Giving the Gospel in the Midst of Mayhem

Recall the situation as we pick up in Acts 21. Paul is on his way to Jerusalem, constrained by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:22), trying to arrive by Pentecost (20:16). The Holy Spirit is testifying to him personally (20:23), and through other people (21:4, 10-12), that he is walking into imprisonment, affliction, and most likely death. Nevertheless, Paul is determined to go and finish his course there.

So the question that I’d like us to look at is this: how do you conduct yourself when you know you are heading into opposition and hostility? What can we learn from Paul about facing opposition in our own day? Now, in asking the question, I want to remind you that Paul is an apostle. He’s a divinely ordained leader. Thus, while his actions can instruct all of us, not all of us will be called to imitate him at every point. Nevertheless, if we’re going to be faithful in facing cultural opposition to the gospel in our day, we ought to carefully observe how an apostle navigates his own opposition. I’ve got about nine lessons from these chapters, four big ones, and five or so lesser ones.

In facing opposition, Paul is not trying to pick unnecessary fights. He labors to be at peace with all men, if at all possible. For example, in Acts 21, we see a perfect example of Paul “becoming a Jew in order to win Jews” (1 Cor. 9:20). When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, the leaders of the church there rejoice in news about the mission to the Gentiles. And there are a number of faithful Jews, zealous for the law, who have believed in Jesus. But they are being told by the enemies of the gospel that Paul is overthrowing Jewish customs (“Forsake Moses. Don’t circumcise your kids. Don’t walk according to Jewish way of life”). And so they urge Paul to show these new Jewish converts that he has no problem with Jews continuing to live according to the law of Moses, provided that they don’t impose it on the Gentiles or view it as a requirement for salvation. And so Paul does. He goes to the temple; he pays for some other Jews to fulfill their purification offering. The goal here is to quell unnecessary hostility, to show that the Christians (and Paul in particular) are being misunderstood, misrepresented, and even slandered.

The lesson for us is simple: where we don’t have to fight, we need not fight. Insofar as it depends on us, let us live at peace with all men. Christians must not be quarrelsome people. We must not give needless offense. When it comes to non-essential issues, we ought to be incredibly flexible. Paul believed that, in Christ, circumcision is nothing. Neither is uncircumcision. What counts is faith working through love. What counts is a new creation (Gal. 5:6; 6:15). So Paul’s willingness to go to the temple and participate in this offering teaches us that we ought to try and live at peace with all men.

This effort to clear things up for Jews in Jerusalem doesn’t work. Jews from Asia, where Paul has been ministering, see him in the temple and go ballistic (21:27). They repeat the slander. They jump to false conclusions, and they stir up a mob and seize Paul. So the second lesson is that even though we may not be looking for a fight, a fight may be looking for us. And what’s striking to me is that Paul is not thrown by the fact that his tactics failed. He completely keeps his head.

All Jerusalem is in confusion (21:30-31). They’re trying to kill Paul. When the Roman tribune, who ought to be in charge, shows up, it’s very clear that he is not in charge. He comes upon a man being beaten and his solution is to arrest the victim (21:32-33). Crowds are shouting contradictory accusations; they are ready to get violent; chaos reigns. The tribune is clearly in over his head, so he has Paul brought back to the barracks. At that moment, Paul politely asks him if he can have a word with him. “May I say something to you?” (21:37). The tribune assumes that Paul must be some kind of revolutionary. But Paul calmly tells him, “I’m a Jew from Tarsus. Can I talk to the people?”

Note this: there’s a mob outside, ready to tear Paul to pieces. It’s absolute chaos. The Roman soldiers appear unable to control the crowd. And Paul wants to give his testimony. “There’s a violent mob outside? They want to kill me? Great. Can I have the mic?” Remember that the plan was to calm the tension in Jerusalem by accommodating the Jews, by becoming like one under the law in order to win those under the law. But Paul knows, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” No plan survives contact with reality. Five minutes in, and quelling hostility is out the window. Now we have a mob. But Paul just rolls with it. He wasn’t looking for a needless fight; but he’s not thrown off when one shows up on his doorstep anyway. He sees an opportunity to preach the gospel, and he takes it. The tribune saw a violent mob; Paul sees a congregation. And the amazing thing is that the tribune grants Paul’s request. This just shows how in over his head he is. Paul’s calmness and security must have really shocked him, so much so that he grants Paul permission.

Paul operates according to the apostles and refugees distinction. In passing, let me note the strategic use of language in order to surprise his opponents. Paul speaks in Greek to the tribune (21:37), but addresses the crowd in Hebrew (21:40). The crowd, expecting Paul to be a Hellenistic Greek-lover who rejects all things Jewish, is surprised into silence (22:2). Never underestimate the power of surprise, of overthrowing people’s expectations. This shows again that Paul has not lost his head in the chaos. From a human perspective, it looks like he’s at the mercy of the mob, or of the Roman authorities. In reality, he knows that he’s at the mercy of Jesus alone, and that gives him incredible confidence and grace under fire.

So why do I say that Paul operates according to the apostles and refugees distinction? Recall what this means: Jesus and his disciples speak and act differently toward different types of sinners, based on whether the sinner is 1) high-handed and 2) actively opposing the gospel, or whether they are open to persuasion. Jesus speaks sharply to the Pharisees with biting words because they are trying to prevent people from entering the kingdom, and he speaks with incredible kindness and tenderness to tax collectors and prostitutes, because they might just be looking for a way out. Paul speaks sharply to Elymas the magician in Acts 13, because he opposed the gospel in Cyprus. Both Jesus and Paul distinguish between apostles from the world and refugees from the world, between the mis-leaders and the misled. And in this sermon, Paul addresses the crowd as though they were misled. He doesn’t come out guns blazing. He doesn’t call them sons of the devil for opposing the gospel and trying to kill him. He recognizes that their hostility was stirred up by false accusations and so instead of going nuclear (like Stephen does at his martyrdom), Paul tries to identify with this mob, to bridge the gap in order to lead them to Jesus:

  • He emphasizes their shared Jewish heritage (22:3-4)

  • He emphasizes their shared zeal for God (“as all of you are this day”). Notice this: he doesn’t root their violence toward him in enmnity toward the gospel; he gives them the benefit of the doubt and says, “I know that you’re here today because you have a zeal for God. I completely understand, because I was educated according to that zeal for God and his law. You and I? We’re the same.”

He emphasizes that he too persecuted Christians, dragging them to prison and even supervising executions.

He then describes his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. This is the turning point of his life, and you can see what he’s trying to do. “I was a persecutor like you, zealous for God. And then Jesus knocked me off my horse and redirected my zeal. I’m still zealous for God, but my zeal is shaped and formed by the death and resurrection of the Messiah for my sins.” And even here he is trying to build bridges in order to persuade them. He emphasizes that Ananias, the Christian who came to restore his sight and baptize him, is “a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews in Damascus” (22:12). In the midst of this, he weaves in the gospel: Jesus is the Righteous One (22:14). By calling on his name, your sins can be washed away (22:16). Baptism is the public identification with Jesus and his people. Then, note that after his conversion, Paul emphasizes that he came to the temple to pray. His Christianity didn’t lead him to turn away from Judaism; it fulfilled his Judaism.

In a vision, the Lord tells him to leave Jerusalem, because the people won’t accept Paul’s testimony. Paul then reiterates his former persecution of the church: imprisoning Christians and approving of Stephen’s execution. Now, before I show you how he ends this sermon and his testimony, I want you to see how Paul is preaching the gospel to these people. He’s surrounded by a mob of people who are zealous for God and the law, and who just got done beating a follower of Jesus. And he knows that they did so because they were stirred up by slander and false accusations, by the mis-leaders, by apostles from the world. So what does he do? He tries to show them that even persecutors can be transformed. And they can do so without losing their zeal for the God of Israel. He’s essentially saying, “I was like you. I thought zeal for God meant opposing and persecuting followers of Jesus. But then my story collided with Jesus, and he changed everything. Well, not everything. I’m still zealous for God. Christians are devout people with good reputations. But by calling on the name of Jesus, the Righteous One, my sins have been washed away. And yours can be too. You don’t have to reject my testimony about Jesus.”

So what’s the lesson for us? If possible, we need to help people see that they can be transformed by Jesus. When we can, we must identify with people and show them that we were just like them. Unrighteous, liars, thieves, sexually immoral, homosexuals, drunkards, greedy: that’s who we were. But we were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). And what’s more, we need to help people to see what parts of their life must die for good, and what parts will be raised and transformed. When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die. We must all die with Christ. But if we die with Christ, we will be raised and some of our former life will be raised and transformed. Violence toward Christians must die for good. But the zeal for God beneath it—than can be raised and transformed. Our task is twofold: to help people to see where they are right now, and to help them see where they might be, if Jesus collides with their story, and transforms them like he’s transformed us.

So, Paul is speaking to this mob like refugees from the world, like those who have been misled by slander. He’s becoming like a Jew in order to win them, identifying with them and their concerns and their passions and zeal in order to show them the way out of their sin. He’s really trying to win them to Jesus. Now notice how Paul ends his sermon, and how the crowd reacts.

And he [Jesus] said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” (22:21-22)

Notice that they were listening to Paul; they were eating it up. Some of them may have begun to see themselves in Paul and be on the way to calling on Jesus. And then Paul has to go and spoil it by mentioning the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. At this, the crowd again goes ballistic, and the sermon is over. I’m confident that Paul knew good and well what reaction his words were likely to get. Remember what stirred this crowd up in the first place: they thought Paul brought a dirty Gentile into the temple (21:28-29). Paul knows that those zealous for the law can easily despise Gentiles. He knows that better than anyone. And yet, in his testimony when he has them hushed into silence listening to how Jesus changed his life, he says it anyway. He could’ve held off. He could have ended the sermon with, “I was like you. Now you can be like me. Call on Jesus. He’ll wash away your sins and purify your zeal for God.” But he doesn’t leave it there, because he can’t leave it there. He has to be bold. He has to be clear and courageous about who Jesus is and what sin is.

And this is a challenging lesson for us. It’s easy to want to preach the aspects of the gospel that people will like, to smooth over the rough edges so that we can win people to Jesus. “We’ll talk about all of the hard truths after they believe. We’ll call that “discipleship.” For now, we’ll intentionally avoid talking about the aspects of the truth that we know will set them off.” Brothers and sisters, we cannot do that. When we call people to repent of their sins, their bigotries, their idolatries, we cannot avoid the ones that we know will make them angry. God sent Jesus to bless us by turning every one of us from our wickedness (Acts 3:26). Our wickedness. The particular wickedness that belongs to us. You can’t preach the gospel to a member of the Ku Klux Klan and not call him away from his racism. You can’t preach the gospel to a partying frat guy and not call him away from his drunkenness and debauchery. You can’t preach the gospel to a practicing homosexual and not call him away from practicing homosexuality. You can’t preach the gospel to contemporary egalitarian progressives and not call them away from their commitment to a false view of human nature, and marriage, and men and women and sex. Or to put it the other way around, in order to preach the gospel faithfully, we must be clear and courageous about the worth and value of every human being regardless of skin color. If you’re preaching to the Klan, you have to end your sermon with “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” If you’re preaching to the frat guy, you’ve got to mention that those who practice drunkenness and sexual immorality will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if you’re preaching to 21st century egalitarian progressives, you must hold up God’s design for men and women and sex and marriage. It may end the conversation. They may say, “Away with such a bigot.” But faithfulness to Jesus means that we don’t have the right to adjust the truth to suit their sin.

Think of it this way: our call is to testify to the truth, to witness to who Jesus is and what he has done. We hope and we pray that our witness and our testimony is persuasive, that God moves and that people embrace the good news. But our testimony and our witness is faithful, whether it leads to conversion or to rejection. We are the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing, the aroma of life to life and the aroma of death to death. So we cannot compromise, minimize, soften, or hide the truth in order to win converts. We must bear witness, regardless of the response.

I wish I had more time to show you how Paul conducts himself in the rest of these chapters. Let me just flag a few elements in the passage and you can consider them on your own or in your Life Groups.

Paul makes strategic use of his Roman citizenship. He uses it to avoid being beaten, and he uses it to appeal his case before Caesar, so that he can have the opportunity to preach the gospel there. We ought to think wisely about how we can strengthen American legal protections in order to effectively preach the gospel. Whether it’s the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, the Tenth Amendment, or any other aspect of our laws and society, we ought to be thinking about how we can use them for gospel advance. You’ll notice that Paul doesn’t tell the tribune he’s a Roman citizen until after he’s been beaten a bit. It would be worthwhile to think about why.

Paul exploits divisions among his opponents. Standing before the council, he sees that there are Pharisees and Sadducees there, and he cries out, “I’m here because of the hope and the resurrection of the dead” (23:6). The gospel has a way of uniting enemies against it. People who would normally fight one another can put aside their differences to oppose Jesus. We ought to look for ways to exploit those natural divisions.

Paul makes use of sarcasm or satire to expose the hypocrisy of his opponents. When Paul is giving his defense, the high priest orders him to be struck. Paul responds by saying, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law, you order me to be struck?” In other words, Paul is pointing out the hypocrisy of judging by the law while breaking the law. Those standing by are scandalized by Paul’s name-calling and say, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul responds, I think sarcastically, “I did not know that he was the high priest, for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.” In other words, “By all means, let’s be very careful to apply Exo 22:28, but let’s ignore Lev. 19:15 and Deut. 25:1-2 (No injustice in court, and the punishment must come after conviction).” Thus, it’s good and right for Christians to point out the intolerance of the so-called tolerant, the bigotry of the anti-bigots, the injustice of the social justice warriors.

Watch for remarkable providences. The Jews plot to kill Paul, and God providentially has it so that Paul’s nephew hears of their ambush and alerts the authorities. God is doing these sorts of remarkable providences all the time, and we ought to be alert for them and ready to take advantage of them.

Be cheerful in facing opposition. When Paul is hauled before Felix, he is falsely accused by the Jewish leaders (Acts 24:1-9). Paul says to Felix, “Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense.” I’d like to thank my accusers for this opportunity to preach the gospel yet again. No shrillness, no anger, no surprise, no bitterness. Cheerfulness in the face of hostility and slander.

Accept human injustice because you have confidence in divine justice. Governor Felix is a corrupt man. He keeps Paul in prison, even though there’s no real legal reason to do so. He gives Paul some liberty while in custody and makes sure his needs are cared for, and he regularly invites Paul to speak to him about Jesus. But none of this is noble. He wants Paul to offer him a bribe to get out of jail (24:26), and he keeps Paul in prison not because of justice, but because he’s trying to do a favor for the Jewish leaders.

Despite the injustice, Paul is not embittered. He preaches the gospel to Felix often, focusing on righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment (note that Paul focuses on the sins of his audience). Human injustice doesn’t shake him because he believes in the coming judgment, and that God will put the world to rights.

Let me close where I began. Paul is returning to Jerusalem, knowing that affliction awaits him. He still tries to live at peace with all men, but to no avail. Riots, mobs, confusion, followed by arrest, beatings, false accusations, and then unjust imprisonment. But through it all, Paul is not shaken.

When earth gives way and waters foam, when shadow falls on hearth and home, when nations rage and kingdoms mock, then we stand on God the Rock.

Paul knows that he is standing on the Rock. He knows that God is writing the story. Not the Jewish leaders. Not the Roman tribune. Not Governor Felix. Almighty God is writing this story, and so Paul is freed to look for every opportunity to say his lines, to witness, to testify.

May the same be true for us. God is writing our story. Not the Supreme Court. Not Congress. Not President Obama. Not the Republicans. Not the Democrats. Not CNN or Fox News or NBC. Not Facebook. Not the Twitter mob. Not Planned Parenthood. Not the multi-billion dollar corporations that see everything in terms of profit. God is. Jesus is. Which means our call is to be wise as serpents—to think strategically, to plan well, to make use of every means available to us to advance the gospel—to be innocent as doves—to live at peace with all men, if at all possible, but to not compromise the truth, or shrink back out of fear of rejection—and to be cool as a cucumber—unshaken by our adversaries; ready to roll with it when the plans come unraveled; confident, humble, and secure in the midst of mayhem, because we know that Jesus is alive, he’s writing the story, and he’s on the move. He’s changed us, and he’s not through yet.