Know gospel, no racism
KNOW GOSPEL, NO RACISM (ACTS 21:17-22:22)
The Gospel and Racism are incompatible....
The reality of racism (Acts 21:17-26)
The fruit of racism (Acts 21:27-22:5)
The death of racism (Acts 22:6-22:22)
This morning we are going back to our study through the book of Acts. I think it’s good that we get back to studying systematically through the Bible as is our custom and the book of Acts is a good book to get back to… It’s the inspired history of the early spread of the gospel and the establishment of the church. It reminds us that there is a bigger picture going on than this pandemic, a bigger plan which God has been working out before this pandemic came along and which will still be unfolding long after this pandemic is completely forgotten. God is spreading His gospel and saving His people and building His church and even in the midst of this pandemic – that is the focus of God’s attention, that is what lies at the centre of what He is doing and so that should be at the centre of our own thinking and planning and acting as well.
The book of Acts will help us not lose focus, not lose perspective on what really matters. Hopefully you will remember that the key verse in Acts is Acts 1:8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” The book of Acts then sets about tracing the realization of that promise primarily through Peter in the first half of Acts and then through Paul in the second half.
The stated purpose of Luke-Acts is to give his Gentile readers confidence concerning the message they have heard. That the gospel they had heard through Paul and his missionary companions was the true saving gospel from Jesus Christ. One of the major questions Luke has to answer in the minds of the Gentiles – if this is the true gospel, than why did the Jews, Jesus own people, why did they reject the gospel?
These closing chapters of Acts vindicate Paul’s integrity and clarify His message. They show that He was neither a law-breaker, nor a traitor, nor a false teacher, nor a trouble maker. They show that not all Jews rejected the gospel and they show why many did.
Why did many Jews reject the gospel? One of the major reasons Luke supplies – is racism.
I’ve entitled this message “No Gospel, know racism, No racism, know the gospel.” Playing on the words “no” to emphasize that racism and the gospel are incompatable. The gospel will either drive racism from your heart, or racism will drive the gospel from your heart.
In this country we know first hand the terrible impact that racism has on a horizontal level, causing hatred, and divisions and factions. But I don’t think we’ve always considered the verticle dimension – how racism drives us from Christ or Christ drives us from racism. The two cannot live side by side in the human heart.
· The reality of racism (21:17-26)
· The fruit of racism (21:27-40)
· The death of racism (22:1-22)
1: The reality of racism (21:17-26)
What is racism?... The Oxford dictionary: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.”
The issue of Jewish national pride had plagued the church ever since Gentiles started coming to faith. The Jews hated the Gentiles and wanted nothing to do with them. They regarded them as unclean and unacceptable to God. Some of this racism had crept into the church when the first Gentiles came to faith in Christ and had threatened to divide the church into Jewish and Gentile congregations. But back in Acts 15 an important counsel had been called which sought to uphold the unity of the church. Now, over 5 chapters and 5 years later Paul is still battling this issue….
God is GOSPEL CENTERED (17-22)
God has been doing a great work among the Gentiles drawing them to faith in Christ which Paul recounts. We know from Acts 11:28 that God had sent a great famine on the land and Jerusalem was in economic recession. In fact, one of the reason for Paul’s visit was to bring relief for the Saints in Jerusalem (24:17), but the physical difficulties are not even mentioned here - all that really matters is that God is at work in saving people and the gospel is spreading….God is at work. That’s God’s perspective – its’s Christ centred, gospel centred.
Man IS MAN CENTRED.
Paul was eager to show the sacrificial love Gentile believers had for their Jewish brothers, so he had arranged a collection among the gentiles churches and now was bringing it up to the church at Jerusalem (24:17). So he’s extending a hand of love and reconciliation on behalf of the Gentile churches to their Jewish brothers and they are grateful and thankful for what God is doing, but in the same breath, literally in the same sentence in vs 20 – they are worried about how this all looks to the Jews…
Paul’s focus is on what God has been doing, but their focus is on what the Jews will do. Rumours have been spreading that Paul is anti-Semitic, that he’s undermining the Jewish nation and the Jewish law and even teaching Jews to forsake the law and abandon their Jewish culture and heritage. You can see that many of the Jews were more worried about their Jewish privilege and their Jewish customs and preserving their Jewish heritage than they were concerned that the Gentiles hear the gospel and get saved.
Application: Where is our focus?
Even now in this pandemic, what is our focus? Is it on the health, the statistics, the food shortages, the economic recession – or on the gospel… More people are dying due to this virus, yes – but are we concerned more about that, or the fact that they are going into a Christ-less eternity when they die?
Paul removes obstacles to the gospel (21: 23-26)
Four men had taken this Nazarite vow which was the epitomy of Jewish zeal and piety. At the end of the vow they cut their hair and made sacrifices and a celebration was held. If Paul paid for the offerings and participated in the celebrations, then he would be shown to be manifestly Jewish and undoubtedly supportive of Jewish practices.
VS 25 they refer back to the decision that was made back in Acts 15 that the Mosaic Law would not be imposed on the Gentile believers, they would not be required to live like Jews. That’s not the major issue here – the major issue here is the impact that the gospel is having on Jewish heritage, Jewish culture, Jewish values.
Was the spread of the gospel ultimately causing the demise of the Jewish nation and culture and law and practices? Back in Acts 15 the question was – should the Gentiles become like Jews in terms of their distinct practices. The answer was, “No.” The question here is – should the Jews become like Gentiles and abandon their observance to the Law. So the tables have turned because the church has spread and so many Gentiles have come to faith that the Jews are outnumbered and their culture and practices are in danger of being lost.
Application: when power shifts
Its been interesting to watch our post apartheid churches become more and more culturally diverse. It really doesn’t cause too much of a stir when blacks join a predominantly white church. But the moment the church becomes predominantly black and the balance of power shifts and the cultural expression changes from more Western to more African forms – that’s when the divisions and factions start, because that’s when our cultural norms get threatened. We are getting to that point as a church and so we can expect that the roots of racism which are lying dormant are going to start rising to the surface and we are going to have a number of difficult conversations about how we do or don’t do things. Have you heard certain members saying “Amen” in church. We’ve never done that and some are not sure if its allowed, or if its good or distracting and we’re not talking about changing gospel truth but cultural expressions. Did I hear an “Amen” to that?
Paul is a Jew and he has no problem with his Jewish culture and heritage and has no problem going along with the plan if it’s going to forster unity in the church and further gospel witness.
This is Paul practicing what he preached to the Corinthian church (1 Cor 9:19-22)
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. … To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
That’s the attitude, the principle and here in Acts we have the illustration, the example. When it came to gospel truth Paul was uncompromising, when it came to cultural expressions – he would willing wear a beanie to church if he thought it would help someone get saved.
The fruit of racism (21:27-40)
27: Paul is still in the midst of demonstrating his commitment to Jewish rituals – when he is siezed by “Jews from Asia.” The text makes it clear what is motivating all this – Jewish pride, Jewish nationalism, Jewish racism. These Jews were from Asia, they had seen first hand the impact that the gospel was having in areas where many Gentiles were coming to faith. They had been watching events closely and their prejudice had been simmering and their determination to end this gospel preaching had been solidifying.
28 “Men of Israel help!” Israel, come to our aid, defend your national rights, your heritage…. Truth and justice doesn’t matter. Racism blinds people to the facts, to the realities. It colours their vision so that they see everything through these tainted glasses.
· This man is teaching everyone, everywhere against the people and the law and this place.
· What a lot of nonsense.
· These are serious accusations. Jesus was killed for much the same thing and yet there is no basis for them.
· 29 they saw, they supposed, they jumped to conclusion, they drummed up charges – because truth and justice and right and wrong doesn’t matter.
· There is no rationality when racism grabs a hold of someone’s heart.
· 30: And when racism is nurtured in people’s hearts, is so easy to get them stirred up and supporting an empty cause – vs 30 all the city was stirred up.
· 31 They were seeking to kill Paul.
· 32 they are beating Paul senseless, trying to beat him to death
· And there is chaos and confusion and nobody actually even knows what he’s done and what they say he has done is blatantly false.
· 34 Some were shouting one thing, some another thing – not even the Roman tribune can get to the facts or make sense of the situation.
This is the fruit of racism…hatred, strife anger, rage, killing, baseles slander. Crowds getting stirred up for no reason and doing terrible things to innocent people.
Application: don’t be duped
A lot of this goes on in or country. A lot of politicians use the racism that is rooted in our hearts to their own advantage, to stir up support for all kinds of senseless things – because there is no rationality in racism – just hatred and fear and jealousy and self-preservation..
Attacking one of their own (21:37-22:5)
What the text is emphasizing in this section is that the Jews were attacking one of their own….
He didn’t have a political agenda against Rome and he didn’t have a national agenda against Israel.
· He is a Jews himself.
· He is from a prominent Jewish city – Tarsus
· Educated under Gamaliel, trained by a prominent Jewish Rabbi.
· Raised in Jerusalem.
· He addressed them in the Hebrew language
· He tells them of His zeal for his nation, even going to the point of persecuting the church.
This man was a Jew of Jews. But of course none of that matters. By the end of the narrative – all that matters in 22:22 is that he doesn’t hate Gentiles like they do…
Racism says, not only must you be like me, but you must side with me in hating those who are not like us. Racism comes down to an “us and them” mentality. You are either for us or with them.
Illustration: mixed family – racism from both sides.
We have biological children and have adopted black children, so we are a racially mixed family. We face racism from both sides. My kids are scorned by blacks and white for different reasons and in different ways – but its obvious that many don’t like mixed races, mixed families. Our family has betrayed both sides and the only place we really find acceptance is in the church…..because that is what the church is – every tribe language people and nation united together in one body. That’s our essence – a mixed race united in Christ.
Paul knows what it is like to be in the grips of this hatred and pride and sense of privilege. So he goes on to tell them his testimony – how he was rescued from this by the grace of Christ.
The death of racism (22:1-22)
There are 3 accounts of Paul’s testimony in the book of Acts (9,26). This is a central feature of defending his gospel message – how this same Jesus had transformed him personally and comprehensively.
· Paul has a personal encounter with the resurrected Christ which transforms him deeply and permanently and sets his life on a completely different path.
· That’s the story of everyone’s conversion….
· Vs 6 we see Christ’s true glory and worth. It’s mid day, but the light is so dazzling Paul can’t see anything else. We come to know who Jesus is
o The Lord (8)
o The God-man from Nazareth (8)
o The only one who is truly righteous and who has lived a righteous life in God’s sight (14)
o The only one who can wash away our sins (16)
· Vs 7 we fall to the ground in humility and submission to the Lord, the Lord of all.
· Vs 8 We come to realize that Jesus knows us and He knows all that we have been doing and thinking and saying. “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus says and at once we come to realize that our sin has not just been against people but against Christ.
· 10 And we turn to Jesus in repentance and faith and say – what must I do for you? My life if yours because you have given your life for me. And our life - all that we are and do and dream and plan – gets redefined, reappointed, reassigned as we enlist in Christ’s service.
· 11 We become dependant upon Christ’s grace from that day on. To lead, to strengthen, to guide and to heal.
· 16 We call upon the Lord to forgive us, to wash away our sin and transform our hearts and are baptized as a public testimony to our faith in Him.
Paul’s conversion has different specific details but the contours are found in every salvation testimony. Surely this story sounds familiar to you, if you are a believer?
This is what it means to be saved. If you haven’t gone through this experience of seeing Christ, humbling yourself before Him, turning from your sin and asking Him to forgive you and change you and use your life to bring Him glory – then you are not a Christian – doesn’t matter what church you do or don’t attend, or what facts you do or don’t know, or what Bible you do or don’t read….
The text perfectly balances Christ’s sovereignty and human responsibility
What does the text make plain throughout – this is Christ sovereign purpose and plan – to save whom He wills. Paul wasn’t seeking Him – he was on a pathway to persecute Christians. He was heading in the opposite direction. But as Annanias explains in vs 14 God has appointed him to hear His voice, see His glory, know His will and believe… The Greek word used here starts with the preposition “pro” which emphasizes chosing beforehand, selectign in advance and its in the middle voice which emphasizes that God has chosen, or selected or appointed you in advance for Himself. Personal, purposeful selection is what Annanias is talking about and Jesus uses this same word in Acts 26:16 to describe his choice of Paul.
If Christ has not turned your life around – then you haven’t met Him yet….doesn’t matter what facts you have heard and know about Him. Because that’s what Jesus does for those He choses – He forgives, He changes, He redirects.
But then there is also Paul’s personal response. He falls down, he calls on the Lord, he commits himself to Christ.
If you’ve seen, and heard the gospel and know that God’s will is for you to repent and believe, to turn from your sin to Christ – then you must obey, you must yield, you must fall down and call upon the Lord….. and you must do it now. In vs 16 Annanias says – “Why wait” why delay. Why leave for tomorrow what you can do now, today….
But not all will hear and see and believe…
Nothing will convince the blind
Jesus tells Paul to flee for His life because He knows that the Jews won’t accept His testimony. Paul can’t understand it because he thinks the evidence speaks for itself – the persecuted is now a preacher. The Christian hater is now a Christian. What else but the resurrected power of Jesus can account for such a radical transformation?
Yet Jesus knows that for those whose hearts are hardened by sin – no evidence, no logic, no reason, no explanation will suffice. He is going to send Paul to the Gentiles, to those whom He has called, and prepared for salvation from among the Gentiles.
God’s face is turning away from this stubborn and rebellious people and his grace is turning to the nations, to those who were far off, to those who hadn’t heard, to those who hadn’t had generations of light and truth and revelation which they had resisted and rejected.
And that statement is what sends the crowd through the roof in vs 22. Because despite all this preaching, all this testimony, all this evidence – their hearts are still filled with jealousy and selfish ambition and self-preservation. Not even God is allowed to side with the Gentiles… If Jesus is going to side with the Gentiles then away with Jesus and away with Paul.
The gospel will either drive racism from your heart, or racism will drive our heart away from the gospel.
So let’s end where we started and just step back for a moment and consider this text. This is Luke’s divinely inspired defence and confirmation of the gospel particularly as it was preached by Paul.
· We’ve seen how God’s power has been at work through it (21-17-20)
· We’ve seen how Paul bent over backwards to try and convince His Jewish brethren that he had no intention of undermining the Jewish heritage, or culture or way of life (21: 21-26)
· But these Jews have already made up their minds, they have come from Asia with a predetermined mission – to silence this gospel which they see as a threat to their religion, their nation, their land, their heritage.
· The crowds are so easy to whipp up into a frenzy because the same prejudice is festerring in their own hearts. Though Paul is as Jewish as you get – if he is preaching God’s grace to the Gentiles then he must be silenced. The Jews won’t accept a God who accepts the Gentiles.
· This portion of narrative ends with their decisive rejection of the gospel not because of who Jesus is or what He has done, or because of a lack of evidence, or faulty reason – because the racial prejudice in their hearts says that God would never provide a saviour for the Gentiles, they could never be His people on equal footing with the Jews.
See what lies behind racism is the personal and cultural and national pride which looks for something in me, in my genes, in my education or culture or upbringing which is superior, which is sufficient, which makes me acceptable to God and better than other people….
But the gospel says – there is only one righteous one, one man who has ever been acceptable before God, only one sinless Savior – and we all have fallen short of God’s glory and need the salvation that He alone can provide. So the gospel strikes a death blow on human pride, human achievement human worth – and it completely levels the playing field and says – we are made acceptable to God by a free gift – the righteousness of Christ given for us so that no-one who is in Christ is any better or worse than anyone else.
That is why I don’t believe that the gospel the church was preaching in the apartheid era was the biblical gospel – because racism could never have flourished like it did if the church was preaching this gospel.
More than ever, we need to take up this gospel in the church and use it to apply the blood of Christ to each one irrespective of education or colour or culture or creed. So that whatever our differences – we are united in Christ – one Lord, one faith, one baptism – one God and father of all.