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Acts

God's Ways, Our Ways

Acts  25-26

God's Ways, Our Ways

Acts 25-26

One of the great surprises to intelligent Christians is the way God treats our prayers. We often ask for something we know is in his will, and we get it - but not in the way we asked for it. Perhaps Paul is seeing something like that here:

(Acts 25:1-12 NIV) Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, {2} where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul. {3} They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. {4} Festus answered, "Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. {5} Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong." {6} After spending eight or ten days with them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him. {7} When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove. {8} Then Paul made his defense: "I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar." {9} Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, "Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?" {10} Paul answered: "I am now standing before Caesar's court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. {11} If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!" {12} After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: "You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!"

How God Works

Do you suppose that Paul had this all figured out before it happened? I think not. God often works in "mysterious ways." Here are some of them:

The Unexpected Way

Paul has determined to go to Rome, to preach the Gospel at the center of the civilized world. His travel agent, as it turns out, is the Roman government. Did Paul have this in mind, or something a bit more comfortable? Whichever way it is, Paul is going to Rome, as we shall see. But this is no accident:

·         It is conditioned on Paul's obedience. God works his wonders for those who obey him - and He works them to those who do not. Paul's obedience to God's will has given him God's protection in that work.

·         It is conditioned on Paul's patience. We have seen that this trial has taken two years of imprisonment to come about. At any time Paul could have offered Felix a bribe. Paul preferred to wait upon God's timing.

·         This is a way of showing us that the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of man.[1] Paul's enemies think they are destroying him. Actually, they are spreading the Gospel by their actions.

Moral Judo

The temptation to the Christian in this situation is to fight fire with fire. Get the slickest lawyer you can hire; grease palms all the way around; find some political allies[2]. That's not God's way:

·         As Paul shows us here, we must overcome evil with good.[3] Do not pick up the weapons of Satan, for if you do, you join his forces.

·         Our weapons, therefore, are not of this world.[4] Bribery, slick talk, political alliances are not for the Christian. Rather we must choose the weapons God has provided for us - because the weapons of the world cannot defeat them.

·         What are those weapons? Paul outlines them for us in the "whole armor of God" passage, Ephesians 6:13-18.

The key is this: if you will use God's weapons, and those alone, the weapons of this world are powerless against God's cause.

God working "in all things."

We often forget just who is in charge of this universe. This leads us to believe that God does not hear us. But remember:

·         Christ is the creator and sustainer of the entire universe.[5]

·         As such, the Bible explicitly declares to us that He works all things together for the good of those who love him.[6]

We often mistake this. Satan's argument is this:

·         If God denies your request, this is proof that he does not answer prayer.

·         If He grants your request, you can usually see how the request was granted. Therefore, "it was going to happen anyway." So even when you got what you wanted, God didn't answer.

This logic depends upon two fallacies. First, that God is not wiser than we are. We equate getting what we want with answered prayer. But we wouldn't do that with our children! Second, that the universe is somehow independent of him. Both are indeed fallacies. If God grants your request, you should see how it was done - for it was done in his creation.

So there it is. His enemies wanted him killed. Instead, they arranged an all expenses paid, security guard provided, free trip to Rome with a speaking engagement in front of the Emperor thrown in. Not bad! Just not quite the way Paul had envisioned it.

The World's Way

The world sees it a bit differently. We can get an idea of this in the reaction of Festus and Agrippa:

(Acts 25:13-27 NIV) A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. {14} Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul's case with the king. He said: "There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. {15} When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. {16} "I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges. {17} When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. {18} When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. {19} Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. {20} I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. {21} When Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor's decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar." {22} Then Agrippa said to Festus, "I would like to hear this man myself." He replied, "Tomorrow you will hear him." {23} The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. {24} Festus said: "King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. {25} I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. {26} But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. {27} For I think it is unreasonable to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him."

The use of law

Man somehow must attain to the dignity of God. One most common device is to proclaim, "the law says…" Almost all of us acknowledge the existence of right and wrong; the law attempts in some ways to codify that. But if the world wishes to claim what really belongs to God, using this method, it will soon find the flaws - as Festus does here:

·         The law must be complete - it must deal with every situation. Roman law, a code imposed from above, was supposed to do that. But what code can deal with the One who came to fulfill the true Law? How does the code deal with one who is risen from the grave?

·         The law must be errorless - its provisions must always give justice. Just to state this provision is to see the problem: the law is an imitation of the true righteousness. The only way for the world to make the law errorless is to declare it to be so - the Fuhrer is always right.

And when the law is neither complete nor errorless, its practitioners must do something. Here, they fall back upon bureaucratic dodge: the local expert is coming in; we'll ask him. Surely there is a legal loophole somewhere.

The pretence of the absolute state

In our time we have seen the re-emergence of the absolute state. This is the government which proclaims itself to be righteousness in and of itself. We saw it in Hitler's Germany, where every soldier took an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, personally. We see it yet in communist countries. But it is a pretence.

·         "Power," said Mao Tse-Tung, "grows out of the barrel of a cannon." Force is potent, but not sovereign. If force accompanies sovereignty (the true right to rule) then it is good. If it sweeps aside sovereignty, it is not. Time and again the dictator has proclaimed himself supreme. Give it time; the dustbin of history has many such men.

·         The nature of power itself makes this claim absurd. For if power is absolute, it cannot be resisted - and therefore does not need to be declared absolute. Who can resist gravity? But does God thunder from heaven, threatening us if we do not obey the law of gravity?

In our own land, in our own time, we see the humanists proclaiming the supremacy of man's righteousness. Abortion is good, they tell us, because we say so. Patience, Christian, and endurance: the dustbin of history is not quite overflowing - yet.

Is the king above the law?

One of the great monuments in the march of justice is Magna Carta. It contains no great proclamations of human rights. Indeed, the document itself deals mostly with mediaeval obscurities. But buried within is a basic principle: the king is not above the law. In a society which held the king was appointed by God, even the king was not superior to the law. It is a point which bears repeating in every age.

Bernice, the "wife" of Agrippa, is also his sister. Like most of Herod's family, she schemes relentlessly. She has been married, widowed, divorced - and indeed was quite a charmer. Two Roman emperors slept with her (Titus and Vespasian) and one wanted to make her empress (Vespasian). He was prevented from doing so only by public outcry. She is highly positioned - but God is not deceived.[7] Paul gives her no flattery. He treats her and her husband as the sinners they are - and offers them the forgiveness of God.

Our Response

Given all this, what should be our response? How is the Christian to act when involved in this conflict between God and the world? How is the Christian to deal with earthly things when heavenly things are on his mind? Let's look:

(Acts 26 NIV) Then Agrippa said to Paul, "You have permission to speak for yourself." So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: {2} "King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, {3} and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently. {4} "The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. {5} They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. {6} And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. {7} This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. {8} Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? {9} "I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. {10} And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. {11} Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them. {12} "On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. {13} About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. {14} We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.' {15} "Then I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' "'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied. {16} 'Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. {17} I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them {18} to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.' {19} "So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. {20} First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. {21} That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. {22} But I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-- {23} that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles." {24} At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane." {25} "I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable. {26} The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. {27} King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do." {28} Then Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" {29} Paul replied, "Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains." {30} The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. {31} They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, "This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment." {32} Agrippa said to Festus, "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar."

Boldness

You would think that after two years in prison Paul would have learned his lesson, and greased some palms. Not Paul. He speaks out with boldness and courage. This courage has roots:

·         A clear conscience. Have you ever been pulled over for a traffic violation? It makes a lot of difference in your attitude if you recall that you really were speeding. A sense of guilt destroys courage; a sense of righteousness increases it.

·         Preparation. Did you think that Paul was idle those two years - or was he preparing his defense, especially after he heard that a new governor was coming?

·         The Holy Spirit. Many of us forget that we can rely on God is such situations. It is true; the Scripture promises us[8] that He will give us the words to say.

Note that in all this there is one thing which is certain: such boldness will provoke persecution. We are the servants of Christ; they persecuted him. When we proclaim him boldly, they will persecute us too.

Personal Testimony

Paul does not reason from philosophy or first principles. Rather, he begins with his own personal testimony. Note three things:

·         He begins with something that each of us can use: a comparison of ourselves before and after our encounter with Jesus Christ. If Christ made no difference in your life, you have nothing to say. But if he did …

·         He is not afraid to confess his sins. Indeed, as often repeated, there is only one qualification for becoming a Christian: you have to be a sinner first. Paul admits this, and in so doing clears the way for any other sinner. If I, the sinner, can be saved, then so can you.

·         He proclaims the great mercy of God triumphing over the justice of God. It is mercy we need, not justice.

Those who persecute

As we are certain to be persecuted, we need to decide beforehand what our attitude towards our persecutors should be. It is no sense trying to decide as the issue comes up. It is much better to be prepared that to "wing it."

·         First, understand that it is generally God's will that we flee from persecution![9] Jesus understands that we are not heroes. By fleeing the Gospel is spread to new locations. This is God's use of the unexpected.

·         But if we cannot, we need to remember that God's grace is sufficient for our every need. It may not appear that we can withstand our trials. Do not fear; he will provide.[10]

·         More than that, as Paul appealed to Agrippa to become a Christian, we must exhibit Christ's love for our persecutors. Here is how Jesus put it:

(Mat 5:38-48 NIV) "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' {39} But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. {40} And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. {41} If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. {42} Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. {43} "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' {44} But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, {45} that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. {46} If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? {47} And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? {48} Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Trust your Father to work in unexpected ways, working all things together for your good. Do not succumb to the world's ways, but rather live as God's children. Then see how your light will shine in the darkness.


[1] 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

[2] It is interesting to see the love affair between the Republican Party and the church in this light.

[3] Romans 12:21

[4] 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

[5] Hebrews 1:1-3

[6] Romans 8:28

[7] Galatians 6:7

[8] Luke 12:11-12

[9] Matthew 10:23

[10] 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

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