God on the Move: “Playing Defense” – Acts 22

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God on the Move: “Playing Defense” – Acts 22

goalieI don’t play soccer or ice hockey. I don’t think I have the tenacity to keep moving at the rate of speed and intensity necessary to pull off either. Yet, I can watch, and as a fan, I have determined that if there is one position I KNOW I would not want to play in either sport, it is GOALIE. I don’t want to be a target, and that is what these positions make you. Everyone on the playing surface is aimed at getting something past YOU. If they have to hurt you to do it, all the better. I don’t like the sound of that…but it may increasingly become our life as we follow Jesus bravely into the post Christian west.

If you feel the way I do – a discomfort about the rising need to defend our faith in the public square – you should know that the Apostle Paul was in that position before any of us. There was a time in his life when everyone around him saw nothing but promise in that young man. He learned the Law and lived according to the rules of the culture around him. In a sentence: “He fit in.” It wasn’t until God met Him on the road to Damascus that his life was changed forever. Like anyone who has ever cruised through life, making the best of it, and had their life startlingly interrupted by God – Paul was changed by the experience in a way that made him unpalatable to his old professors and seminary companions. He went from being a rising star to a “flame out” in their eyes… and that was as painful for him as it would be for any of us.

None of us wants to get drawn into a fight to defend our faith – but sometimes it becomes unavoidable. Christian teaching isn’t pro-revenge, nor does it look with favor on sarcasm and witty retort – these things are not the stuff of the early Christian record concerning our faith’s defense. Yet, the early believers DID defend their newfound faith and hunger to follow God.

Here is a question worth pursuing: “Does the Scripture offer any example or counsel on how to defend our faith before a crowd?”

In fact, the record shows that it does. Paul began his defense of Christianity to Jews in the Temple from the steps that led to the Antonia Fortress during a riot – but thos was only one of seven different recorded defenses before different audiences. Since Luke (the author of the Book of Acts) seven defenses – but this was a PUBLIC defense offered in the form of Paul’s personal testimony.

Key Principle: Testifying of the work of Jesus in our lives is a necessary skill that every believer must learn.

In the beginning of your walk with God, it is enough just to know Him, delight in Him and follow Him. As time passes in your growth – more will be necessary. People will confront you and many times they do it with sour hearts or angry voices – so you and I need to know how to follow the example of the Scriptures in that defense without becoming defensive in spirit, and angry in heart.

Let’s go back in time, to the first century. We are zooming in to a man who has been beaten and is bleeding from his nose and mouth, but who has been “rescued” by the Roman authorities and whisked up the stairs on the north west side of the ancient Temple mount. Paul has secured from the centurion in charge the right to address the crowd – and he turned and began an address in the language of their Fathers – the ancient Hebrew tongue. His ability to do so got their attention, at least for a few moments…Here is Dr. Luke’s remembrance of the events: It began with Paul asking the crowd to hear him, and identifying with them in language.

Acts 22:1 “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense which I now [offer] to you.” 2 And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew dialect, they became even more quiet; and he said…’

We stopped short of reading WHAT Paul told them, because there is an important lesson to be grasped when we read these opening words in HOW he made his defense. Paul asked permission to speak, and he spoke in a language they recognized and understood. That sounds obvious, but as I watch believers, I am increasingly convinced that it is NOT OBVIOUS to many.

To defend our faith, we must speak in a way that people follow what we are truly saying.

Christians, like all subcultures have developed our own language. We will call it: “Christian speak” – a language laced with Scripture and hymnology, platitudes and proverbs. The language works well when we are gathered together, and it may communicate to others of like precious faith on our t-shirts, but it does little to reach the lost world. A fish on your bumper with Greek letters isn’t the most effective way to witness, unless you plan on being followed by Greek truck drivers along the road. We must be careful not to be “cryptic” in our words, and not be partisan in our sharing.

One of the first things the enemy does to blunt our witness is to use against us the constant bickering that can go on between believers as we go out into the world. When we share about Jesus, we need to share about Him – and not about why our church is right on other doctrinal issues and other churches are wrong. The: “Let me share with you Jesus and explain why the other political party yesterday was really wrong” method will only get others in the circle on the defense, and cause even other believers to end up bickering over the finer points of their belief system while the lost wander off and see our whole discussion as annoying and pretty much irrelevant. The best defense of the faith is one in which the hearer gets a clear presentation of Jesus – not our politics or our church’s particular bend on some “issue du jour”.

Paul asked them to take a moment and listen, since they needed to catch their breath after pounding him for a bit. It wasn’t the request that got their attention – the text is clear – it was his language. He spoke to them in a way that proved he was learned in the area they were debating. That is important. If we are going to address science, we might want to learn a bit about it before we start dropping verses in the middle of the discussion. The hours Paul learned the language paid off in the minutes he had to present Jesus to his foes that day.

To defend our faith, we need to be real about our credentials.

Paul went on to speak:

Acts 22:3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers…”

Before people “buy” the message, they want to know what the “angle” is from the messenger. Paul understood the people he wanted to present the Gospel to on that afternoon, and he knew what parts of his resume they would want to know. In essence, he said: “You hear my Hebrew. Let me tell you about my education so you can recognize where I am coming from.”

He didn’t claim to be a member of the Sanhedrin, or a professional athlete – he just shared his actual pedigree and background. Here Paul modeled an important truth: “Don’t oversell yourself in the presentation of the faith.” If you have background in a specific area, you may find it useful to mention it as you help people to “place” you in their thinking. You may find it helpful to share something like: “I am not here to sell you something, and my thoughts on life are just my own – but I am passionate about what I have found in my discoveries of life’s important questions.” Personalizing your responses takes you from the court of Heaven and plants your feet on the earth. There is nothing wrong with just being a human being. We don’t save people, we reflect Jesus and present His message. Pumping up our “expertise” will generally backfire in witness. Humility and grace attract people, arrogance repels them.

By the same token, if you have expertise in some area, it is not wrong to say that. Paul didn’t pull some: “Aw shuks, guys, I am just another everyday guy.” Paul told them what expertise he had, and where he got it. The Pharisaic party present would have been significantly impacted by his mention of Gamaliel, while some Sadducees would have been quick to find fault on that basis alone. That’s fine, because Paul knew they would at least see him as educated in the field about which he spoke from the stairway.

I sometimes get concerned about the way my brothers and sisters express their faith and defend it, when they engage in a level they have no background in. The fact that we believe the Bible is literally true does not therefore make us experts in the finding of Noah’s ark in eastern Armenia, nor does it help us know “the very place” Jesus performed a specific miracle. Our faith informs us that Jesus is the Eternal Son of God, the Messiah of Israel and the full payment for justification. Knowing all that doesn’t tell me where the actual “Last Supper” room was. We need to humble ourselves and not oversell who we are and what we truly have expertise in. Being “sure” of where the Ark of the Covenant may be located is not a requirement for you to be an obedient believer and an effective witness. Don’t mix issues and oversell – or your witness will be blunted in the process.

To defend our faith, we can still acknowledge the passion of others.

As Paul continued, he told the crowd of his own background, and then added this important phrase:

Acts 22:3b “…being zealous for God just as you all are today.”

Paul made clear that he accepted the premise that the men who just beat him were attempting to be zealous for God. The fact is the way they were acting reflected little or nothing of God’s way of doing things. He could have begun by telling them they had “bad attitudes” and needed to get their lives right with the true God of the Bible. That isn’t what he did – and with good reason – it doesn’t work and is wholly ungracious in presentation.

Not long ago I was in Rome near St. John in Lateran Cathedral. Across the street are the “Scala Sancta” – the “holy stairs” where some believe the steps of the Antonia Fortress were taken from Jerusalem. In their understanding, Jesus was led up the stairs to see Pontius Pilate, and the steps mark the walk of the Savior heading for the lashing and eventual sacrifice at Calvary. They believe these steps were taken from Jerusalem, and have some certain “sanctity” because Jesus tread on them and bled on them. Some believers travel up those steps on their knees. Some even slap their own backs as they knee their way up, step by step.

Standing outside the open doors with an American Pastor I had recently met, I was a bit shocked when he snickered at the pilgrims and remarked: “What a bunch of nonsense! These people don’t know anything about Jesus!” The third person in our little group was a searching friend from a Catholic background who had strayed from any faith and was incredibly offended at the caustic words. I had been sharing with that friend about a personal commitment to Jesus, and this buddy of mine just blew days of witness in his little unkind remark. Go back to Paul…

Couldn’t Paul tell these guys were “way off the mark” when it came to their zeal? I suspect he saw, and felt blow by blow their misplaced zeal. Yet, he acknowledged their yearning to know God, their desire to zealously follow God. If my friend had taken his cues from Paul, he could have remarked at the “Scala Sancta” something like: “Wow, that’s a tough thing to do. I wonder if the people going up the steps know how much Jesus loves them, even without whips and personal punishment? I wonder if they know the Scriptures say that He was willingly bruised so they didn’t have to be? Don’t you think my friend who was struggling with their faith would have had more to think about than just hearing a rebuke of people who were “doing it wrong”? We do the Gospel no favor by offering scathing judgment of people who are seeking God but looking in the wrong direction. Criticism and sarcasm are lousy evangelism methods. They may build up other believers and graduate them from timidity, but they do little to bring people from darkness to light.

To defend our faith, need to start on common ground.

Paul kept speaking and told the crowd:

Acts 22:4 “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, 5 as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished.

The Apostle started his witness where he started his life – opposed to the faith of Jesus. None of us were born Christian – it was a choice we made at some point in our life. When Paul presented Christ, he made the point that he was a persecutor – and understood why they felt believers were a “threat” to the order and theology of the Temple. He reminded them that he zealously sought to shut down that threat, because he held the same high regard for the Temple and the authorities of that Holy Place that the crowd did. He reminded them of the letters he took to go to Damascus and round up people of the “Way” and bring them back to Jerusalem to face their punishment.

Think of it this way: we all made a choice to follow Christ at some point in our life – and part of our witness may be to explain why we made that choice. As a believer of many years, I find it hard to recall all the ways I thought before I knew Christ as Savior – but I do know how Jesus met me on the journey, and why I was open to hear the Gospel. Sharing that humanizes our testimony. Jesus doesn’t just win our minds – He confronts our heart – our longings, our emptiness, our hunger for something more than 100 years on a plot of ground before we get tossed into a hole with a stone on top. I wanted more, and Jesus met that hunger and filled it with Himself. We need to start with where people are – and not simply where we want them to be. In Paul’s case, it was reminding them that he understood why they felt threatened by Christianity and its startlingly different teachings. He started on common ground, addressing what they were concerned about.

To defend our faith, we must make clear the actual choice to follow Jesus.

Our faith isn’t just about an ethic – it is about meeting a Person. Paul shared:

Acts 22:6 “But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, 7 and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ 8 “And I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 “And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me. 10 “And I said, What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.’ 11 “But since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me and came into Damascus.

The apostle took them back to the grit of the Roman Road that passed northeast toward Damascus. He told them it was about high noon, and he made clear the flash from Heaven was unmistakable. Tossed to the ground, Saul of Tarsus was confronted with a Person. He didn’t come to a theology, nor did he join a church – he fell before a Person who confronted him and brought Paul up short. The voice from Heaven wasn’t muffled – it was a clear challenge: “Why are you persecuting Me?” No one in the audience that day would have been wondering who the messenger was for that particular demand. Paul explained that Jesus clearly showed Himself to be the One in Heaven Who struck him down and showed him the error of his ways. Jesus told him to get up and go to Damascus, but left him blinded and unable to do so without an attendant – showing the whole party with him that the event was a “God thing”.

Often in presenting the Gospel, we forget what the heart of the message truly is. The message of the Gospel is not that I was a sinner bound for Hell and now I am a saint bound for glory. The message of the Gospel is that God loved the world enough to send us One who could bear our sin and take the place of our penalty that was demanded by our rebellion against the Holy One. The center of the message is this: I need to confront God and have my sin resolved by the substitute – Jesus Himself. If Jesus is not the center of the defense of our faith – we are not defending the faith at all. We may be defending some important ethical stance that is derived from our faith – but that isn’t the same thing. Paul presented to the crowd that he MET JESUS – because that is the heart of the salvation experience. Note also that Paul made clear that Jesus told Paul he was dead wrong about what he was doing. Jesus didn’t just say, “I love you – come to me!” He said: “Stop what you are doing and follow Me!” There is a difference.

To defend our faith, we may need to validate our testimony with other credible sources.

Paul didn’t stop at the point that he met Jesus – he continued the story…

Acts 22:12 “A certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, [and] well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing near said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very time I looked up at him. 14 “And he said, The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth. 15 For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16 Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’

The message of the Gospel is about more than a meeting – it is about the surrender that happened during the meeting and about the change that happened because of the meeting. Notice what Paul told them:

I followed the instructions to go to Ananias, and you may know him to be a reliable person of balance and standing in the community there. He called out to me, and I received my sight back! He gave me a message that he said came from God – the message to speak what I have seen (a stunning light from Heaven and heard (Jesus speaking from Heaven). He told me that I needed to get up, get into the mikveh (the ritual bath) and symbolize that sin was washed from me in the name of the One who struck me down!

Paul didn’t simply explain that he met Jesus – but rather he explained that his life path changed – and he began to FOLLOW Jesus. Where Jesus told him to go – he went. He checked in with a well-known and credible man as instructed – and he got his marching orders to relate the message. When the confirmation was matched with the power to open his eyes, he knew that God had spoken and he wasn’t delusional. His new sight brought profound understanding into his life. He was ready to stand up as one cleaned inside!

We must, in the process of defending our faith, make plain that we are not Christians because we are good people – but because we recognized that we are NOT good people – but broken, rebellious, stubborn and self-reliant people that have faced the truth – we cannot earn righteousness. We need a Savior. Not only that, we need that Savior to be a Transformer and change our stubbornness into servanthood. We don’t need to become servants for Him to save us, we need to be servants because He already did save us. We don’t need to earn His love, we need to walk in it so that we can show the world we truly know Him.

Religion is heavy, and starts with external behavior adjustment in hopes of changing the broken heart. Relationship with Jesus is light, because it started with Jesus doing the work necessary to save me, and allows me the joy of showing Him how thankful I am that He did that! While religion seeks to earn the right to be heard of God, relationship celebrates the fact that God has already shared how much He loves listening to my voice! In the process of defending our faith, we must make clear the difference between the duties of religion and the joys of walking with Jesus.

To defend our faith, we may need to explain the path that led to the offensive sound of our message clearly.

Paul had only a few more sentences before the crowd cut him off…

Acts 22:17 “It happened when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance, 18 and I saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.’ 19 “And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in You. 20 And when the blood of Your witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the coats of those who were slaying him.’ 21 “And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'” 22 They listened to him up to this statement, and [then] they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!”

People don’t agree with our message – but that doesn’t make the message wrong. We need to understand where they are coming from to be able to help them hear us without becoming the offense that keeps them from listening to the Savior. In Paul’s case, the whole issue stemmed from “why a good Jewish boy was spending all his time with pig-eating pagans these days.” It was an understandable concern for his former friends and family.

Paul explained that his change didn’t start out in the world, but right inside the Temple itself. God spoke to him and told him that people in Jerusalem would not be willing to hear about Jesus yet, and that his life would be in danger. Standing on the stairs that day, dripping blood from his nose, that observation seemed all too obvious. At the same time, Paul reflected that he resisted God’s call to leave the Jewish people and go off into the Aegean sunset. He loved the people and the Law. He stood shoulder to shoulder with them when the deacon Stephen was being pummeled by rocks because he wouldn’t shut up about a stone worker from Nazareth that had come back to life and was now on the throne beside the Holy One of Heaven. Paul understood why they were offended, but he couldn’t deny what he knew was true. He had a real encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, and he was bound to follow what the Master told him to do – even if that meant taking a message to the streets of Gentile cities, after being openly tossed from one synagogue after another.

The people cut him off right there. If this guy was told to go be with Gentiles, he had no business speaking the Hebrew tongue and lecturing the people of God in the Holy Temple! They needed to toss him out now! They shut down the dialogue and made clear that his point of view was worthy of death.

Did Paul do a poor job of defending his faith? After all, the people didn’t listen did they? How can we evaluate this as anything other than a failure?

The truth is, God was working other plans. Paul gave the message until he couldn’t. He represented Jesus with poise in the toughest of places under terrible circumstances. Yet, the measure of the witness was not whether the crowd came to Jesus that day – this was a work in progress. Look at the last part of the chapter, and see if you can pick out what God was beginning to do in the story…

Paul was about to take the message into a strategic place – the Roman barracks of Jerusalem – and make plain what the whole problem was all about. Later in his arrest, Paul will note that many who heard the Gospel in such circumstances were deeply attracted to Jesus, and the testimony was effective. That wasn’t THIS TIME, but this was part of his “learning curve”.

Acts 22:23 And as they were crying out and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air, 24 the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks…”

Paul was about to exercise lessons in defense learned back in the second mission journey at Philippi (Acts 16) and stop the legal establishment from abusing him in an unlawful way. He had learned what to say and when to say it, and that would serve him well in the days ahead. Because he knew Jesus, didn’t mean he couldn’t use every temporal right he had to defend himself – and Christians are learning that lesson in the west again, even as we are studying this passage.

Acts 22:24b “…stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way. 25 But when they stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard [this], he went to the commander and told him, saying, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman.” 27 The commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The commander answered, “I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.” And Paul said, “But I was actually born [a citizen].” 29 Therefore those who were about to examine him immediately let go of him; and the commander also was afraid when he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had put him in chains.

Paul was about to get an ordered hearing before important men that was supervised, rather than a “free-for-all” that would have certainly ended badly had the Roman authorities not been involved. God knows how to open doors, but believers have to follow His lead and obey His commands. Paul had to bleed to get the right to be heard by the Sanhedrin in a supervised and peaceful assembly.

Acts 22:30 But on the next day, wishing to know for certain why he had been accused by the Jews, he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the Council to assemble, and brought Paul down and set him before them.

Patrick lived in the fifth century, a time of rapid change and transition as the Roman Empire was beginning to lose its grip on outlying areas, and Europe was one the doorstep of what later historians would call “the Dark Ages”. Rome’s slow downward spiral led to successful barbarian invaders sacking the city in 410. Shortly after, Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain and the once ordered life found under Roman domination became chaotic and uncertain. “St. Patrick” ministered in the world of that tumultuous time.

Though much about his life is uncertain, some biographical facts are well-established. Patrick was born Patricius somewhere in Roman Britain to a relatively wealthy family. He was not religious as a youth and, in fact, claims to have practically renounced the faith of his family. While in his teens, Patrick was kidnapped in a raid and transported to Ireland, where he was enslaved to a local warlord and worked as a shepherd until he escaped six years later. He returned home and eventually undertook studies for the priesthood with the intention of returning to Ireland as a missionary to his former captors. It is not clear when he actually made it back to Ireland, or for how long he ministered there, but it was definitely for a number of years. By the time he wrote the Confession and the “Letter to Coroticus,” Patrick was recognized by both Irish natives and the Church hierarchy as the bishop of Ireland. By this time, also, he had clearly made a permanent commitment to Ireland and intended to die there. Scholars have no reason to doubt that he did. He died on March 17 the day we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. (Original source unknown).

I mention his story to make a point. The day he was captured he had no idea that God wanted to use him to reach the people who hurt him and changed his life so badly – but that is exactly what happened. Listen to the compendium of the words of this man as they were handed down to us:

“I am Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful and despised in the eyes of many…If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me…Before I was humiliated I was like a stone that lies in deep mud, and he who is mighty came and in his compassion raised me up and exalted me very high and placed me on the top of the wall…That which I have set out in Latin is not my words but the words of God and of apostles and prophets, who of course have never lied. He who believes shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be damned. God has spoken…Christ beside me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.” Could this man defend his faith. Yes, I know you can see that he could. Now the question is: “Can we?” Testifying of the work of Jesus in our lives is a necessary skill that every believer must learn.