The Gospel Unchained

 

Acts 28:17-31

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

Acts 28:30-31

Luke ends his narrative with these words, which wrap up the theme of the book that was stated by Jesus Himself back in 1:8:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

If you think about it, it really is an amazing story of God overcoming everything this world could throw in his way. There is Paul, having been taken to Rome as a prisoner of the State, kept in chains under house arrest for two years, during which he taught, preached and wrote, right in the very heart of the Roman world.

In this text, Luke also records some of the conversation Paul had with the Jews of Rome, a conversation that changed some minds, and yet left others entrenched against the Way. Yet even in that, the Gospel had gone forth, and Paul had shown them exactly what was going on from the Scriptures, as Luke’s mention of Isaiah 6 shows so well (28:26-27).  Thus, when you come right down to it, we can see that while the world of the first century was different in so many ways; its essence is very much like our own. We, like the disciples of old, are charged with proclaiming the Gospel. Many will listen and receive it, more will not. There will be obstacles to be overcome, there will be persecution and opposition, hardships and struggles, yet the Gospel will be proclaimed, and God will build His kingdom.

In the final analysis, it will be up to each person to decide for him or her self whether or not to receive God’s offer of grace. Yet in this, it is not for us to judge or attempt to force anyone in making their decision, for that is not the way of love. However, it is for us to share, to encourage, to serve and to boldly proclaim the salvation that Jesus shed His blood to make possible.

The rest is up to God.

 

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Paul’s Adventures in Malta

 

Acts 28:1-16

It was a cold and rainy day when the 276 souls arrived on the island of Malta after the shipwreck, and the people on the island were very kind to them, seeing to their needs. Since it was a cold day, they built a bonfire to help them get warm and dry. Paul, as was his custom, chipped in to help and brought in some brush for the fire. As he moved up to the heat, a viper launched itself from the brush and attached to Paul’s arm. Everyone who saw this knew Paul was a dead man walking.

The Maltese assumed that Paul must have been a very bad man, since he was saved from the shipwreck only to die from snakebite, but something very unusual happened: Nothing. As strange as it may sound to say that, it’s true; Paul’s hand should have swelled up, but it didn’t. Paul should have become quite sick, but he didn’t. Paul should have keeled over dead, but there he was as if nothing had happened. The Maltese eventually decided that rather than being a bad man, he must be a god!

Afterwards, they were taken in by the chief official of the island, a man named Publius.  He showed great hospitality to his guests but soon his father became seriously ill.

When news reached the rest of the Maltese people that Paul had healed the man’s father, they brought their sick from all over the island to Paul so that they too might be healed, and Paul was quite accommodating; one can only imagine the impact this had for the Gospel that Paul had brought with him to their island. Publius would provide everything they needed when the time came for them to set sail, some three month later.

When they finally arrived in Rome, they were warmly greeted by the brothers and sisters there. The guards were lenient with Paul at first, and allowed him to live by himself, with only one guard to keep watch. As we will see next time, nothing was done to keep him quiet…

 

 

Perils of the Sea

 

Acts 27:1-26

We know from the text that Luke was with Paul on the trip to Rome; no one else who might have been with Paul on the voyage is named in the text. In the first 12 verses, Luke tells us where they stopped, and of unfavorable winds that caused delay upon delay in their progress. As you read this, you might wonder why the weather was so uncooperative when they were on a mission from God to get Paul to Rome, for surely God could calm things down if He wanted to. Of course, another possibility would be that there was another force in play, a force that did not want Paul in Rome to accomplish God’s will for him there, a force that might try to use the weather as a hindrance to his progress.

As for me, I think there was quite a struggle going on behind the scenes.

In 27:13 ff. Luke tells us of a great storm that came up, giving us details that make it clear that this was no ordinary storm, as it raged day after day for 2 weeks. The sailors did all they could do to keep the ship afloat, but they began to lose heart; everyone feared that they would die.

But they would not die.

After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.” (27:21-26)

God’s will for Paul to appear before Caesar would not be deterred by a storm, for God’s will is going to be done on this earth. Yes, His will might be opposed by men or by the spiritual forces of darkness, but they will never keep it from being done. In fact, the opposition of the Evil One may well provide an additional opportunity for God’s will to be done; just imagine the impact this statement of Paul’s would have when all of the men on the ship survived this mammoth storm in spite of the shipwreck that we will read about next time!

God’s Plan Unfolds

 

Acts 25:13-26:32

Apparently Festus was troubled by Paul’s case; here was this guy Paul who had done nothing against Roman law, being held in his jail. He had been accused of terrible crimes by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, the only problem was they never quite mentioned what those crimes were, and it seemed to Festus that it came down to a doctrinal dispute of some kind that they couldn’t or wouldn’t quite make clear to him. Although he wanted to free Paul, he also wanted to keep the Jewish authorities on his side; he wasn’t sure what to do, except that Paul had exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal the matter to Caesar. Ah yes, there was an exit for Festus, just ship Paul off to Rome and let the bigwigs deal with him; yet this seemed to bother Festus.

When King Agrippa was in town for several days, Festus discussed this troubling case with him, found that Agrippa was quite interested and desired to hear from Paul himself. It would seem that Agrippa was much more familiar with Jewish custom and practice; he may have known about Paul before coming to visit Caesarea.

Their audience with Paul takes up the entirety of chapter 26. Paul takes them through his testimony from childhood to the present day, as we have seen him do previously, yet most any lawyer would tell you that Paul made a mistake in doing so:

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. 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. 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. For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.” (25:24-27)
Following this, Paul fills the whole chapter (26) with his narrative. All Paul needed to do was say that he had no idea what the Jews were accusing him of for he had done no wrong, and Festus is trapped by his own words; Paul should have withdrawn his appeal to Caesar and gone free. By talking more than that, there is always the chance that they find something to charge him with, so just shut up!

But Paul wasn’t trying to be set free, for he knew that God had another mission for him, this time in Rome (23:11).
In giving his testimony, Paul proclaimed the Gospel to all of the people in the room as Festus noted: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (26:28b). At the end of the day, Festus and Agrippa agreed that Paul could be set free, except for his appeal to Caesar (26:30-32). Paul will be sent to Rome as soon as it can be arranged.

A Series of Curious Events

 

Acts 24:1-25:12

When the Jewish officials arrived in Caesarea, they presented a vague and flimsy case to Felix; there really isn’t any other way to describe it (24:1-9). If the Jews had known about the letter Felix had already received from the Jerusalem commander, I doubt they would have taken to approach they did, for as the case was presented to Felix, it was all about a Roman citizen who had been assaulted by a mob of provincials. Paul then made a very simple and clear defense (24:10-21) which was more or less in accord with the note Felix had received from the Jerusalem garrison. We have arrived at the place where Felix should probably have dismissed the charges, but Felix knew he was in a tough political spot and adjourned for the day, saying he would render his decision when the commander of the garrison arrived on the scene. Apparently, he wanted to examine the differences between the Jewish and Pauline accounts of events. The funny thing is… Luke makes no mention of there ever having been such a meeting.

The political problem for Felix is simple: Paul hasn’t broken any laws and is popular with one set of people in the city. The Jewish leaders are obviously not being truthful, but they are the leaders of the majority of the people in the region, and people who are famous for being fiercely independent and almost impossible to deal with honestly. If Felix does the right thing, he will likely have an insurrection on his hands. If he condemns Paul, he will possibly have violence and discord in the streets, and his career would be in danger either way. Thus, as any up and coming politician would do, he stalls for time.

He stalled by having a series of meetings with Paul over a two year period; Luke makes his thinking clear:

At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. (24:26)

There’s nothing like a little cash to break a political stalemate.

Paul did not offer any bribes, and eventually, Felix was replaced by Porcius Festus; no doubt his new posting would be less difficult.

When Festus took office, he seems to have gone to Jerusalem and discussed matters with the Jewish leaders, including the thorny question of what to do about the Paul case. Naturally, the Jews wanted a change of venue for the trial (which had already taken place) so they could set an ambush, but Festus wasn’t quite that gullible, and they would need to go to Caesarea.

In yet another hearing, the Jews brought their charges which were firmly denied by Paul. Hoping to gain favor with the Jews, Festus asked Paul if he would agree to a change of venue, and Paul opted to change the venue not to Jerusalem, but to Rome. Festus, having little choice in the matter at that point, granted the motion. Of course, Festus had no way of knowing that he was really nothing more than a pawn on God’s chess board, for it was His expressed will that Paul take the Gospel to Rome (23:11); Paul would travel there at Rome’s expense.

Yet, there was another interesting scene still to be played out in Caesarea…

Conspiracies, Plots and Politics

 

Acts 23:12-35

When Paul returned to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey, there was a spirit abroad in the city; it was the spirit of evil. After the ridiculous behavior of the Sanhedrin in the last scene, a new plot comes to light when “some Jews” form a conspiracy some 40 strong, to murder Paul. They need an accomplice in order for their plans to come to fruition, for Paul was being held in the Roman barracks, a stronghold they dared not attack. Who could they get to help them set an ambush?

Obviously, if you are plotting murder, the ones who will help you are the chief priests and elders, those great paragons of righteousness and virtue, those men who are responsible for maintaining the law of God: They quickly agreed.

In 23:17-22 we learn something interesting for it appears that Paul had a nephew in town who was privy to this information. We might rightly wonder if he was connected to the chief priests and elders in some way, after all, Paul had been a Pharisee, perhaps the nephew was in the same line of work; sadly, Luke doesn’t quite say. In any case, the nephew pays Paul a visit in the barracks to warn him, and Paul sends him off to the commander to share the information. The commander listens, and takes the warning to heart, making a plan of his own; he will send Paul to Caesarea under heavy military escort in the dark of night.

I’m not sure how Luke came into this bit of knowledge, but it seems that the commander wrote a note to Governor Felix in Caesarea:

Claudius Lysias,

To His Excellency, Governor Felix:

Greetings.

This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him. (23:25-30)

I suppose we can forgive our commander for his rather loose treatment of the facts here for he was a military man with a political hot potato on hands that was beyond his pay grade, and it would appear that this note accomplished its purpose; Felix accepted the case which was no doubt quite a relief for our commander.

Paul and Felix would have to wait for the accusers to come to Caesarea before they could proceed. Would the accusers be arrested upon arrival there for their roles as co-conspirators in the plot to murder a Roman citizen, as Roman law would require?

Don’t hold your breath…

 

 

Before the Sanhedrin

 

Acts 22:30-23:11

After the scene in the torture chamber, the Roman commander must have gone to the Roman tribune, for he then summons the Sanhedrin into session and takes Paul before them in an effort to discover what Paul was being accused of. In spite of their brutality, it is difficult to accuse the Romans of being anything other than cunning in this scene, for their tactics have shifted in a fascinating way; they are now defending their citizen in a sense, and shifting the responsibility for the mob violence from the victim of the mob to the leaders of the people who had committed the violence. Remember that Luke has not mentioned that the Sanhedrin was behind the mob’s actions; it was some “Jews from Asia” who incited the crowd… Now, the Sanhedrin needs to give an account…

Paul begins his defense in 23:1. Isn’t that interesting; he hasn’t been accused of anything, in fact, the purpose of the meeting is to discover what the accusations are. Essentially, Paul makes a statement that in everything he has done; he has been a faithful servant of God.

Ananias became the high priest in 47 AD, and he was known to be extremely corrupt, according to the Jewish historian Josephus. When Ananias heard Paul’s statement, he ordered him struck in the mouth, in violation of the Law (Lev. 19:15):

“God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” (23:3)

Everyone was shocked that Paul would speak to the high priest in such a manner:

Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”

Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’” (23:4-5)

Interesting response from Paul; did he really not know he was addressing the high priest, dressed as he was in his judge’s costume, seated in the high priest’s special chair? We know Paul’s eyesight was poor, but did he really not know?

Three years ago I was a witness in a court case. I am legally blind, and I could not see the judge from where I was giving testimony, but when the judge asked me a question, I could hear where the voice had come from and I could tell that it wasn’t the attorney who was asking; I couldn’t see the attorney either, but I could tell. I don’t believe for a second that Paul didn’t know whom he was addressing… but no one would have known he was the high priest by his actions, since he was violating the law he was there to enforce, and thus I would have to suggest that Paul spoke with irony in this instance. Paul got one pop in the mouth, the high priest got two.

OK, the first part of the story is funny; the next part is hilarious…

In 23:6-10 we read that all Paul needed to do at this point is to say he had been attacked because he taught about the resurrection, and the Pharisees and Sadducees were at others’ throats. Nobody accused Paul of anything, and the Romans had to take Paul out of the now chaotic room by force… The scene ends with 23:11:

The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”

A few posts back we saw that Paul had been led by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and that the same Holy Spirit had been warning others that he would have a rough time of it when he got there, that he would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles, giving us a riddle: What was going on here, isn’t that a contradiction? This is the answer to the riddle; Paul would take the Gospel to the very heart of the Roman Empire as a result of this chain of events.

Legal Rights

Paul, Romans and Legal Rights

Acts 22:22-29

As Paul addressed the mob, things went along for a short time in calm, and then he mentioned taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, and the mob went wild, demanding Paul’s murder. The Roman commander ordered Paul taken into the barracks where he ordered Paul to be interrogated.

At this point in the story, it is interesting to note that in the Roman worldview, the victim of a violent attack by a mob is arrested and interrogated, while the perpetrators of the violence are not; obviously this Paul guy did something, let’s make him tell us what he did.

Paul was to be encouraged to be forthcoming by flogging. This was the same kind of thing done to Jesus before His crucifixion; Paul was stripped naked, and his hands were tied to the top of a high post. If the post was high enough, his feet would actually have been off the ground, and then he would be struck repeatedly with a leather whip that was weighted down on the ends with bits of bone and rock that would rip his flesh apart… while being asked questions. This would have been by far the most severe torture he had ever endured up to this point, and it would likely result in lifelong injury or death if it went on long enough.

I have often been accused of having a rather odd sense of humor, and with that in mind I tell you that what happens next strikes me as one of the funniest scenes in all of Scripture; there is naked Paul tied to this post, his feet probably off the ground, and he asks a question…

“Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (22:25b)

The centurion who was tasked with getting a confession from Paul got a bit of a shock with that innocent little question and went straight to his commander, who received a shock of his own, and went directly to Paul:

The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”

“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied. (22:27-28)

 

The commander’s comment in 22:28 can be taken more than one way, but for me it looks like kind of an insult, as though he were saying that he had to pay a lot to become a citizen and now anybody can be a citizen. Whatever was going through his mind, Paul had the higher status, having been born a citizen. Notice that the men who were about to commit a serious crime got out of that room “immediately” and Luke tells us the commander himself was “alarmed”; this had been a close call for all concerned.

Now the Roman commander had a call to make: What was he going to do with Paul? We’ll find that out next time, in what I think is another one of the funniest scenes in Scripture…

 

 

 

After the Purification

After the Purification

Acts 21:27-22:21

When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)

Acts 21:27-29

With these words, the riot begins. In reading them, we cannot but notice that what served as the catalyst to all that would follow was no misunderstanding, for what we have here is a bald faced lie, followed by a substantial misrepresentation. In fact, if you look closely, it isn’t an appeal based upon a religious difference, it is an appeal based upon national pride and cultural identity; no sir, this is no mere doctrinal dispute.

The crowd goes berserk, and Paul is beaten with intent to commit murder in cold blood.

The Roman commander on duty responds quickly and leads his soldiers into the fray. As one might expect of Romans, they quickly place Paul under arrest, and with great difficulty, they manage to get him out of the crowd’s grip. As they proceed away from the mob, Paul asks to be allowed to address the crowd, and remarkably, the commander agrees…

Luke records his words in 22:3-21; he tells the people of his birth and heritage as a Jew among Jews, of his training, and of his bloodthirsty pursuit of Christians. He tells of his mission to Damascus to persecute in that city, and of how the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him on the Damascus road, telling them all about that experience and of his call to bring the good news to faraway places; the crowd remained silent up to this point, but Paul would never finish telling his story…

It would seem that there was a spirit in play on that fateful day, a spirit that was not at all a holy one. What happened next?

For that dear reader, we will have to wait until next time…

Paul’s Arrival in Jerusalem

 

Acts 21:17-26

When Paul arrived in Jerusalem he was warmly greeted, and the next day he reported to James and the elders of the church about his adventures among the Gentiles. They received his report with joy, and no doubt were also happy to learn that he was not guilty of the things that were being said about him in Jerusalem, for it would seem that many Jewish Christians had been told that Paul was telling Jews in faraway places that they should not observe the Law of Moses.

We know from Paul’s letters that he often spoke highly about the law, we also know that he often spoke harshly about Jews who insisted that Gentile believers be circumcised, and that Paul himself claimed that he was not under the law as a Christian, but that he observed the law when dealing with Jews, and not when dealing only with gentiles. At no point in his letters or recorded remarks does he advise Jewish Christians not to live according to the Law.

As you see, there are some fairly fine lines here, and one might understand how a Jewish Christian might misunderstand Paul’s position… especially when his position was deliberately misrepresented by those who sought to discredit him.

James proposed a solution to this problem: Paul could join in a purification rite which would be a very public demonstration that Paul had not rejected Jewish law or custom; surely this would convince anyone who harbored a genuine misunderstanding about Paul’s teaching that he had not done the things he had been accused of; Paul quickly agreed to this and participated, in accordance with Jewish practice.

What follows demonstrates to us very clearly that there was something much more sinister afoot than a simple misunderstanding…