices which are more thoroughly developed outside the Pentateuch.
· Paul’s gospel message was that Jesus died, Jesus rose, repent for the forgiveness of you sins. So a key element was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, something which the Sadducees would reject outright as being unbiblical. The Pharisees might not be convinced that Jesus was raised, but they wouldn’t reject it as an impossibility.
· So Paul is being clever at this point and he’s dividing the jury as it were, he’s reframing his guilt in terms of this point of disagreement between Pharisees and Sadducees. He’s saying, brothers I’m a Pharisee and the reason these Sadducees have it in for me is because I am proclaiming the resurrection of the dead, which as you know, they dismiss outright.
· We see in vs 9, that this approach immediately raises the legitimacy of the accusations and gains him some support from among the Pharisees within this counsel.
What we mustn’t miss is that everything Paul has said is true. We saw in the last chapter just how fully he could be called a Pharisee and we’ve repeatedly seen that the resurrection of Christ and His followers is a central tenet of the gospel. Paul wasn’t manipulating the facts, but in this case they were to His advantage. In chapter 22:21 when he explained how Christ had sent him to the Gentiles, the crowd has erupted in protest and sought to kill him. Paul undoubtedly expected such a reaction, and yet he chose not to leave that relatively minor point out of his testimony. Because Paul was committed to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Whether to His harm or to His benefit – Paul was committed to truth. He was called to preach a message which would sometimes make him loved and other times make him hated. But his calling was not to impress people but to speak the truth, knowing that only the true and full gospel can turn hardened sinners away from sin to Christ.
Here, its Paul’s unwavering convictions – that actually come to his rescue.
Application: Speak the truth
We must never be tempted to water down or dilute the truth. We don’t have to be harsh and insensitive in how we communicate it, but we must always strive to be completely truthful, whatever the cost. The truth is our great protector, as long as we on the side of truth, we are always on the right side. Whatever God wants to do with us and through us, it’s not going to be accomplished by lies and deception and half-truths, and manipulation. If we find ourselves engaging in those things – we can know that we are not trusting God to protect and sustain us, but are relying on ourselves, trying to make our own way forward.
Citizenship, character, convictions – personal, supernatural comfort.
4 Comfort (23:11)
For the third time, according to vs 10, Paul is nearly torn to pieces. Paul finds himself in the midst of a great physical and spiritual battle. There is a very real war going on, a war for truth, a war for men’s souls, a war for the welfare of the church and he is getting ripped apart as the battle wages on around him….Just think about what Paul has been through in the last 2 chapters alone, in the last 2 days…and then he finds himself all alone in a prison cell.
Have you been there? When you get beaten down, and then beaten down a little more, and everything seems to be going wrong and everyone seems to be against you and Christ seems to have forgotten about you….then the next verse is for you, as much as it was for Paul.
Can you think of anything more encouraging to a man battered, beaten, falsely accused and sitting all alone in a prison cell. When nobody else could get to him, nobody else could solve his problems – “The Lord stood by Him” personally strengthening and encouraging Him. That the God of the universe would take the time to give His personal attention to Paul. That he would know Paul’s thoughts, Paul’s struggles, Paul’s despondency.
The strongest way to negate something in the Greek language is called “subjunctive emphatic negation” It’s a very specific grammatical form which is only used to express the negative in the strongest possible terms
· Matthew 24:35 My words will not at all pass away – heaven and earth will pass away, but never, ever, ever will my words pass away
· Jn 10:28 I give them eternal life and they will never perish and no-one is ever, ever able to snatch them out of my hand.
· Heb 13:5 "I will certainly not fail you, nor will I ever leave you."
When Jesus issues the great commission to make disciples of all nations he gave this assurance in Matthew 28 – Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age. And to give us further assurance he says in the strongest possible tersms – never will I leave you or forsake you.
If Christ is for us – then who can be against us. If Christ stands beside us, then who or what can overcome us?
Notice that it’s not just Christ’s presence but His Words, His promises that encourage Paul at this point, “As you have testified….” Christ has a purpose in this, His plans are still being worked out, Paul will fulfil the desire he himself expressed back in 21 to go to Rome and testify to Christ there.
And of course this summarizes his purpose and our purpose. The purpose for which Christ sustains us – the testify to Him…. He doesn’t rescue us from all the trials and hardships, but He sustains and directs us through them all so that we can continue to testify to Him.
1 Pet 5:8-10 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Tells us that trials will come our way and that Satan is just looking for the opportunity to tempt us, to get at us when we are weak. Suffering and trials can be times of real temptation- but we are to entrust ourselves to God, even as we see Paul doing, with the same kind of promise that just when we most need it – God himself will restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. God will do for us personally – what we cannot do for ourselves. He will stand alongside and strengthen – and here in Acts 23 we have the illustration – God’s comforting presence delivered through His Word.
Citizenship, character, convictions, comfort.
5: Companions (12-23)
Here we see that the Jews are still plotting to take Paul down, in fact according to vs 12 they made an oath not to eat until their mission was accomplished.
According to vs 13 there were more than 42 and those men must have starved to death! Because we know, what they don’t know. Christ is the resurrected Lord and He is standing by Paul and His plans are being worked out and His plans prevail over man’s plans. They get the high priest involved and they do everything in their power to manipulate the situation so they can get at Paul.
Vs 16: In God’s providence Paul has a family member who hears of the plot. According to vs 17 he’s a young man. Let’s just stop here for a moment and say Christ can use anyone to accomplish his plans. Here is a young man, a nobody, with no importance, no power, no authority- how could he possibly do anything to rescue Paul from such a determined plot to end his life…. Yet Christ can put just the right person where they need to be so that they can play a role in fulfilling his purposes. Jesus could have told Paul himself about the plot, but He chooses to include us in His plans and though we are weak and worthless – yet we can play a vital role in bringing his purposes about.
23:19 we see that Paul has in some sense won the favour of this tribune because he hears Paul and this young man out and goes on to summon according to vs 23 this very significant army of soldiers and cavalry to protect Paul.
You have to just step back for a moment and recognize that God writes interesting stories…..Here is a Jewish rabbi really, who had the highest Jewish counsel put a hit out on his life. He has no weapons or army or even knowledge of how much danger he is in. But Christ uses a boy to uncover their plot and ten summons a Roman legion to be his body guard and to take him out of harms way. Paul receives the same kind of protection that a high ranking Roman official would receive. He gets the blue light brigade as it were.
Christ summons the full strength of the most powerful military machine in history – to become Paul’s personal body guard service – because Christ is Lord and His plans prevail. These 40 men thought they had connections….but they had no idea who they were up against.
Christ uses people who know Him, and even people who don’t to accomplish His purposes…..
How does God strengthen and protect and preserve Paul amidst rising persecution: using
4. Comfort of His presence and His Word
5. Companions – people that strategically postitions and gives Paul favour with.
Friends, our main purpose in any and every situation is to bear witness to Christ, to testify to Christ wherever He takes you and whatever is happening to you. And you can know that Christ will get you through, His plans and purposes will prevail over every injustice and plot and scheme of man. You are invincible until God takes you home, but its not the kind of invincibility that saves you from trials and hardship and difficulties of this life. But He will sustain you through them all using all the means at His disposal until you have accomplished all His good purposes for you.