God on the Move: “Journey to the Center of the Earth” – Acts 27

Journey to centerThe nineteenth century novel (published in 1864) by Jules Verne called in English “Journey to the Center of the Earth” has become one of the literary classics of the science fiction genre. Verne offered readers a tale about a German professor Otto Lidenbrock who insisted on testing his belief that there were volcanic tubes that led from the surface of the earth all the way to the core of the planet. To prove his theory, he led an expedition with his nephew Axel, and their guide (Hans) into the earth beginning at an Icelandic volcano. The fantastic journey included adventures such as engaging prehistoric animals and traversing perilous hazards of untamed nature. In the end, they emerged at the Stromboli volcano on the tiny Stromboli Island in the Tyrrhenian Sea west of southern Italy, and north of the large island of Sicily. The science in Verne’s book is quite crude by modern standards, but the story line is both engaging and captivating. In my view, few have mastered tactile description better than the classical writers of that period, and Verne is an exceptional example of his time. If you haven’t read the book, take the time… it is a wonderful experience.

Admittedly, I didn’t title this lesson “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as an homage to Jules Verne and his writing. I have in mind a different journey – this one of a first century Roman citizen making his way to Rome – the place at the center of his political world. If you have been following the story of his life and ministry, you will recognize that I am referring to the Apostle Paul and his traveling companions. If you have read the dramatic narrative of Dr. Luke’s record in the Book of Acts in the past, you know this journey seemed nearly as perilous and just as engaging as Verne’s writing of fictional travel – but this journey was very real, indeed.

Come back on the journey with me again for a few moments…By now in the time line of our studies we have finished with Paul’s mission travels. We observed as Paul defended his faith in front of a mob, then a college of Jewish leaders, followed by two provincial governors and a finally a Jewish king and queen. In this lesson we trace his journey to face the Roman Emperor, in spite of the fact that the recent news Paul could hear from Rome was deeply and increasingly unsettling. The record of the physical journey also unfolds – but the record holds a secret. Paul wasn’t just traveling – he was being led by God to do the Master’s bidding. He wasn’t just “passing through” the circumstances; he was experiencing God’s superintending of them. Here is the truth that Luke recorded in a dramatic tale…

Key Principle: God provides practical help to guide us through the storms of life.

It comes as a surprise to virtually NO ONE that our life has storms. These are the unforeseen events that collide with us – in spite of our careful preparation in so many areas. Yet, just as it is true that trouble will come in our lives – so it is true that God will guide us through troubles into His arms. This story offers us a series of brief reminders about how God directs our lives to get us to where He wants us. I think each of them “pop out” of the story as you follow it in Acts 27 and into 28. First, note that…

God directs our lives by having a plan long before we know what it will be.

Acts 27:1 When it was decided that we would sail for Italy…

This doesn’t sound very profound, but it is actually an incredible encouragement when a storm hits us and “blind sides” our world. Look at the words that open the account – a decision was made. Paul wasn’t in charge of the decisions – but even if he had been – it would have made little difference. The fact is that we can plan and plan and plan – but if a storm hits us, it will likely be at a time we didn’t expect and in an area for which we didn’t prepare. Isn’t it comforting, even a little bit, to know in times like that the truth that God is still at work. Circumstances don’t happen to us – God works a plan and signs off on the things that hit my life. We could look in the book of Job for help on this, but that would sound far too negative, and you are doing that badly… so let’s look at other truths about God’s direction…

God directs our lives by putting the right people at the right time into our story.

I love that my life is being staged by God, and that He provides people to take the journey along with me. Look at Luke’s record of the people accompanying Paul…

Acts 27:1b”… they proceeded to deliver Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan cohort named Julius. 2 And embarking in an Adramyttian ship, which was about to sail to the regions along the coast of Asia, we put out to sea accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica. 3 The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul with consideration and allowed him to go to his friends and receive care.

When you read the passage carefully, you see the following people are mentioned as part of the journey with Paul.

Other prisoners: Paul wasn’t being transported alone; there were others who were destined to face a Roman tribunal. You could look at that with a negative eye, like “I am on a ship of thieves and cutthroats.” At the same time, there is an obvious positive to the company… The events on the trip could serve as a backdrop to a larger testimony that could spread to new places in the mouths of these men. They may not have been our chosen audience – but they were the ones selected by God to be on the vessel.

A spiritually lost but temporally powerful man: Paul’s guard was of high rank; a centurion of the Imperial guard named Julius. We know little of his personal resume, but we know something of his accomplishments and character that would have been essential to reaching such a station. We also know something even more important…we know who put him in that place.

Companions in ministry: The text offers a little note of two other men who were standing by Paul during this journey. The first was found in the simple word “we”, which of course refers to Luke. Another man is named – a man God inserted into Paul’s life, at least for the time being; a man called Aristarchus. Luke was likely listed on the ship’s log as Paul’s personal physician (something the wealthy and sickly could afford to do), but that doesn’t help us understand how Aristarchus traveled with them. A number of scholars have posited that Aristarchus listed himself as Paul’s personal slave in order to help on the journey! This idea was used by believers later…

As a young person, I had been told of the story of the two Moravian missionaries to St. Thomas and St. Croix who were willing to be made into slaves if it was the only way to reach the slaves. In Copenhagen they made the offer, but an official told them, “that is impossible. It will not be allowed. No white man ever works as a slave.” One offered his carpentry in trade instead. They sailed on Oct 8, 1732, and arrived in St. Thomas two months later on December 13. While living on the islands and preaching to the slaves, they began a ministry that transformed lives for fifty years. Moravian missionaries baptized 13,000 converts before any other missionaries ever arrived on the scene.

Why is the record of Aristarchus and Luke so important? The reason is simple: the storms of life and troubles of the journey weren’t meant to be weathered alone. God didn’t just provide a ship, he provided friends to make the rough trip beside. As the old saying goes: “a shared joy is double joy and a shared sorrow is half a sorrow”.

Christian friends and prayer partners: One day into the journey the vessel stopped off at Sidon and Paul just happened to have Christian friends there…another gift from God to help secure him along the way.

Never underestimate the encouragement you offer someone by being a friend who showed up while everyone else just thought about showing up. Make the call. Do the visit. You will find that many people are facing storms and the waves look even more treacherous than they are, because they feel they are facing the storms alone. Don’t let them!

We aren’t near done our story, we have just begun. It is important that we recognize how much God does behind the scenes in our lives…

God directs our lives and has the “detours” worked out – but they are actually the plan.

Sometimes the detours appear as “alternative directions” – and God doesn’t seem to be cooperating in the natural world. Luke told the story this way:

Acts 27:4 From there we put out to sea and sailed under the shelter of Cyprus because the winds were contrary. 5 When we had sailed through the sea along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6 There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy, and he put us aboard it.

Since weather has always been in the hands of God, we can surmise that God was watching as the men sailed into the contrary winds, and that slowed the journey down dramatically. Have you ever been in a hurry and found yourself stuck in a long line of traffic? If you have, you know what travel on a ship that is facing the wind and being slowed to a crawl feels like. Well behind schedule, the Centurion landed in Asia Minor looking for a larger vessel bound for the Bay of Naples, and found one.

Was God keeping Paul from making a particular appointment? We don’t know. Remember, we have already noted in a previous study that God’s will for us may not be about us. It is very possible that God was doing something completely different than we would surmise based on the record. We humbly admit this, however. God is in charge of the plan. If we are “detoured to another destination” or “delayed by the unforeseen” and things “out of our control”, we must learn to rest in God’s superintending.

Usually the detours look like they are wasting precious time – but I have noticed that often God doesn’t seem to be in the hurry that I am. I guess being eternal and timeless changes His perspective from being on a 100 year body lease. Luke wrote:

Acts 27:7 When we had sailed slowly for a good many days, and with difficulty had arrived off Cnidus, since the wind did not permit us [to go] farther, we sailed under the shelter of Crete, off Salmone; 8 and with difficulty sailing past it we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lasea.

I want you to notice the way Luke told us the detail here. He said: “we sailed s-l-o-w-l-y for a good many days”. Can you hear the boredom in his voice? He noted “the wind wouldn’t let us go.” Wait? Don’t you serve God? Doesn’t He control the wind? Here is the point: When God is superintending the journey and you don’t know what He is doing, don’t assume He has forgotten you. Every difficulty was perceived by the men as part of God’s plan for them. That didn’t make seasickness any easier, and it didn’t guarantee them they would live through the experience – but it did mean things didn’t ‘just happen’ to them – their steps were ordered by the Lord (or should I say their swells and waves were ordered…).

If you aren’t frustrated with the truths in this passage yet, the next one is for YOU…

God directs our lives when people don’t take us seriously.

Many of us have reconciled God’s control of the weather. Some of us have even reconciled God’s control of our traffic jam – but the idea that God is behind any part of simply writing off what we have to say is really tough! Luke recorded:

Acts 27:9 When considerable time had passed and the voyage was now dangerous, since even the fast was already over, Paul [began] to admonish them, 10 and said to them, “Men, I perceive that the voyage will certainly be with damage and great loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” 11 But the centurion was more persuaded by the pilot and the captain of the ship than by what was being said by Paul.

God gave the men a perfectly reasonable warning in the words of Paul He simply told them “Don’t go if you don’t want to lost at least the ship and possible all our lives!” The warning was unheeded because the pilot and captain pressed the Centurion with the view they could make it without trouble. Why they believed this so late in the year isn’t known – but their voice was heard and Paul’s was dismissed. I would like to say this was a unique circumstance, but I cannot. I have been in the position many times of watching people ignore warnings given by a believer, and instead follow people who appear confident – but cannot offer reasonable assurance on their position. Doesn’t that frustrate you? Since as a believer, I need to be kind, I don’t even get the opportunity for the big “I told you so!” when the problem blows up!

Here is the point: God is at work even when people reject your words. Don’t think that God cannot use their rejection. In the case of the Gospel, you may be there so that they can reject, and later on God will bring that rejection to their attention. The same fragrance of Jesus that is life to the saved in 2 Corinthians is the stench of death to the lost.

Here is another hard one…

God directs our lives when we are outvoted in the board room.

Look at how the men gathered to decide what to do next in Acts 27:12…

Acts 27:12 Because the harbor was not suitable for wintering, the majority reached a decision to put out to sea from there, if somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest, and spend the winter [there].

Did you see the words “the majority reached a decision”? Paul’s warning was very clear, yet they took a vote on the next phase. Let me say this to anyone who is struggling because your faith is calling you to stand out – and you wonder if there is something wrong with you… In the history of mankind, the majority was seldom on the side of God, and seldom on the side of right. Most people get life wrong – so don’t be bothered by a call to distinct living for God.

It may really frustrate you to have your voice discounted in the public square – but that isn’t the most important thing. There are people in your life that WILL listen, and you can have an influence on others if you will faithfully follow God. Don’t worry if SOME don’t listen – do your part where God places you!

For economy, let me suggest that a careful reading of the journey can be found in verses thirteen to seventeen. In that portion you can see how the journey became perilous for the group as they moved along the shoreline of Crete and got pounded and driven by a northern wind that drove them out to sea.

Acts 27:13 When a moderate south wind came up, supposing that they had attained their purpose, they weighed anchor and [began] sailing along Crete, close [inshore]. 14 But before very long there rushed down from the land a violent wind, called Euraquilo; 15 and when the ship was caught [in it] and could not face the wind, we gave way [to it] and let ourselves be driven along. 16 Running under the shelter of a small island called Clauda, we were scarcely able to get the [ship’s] boat under control. 17 After they had hoisted it up, they used supporting cables in undergirding the ship; and fearing that they might run aground on [the shallows] of Syrtis, they let down the sea anchor and in this way let themselves be driven along.

Nothing will get under your skin more than watching people go through trouble when you gave them a full and complete warning about the moves they were making before they did – especially when their choice imperils you and your family. This is one of the reasons many believers are so frustrated with the social experimentation of our age with things like “no fault divorce”, “naturalist education” and “a new marriage definition”. In each case, believers warn carefully of coming troubles, get ignored, and then have to watch patiently as the things they warned about come to pass. Do not fear: God has not abandoned us. He is still directing even when people aren’t listening! We don’t really know His plan for our future, except that it ends in our death or His return –everything else is speculation! We must keep pressing on for a complete picture…

God directs our lives when we have to rid ourselves of things we thought were precious.

There are, no doubt, some things you think you simply “cannot do without”. That is only true until you don’t have them – and then you “make due” and find another way to keep going. Keep reading…

Acts 27:18 The next day as we were being violently storm-tossed, they began to jettison the cargo; 19 and on the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 Since neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small storm was assailing [us], from then on all hope of our being saved was gradually abandoned.

First they lost the cargo, then the ship’s tackle, and eventually their hope got tossed into the sea as well. Rescue seemed further and further away. Optimism gave way to the toss of the waves. Do you know the feeling?

Some of the people I know have lost homes due to turmoil and unrest in their home villages. Others have lost cars, burned by bandits and looters in the midst of chaos. Some have lost their most precious possessions in tornadoes or vicious storms. Here is what I know: Loss is hard, but often we aren’t very good judges at the line between “need” and “want” in our lives.

I enjoy reading about “tiny houses”. Recently I found that they have a television show on a cable channel and I could get access to some of the episodes on the internet. A tiny house, for the uninitiated, is a home that is usually smaller than five hundred square feet. The average American home is more than four times that size. One of the hardest parts of moving into a “tiny home” is learning to rid ourselves of the many things we have accumulated over the years that we have come to believe are absolute necessities.

Did you ever move your home after living in it for a long time, only to discover you own a great deal more than you thought you did? Down-sizing can be hard in life. Some have sold off much of what you bought in your lifetime. Others have even gotten to the place where they have turned in their driver’s license. Losing precious things can be very hard – but God is still directing your life and with you as you sit in the smaller pile of what is left. Remember: You brought nothing into this world, and you will take nothing out. All of your stuff will be disposed of at some point. It is only stuff. Take care of it. Steward it well… but don’t put too much of your emotional energy into it. Life here is temporary.

We saw the men losing hope, but keep reading, because there is yet more to learn…

God directs our lives when our resources are gone and our strength is fading!

Look at what happened in the midst of the failing men…

Acts 27:21 When they had gone a long time without food, then Paul stood up in their midst and said, “Men, you ought to have followed my advice and not to have set sail from Crete and incurred this damage and loss. 22 “[Yet] now I urge you to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but [only] of the ship. 23 “For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, 24 saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 “Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. 26 “But we must run aground on a certain island.”

Did you see what happened? God sent an angel to them! He could have sent the angel a week before and they would have avoided this mess – but NO!. He could have revealed the storm to Paul before he ever stepped on the ship – but NO! He didn’t send word in the beginning of the peril – he said nothing while the food was dwindling and the ship was breaking. God literally waited until they practically gave up every hope of making it through with their ship. In other words, God let them exhaust themselves before He made His presence overtly known – and then it was up to Paul to assure the men onboard. The point was that they had done all they could, and God was about to do a work to raise up His man on board. God is still at work when you have almost nothing left to give. He is directing your path…

God directs our lives when they seem long, hard and drawn out – while He proves that He keeps His Word!

Acts 27:27 mentioned a fourteenth night when they began sounding depths. Verse 33 made clear that they needed to be encouraged to, at long last, take some food. Verse 37 marked out the fact that there were two hundred seventy-six people on board the vessel. Verse 38 made clear they ate and then tossed the rest of the grain overboard, committing them to finding shore soon, or forcing them to starve in its search! Verse 40 ends with the perilous words that remind us after they had done all they knew how to do, they were heading for a rough grounding.

Pick up your reading in 27:41. Luke recorded:

Acts 27:41 But striking a reef where two seas met, they ran the vessel aground; and the prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern [began] to be broken up by the force [of the waves]. 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none [of them] would swim away and escape; 43 but the centurion, wanting to bring Paul safely through, kept them from their intention, and commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard first and get to land, 44 and the rest [should follow], some on planks, and others on various things from the ship. And so it happened that they all were brought safely to land.

God told Paul they would all live, and he told the men they would live. God then disassembled the ship – and they graphically saw God do exactly what He promised. By the end – everyone knew that God knew, and more than that, they knew that Paul knew – because he knew God! The testimony was the point of the drama!

Recently, I heard a Pastor share a story about a woman who was a part of the church where he serves. She was passing through a storm of cancer when she dropped by to see him. When she told him about her fight, she said: “I believe I am ready for whatever happens.” She stopped and looked down. She said, “You know, I guess it is time for me to start really practicing that faith I have been talking about for all these years. The Pastor said to her, “I disagree!” She was surprised. He said: “Carol, I think you are ready because you HAVE BEEN practicing your faith all along!”

We will all pass through storms. They may have different sized waves, and they may have different ways of knocking us off balance… but we will face storms. Thankfully, this passage reminds us that God provides practical help to guide us through the storms of life.

Chuck Swindoll introduced this story years ago, but it is perfect to illustrate what we have been studying and it makes me smile every time I recall it. It was a true story…

Chippie the parakeet never saw it coming. One second he was peacefully perched in his cage. The next he was sucked in, washed up, and blown over. The problems began when Chippie’s owner decided to clean Chippie’s cage with a vacuum cleaner. She removed the attachment from the end of the hose and stuck it in the cage. The phone rang, and she turned to pick it up. She’d barely said “hello” when “ssssopp!” Chippie got sucked in. The bird owner gasped, put down the phone, turned off the vacuum, and opened the bag. There was Chippie — still alive, but stunned. Since the bird was covered with dust and soot, she grabbed him and raced to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and held Chippie under the running water. Then, realizing that Chippie was soaked and shivering, she did what any compassionate bird owner would do . . . she reached for the hair dryer and blasted the pet with hot air. Poor Chippie never knew what hit him. A few days after the trauma, the reporter who’d initially written about the event contacted Chippie’s owner to see how the bird was recovering. “Well,” she replied, “Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore — he just sits and stares.

Have you ever felt that way? I’ll bet if you did, you know what a storm feels like!

Following His Footsteps: “Tenderized” – Matthew 19

Frank PurdueThere are probably only a few of us that remember this face very well. By the mid-1950’s this American business mogul was watching his market share grow in what has been called “the US chicken craze”, as people were incorporating the wondrous bird in recipes of each of the three meals of their day (as well as late night snacks!). Chicken patties were selling at some breakfast outlets, while everything from fried chicken to chicken soup was flying off the shelves of American markets for the second half of the twentieth century. The twenty-first century kept pace with the steady growth of the food market as well. Frank Perdue’s iconic face with its “ironic beak” became famous with his simple phrase: “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken!” Maybe it did, I cannot say. One thing I can say is that Frank knew how to sell chicken. Obviously, he also knew something about marketing in general. He knew that people wanted tender chicken on their table.

I thought it was interesting that he used the word “tender” in that way… that is, until I began to notice that the word is most often used in the English language to denote food of some kind. One of the lesser uses of the term “tender is for an innocent or even naïve person, sometimes poetically referred to as a “tender heart”. I wonder why we associate a tender heart with someone who is young and perhaps inexperienced in life. Truthfully, I think many of us with some mileage on our lives know the answer… as time passes, it is easy to let the problems of your life grow thick callouses on our heart. It is a protection from feeling more pain too easily. Without that protection, it is natural to allow emotional wounds to become memory scars, and as time passes, we can easily let those welts turn to hard places that cover our once “open” heart.

Anyone who has been on the planet for a while knows that life can hurt. People who you trust can let you down. Dreams you pursue may dry up in front of you. Your health can slip away while you are paying attention to other responsibilities. In fact, in the normal process of passing through a year, you may lose a friend or beloved family member to death. A good friend may move to a place inaccessible. Your place of employment may close its doors… none of these things would be “abnormal” – but all of them would hurt deeply. The fact is that life in a fallen world is painful. At the same time, the good news is that the God we serve is well aware of all of the pain – and His Son felt it in His earth ministry. We have been following that time, tracing His steps…

As we traced His sandal prints through the popular ministry around the Sea of Galilee and its environs, we have noted Jesus’ ability to teach crowds and handle conflicts with religious leaders with significant patience and clarity, but in this study the tone will change. The time in the last six months of His ministry (in what is called the Perean Ministry) reflects an even more intense sound, as Jesus knew the time for departure was drawing near. During those months both His skill and His caring heart became more evident as He prepared the disciples for the time after He was gone, and He modeled for them how to handle people when they were in a ministry apart from His physical presence.

Key Principle: Jesus had four powerful ways of communicating a caring heart to His followers as He taught them.

• He knew that with physical pain and sickness it would be hard to focus on ministering in His name – so He healed and comforted people.

• He knew some were offering noise and confusion to God’s revealed truths – so He confronted false teachers.

• He knew that followers could easily become insensitive to other weaker followers – so He corrected them.

• He knew that surrender was what God desired – so He clarified what it meant.

I want to look carefully at each of the four ways Jesus showed His tenderness and caring heart, so that modern disciples can consider how that example will change our way of presenting the Savior in our time. Let’s examine them each, one at a time…

First, Jesus showed a caring heart by touching those in pain and healing them.

Matthew 19:1 When Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; 2 and large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there.

Jesus wasn’t impractical. He knew starving people, people racked with pain and people distracted by loss wouldn’t be able to think about God until their immediate need was met – at least for the moment. He was surrounded by very large crowds, and with them came people with all kinds of pain and needs. Jesus saw them. Jesus healed them. The physical needs were not a DISTRACTION from His ministry, because they were a part of helping people see Him, and know He had the power to transform their lives. When one was healed, the whole crowd gained confidence in the word of the Teacher.

Because we don’t all have a constant empowering to heal doesn’t mean we can learn nothing from the model Jesus left us. A balanced ministry, based on observing carefully Jesus’ model before us, reminds us first that we need to see hurting people. In addition to seeing hurting people, we need to make the effort to touch their lives, and that process cannot be seen as a mere distraction from our teaching and discipleship ministry. It can become a distraction, if we don’t also teach and train – but we must see it with balance. Needy people need Jesus, and they need to see His love from His church.

As we think of Jesus’ healing ministry, we need to recall that people profoundly see the power of the Risen Savior in His church when the church does what is unnatural – and cares for those left behind in the community by a harsh world and its broken emotions. The healing ministry is still very much alive today. Hurting people are not a “drag” on the ministry – they are a reminder of the broken condition we all share. We must touch lives, and we must seek to bring God’s healing to people.

Second, Jesus showed a caring heart by dealt directly with those who were skewing truth while claiming His Word as their basis for doing so.

Matthew 19:3-6 was essentially the record of an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees. Such a passage may not seem, on first glance, an act of love and caring to some of you, so I need to draw it out and explain. If you saw me punching a man in the park down the street from my house, you would probably stop and wonder what happened to me. If you got out of your car and rushed over as I jumped on top of the man and held him down, I am sure you would be asking a question like: “Doc, are you alright?” If I told you that the man attempted to harm the tiny and defenseless children that were playing on that little playground beside the ball field, you would likely step in and help me defend them. At first glance, it looked like I was doing harm. With more investigation, you would stand shoulder to shoulder with me to defend the little ones, and wait for the sheriff’s deputy to arrive. You wouldn’t be embarrassed about my display of violence, you would join it as an overt protection of our community’s children.

In the same way, when you first read the words of Jesus, you can think: “Gee, that doesn’t sound kind!” That means it is time to look closer at the situation. Remember, Jesus could see the enemy of our souls at work behind the physical struggles. His power and insight prompted Him to help people, because He knew what they did not know. He knew the methods of His enemy – and we are sometimes slow to see the devil’s hand behind personality and emotional conflict… because we have become too much children of this world. In Matthew’s account, there were three ways the enemy was attacking, and they were through the voice of religious men – as has often been the case in the history of mankind. How was the enemy attacking?

One method was by his distraction of Jesus’ followers by presenting opposing theologies in an open attempt to equalize false ideas with the truth (19:3-6). Take a look at the example given in the text:

Matthew 19:3 [Some] Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful [for a man] to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created [them] from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 5 and said, FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’? 6 “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

A tiny bit of historical background is in order here, so that we can approach the question the way Jesus and His first followers would have heard it. There is a context to things we say…

If the day after 9/11 someone asked you in a phone survey about whether you supported airport security profiling, do you think they would have had to explain to you why it may be even considered by a people that love our freedoms as we do? The context of the time would change the way you heard the question. The same is true about the history behind the question posed by the Pharisees…

A generation before Jesus, two popular rabbis – Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai and their respective schools separated over what constituted an appropriate “cause of uncleanness” mentioned in Deuteronomy 24, that made a divorce legitimate. The more liberal school included such heinous acts as “if she burns your dinner” – showing a less than lofty place for marriage in their teaching.

The Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into the theological debate in order to break the rising popularity of Jesus among the crowds. Jesus answered with a direct quote that would have likely caused some to stop following Him, because it didn’t open the door to what some of the people wanted to hear. This was the reason for the test – get people to shy away from the growing movement. We need to be aware that one of the ways the enemy divides believers in a work place is to get them to battle theological points in front of lost people – in order to make the Gospel look confusing.

Another method the enemy uses to distract disciples of Jesus has always been to “adjust” the Biblical story in order to attempt to change people’s memory of the record of God’s intent (19:7-9). This is a more blatant attack on God than the theological one; for that can result from mere lapses in philosophical reasoning. This is the enemy CHANGING GOD’S WORD by making slight adjustments to the record – in an effort to make a BIG CHANGE in what we believe is right or wrong. Look closesly…

Matthew 19:7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND [her] AWAY?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.

Notice several things about the exchange:

The Pharisee used the word “commanded” when Jesus used the word “permitted”. Moses didn’t COMMAND anyone to get a divorce, and neither did God. Yet, the change of that word gives an entirely different look at the Word of God concerning marriage.

You will also notice the Pharisees used the terms “send her away” when the Savior used the word “divorce”. Jesus made clear what they were really talking about. I never cease to be amazed at how people talk about things like “an affair” when what God calls it is “adultery”. We have a habit of making really BAD things sound like ACCEPTABLE things.

One more thing we should notice: The Pharisees assumed the whole case rested on Moses and the Word that was recorded by him; Jesus assumed the important thing was what God put together at the beginning. Moses recorded – but God wrote the Word. They projected the idea that the words of Moses came from the brilliant mind of Moses – but that isn’t true. I am not suggesting Moses wasn’t smart, I am making plain that his writings weren’t his own. The Spirit of God is the author of Scripture, regardless of who the writer was. The standard didn’t begin with Moses – it always began with God. The way God created things is the way He wanted them.

Another important method was to trap believers in one side of a political debate (19:9). Matthew recorded: Matthew 19:9 “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

How is this a political topic? It may help if we set the whole test in context. Herod Antipas the Galilean and Perean King had just stolen his half-brother’s wife and forced a divorce to take her for himself. John the Baptizer spoke out against the divorce and illegal marriage, and John was beheaded. This test, I believe, was to trap Jesus in a similar offense. Jesus didn’t back down. He answered their test with a straightforward claim that those who do EXACTLY what Herod did are WRONG.

Behind theological debate, the second most important way the enemy divides God’s people is in political debate – it is part of the reason he works that angle so much! Jesus took a firm stand based solely on God’s revealed Word. He confronted as a function of caring and loving those who were weak and impressionable.

Confrontation of those who are attempting to confuse believers is not unloving – it is a defense for those who will be led astray. It is a function of love – but must be offered in a loving way. Belligerence isn’t Christian – and it is a constant danger to try to defend while not sounding defensive, to guard without sounding possessive and controlling.

Third, Jesus showed a caring heart by adding sensitivity to His followers concerning commitment to God (19:10). Jesus didn’t only teach crowds and let the disciples watch; He leaned in to the disciples and helped them gain important abilities – and in the area of sensitivity, Jesus also challenged them. One way to help His disciples learn to be sensitive to other followers (a vital skill when they took over leadership later) was to remind them that not everyone has the same immediate ability to do hard things (19:10-12). Matthew recorded:

Matthew 19:10 The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” 11 But He said to them, “Not all men [can] accept this statement, but [only] those to whom it has been given. 12 “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are [also] eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept [this], let him accept [it].”

Without getting deeply tied up in the eunuch issue, just look at the essence of the disciple’s objection. They said: “Master this is hard! Shouldn’t we just tell people not to get married?” Jesus reminded them that there are a variety of people in the Kingdom, and they get to their station in a variety of ways. The end of His statement is this: “You men will need to be patient with the differences in people, because not everyone can endure the same path. That helped them to grasp what some believers don’t seem to ever really understand: Not everyone can do what they can do – so they need to be loving and allow others to learn to follow Christ as God enables them. That isn’t a call to allow people to rest in laziness, but it is a reminder not to put our lives on others. No everyone will do what you would have done – they haven’t lived your life.

Another way to help disciples to be sensitive was to remind them Jesus felt blessing those weakest among them was more important than “displays of dignity” (19:13-14). Children weren’t going to be much help to the ministry of Jesus in the coming months ahead – the Passion week was coming quickly upon Him. Yet, the Master didn’t want to have the children kept away out of some sense of “honor” to Him. Follow what the text revealed:

Matthew 19:13 Then [some] children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 After laying His hands on them, He departed from there.

Jesus was prepared to heal, pray and touch sick children. Many rabbis did not spend time with children, and the disciples were attempting to honor Jesus by keeping them away. Jesus didn’t want personal prestige more than he wanted to touch the hurting – and that was a perfect model for what the men needed to see. Jesus wanted relationship. He loves to be in lives – as messy as they are. God never intended to be caged in a Cathedral, that isn’t the kind of God He is! He told Israel to talk about Him traveling along the roadways, share about Him as they reclined in their houses and tents, and remember Him as they entered the doorway of their home. He is the “Ever-present God” of all of our lives – and He wants to come with us on the daily journey.

Fourth, Jesus showed a caring heart by making clear the truth about commitment to God.

One way He made clear the truth was by stripping away excuses and complications, and making surrender crystal clear (19:16-22).

Matthew 19:16 And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is [only] One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 [Then] he said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER; YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY; YOU SHALL NOT STEAL; YOU SHALL NOT BEAR false WITNESS; 19 HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER; and YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” 20 The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go [and] sell your possessions and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

When you read the account of the rich man who questioned the Master, it is easy to miss the strikingly different approach the man had to following God than the one Jesus presented.

First, notice the man thought eternal life was based solely on what he could DO – actions to please God. This is at the heart of any religious thinker. Jesus countered with attaining eternal life through what the man surrendered to God’s use – things given to him by God and then yielded back to God. The surrender showed the values system of the man – God’s will above his want. Religious people give up things, one by one, in order to placate God and eventually get an earned reward. Heaven is the earned salary due to the good man in religious terms – but that isn’t what Jesus taught. Jesus told the rich man that eternal life was attained by following God’s Word, but fundamentally this was not just about the man’s actions. Jesus explained it was chiefly about choosing to surrender the things God placed in the life of the man to steward. He needed to recognize his life was not his own, and his things were to be surrendered back to the God Who gave them to him in the first place.

Jesus’ key issue wasn’t how good the man was, but how yielded the man was – that was at the heart of the issue. The fact that the man “went away sadly” helps us grasp something critical – gaining eternal life required surrender, and that was a deliberate act of the man’s will. More than anything we DO for God, the Master said what we yield to God is what makes us part of His Kingdom. I don’t just ask for forgiveness of sins and add Jesus to my insurance policy for the afterlife, I engage Jesus now, and I give Him my life – that was Christ’s command to the rich man.

Second, notice the man spoke of the Kingdom of God as a list of obligations and restrictions. Jesus didn’t see it that way. A few chapters before, Matthew recorded Jesus saying: Matthew 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid [again]; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Jesus’ view of following God wasn’t a heavy set of obligations, but rather an opening to the door of truth! God’s Kingdom wasn’t a “restrictive environment” filled with temptations to be avoided and bitter obligations to be dragged through. The longer I live in an environment where people are convinced that “freedom” is only and always about “being one hundred percent happy one hundred percent of the time”, the more I recognize why people struggle with a godly view of the good life. Let me explain:

Marriage is designed to make us truly fulfilled on a level no other relationship can offer. It is an opportunity, for those who are led by God into it, to open your life to another person in a very unique, personal and intimate way. In a healthy marriage, our husband or wife has access to our deepest feelings and thoughts. Does it take work? Yes! Is it always easy? No! Are you guaranteed that you will feel warmth and happiness, and nothing but, all the days of your marriage? Absolutely not! Yet our marriages are something to treasure, and if they are good ones, they will provide memories of love, laughter and living life that are rich beyond compare.

What was marriage created to symbolize? In the case of Israel, Hosea prophesied the relationship to be a picture of the Father’s love for Israel. In Ephesians, Paul told the first century believers that it was also a picture of Christ and His church. In other words, regardless of which redemption economy you are a part of, marriage was a picture of the union of people and God. The intimate connection of God and man is seen in the delights of a good marriage. It is valued, treasured, desired and cherished.

Jesus saw a walk with His Father in those terms – not in cold, obligatory religious terms. The rich man walked away because he wanted to invest something in this life and get a reward in the next. Jesus wanted him to see that the next was the only one that really mattered in the end. He wanted the man to recognize that God wasn’t asking him to surrender so that he would become less, but so that he could become immeasurably more when God used his life.

Another way Jesus made truth clear was by reminding the disciples that commitment wasn’t only based on men’s abilities (19:23-26). Matthew recorded:

Matthew 19:23 And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard [this], they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 And looking at [them] Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

The disciples grew up in a world where power had money and money had power. The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” was immensely clear in the first century Roman world. The challenge Jesus made to them was that giving up more is often more difficult than giving up less – since we have a sense of self-determination when we have more assets. With more money in the bank, we feel more options are available. Poor people don’t feel the options are available to them, and they set the bar on their expectations much lower. A recent study on “happiness” shared on NPR revealed that most Americans start life with a high “happiness quotient”, only to suffer a “dip” in their middle age period, and then it rises later in life. Most Africans start with a much lower threshold of happiness, and it remains at a lower threshold throughout their life. They have less, and so they expect less. The disciples were confounded – but Jesus reminded them that even our own surrender is made possible by God’s strength. God is at work in my life to direct my will, and to assist me to accomplish the things that honor Him. He won’t FORCE me, but He does actively and powerfully HELP me.

A third way Jesus made the truth clear was by consoling those who felt the sting of sacrifice in their surrender (19:27-30).

Matthew 19:27 Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” 28 And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. 30 “But many [who are] first will be last; and [the] last, first.

It is true that some believers have truly given all they had, and it pains me to think of how badly they were treated. Martyrdom is not a word from the historical past. In the Near East, it is increasingly a word used in sermons among believers in Jesus. They don’t mean “people who blow themselves up”, but rather people who, for the cause of Christ, are violently and brutally handled by a world not worthy of them. Some really give up much. Just remember, we never give up more than God sees.

Step out onto the back porch of your life, and look at what comes next for a moment. As a believer, my Savior is preparing for my life after life. It is hard to understand, but it is powerfully encouraging.

Dr. Larry Petton told this story at a church meeting a few years ago: “Years ago I heard the compelling story of a young pastor whose son was very sick and not expected to live long. Night after night the pastor and his wife would put their boy to bed and say a prayer hoping for a miracle. One evening, the boy looked at his father and said, “Daddy, what does it feel like to die?” The father struggled to speak a word. He said a quick prayer for courage, put his hand on the face of his child and said, “Son, it’s something like this. Night after night you go to sleep on the couch watching your favorite TV shows. You don’t know it, but I find you asleep and come and take you in my arms and place you in the room I built for you with my own hands.” The young pastor could barely finish. “And, son, one of these days……..you are going to fall asleep here, but don’t be afraid. Jesus is going to come and pick you up and take you to a special room He has built just for you.” Jesus said, “I go and prepare a place FOR YOU.” (John 14:1-6). That man tearfully shared truth – and faced both the pain and joy of it!”

How thankful we are that our Savior had four powerful ways of communicating a caring heart to His followers as He taught them.

• Healing and comforting people.
• Protecting the weak by confronting false teachers.
• Teaching sensitivity by correcting followers.
• Recalling that surrender was essential by clarifying its importance.

Stop now and reflect on how well we are duplicating the model. Do we make comforting people a priority of our work? Do we clearly articulate truth so that weak ones will not be entangled by those who teach falsely? Do we value one another enough to get involved in one another’s lives? Do we take every blessing and consume it on ourselves? We honor Jesus best who imitate the Savior most.

God on the Move: “Appeasement is a Failed Strategy” (Part Two, Acts 25-26)

PrintUnless you have recently immigrated to our country, you are aware that for the last five years parts of our government have become fixated on the term “bullying”. The term has been defined in the newly organized “stopbullying.gov” website, which states:

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance…In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include: an “Imbalance of Power” (Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others) [as well as]…”Repetition” (Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once). Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

I cannot be the only American that wondered how the government got involved in the antics of school yard children, but – like it or not – the fact is that they have decided to make this a part of their governmental oversight. I also cannot actually grasp how they will monitor the child who feels excluded on purpose. I think I was that guy a few times – the last picked for the team – and then only because a teacher MADE them choose EVERYONE to play. I do recognize there are extreme examples, but I remember a number of bloody noses as a child fighting on the playground and I don’t recall any federal charges, but my memory isn’t what it used to be. Perhaps I am being too insensitive; I don’t mean to offend someone who has been through a difficult experience with your own child. Most of us recall some cruelty by others as we grew up – it seems a part of the condition of living with a fallen humanity.

My focus on bullying in this lesson is on an ancient case…As we follow the life of the Apostle Paul. We have observed some true bullying in recent lessons, though none in a school yard. Paul was beaten by a mob, swept away into a barracks and offered some chances to defend himself. We are following those defenses found in the first century record of the Book of Acts that detailed each defense he gave before a variety of proceedings. Most recently we have examined the first of three “Roman Provincial Defenses” recorded by Dr. Luke on Paul’s behalf. They are part of a string of seven defenses in which we learn an important truth, perfect for this generation of believers. The truth is…

Key Principle: God modeled the defense of the Gospel so that believers will know how to be clear, confident and concise about the message we were given by the Lord.

The three defenses we already noted in our study were:

• The first defense of Paul was before the Jewish crowd in the Temple, given in Hebrew, from the stairs of the Antonia Fortress (Acts 22).

• The second defense was before the Sanhedrin, under the guard of the Chiliarch (commander) in Jerusalem (Acts 23).

• The third defense was before Antonius Felix, the Roman Procurator (Governor) of the Province of Judea.

As we looked closely, we began with a focus on three elements of each recorded defense which were:

• First, the players – it is essential that we clarify the picture of the setting by sharpening our focus on Paul’s audience.

• Second, the content – we want to look closely at HOW Paul defended the faith, and what elements of the story he highlighted according to Luke’s brief overview.

• Third, the results – sometimes it is encouraging to see the responses to those who went before us so that we have some idea what to expect.

As with the defense before Felix, will use these three as our rough “outline” of each defense, and then take the time to apply the lessons we find in the record. Think back for a moment to our last lesson… We observed several important principles of defending our faith taking Paul’s circumstance as a model for the days ahead. We noted that:

• Paul didn’t need to be rude, presumptive or defensive in spirit to stand for Jesus –and we don’t either.

• Paul didn’t assume that his audience understood his faith (he didn’t “Christian-eaze” his way through his defense), nor did he attack his opponents to get his point across – and we don’t need to either.

• Paul didn’t wander between issues, but stayed focused on the essential point of making the heart of his faith clear to the hearer – and we must do so as well.

• Paul didn’t like disagreement, and didn’t want it in his life – but that didn’t make him so soft that he refused to stand his ground – and we cannot either. This is a time for believers to make it clear that the message of the Bible is non-negotiable. What the Bible calls on us to do, is what God expects us to do – and we intend to do it.

These are good principles, but the record is not complete – we have more in front of us. Keeping that in mind, let’s look at two more defenses, as Luke recorded them in Acts 25 and the beginning of Acts 26.

Paul’s Defense before Procurator Porcius Festus (Acts 25):

The Player: Porcius Festus

Porcius Festus took the post of Procurator of Judea after Antoninus Felix vacated it and likely held the office between the years 59-62 CE, though these dates are still disputed. The change in the provincial coinage evidences Nero’s fifth year points to A.D. 59. As inheritor of the raft of problems in part caused by his predecessor Felix, Festus faced a growing controversy between Agrippa II and the Jerusalem priests regarding a wall erected at the Temple to break the view of the new wing of Agrippa’s palace. Jewish hostilities grew and played an important part in the coming Jewish War of 66 CE.

Here is how the text of the Book of Acts introduced him:

Acts 25:1 Festus then, having arrived in the province, three days later went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. 2 And the chief priests and the leading men of the Jews brought charges against Paul, and they were urging him, 3 requesting a concession against Paul, that he might have him brought to Jerusalem ([at the same time], setting an ambush to kill him on the way). 4 Festus then answered that Paul was being kept in custody at Caesarea and that he himself was about to leave shortly. 5 “Therefore,” he said, “let the influential men among you go there with me, and if there is anything wrong about the man, let them prosecute him.” 6 After he had spent not more than eight or ten days among them, he went down to Caesarea, and on the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought.

Festus looks in the passage to be a “means business” straight-shooter. He arrived by sea, and spent only three days before he went to Jerusalem to collect the list of troubles that would need to be faced. When the priests made Paul a big deal, he came back to Caesarea, took up his tribunal seat and got down to business. Luke recalled the man as being on the job and serious – just what seemed needed in Judea.

The Defense: Clear presentation of the issues.

Paul’s appearance is carefully presented by Luke, as a radio announcer in a ball park. He gives us the “blow by blow” description of the interaction. Luke wasn’t just reporting the scene – he was offering a pattern for us under the controlling breath of the Spirit of God. Look at how Paul handled the defense of his faith..

Once again, Paul got right to the heart of the accusation – he was DIRECT.

Acts 25:7 After Paul arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove, 8 while Paul said in his own defense, “I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”

In many cases in modern life, the audience rewards brevity. They need enough to understand, but in this world full of information overload – stick to the facts. When I deal with a naturalist, I simply posit that there are powerful, precise and unvaried formulas at work in operating the delicate balance of forces that make life in this universe possible. Since that is a fact that all can grasp, the question of how these forces came to be and how they continue to operate is a philosophical one – not a scientific one. Once the veneer of science is stripped away, it is possible to address presupposition and belief – and no system has more in its favor than the simplicity of an intelligent Designer. Driving the discussion to its clearest components will strip all the frills and distractions.

In Paul’s case, he lunged into the heart of the matter and simply said: “I have committed no offense worthy of my detention, period.” That about says it. Paul insisted they PROVE HIM GUILTY, not simply yell about how they felt.

Paul wouldn’t let someone move the proceedings in an inappropriate venue for trickery sake – he was INFORMED about his legal defense.

Acts 25:9 But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, answered Paul and said, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me on these [charges]?” 10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried.

Paul knew the possibility of a plot was great, and the embarrassment of the many who had taken a vow and then failed earlier. He wasn’t going to Jerusalem, because he could be sure he would not make it alive. He knew he could get a fairer chance at a hearing right where he was – and that was the appropriate venue.

Here is the point: The believer can and should be aware of legal maneuvers that will be used against him. I believe in law enforcement, and I support their attempts to do a difficult job, but I also am not unaware that many who work in that field are jaded, and their work is to catch people who are hiding the wrong doing in which they are involved. As a result, my interactions with law enforcement are carefully worded. Let me explain: If you walk into an interview with the police and anticipate they will understand your humor and innocent personality, you will almost certainly be spending some time in their guest facilities. I answer directly and respectfully, but I don’t look at them as friends, and I don’t answer them casually. I recognize the need to be careful about what I say and how I say it. The same thought process is what I use speaking to reporters today.

Paul was aware of the backroom dealing, and he made sure the authorities knew that he knew the proper venue for dispute. His example reminds us that believers who face the system ignorant of it will face heartbreak if they don’t learn quickly how things work. If persecution comes to our country in a real way – we will need to understand legal precedent for our positions and try to defend ourselves within those – and Paul’s template will be useful! Look at how he faced the charges as you continue reading in Acts 25:10…

Paul made clear that his hearer knew the truth about the charges, and put that on the record – he wasn’t SHEEPISH.

Acts 25:10b “…I have done no wrong to [the] Jews, as you also very well know.

Paul wanted it to be a matter of record that he was being set up by the offer of a change of venue for his hearing. He left a clear pattern – being polite doesn’t mean being a patsy. We can know our legal rights and we can press the point that wrong is wrong when it is obvious. Recently a public school system required middle school students to memorize portions from the Qur’an to help the student understand what it termed “the beauty of the faith of Islam”. A parent filed suit and made clear on the evening news that if the plain reading of John 3:16 couldn’t be recited in a classroom because of separation of church and state, “mosque and state” needed to be kept equally apart. The school board was flooded with phone calls and responses by people who did not share the faith of the parent –but they made their point. Because the believer used a point of law that the society could otherwise rally around – the believer affected change. Paul continued…

When he recognized there was no other choice, he made a direct appeal to head to Rome – he was CONFIDENT of God’s leading.

Acts 25:11 “If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is [true] of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.”

Look at the courageous way Paul phrased his commitment. He told Festus that he wasn’t unwilling to die – but that he knew he wouldn’t get a fair trial if he was going to be forced to go to Jerusalem – and that is what it looked like would happen. Romans loved “wirtus” (a word that meant more “manliness”) and they routinely abhorred cowards. Paul was a Roman, and he wanted Festus to know that he shared the values of a Roman.

When modern believers defend our faith, it is not wrong to show that we value our country and what it has been. It is not wrong to express trust in her courts and systems – but we cannot be uninformed of which appeals can and must be made when things are not going well. Remember in his case, Paul’s confidence was in God’s revelation that he was Rome-ward bound – so Paul exercised the only option he could see that would get him that result. The alternative was to be ambushed on the road to Jerusalem or miraculously protected by God.

The Results: Held for structuring of case and subsequent transport to Caesar.

The end of the account in Acts 25:12 made clear that Festus couldn’t grease the wheels with the priests, so he was going to ship the problem to Nero. Luke recorded:

Acts 25:12 Then when Festus had conferred with his council, he answered, “You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go.”

Paul’s Defense before Herod Agrippa II and Berenice (Acts 25:13-26:32):

The Players: Herod Agrippa II and Queen Berenice

Before Paul could be sent to Rome, Festus needed to structure the charges and have a document accompany Paul – but that wasn’t easy. He hadn’t broken any laws! For help, Festus called on the King of the Jews – Herod Agrippa II as recorded in Acts 25:13-14.

Herod Agrippa II was born during the ministry of Jesus before the Cross (27-29 CE) the final king from the Herodian dynasty. His father was Herod Agrippa I who died “smitten of worms” in Acts 12, his aunt was Drusilla (second wife of the former Roman procurator Antonius Felix) and his sister and consort was Bernice (who is in the story of Paul’s defense with her brother). Agrippa was educated in the court of the Emperor Claudius, until his father’s untimely death (when Agrippa II was only seventeen years old). Claudius held the youth in Rome and sent a Procurator to Judaea, while Agrippa supported Jews at every opportunity before the Emperor. Eventually he was granted the Syrian territory of Chalcis (after the death of Herod of Chalcis in 48 CE) as well as the right of superintending the Temple in Jerusalem and appointing its high priest. Late in Claudius’ reign (53 CE), he was made ruler over the territories of Herod Philip. Josephus, the Jewish historian, repeats the gossip that Agrippa II lived in an incestuous relationship with his sister, Berenice. She acted as a “client queen”, and the relationship may have been as suspected. In 55 CE, Nero gave him administration of Tiberias and Taricheae in Galilee, Iulias and all of Peraea. Agrippa dramatically beautified Jerusalem but routinely appointed and deposed high priests – making him increasingly unpopular. Agrippa failed to stem off the Jewish rebellion in 66 CE against the Roman procurator Gessius Florus, and found himself expelled along with Berenice as the reviolt against Rome grew. He supported both Vespasian, and Titus – accompanying the latter on some campaigns, and was even wounded at the siege of Gamla. After the capture of Jerusalem, he went with his sister Berenice to Rome, where he was invested with the dignity of praetor and rewarded with additional territory. He died, childless, sometime late in the first century.

The Defense: Clear presentation of the issues.

It was customary for Roman officials to ask local monarchs for help in local adjudication matters – and this one was particularly difficult for Festus. He stood to lose favor of Jerusalem’s key players for not handing Paul over to a plot, but that would have put him in violation of Roman protection laws. He called in help…

Acts 25:13 Now when several days had elapsed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and paid their respects to Festus. 14 While they were spending many days there, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king…”

Festus explained to Agrippa and Berenice how Felix stuck him with the problem of Paul in 25:14b-19. He made clear that he saw it as a debate about Jesus and resurrection – an internal theological debate of Jews. He admitted it was not in his purview and said:

Acts 25:20 “Being at a loss how to investigate such matters, I asked whether he was willing to go to Jerusalem and there stand trial on these matters. 21 “But when Paul appealed to be held in custody for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him to be kept in custody until I send him to Caesar.”

Agrippa was intrigued and asked to have an opportunity to examine him. An elaborate stage was set, and Dr. Luke says they wasted little time:

Acts 25: 23 So, on the next day when Agrippa came together with Bernice amid great pomp, and entered the auditorium accompanied by the commanders and the prominent men of the city, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in.

Procurator Festus made a speech at the beginning of the proceeding, and offered some thoughts:

1. Jews appealed to me and pressed their case loudly to execute this man (25:24).

2. I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death (24:25).

3. He appealed to the Emperor, and I agreed to send him. but I have nothing to write to the Emperor concerning charges.

Agrippa began to address Paul in Acts 26:1 Agrippa said to Paul, “You are permitted to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and [proceeded] to make his defense:

For the sake of time in our lesson, I want to focus on the meat of what Paul said – because it is powerful. He opened thanking Agrippa II for hearing the case and being a studious Jew (26:2-3). He made clear that his testimony is well known and easy to verify – a life as a Pharisee until he met Jesus while persecuting Christians at the behest of Temple authorities. He “dove in” to his testimony:

First, Jesus found me when I wasn’t looking for Him (26:12-15). Jesus interrupted my life and made clear I was heading the wrong way. He struck me down and spoke…

Acts 26:14 “And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 “And I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.

He made clear that Jesus was powerful, alive and acting on his life when Paul had no intention of believing, following or serving Jesus. The heart of the Gospel is that Jesus is not dead – He is alive, engaged and moving. Heaven is not far from us – for our Savior is near. He walks beside us each day. He hears what we hear. He sees what we see – but then so much more. A true gospel presentation MUST center on the living Christ. He is not an influence. He is not an inspiring leader Who lived and died long ago. He is a Living Savior – able to reach into lives and transform them today!

Second, Jesus took control of my life, my directions and my goals. I chose to follow His lead, and that is what I am doing!

Acts 26:16 But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; 17 rescuing you from the [Jewish] people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you…

Third, Jesus’ promise is to pull people out of the darkness of Satan’s realm and give them both forgiveness of sin and a new family – a new inheritance.

Acts 26:18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.’

Fourth, Jesus’ message includes proclamation (we are called to preach the Gospel) and repentance (we are called to live distinctly).

Acts 26:19 “So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but [kept] declaring both to those of Damascus first, and [also] at Jerusalem and [then] throughout all the region of Judea, and [even] to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance. 21 “For this reason [some] Jews seized me in the temple and tried to put me to death.

Fifth, Jesus did what the Prophets foretold – suffered, died and rose again! He called me to preach to everyone I can that He is alive!

Acts 26:22 “So, having obtained help from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place; 23 that the Christ was to suffer, [and] that by reason of [His] resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the [Jewish] people and to the Gentiles.”

The Results: A near response, a clearing of charges, a trip to Rome.

• Festus told Paul he was a nutcase (26:24) – but Paul was confident in asserting that he spoke the honest truth (26:25).

• Agrippa II was pressed in his heart, and conviction began – but he quickly dismissed it (26:26-28).

• All three rulers recognized secretly that Paul was innocent – even though they wouldn’t say it to the crowd (Acts 16:19-32).

Paul didn’t lose if he faithfully fulfilled the role God commanded Him to play. Three powerful ruler left the room curious, empty of God and filled with turmoil. One man was being sent in a chain but he was free inside and full of peace.

I want you to stop now, as I close this lesson and think about something. If this life is all you have, then time is slowly chewing up your life. At the end, you will have nothing.. a hole…to dust you will return. Your friends will cry. Your family will miss you. In a few years they will laugh at the funny family stories and cherish your memory. Yet, time is chewing on them as well. As the years pass by, your grave stone will be left unread. Your memory will fade. Your great-grandchildren may not know your name, and they certainly will feel nothing staring at a stone with your name on it. If this is all you have – time wins and you lose. It is pointless to try to get more things – you are only increasing the estate sale. It is pointless to keep pictures of a thousand events – soon no one will know where you were or who you were with anyway. You are a speck of dust drifting through the solar system for a moment in time. What meaning can there be to your little insignificant existence?

Now stop. What if God DOES know you? What if He DID create with an intention as the Bible says? What if YOUR NAME is known in Heaven, and your life is part of God’s wondrous movie to show the cosmos Himself? What if your life matters to the Creator? What if the places you went, the scrapes and bruises you got there – all of it – is destined to become part of Heaven’s story in the ages after the ages, in time after time? The Bible says you CAN know God – because He made a way for you to have a relationship with Him through the sacrifice of Jesus. He is waiting for you to come to Him, believe what He said, and trust that He can begin a work in you that won’t end until you are home with Him… and then the celebration begins!

Think about the pattern of Paul’s witness and the truths you need to embrace:

Jesus wants to meet you, even if you weren’t scheduling a meeting with Him. He wants you to surrender control of your life to Him, and He wants to transform you to something very different than you are. He wants your life in darkness to end – and your allegiance to the rebel enemy to be put aside. He wants to create in your life new fruit that shows He is at work in you. He died for you, and now He lives with outstretched arms, waiting to draw you in to your new life! These are the truths Paul preached – because that is what God made clear to Him…

God modeled the defense of the Gospel so that believers will know how to be clear, confident and concise about the message we were given by the Lord.

Following His Footsteps: “Unattended Hurt” – Matthew 18:15-35

broken toeI am pretty stubborn about some medical things in my life, I admit that. At the same time, I have a dear friend that is far more stubborn than I have ever been – they just won’t take care of needed medical issues when they arise! Let me explain: A few weeks ago my friend banged their little toe into a piece of furniture and broke the toe. Looking at the direction of the toe, there was little doubt that it was broken. I urged my friend to get to a doctor, but that wasn’t what they chose to do. They didn’t want to spend the money, so instead they “toughed it out” with the pain. Now, weeks have passed, and the pain hasn’t gone away, and the toe hasn’t properly healed… and they are still resisting making an appointment to get it looked at. I don’t know if they are embarrassed for waiting so long, or if they believe that it will somehow right itself over time without help, even though that strategy isn’t paying off right now. What is clear is that the toe is broken, and no amount of ignoring the pain will rightly address the cause and bring it to a close. Some things won’t heal unless they are cared for by people who know what should happen next. Time heals wounds that are addressed properly – not pain that is ignored and buried. Pain comes as a byproduct of a broken toe – and an unaddressed toe can become even more painful over time.

That isn’t the only place where burying pain is a bad idea. The same problem carries over into the kind of pain we get from the buried feelings between people that often can lead to broken relationships – and frequently is an even deeper pain than something like a toe. What do we do to maintain relationships – especially when they have been wounded by the sin of one of the parties? Jesus supplied the answers to this prickly problem. As we continue following His ministry to the Disciples, now mostly focused on their development, let’s examine another important instruction of our Savior, and see if we can pick out a principle that becomes clearer the longer you examine the text. The truth is…

Key Principle: Without attending to forgiveness, wounds increase and relationships grow weaker. Only facing the pain causes real change.

Someone has quipped that “Relationships are like gardens – they need constant tending for rich beauty to reveal itself.” It isn’t hard to see in our day that when people don’t properly invest in a relationship with each other, it is easy for their relationship to fall apart. It happens in condo associations, churches and even marriages. Starved relationships become “flimsy” and need constant patches even to appear continuously connected– but beneath they are shallow and largely un-joined. In our study, Jesus addressed relationships primarily among His followers – but any relationship can benefit from heeding the truths He uttered. Many churches and fellowship circles should heed these truths to move to a place of healthy relationship, and heal the breaches caused by our own hard hearts.

Here is the question: “What are the common problems that plague relationships between followers of Jesus like weeds plague a garden?” Jesus addressed six complications we must face to remain on track with one another and walk together as His people.

First, there is the temptation of Avoidance:

Sometimes we let offenses fester in relationships, and that kills trust and love. Jesus warned:

Matthew 18:15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.

Often we find that the struggles of life are hard enough without bringing more conflict into our lives by pointing out harm people did to us. People do wrong, and we just get to the point that it just doesn’t seem worth it to confront them – so we let it alone. Maybe we are afraid of their reaction if we point it out – so we try to avoid the conflict. The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t resolve our hurt, and it usually fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship. At the very least, we stop opening ourself to the other person in the same way – at least until trust begins to be restored – if it ever is.

I clipped this story some time ago, but I think it aptly illustrates what can happen when simple conflicts are left unattended because we avoid “making a thing” out of what seems too small to bring up…The article is dated August, 1999 from Landover, Maryland:

“One hundred years of Christian fellowship, unity, and community outreach ended last Tuesday in an act of congregational discord. The Holy Creek Baptist Church was split into multiple factions. The source of dissension was a piano bench which still sits behind the 1923 Steinway piano to the left of the pulpit. Members and friends at Holy Creek Baptist say that the old bench was always a source of hostility (people should have seen this coming). At present, Holy Creek Congregation will be having four services each Sunday. There has been an agreement mediated by an outside pastor so that each faction will have its own separate service with its own separate pastor. Since the head pastor is not speaking to the associate pastors, each will have their own service, which will be attended by the “factioned” members. The services are far enough apart that neither group will come into contact with the other. An outside party will be moving the piano bench to different locations and appropriate positions, between services, so as to please all sides, and avoid any further conflict that could result in violence.” (From sermoncentral.com).

Unfortunately, there are many such stories from Christian communities! Pastor Dan Erickson published an article and noted that:

In the 1890s there was a small Baptist church in Mayfield County, Kentucky. The church had just two deacons, and those two men seemed to be constantly arguing and bickering with each other. On a particular Sunday, one deacon put up a small wooden peg in the back wall so the pastor could hang up his hat. When the other deacon discovered the peg, he was outraged. “How dare someone put a peg in the wall without first consulting me!” The people in the church took sides and the congregation eventually split. Over a hundred years later, residents of Mayfield County still refer to the two churches as Peg Baptist and Anti-Peg Baptist.

Let’s be honest, in many cases believers have become notorious for their silly divisions. There is an apocryphal story that I think sums up many believers and their constant conflicts:

A man fell overboard a vessel in the high seas and eventually found himself stranded on little island. Alone for years he was finally discovered and rescued. Before leaving the island, he showed his rescuers around the place. He boasted beside his hut: “This is the home I built with my own two hands.” Beside it was another well maintained building where he exclaimed: “This is the church I built with my own two hands.” One of the rescuers inquired of the other structure a short distance away, and asked: “What’s that building over there?” The man replied “That’s where I used to go to church until I got mad and left!”

Jesus didn’t intend for His people to let sin and relationship problems go unaddressed. There are five important words that are instructive in Jesus words in Matthew 18:15. Look at the sentence again:

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

1. This is for a brother – not how you handle things in the world.
2. This is when sin occurs – not simply someone exercising a preference different than yours.
3. This is dealt with in person (“go and show”)- not something offered in an anonymous note.
4. This is handled privately – not something that others divide over.
5. This is offered with the hopeful goal of winning back your brother – not something designed to get them to move on.

The command of Jesus to His followers was simple: Don’t make up conflict, but don’t avoid it when it comes. Deal with one another. If someone hurts you – talk to them, not about them. If someone is involved in sin and you see it – pull them aside and deal with them quietly and privately – don’t offer it as a “public prayer request” so others can “take sides” with you. If the people of God will tend to the relationships of brothers, there will be greater health and strength in the body of Christ and less distraction to the cause of Christ in the world.

Second, there is a struggle to hear what others are saying because of Ego Deafness:

Jesus anticipated that some won’t listen – because we are stubborn and often ego driven. Sometimes we let our ego block our ears and we resist the truth even when we are obviously caught doing wrong. It is as though when someone confronts us, we search their words but cannot point to anything they did or said that was wrong, yet we dig our heels in and refuse their words. Inside we may even believe we are wrong – but we won’t admit it to them! Jesus instructed:

Matthew 18:16 “But if he does not listen [to you], take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.

Jesus wanted others involved if the hearer was resistant. That is a protection to all parties, and can be helpful if the recipient of the rebuke does not truly understand – but that is usually not the problem. Ego deafness is often caused by scarring that has covered over our ability to hear criticism well, and a protectiveness that causes us to push off responsibilities and blame others. People who are “corrective tone deaf” are often people who associate even the most constructive comment with a negative and piercing tone of screeching volume. Because there are so many of us who are prepared to “write off” criticism, Jesus gave an instruction about what our friends should do when we are wrong, but we won’t listen. If we hear critique concerning our sin from one person, we may react inside like: “This guy is crazy!” If we hear from many others, we are slowly forced to conclude that the problem really may be US. Jesus’ instruction in the case of the ego deaf was:

• Approach him privately, but if rejected approach him with another person or two.
• Make sure all are listening carefully to his response – it will be essential to know if there was real resistance to the idea that they were wrong.

The legal standard of two witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6 – what was required in a murder charge) was applied by Jesus to disputes between believers. God intended the words of believers to bring help and life – even when the feedback is to point out sin in our lives. We need each other, and we need to listen to one another. A good word on this was provided by the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together”:

God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying their truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother, his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”

Third, we struggle with the problem of Misplaced Compassion:

Sometimes we license behaviors by allowing them to continue to “keep peace” and “save others the embarrassment” or “deliver them from consequences” but that isn’t love – it is often abandonment of principle for the sake of appeasement.

Matthew 18:17 “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Some words need to be carefully studied here, because Jesus obviously didn’t tell the early believer to “take them to the church” if there was no such thing yet. The term “ekklesia” was literally the term “called out ones” – taken from Greeks who were called apart to Pnyx hill to vote. They were taken out of the community at large – and later that word was chosen in Greek to describe the early believers as they formed the church. In the words of Jesus, these were likely a group of wise men who represented the whole of the synagogue – like elders of the faith community. They rendered judgment and enforced the carrying out of penalty.

As a society we can easily make mistakes out of misguided compassion. Most government programs began with a view toward helping genuinely needy people.

The single mother struggled, so the government put together a relief package. Not everyone had the same number of children, so the relief needed to be indexed to the number of them. The net result, though entirely unintended, was to pay people more for having more children out of wedlock. The outcome was that people were aided who lived without a value system that included essential moral components, and they found this as a means of support. They had babies to increase revenue, and refused marriage because it would cost them too much.

No one wanted to pay people to have children out of wedlock, but that is what we do to the tune of millions of dollars today. What should have happened? Let me suggest three important guidelines that could have helped (and still can):

• First, keep funding and aid at the local level, where people can evaluate the lifestyle and keep that attached to funding.

• Second, make sure that life skills are included in any funding program that will truly give aid.

• Third, attach responsibilities to rewards. Make sure people recognize that money from another’s pocket is not their right – but a “helping hand” to get them through and on their feet. Standing will be there responsibility.

Taking shots at society is all well and good, because we don’t have to do anything about all that but nod our head or disagree – but in the end the government takes the money from our check and we have little to say about it directly – and increasingly little from a representative standpoint. Let’s get a bit closer to home, then.

As believers, we can and should have hearts that are sensitive to needs in our society. The problem is, if we don’t see the need completely within the context of the parameters of God’s Word, we can make the problem worse with an improper response. We can even contribute to other problems that we don’t see by our response. Misplaced compassion can often be the culprit when believers “love brothers” past the Scriptural mandates to live as believers. After all, we are all sinners, aren’t we? While that is true and we don’t ultimately judge another’s eternal destiny, the Bible is filled with standards we are called to hold one another accountable to in the body.

In the Corinthian letters, where Paul was primarily addressing rampant sin and a lax church leadership, Paul made it clear that behaviors that did not please God were cause for church discipline. Tolerance of sin for the purpose of keeping peace leads to a dropping of God’s standard altogether in favor of the happiness of men. Paul commanded ostracism and discipline out of tough love.

Fourth, there is the problem of hesitation because of Uncertain Authority:

Sometimes we don’t correct behavior because we fail to recognize the truth that God empowered in His Word and through His people, and we don’t speak with one voice clearly.

Matthew 18:18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

In the case of the Apostles in this context, Jesus told them something very powerful that was uniquely true of them- they were going to bind and loose with heaven’s authority if they did it together. The key to verses eighteen through twenty are clear – they were empowered when they came together and stood together on issues that needed to be made clear.

Though we are not Apostles in the first century sense of the term, we need to recognize that God did, in fact, give our generation the responsibility to proclaim with clarity the truth of His empowered Words. We must be clear: God’s Word changes people. We don’t have power, and the combination of the words isn’t a spooky incantation – but the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to transform people – on that the Bible is crystal clear. Because that is true, we can speak with love, but we must also speak with certainty when God has spoken.

• We are not uncertain about how someone comes into a right relationship with God.

• We are not uncertain about God’s priority of life and the sacredness of human life.

• We are not uncertain about the key role the family plays in God’s work, and what God says IS a real family.

• We are not uncertain about God’s Word concerning racial prejudice and hatred.

• We are not uncertain about respect for authority and God’s clear admonition to see those in authority as an extension of His arm.

We cannot remain silent out of a warped sense of tolerance, nor should we act like the Bible is not clear because some people have stubbornly refused to read the whole narrative in its intended context.

Fifth, there is the problem of Wounded Spirits:

When we get hurt by people who do wrong to us, we don’t want to forgive them – either we desire revenge or at least we don’t want them to use our softness to hurt us again. We become quick to push people out – and are not characterized as a people of forgiveness. We start a countdown on wrongs with an end toward limiting our own pain.

Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

Jesus told Peter he needed to stop counting, or he would never really understand the nature of forgiveness. We have been given only two choices: first, we can confront in short accounts those who hurt us and try to “win a brother”. Second, we can decide to simply and completely forgive another person, recognizing they may not have understood the breach, and also taking into account that they may do the same thing again, because we did not seek to correct the behavior. The option that far too many of us take is the one that is NOT given to us – to keep the hurt and not confront the problem.

Corrie Ten Boom in the book, Reflections of God’s Glory (page 69), wrote,

“In Africa a man came to a meeting with bandaged hands. I asked him how he had been injured. He said, “My neighbor’s straw roof was on fire; I helped him to put it out and that’s how my hands were burned. “Later I heard the whole story. The neighbor hated him and had set his roof on fire while his wife and children were asleep in the hut. They were in great danger. Fortunately, he was able to put out the fire in his house on time. But sparks flew over to the roof of the man who had set the house on fire and his house started to burn. There was no hate in the heart of this Christian; there was love for his enemy and he did everything he could to put out the fire in his neighbor’s house. That is how his own hands were burned.”

What a picture of forgiveness without boundaries!

Sixth, there is a problem of Forgetfulness:

Finally, Jesus offered the key to forgiving one who hurt you; that is recognizing how much you have been forgiven for your own mutiny against God.

Matthew 18:23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 “When he had begun to settle [them], one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 “But since he did not have [the means] to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 “So the slave fell [to the ground] and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28 “But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and [began] to choke [him], saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 “So his fellow slave fell [to the ground] and [began] to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 “But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 “So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 “Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

There is little need to comment on Jesus’ story – we all get it. If we are going to forgive others, it will be because we see ourselves as undeserving of God’s forgiveness and mercy. With the sharpness of truth within, we will look tenderly without. Jesus taught us:

• We can avoid needed confrontation out of fear of a bad response.
• We can deny wrongdoing because of wounds to our ego.
• We can bury wrongs to try to keep a veneer of peace.
• We can hesitate to address wrongs because we are unsure of our authority to do so.
• We can resist forgiving others to protect ourselves from further hurt.
• We can forget how much we have violated God, and how much our forgiveness cost our Savior.

All of these are avoiding the problems that cause relationships to fall apart.

Without attending to forgiveness, wounds increase and relationships grow weaker. Only facing the pain causes real change.

I was moved when I read this short story, and I hope it will help cement the truth in your heart. The story was called “FORGIVING WHEN YOU CAN’T” by Jeannette Williams. She wrote:

Her car had killed my husband, a school crossing guard. She had struck Tom down while he was on duty, helping the children. The investigating officer and witnesses had told me it was a “no fault” accident. I didn’t want to believe them. In the sad, lonely weeks after the funeral, my thoughts turned again and again to this woman–blaming her, accusing her, resenting her. One afternoon my preacher, Garth Steele, stopped by, “I’ve seen her,” he said. “She wasn’t speeding. She wasn’t careless. She was blinded by the low, glaring sun. It honestly wasn’t an irresponsible accident.” “That’s what everyone says,” I replied. “I know I should feel sorry for her–that God wants me to–but I can’t.” He patted my arm kindly. “When you can accept what’s happened, perhaps you can forgive. Please, Jeannette, ask God to help you.” My angry feelings were still there a few weeks later when Brother Steele came back “I want you to go see her,” he said. “See her?” My voice was shrill. “Why? I’m the one who’s alone–she has a husband! I’m the injured party.” I was hurting so much inside. “Is it wrong that I’m angry?” I finally asked. “No, it’s human. With God’s help, you’ll work your way through this. You must pray about it.” He took my hands. “She’s a teacher. She loves children, the way Tom did.” She loves children. The words echoed in my head long after he’d left. I tried to imagine the woman in her classroom–guiding, encouraging, concerned for her students. I sank into Tom’s chair and bowed my head: “Father, I can’t go on like this. I know You want me to forgive her. Help me have the heart to do it.” The next day, God did. I was putting away some sympathy notes from Tom’s schoolchildren, and as I reread the caring messages, Tom’s favorite bible verse slipped into my mind: (Eph 4:32 NIV) Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. My preacher had asked me to pray, and I had. Now, I found, I was ready to try the thing that God seemed to be asking me: Be Kind. Brother Steele phoned ahead, and the following morning I walked up the brick path to the woman’s house. She had a frail look and her face was drawn. We sat down stiffly. At first it was difficult for both of us to talk, and then she began to tell me how her heart went out to me, and how miserable she was. She was afraid to drive a car now, she couldn’t work, and she couldn’t eat. Could it be, I wondered, that she was suffering even more than I? And then I heard my own voice blurt out: “I know you didn’t mean to hit my husband.” Her lips trembled. “If only I hadn’t left home that day!” Without thinking about it, I put my arms around her. “I forgive you,” I said. “Now you must forgive yourself.” And, with God’s help, she did.

God on the Move: “Appeasement is a Failed Strategy” (Part One) – Acts 24

appease 1Before WWII, the world was able to see the political strength of Adolph Hitler growing – it was not a secret rise to power. He was not particularly clandestine about his extreme beliefs, and he was not known for being silent about his thoughts. Yet, many in the west appeared to favor the strategy of “appeasement”. Clearly, the government of Neville Chamberlain in London settled on that approach.

The Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI maintained a separation of Austria and Germany, but in 1938 the Austrian-born Hitler instructed pro-German Austrians to create disturbances and then he sent troops in to “restore order”. Though France and England complained about the breach, the policy of appeasement prevented war by a series of negotiations. After that, Hitler threatened war if the territory inhabited by three million German speakers living in Czechoslovakia were not allowed to be annexed to Germany – and the appeasing forces went to Munich and agreed to let him have the territory in exchange for a promise he wouldn’t illegally take any others. Six months later, all those governments realized they were duped, and appeasement was nothing more than a delay tactic while Germany armed and trained soldiers.

Though true statesmanship is often about nuanced compromise; appeasement in the face of evil doesn’t work – history is clear. Telling people what they want to hear is only helpful if what you are telling them is the truth. If not, what starts off sounding like a reasonable argument, ends up surrendering valuable territory, costing lives, and allowing an enemy to entrench himself and fortify his position while good sits by idly and blissfully ignorant of the direction events are headed in.

We may be living in a time when world powers are posturing again (can you spell “Ukraine”?) but that isn’t my focus today. The simple fact is that we are living in a generation that has swallowed a moral relativism that hungers to appease evil and easily ignores truth. The strange symptom that indicates such a climate of moral relativism is that any verbal form of judgment of wrongdoing becomes the biggest sin of all. It isn’t wrong actions that bother people in such a climate – it is calling wrong by its name that angers them. Many people honestly feel that no one has the right to judge their actions – even when those actions change the society for everyone and pose a real cost to the rest of the community. It is a surreal disconnection of cause and effect caused, in part, by appeasement and a general lack of vigilance concerning truth.

Raise a generation of believers in the soup of moral relativism and you will eventually hear open arguments for appeasement growing inside the walls of the church. “Love” will be cited. “Tolerance” will be noted; but often truth seems to get lost in the mix. Those who stand with the Bible will slowly, but very deliberately, be framed as the intolerant ones “out of step with outreach” and “insensitive to the needs of others”. The Biblical record in such arguments becomes increasingly ignored or discounted as “irrelevant to modern sensitivities”– as if this is the first generation with sinful desires that pushed to get a new definition of morality. This is an old ploy, but it appears more dangerous this time – because this generation doesn’t appear to possess the inoculation of Biblical knowledge to slow the spread of the appeasement disease. As we draw late in the calendar of mankind, as the Bible reminds that we truly are, this certainly seems like no time for the message of Jesus to get fuzzy inside the church. In fact, now more than ever, we need a clear understanding of what we are saying to the lost world, and a concise but thorough presentation of it.

Fortunately, we have the record of those who went before us in the church’s beginnings to keep us moored to the past – and more importantly connected to God’s heart as expressed in His Holy Word. As we continue to follow the path of the Apostle Paul, we have a record of exactly how he defended the faith in the face of powerful pagans of his time – and that is at the heart of today’s lesson. These defenses are such a treasure; they occupy chapters of Dr. Luke’s writing in the Book of Acts. Here is the truth…

Key Principle: God modeled the defense of the Gospel so that believers will know how to be clear, confident and concise about the message we were given by the Lord.

I love that Paul was clear and Luke was concise. Sometimes I feel we live in a world befuddled by theological complexity. Some of the problem is that some believers major on minors and don’t recognize what the core message is, as opposed to other important but non-essential teachings. Some of the problem is as simple as the fact that some people don’t think clearly and cannot communicate clearly whether they know Jesus or not. Thankfully, we have a pattern to follow – a repeated model left behind by the first generation of church planters and Gospel defenders.

Follow the text in the Book of Acts to three Roman Provincial Defenses of the Apostle Paul. They are part of a string of seven defenses that Luke took the time to record for Theophilus, who may have been hired as Paul’s advocate before Nero to plead his case in Rome. We have identified two defenses already in our study:

• The first defense of Paul was before the Jewish crowd in the Temple, given in Hebrew, from the stairs of the Antonia Fortress (Acts 22).

• The second defense was before the Sanhedrin, under the guard of the Chiliarch (commander) in Jerusalem (Acts 23).

The next three defenses were at the highest level available in the Province of Judea where Paul was arrested – and we want to look more closely at these three stories. As we examine these three accounts, we want to focus on three important parts to each recorded defense and draw some important conclusions about how to defend our faith when necessary. The three foci are:

• First, the players – it is essential that we clarify the picture of the setting by sharpening our focus on Paul’s audience.

• Second, the content – we want to look closely at HOW Paul defended the faith, and what elements of the story he highlighted according to Luke’s brief overview.

• Third, the results – sometimes it is encouraging to see the responses to those who went before us so that we have some idea what to expect.

We will use these three as our “outline” of each defense, and then take the time to apply the lessons we find in the record.

Paul’s Defense before Procurator Felix (Acts 24):

Let’s start with Acts 24, where Paul has been taken to Caesarea and placed in the judgment hall of the Procurator named Felix – the favored name for slaves that meant “happy”.

The Players: Antoninus Felix and Drusilla

Here is how Luke recorded the scene:

Acts 24:1 After five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders, with an attorney [named] Tertullus, and they brought charges to the governor against Paul. 2 After [Paul] had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying [to the governor], “Since we have through you attained much peace, and since by your providence reforms are being carried out for this nation, 3 we acknowledge [this] in every way and everywhere, most excellent Felix, with all thankfulness. 4 “But, that I may not weary you any further, I beg you to grant us, by your kindness, a brief hearing. 5 “For we have found this man a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 “And he even tried to desecrate the temple; and then we arrested him. [We wanted to judge him according to our own Law. 7 “But Lysias the commander came along, and with much violence took him out of our hands, 8 ordering his accusers to come before you]. By examining him yourself concerning all these matters you will be able to ascertain the things of which we accuse him.” 9 The Jews also joined in the attack, asserting that these things were so.

Since we know about Paul and his background as well as something of the people attacking him already, let’s see what history has kept alive concerning the Procurator before whom Paul stood.

Marcus Antonius Felix was born about the same time as the Apostle Paul (circa 5 CE) and held the post of Roman procurator of the Province of Judea between 52-58 CE. He rose to power in a unique way. Though probably born a slave, his family may have actually descended from the Greek kingly line of Arcadia, in southern Greece. He probably gained status because of the service of his younger brother, the freedman Marcus Antonius Pallas, who became the secretary of the treasury during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. The historian Josephus called Marcus by the name “Claudius Felix” signaling the possibility that he was “adopted into the gens (clan) of the Claudii”. By petition of Pallas, Felix’ seemed to have gained his title. His wealth building strategy apparently included taking bribes (Acts 24:26); but that led to cynicism about Roman justice and an increase of crime in Judaea. His rule was stained by a series of bitter disturbances followed by his often too severe responses. On returning to Rome, Felix was accused of participation in a dispute between two parties in Caesarea with a plan to divest some of the inhabitants and get some of the money. His brother Pallas came to his aid before Emperor Nero, and Felix avoided punishment. History reminds us that Felix married three times. Felix’ second wife was Drusilla of Judea, daughter of Herod Agrippa I & Cypros (who also divorced a king to marry him). Of possible interest to those who visit Pompeii in Italy, Felix and the Judean Drusilla, had a son, Marcus Antonius Agrippa, who died along with his mother Drusilla and many of the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 CE. After the loss of his family in that tragedy, Felix married for a third time, but little is known about his third wife – or anything else that happened to him.

The Defense: Clear presentation of the issues.

More important for our lesson than the identity of the players is the specific record of the defense. The text offers six clues as to how Paul kept his defense clear, concise and focused. Consider these traits as modeled for us – because God kept them in the record for us to read about as we face days we will need to defend our faith before authorities.

Note that as Paul defended the faith, he waited for his opportunity to speak – he wasn’t RUDE.

Acts 24:10 When the governor had nodded for him to speak, Paul responded:

There may have been a time when it wasn’t necessary to add this point, but that time has passed. Christians need to remember to be polite when they stand before the world. This is one of the very impressive parts of Ravi Zacharias – his vast intellect and clear-thinking pattern of speaking is enhanced by his careful gentleness and polite manner.

If you keep reading, you will note that Paul acknowledged the authority of others – he wasn’t PRESUMPTIVE.

Acts 24:10b “…Knowing that for many years you have been a judge to this nation…”

Some may consider this part of being polite, but I think it is deeper – I think he respected authority. Respect wins listeners, while denigrating another’s position – even if you think they aren’t acting uprightly – only leads to discounting our collective testimony. At the same time, we must recognize that position and accomplishment don’t mean you can assume character. Many people were hired for their skills – not for their emotional maturity or social adeptness. If the famous men and women from the world of competitive sports have taught us anything, it is this: outstanding ability is not necessarily sterling character; outstanding accomplishment is not synonymous with inner maturity. In short, skill is not maturity.

Verse ten continues, and in it we see he offered his defense with a smile – he wasn’t DEFENSIVE in spirit.

Acts 14:10b “…I cheerfully make my defense…”

I LOVE that line. Paul was illegally arrested and brutally handled – but cheerful in his defense. This reminded me of the time at Philippi he and Silas held a “hymn sing” from a jail cell. The man knew how to keep his spirit “up” and ready! Defensive presentation shows a lack of confidence in our position. If we know and trust the power of God, we can sing from the jail cell – because God hasn’t forgotten us during the time of our testing. It is easy to say from my life of comfort – I can only hope to grasp the instruction should the days ahead necessitate.

Luke continued with a simple assessment: Paul gave the facts – he didn’t ASSUME knowledge.

Acts 24:11 “…since you can take note of the fact that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship.”

Paul didn’t make the Procurator guess about the circumstances – he shared the straight facts with no frilly details.

Though he openly challenged the opponent to show solid evidence – he didn’t needlessly ATTACK them.

This is important! Paul said:

Acts 24:12 “Neither in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor in the city [itself] did they find me carrying on a discussion with anyone or causing a riot. 13 “Nor can they prove to you [the charges] of which they now accuse me.

In essence, Paul said, “They don’t have any evidence to present, and they won’t be offering any! They are going to TELL you I did things, but they cannot OFFER VERIFIABLE EVIDENCE of any of it.

Finally, Paul made clear the true issues involved – he didn’t WANDER into side areas of conflict.

Paul knew what he intended to bring forward. He said:

Acts 24:14 “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets; 15 having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 “In view of this, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience [both] before God and before men. 17 “Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings; 18 in which they found me [occupied] in the temple, having been purified, without [any] crowd or uproar. But [there were] some Jews from Asia—19 who ought to have been present before you and to make accusation, if they should have anything against me. 20 “Or else let these men themselves tell what misdeed they found when I stood before the Council, 21 other than for this one statement which I shouted out while standing among them, ‘For the resurrection of the dead I am on trial before you today.'”

As you examine the defense in detail, did you notice in the details of Paul’s statement of defense? First, he said that he was a leader of the “people of the Way” – and in that he was prepared to be accused and suffer penalty if he was guilty of a real crime. He didn’t deny he belonged to Jesus and was a part of the church. We need to be careful not to cover over this point. Denying of Jesus and our relationship to Him cannot and must not be part of the strategy of defense of the Gospel. Jesus was clear that He would deny before the Father those who denied Him before men.

Second, Paul made clear that he saw himself as a Jew, obedient to the Scriptures and seeing no conflict in them with following the Risen One. He did not concede that he was a renegade outsider. In fact, he made clear that he was accused of being outside the Jewish mainstream when he truly was not. This is a detail that offers warning – don’t feel the need to admit to things that aren’t true because you are trying to find “middle ground” with those who are attacking the Gospel.

Third, Paul made clear that he stood before the authorities with a clear conscience, and that his faith did not consist of trickery of those in authority. In a time when many would bribe and play political games – Paul made clear he was a “what you see if what you get” kind of man. This is helpful to remind us not to get involved in back room deals to keep out of trouble. We must be honest, above board and straightforward – with a clear heart.

Fourth, Paul pointed out that his opponents lacked witnesses that could offer any direct testimony of wrongdoing on his part, and didn’t provide them to the Sanhedrin when he was questioned at the time. It is important that false charges be called exactly what they are – deceptions. Believers don’t have to let people lie and falsely charge them and sit quietly. When the time is right, make clear that lies are being told!

Fifth, Paul summarized the whole issue as a singular one – the fact that he believed with his whole heart that Jesus was raised – and that was the heart of the Sanhedrin’s issue with him. The resurrection is not an incidental part of the Christian message, but at the heart of it. The center of our faith is rooted in the idea that there is a SPIRITUAL WORLD, and the short stint of physical life is not all of life for people. The fact that we maintain that afterlife is real and life now has an effect on life then will be offensive to many – but it is the truth.

Sixth, a bit later in a later defense before Felix (this time with his wife in attendance), Paul spoke of something that cause Felix to back away from his message – righteousness, discipline and future judgment.

Acts 24:22 But Felix, having a more exact knowledge about the Way, put them off, saying, “When Lysias the commander comes down, I will decide your case.” 23 Then he gave orders to the centurion for him to be kept in custody and [yet] have [some] freedom, and not to prevent any of his friends from ministering to him. 24 But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him [speak] about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.”

We must remember that our message is not just one of salvation and heaven, but of submission and judgment. Many believers find it difficult to embrace the idea that the Gospel includes the depravity of man and impending judgment – but Paul did not find that to be something he wanted to hide. People need to recognize that a Christ-less eternity is no joke!

Seventh, it is worth noting that a bribe was anticipated, and that Luke knew that was the case. Paul surely understood that as well.

Acts 24:26 At the same time too, he was hoping that money would be given him by Paul; therefore he also used to send for him quite often and converse with him.

Paul wouldn’t offer a bribe to get a release, because he trusted that God had him where he was. He was less intent on getting free than he was on being used of God.

We are almost finished observing Paul’s defense of the faith before a governor of the Roman Empire and his wife. Step back for a moment and look at what we learned about defending our faith.

• Paul didn’t need to be rude, presumptive or defensive in spirit to stand for Jesus –and we don’t either.

• Paul didn’t assume that his audience understood his faith (he didn’t “Christian-eze” his way through his defense), nor did he attack his opponents to get his point across – and we don’t need to either.

• Paul didn’t wander between issues, but stayed focused on the essential point of making the heart of his faith clear to the hearer – and we must do so as well.

• Paul didn’t like disagreement, and didn’t want it in his life – but that didn’t make him so soft that he refused to stand his ground – and we cannot either. This is a time for believers to make it clear that the message of the Bible is non-negotiable. What the Bible calls on us to do, is what God expects us to do – and we intend to do it.

The testimony before the world may get much tougher in the coming days. As naturalism nails down every board in the floor of our school systems over the next generation, and as skepticism and agnosticism become the hallmark of the learned, we may find a cold wind blowing in our face. We will have a month of witches at Halloween but never a single mention of Jesus at Christmastime – and this generation will accept that as normal. A single comment like: “A child needs a mother and a father” will be reason enough to be pilloried in public as a cruel and unthinking person. Suggesting that people have “no legal right to expect to live their lives without ever feeling offended” will get you a world of trouble – unless the offense is because of anything that has to do with the church, a Bible of Jesus. You will be able to quote the Qur’an in class, but never a Bible verse – for that will surely bring an end to the republic. You will feel it – fairness and justice is listing to one side.

As that happens, don’t lose your cool and don’t lose heart. We have a pattern to follow.

The Result: Continued imprisonment.

Acts 24:27 But after two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, and wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned.

It is easy to view the defense as a failure – because Paul was still under arrest. That would be true, but that wasn’t the goal. God wanted Paul to head to Rome, and that is still where he was going. God knows His timing, and Paul needed to learn to be content with his place while God moved in other areas and with other people.

The most important ingredient has been staring us in the face for the whole of the study – but I never mentioned it. Paul WANTED to be used of God to bring the message of Jesus to people. He was willing to sit in jail at the instruction of Jesus and wait his turn to head to Rome – because he knew that is where he belonged. He did it because he loved Jesus. He did it because he was burdened by the lost. He did it because he LOVED PEOPLE.

In his book The Gospel According to Jesus, Chris Seay mentioned a profound lesson he gained from his father about how to love people. He wrote: “Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, so we used to get outfield deck seats (aka ‘the cheap seats’) to see the baseball games at the [Houston] Astrodome. Most of the people buying the cheap seats did so to save more money for beer. After the first few innings, they were drunk, and by the time the seventh-inning stretch rolled around, there would be beer mixed with peanut shells on the floor, spilled beer down your back, and a brawl two rows over and back to the left. It was ugly out there. As a kid, I learned from a lot people that we were sitting with the ‘bad people.’ There was one consistent drunk fan named Batty Bob. He was a self-proclaimed Houston Astros mascot. He’d come to all the games wearing a rainbow wig, and he’d lead slurred cheers in the stands. I remember one time my dad went out to sit and talk with Batty Bob. He spent the whole game with Bob, then walked him out to the parking lot to bring him home with us. I was more than confused, because this guy was one of the ‘bad people.’ When we got home, my dad came to me and explained how God loved Batty Bob. I remember thinking, Really? Batty Bob? And he stayed with us for a few days to get back on his feet. This is when I started to realize that God did not despise these people; he dearly loved them.”

We must remember that the church was designed to be a place, not simply where people would be “saved” – but where their broken lives would be transformed. The slavery to sin has been bested by our loving Creator – and the message of freedom awaits those who will hear our voices. The church is where God’s Spirit is working to change people once enslaved to their appetites to be like our Savior in character, and where we – in love with Jesus and people – will work together to show the power of the Savior graphically to the world. God modeled defense of the Gospel so that believers will know how to be clear, confident and concise about the message.

Following His Footsteps: “Highly Intensive Training” – Mark 8:27-9:50

body1I know that most of you will find this shocking, but I have never been a body builder. This picture is not me. In fact, the only muscles that I am fanatical about using and developing beyond my typing finger muscles are those that help me fill my mouth, chew and digest food. I admit it, I am a foodie – and weight gain has been a struggle over the past years. I do know some things about muscle growth – though it is obvious I am not invested in growing them. It isn’t that complicated at all. Muscle building, a therapist friend of mine says, is about consistent, low volume but regular workouts which are based around the universal laws of overload and progression. The fundamentals of strength training make clear that in order to reach goals of increased muscle mass and strength, one should train regularly and then give the muscles adequate rest and proper nutrients. By doing this week after week and increasing the weight or repetitions – the muscles will grow. Body builders also have times of “highly intensive training” to burst to new levels of output and build muscles in an accelerated way.

Disciple making isn’t body building – but it has distinct similarities. As we follow the ministry of Jesus and His Disciples, we see times of intense workouts of a few of them – and this lesson will follow one such short period. It was intense training – so it was intended to be more stark and more powerful – and that is one of the great benefits of carefully studying this time. Don’t get me wrong: Peter won’t look that much more fit after the intense training than he did going into it. At the same time, his experiences were designed to help him grow in critical areas – and the record of them will help us grow in those same places.

Here is the truth that Peter and the boys needed to learn…

Key Principle: We can grow in the work of ministering for Jesus – but we will never be self-sufficient in the role.

We will constantly need God’s direction and sometimes we will require His gentle correction (or, for some of us, a swift kick in the pants). In our study of the portion from the Gospel of Mark for this lesson we encounter a series of “snapshots” of a few disciples who left the record of their failures and lessons in growing to maturity. Careful study of them might save us the pain of the same mistakes.

Pick up your observation of the story of Mark at the scene of the “final exam” of the disciples at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus has pulled the men away, and He is having a very important conversation with them.

Graduation Day: Peter gets an answer that seems to separate him from the pack.

The first snapshot is the scene of the examination of the disciples by the Master. Jesus was asking the questions, and the disciples were answering orally – or trying to blend into the background so as to not get called on by the Teacher. Mark recorded:

Mark 8:27 “Jesus went out, along with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He questioned His disciples, saying to them, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 They told Him, saying, “John the Baptist; and others [say] Elijah; but others, one of the prophets.” 29 And He [continued] by questioning them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And He warned them to tell no one about Him.”

In the eighties, Americans were still wrestling with the removal of prayer from public education, as secularists pushed hard to get God separated from education in the name of “science”. During that time there was a popular bumper sticker that said: “As long as there are Math tests, there will always be prayer in schools.” Though people have tried to remove any sense of a deity from “smart people” in our society – the fact is that people long to know there is help when they are in trouble. I found an interesting comment by Ravi Zacharias concerning modern man’s recognition of the existence of God – and it made me smile. He reported:

The eminent scientist and atheist Dr. Richard Dawkins was on a radio program in April of 2012 with the Rev. Giles Fraser on Radio 4’s Today in England where he was again “bashing Christians”. He said they were “basically very unintelligent people”. The minister dialoguing with him questioned him on that point. His evidence was simple. He said that if you asked many Christians they couldn’t even tell you an interviewer the proper names of the four Gospels. Rev. Fraser replied: Dr. Dawkins, can you name the full title of the “Origin of the Species” by Darwin? The actual title was: On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life . Dawkins fumbled a bit, and then the preeminent atheist said, “Oh God, I know it is longer than the way we say it…” Funny, even an atheist calls on God to tell him the name of the book that helped him explain away God as Creator! How can you not smile!

Back in the text, Jesus wasn’t dealing with secularists, but with observant, synagogue educated Jews of the first century. They believed in the God of Abraham, and were raised with a Biblical world view – admittedly with some significant additions by rabbis who confused some of the ideals of the Scriptures. When Jesus pulled the men aside, He knew them well – even what they were thinking. John’s Gospel noted that Jesus “knew what was in the heart of man”. Because that is true, we can surmise that He wasn’t asking a question out of some deep inner need to be affirmed, so that He could feel good about Himself. If I asked my closest friends, “What do people say about me?” it would be blatant sign that I was needing to be pumped up and affirmed – but that wasn’t what this record was about in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus wanted the disciples to verbally affirm His position in front of one another– so He could take them to the next level of understanding.

We normally use the term discipleship to refer to the training of believers, those who have asked Jesus to be their Savior and take over their life. In Jesus’ case, the discipleship of His men began before the men understood Who Jesus truly was. If you think about it carefully, in some ways, discipleship still does include this time of discovery. Terms like “pre-evangelism” have been used to describe the hours spent with a man, woman or child that has yet to make the decision to follow Jesus. But in another sense, hardly anyone begins their walk with Jesus recognizing His full identity and much of what a relationship with the Master and Creator truly entails. Most of us decided to follow a Jesus we barely knew, and we didn’t grasp the full depth of that choice until much later – and that isn’t wrong. God opened our hearts and took up residence, and the “learning curve” of the relationship began for us – like a newly married couple learns to be a new family.

Go back to verse twenty-seven (8:27) and you will note that Jesus was very far outside His normal territory; He was finally alone with His disciples. The place Jesus took the men could was a strange area to them – well off the beaten path of the kosher villages near the Sea of Galilee. The area of “Caesarea of Herod Philip” was a highly-developed pagan city with an acropolis (upper city) of pagan temples set on a raised area against a cliff. The city was surrounded by a lush valley in the far north of the country at the southwestern foothills of Mt. Hermon, near the ancient city of Dan (that marked the northern border of Israel in the United and Divided Kingdom periods). The uplifted pagan cultic precinct of the city appeared to extend on a platform out of the rocky face, in front of an in-dented escarpment with a deep cave that could be seen from far away. Both the cave and the acropolis became a sacred precinct with a Temple to Caesar Augustus and a shrine to the god Pan.

Many pagan cities had such an acropolis, but this place was one of a handful of places that had a unique identity. The cave was recognized by ancient pagan worshipers as one of several mystical entrances to the underworld (Hades), where one would enter the abode of the dead and cross the River Styx under the watchful eye of Cerberus, the three-headed dog. The cave shared this identity in ancient society along with the caves near Cumae at the Bay of Naples – where the Cumaen Sibyl told fortunes, another at Cape Matapan on the southern tip of Achaia – where Hercules accessed the underworld in legend, and the Ploutonion (Pluto’s Gate at Hierapolis) – a city Paul mentioned in his letter to the Colossians. In short, this was one of the “gates of hell” in pagan mythology – and that identity was well-known in the time of Jesus.

Don’t skip past the fact that Jesus asked them the most significant question that He ever presented to them – truly the single question they should have been prepared to answer after the last years traveling together. The question was, in essence: “Who am I?” Mark made plain the answer was offered by Peter, who finally got a right answer in the record of the Gospels. Since Mark’s material was likely based on the preaching of Peter much later, the dialogue between Peter and Jesus is much shorter than that found in Matthew 16 where the Gospel recorded:

Matthew 16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal [this] to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Some scholars rightly point out that Jewish use of the term “gates of Hades” appears to be related to the prohibition of observant Jews to be a part of the pagan festivities of the defiled cities. Entering a pagan town was like entering Hades itself. If that is the sense in which Jesus used the terms, verse nineteen (Matthew 16:19) may have offered a prophecy that Peter would be called on to enter the gate of a Gentile city (ironically another city called Caesarea – but at a different location) and offer the Gospel to a Gentile (Cornelius in Acts 10). The phrase “keys of the Kingdom” may have been a reference to the fact that God “unlocked the Gentile world” to the Gospel through the vision of the sheet in Jaffa in that passage in the Book of Acts. At the same time, one cannot help but note that the city was built against a cave that was known as a “gate of Hades” by the Gentiles who lived near it. The ironic truth of the passage is this: Jesus was making plain the open gate to the afterlife with Him passed through a recognition of WHO Jesus is.

Elsewhere, Jesus made plain that He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except by Him.” His words were both exclusive and restrictive. He claimed that He is the gate in the wall that separated man from God, sinners from righteousness. Entering the relationship with the God of Abraham can only be accomplished by means of the Door – Jesus Himself. Jesus said “I am the Door”. Here is the truth: Jesus is the gate that made the door of physical death lead to the Father – and not simply to a permanent separation from God. Jesus paid for sin, and when I acknowledge Him as Savior and yield my life to Him, physical death is a move to be in God’s presence, awaiting my permanent home with Him.

Despite the seeming complexity found in the answers to life’s purpose and breadth, the questions that must be faced by each of us at the heart of the meaning of life are exacting and simple: Were we made by a “Being of intelligence” or are we here without any intention by random chance? If we were made by an intelligent Creator, did that Being make only the physical world, or is there a metaphysical existence beyond? If there is a metaphysical existence, is participation automatic or is there any evidence that a Creator Being expressed specific requirements to participate in and enjoy the time after this life? To each question Jesus was clear in His answers as we have them recorded in the Gospels: God created both a physical and spiritual world. Man sinned and was separated from God. God sent a Savior whose payment for sin each man or woman must acknowledge and a Lord to whom each man or woman must submit.

When Peter gave the right answer, Jesus instructed them to keep His identity to themselves, because He wanted to spend more time alone with them, and didn’t want new crowds to form in that place. Several exciting events were yet to unfold. Peter’s pronouncement and Jesus’ encouragement that he would be a “man of promise” for the future seemed to immediately cause a swell of pride within Peter. The story continued…

Owning the Part: Peter “instructs” Jesus on public presentation.

Peter felt like he was singled out as a heir apparent by Jesus – an honored future to which he devoted himself. Mark recorded:

Mark 8:31 “And He [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. 33 But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” 34 And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 35 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? 37 “For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

Peter passed the final oral exam, and he seemed to do very well! Ironically, just after the story of his promotion to “future leader” the Gospel writers record a story of a public correction of Peter before the same group of disciples. It seems that Peter thought his right answer entitled him to a greater immediate role, and he dove into it! Jesus foretold of His suffering and death, and Peter felt it was an appropriate time to pull Him aside and set Him straight on what He was saying. Have you ever done that?

Don’t be too hard on Pete – this mistake is just one in a long line of them. He meant well. Like many of us, we think that God is great enough to create all things, but He might need our advice as to how to present Himself to people. The God whose name is “Ever Present One” – the NOW God – is often mistakenly viewed by His own people as the God of History and yesterday – but not necessarily “up” on the way things are done today. The Bible presents a God that isn’t stuck in the past and doesn’t sport rotary dial phones in Heaven. He is the God of NOW – always. He knows what people need. He knows how to get the message to them. The resistance of the world is not truly caused by the antiquity of our message – it is caused by the deep-seated rebellion to which men and women relentlessly cling. They don’t have God, because they don’t WANT God.

Jesus explained His coming death and resurrection, and Peter made it clear to Him that was a message that wouldn’t sell. We’ve seen it and heard it many times. Telling people they are LOST without Christ won’t work. Telling people they are SINNERS should be softened – or it will drive people away. Telling people that a righteous God doesn’t fool around with our sensuality nor play around with a sense of the truth probably sounds terribly offensive to the tolerant generation. Yet, truth doesn’t change because it is unpopular, and history is clear that most of the time, most of the people are wrong about how they view things. Jesus told Satan to back off – as He peered at Peter who was spouting nonsensical instructions to the King of Creation.

The words that followed showed Jesus’ insight into what was motivating Peter’s speech. Peter wanted his faith to be about his own satisfaction. Jesus answered that his faith MUST BE about surrender of his life, goals and even personal physical security. He urged Peter in front of the disciples to plan to lay down his life, and not to become embarrassed about Jesus’ coming arrest and death. People that make their life about themselves leave little place to featuring Jesus at the center of their lives – because they take up the whole room. Time after time, the Bible offered models of those who “gave up their lives to God” and were satisfied. It also included ample examples of those who held their own lives tightly and lost the significance of God’s powerful work through them.

The short view of the story is simple: Peter thought that since God was going to make him a significant figure in the future, Jesus needed his counsel in the present. The God Who made man needs no counsel from His Creation on this or any other matter. Arrogant men think their objections should make God change His plan, or at least explain it in ways they can readily understand. God is not under the impression that He needs our vote to run the universe. If that sounds harsh, consider the reality that if it is absolutely true, how it touches our emotions is largely irrelevant. Peter may have thought he was right to correct Jesus – but he learned the hard way.

Grouping Jesus: Peter thought Jesus was One among many.

The correction was immediately followed by another story of failure for poor Pete. Mark recorded in chapter nine:

Mark 9:1 “And Jesus was saying to them, “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” 2 Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; 3 and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. 4 Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified. 7 Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!” 8 All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone. 9 As they were coming down from the mountain, He gave them orders not to relate to anyone what they had seen, until the Son of Man rose from the dead. 10 They seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead meant. 11 They asked Him, saying, “[Why is it] that the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 12 And He said to them, “Elijah does first come and restore all things. And [yet] how is it written of the Son of Man that He will suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 “But I say to you that Elijah has indeed come, and they did to him whatever they wished, just as it is written of him.”

The story of the Transfiguration is another story of disciple failure. Jesus guaranteed them a glimpse of the Kingdom and its power, and less than a week later, three of the disciples – Peter, James and John – got the view as promised. They were alone with Jesus, and they were amazed at the sight of Moses, Elijah and Jesus together. The King shone in glory, and former servants came to revere Him. The disciples were amazed, but didn’t really grasp what was happening. They saw Jesus as an amazing and powerful PART of what God was doing.

Peter moved to the front of the three, as he normally did, and offered to honor all three with the same prize – a sukkah (tent) or temporary shrine. He had no idea that His Master was not to be placed on the same plane with other servants of God. God interrupted from Heaven to make the point that no other voice was Jesus’ equal. They needed to really LISTEN to Jesus. They didn’t need to exalt others to be equal – they weren’t equal. Jesus, and His Word are not “one among many”.

The late Father Richard John Neuhaus (Canadian priest) said before his death a few years ago: “The dismal reality is that the church’s native language of sin and grace, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, is in danger of being displaced by the vocabulary of psychology, law and public relations.” The fact is that the Word of God is being increasingly withdrawn in favor of words that seem to hold “reasonable equivalence” in Christian schools of higher learning and now in the very pulpits of our churches across the west. Let me say it clearly: Jesus is not one among many. Today, it is necessary to say it again clearly: God’s Word is not “a truth” among many. Jesus is preeminent and God’s Word presents absolute truth. Nothing is a reasonable facsimile of the truth but the truth and no one is equal to God but God. Jesus spoke, not as a voice among many, but the voice before Whom every other knee shall bow. Peter and the boys blew it again.

Failed Faith Healing: The disciples can’t get the job done!

Pete was having a tough week! He got the right answer concerning the identity of Jesus, but followed it up with two significant failures – cautioning Jesus to change the message and positioning Jesus as One among other “hall of famers” for God. Mark wasn’t done – the record continued, but this time the pressure seemed to shift to other disciples that were also failing. Mark wrote:

Mark 9:14 “When they came [back] to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and [some] scribes arguing with them. 15 Immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and [began] running up to greet Him. 16 And He asked them, “What are you discussing with them?” 17 And one of the crowd answered Him, “Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it slams him [to the ground] and he foams [at the mouth], and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not [do it].” 19 And He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!” 20 They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he [began] rolling around and foaming [at the mouth]. 21 And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 “It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” 24 Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly gathering, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.” 26 After crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out; and [the boy] became so much like a corpse that most [of them] said, “He is dead!” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up. 28 When He came into [the] house, His disciples [began] questioning Him privately, “Why could we not drive it out?” 29 And He said to them, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.”

A careful look at the verses reminds us that Jesus had only a few of the disciples, and He left the others for a time. When Peter, James, John and Jesus returned from the Transfiguration, they came upon a disappointed family, some embarrassed disciples and some argumentative scribes. The disciples were obviously out of their depth, and Jesus stepped in to rescue them.

Jesus began by asking what the trouble was all about. A man who brought his son to be healed made clear the disciples couldn’t pull off the healing. Jesus then healed the boy. In the exchange with the man before the boy’s healing, He made clear that He was not wondering of His own ability to do the work – regardless of the failure of the disciples. Jesus commanded the demon, and the demon obeyed. After the event, the disciples were obviously unsure of what they did wrong. Jesus offered a single word they missed: “Prayer”. They tried “command” but not “prayer”. Why not? The air was filled with the perfume of the self-sufficient, and the disciples went into the exchange believing they could follow what they had seen Jesus do, and what worked for them when Jesus sent them out empowered – but this time it didn’t work. Transformation of people isn’t like running a franchise or painting by numbers – it is a work of God performed in His power by those who feel entirely unable to do anything apart from His hand at work through them. God seeks those who know they cannot but believe that HE can.

Correcting the Failed Followers: Jesus offers some gentle instruction.

It was disheartening, I am certain, for the disciples to fail in public – but it was a warning to pay closer attention in the coming days. Jesus told them about His coming death and resurrection yet again (9:30-32). The point of recalling this in the text we are studying is simple: Jesus was telling them He wasn’t going to be around forever – so they needed to learn what they could while they could. Mark shared:

Mark 9:30 “From there they went out and [began] to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know [about it]. 31 For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” 32 But they did not understand [this] statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.

Ironically, it doesn’t appear the disciples really grasped what Jesus was saying at all. They were confused, but they also continued to act out in ways that were not what Jesus taught them. The disciples argued about self-importance, but were embarrassed because they knew the whole discussion wasn’t right (Mark 9:33-37).

Mark 9:33 They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He [began] to question them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which [of them was] the greatest. 35 Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.”

Jesus sat a child in front of them and make clear that they needed to listen and obey the way a child does. They needed to trust that He knew what He was saying, when He told them SERVANTHOOD was their true calling.

I cannot prove it, and I must be careful, but I have a sneaky suspicion that what caused the argument was the memory of the time at the region of Caesarea Philippi some weeks before when Peter was told that he would be a key to the future of the work. How could it be otherwise? I think it is highly likely that the pronouncement left some bitter taste of jealousy in some of the other men – another sign of self-sufficiency. Disciples aren’t supposed to be jealous, but that is a common side effect of those not relying on God’s empowering.

If you keep reading Mark’s account, you find disciples BECOMING DEFENSIVE about what others are doing – yet another sign of those followers of Jesus who set out on their own path – and were not relying on the work of the Spirit of God. The offended disciples “defended Jesus” by shutting others who were not part of the group down! Mark recorded (9:38-41):

Mark 9:38 John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. 40 “For he who is not against us is for us. 41 “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as [followers] of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.

The grammar is not wholly clear, but it appears the men felt that anyone who wanted to represent Jesus needed to travel with their group. How many a denomination has made the same claim in the generations since Jesus! Disciples out of step with God feel like they need to protect God’s reputation and keep things carefully controlled. They don’t need to worry; God is able to keep the ship from sinking. A defensive spirit is often a side dish to piping hot jealousy.

The snaphots close in a passage where Jesus was remembered as offering some teaching. Three specific areas are recalled at the end of the chapter:

First, Jesus addressed their reputation. They needed to be careful about how their testimony could affect those who observe them and follow them. If they allowed something, those who followed them would easily allow it as well. If they abused something, those who followed them would also themselves be abused by their faulty lifestyle. Jesus said it this way:

Mark 9:42″Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.

Second, Jesus addressed their rebellion. They needed to be careful about continuing behaviors that harmed their walk, and starved their yieldedness to God. It is easy to be distracted by some desire and feed a rebellion against God. Nothing is worth dishonoring God in a disciple’s behavior! Jesus said:

Mark 9:43 “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, 44 [where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED]. 45″If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, 46 [where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED]. 47 “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, 48 where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.

Third, Jesus addressed their relationship with one another. He warned the men that they must work hard at standing together. Troubles would come that would easily divide them – but they needed each other. They needed to recognize the value of loyalty and do their best to keep the lines of communication and love open. When dirt and contamination is allowed into the disciple relationships, it becomes nearly impossible to get back the bonding and continue together. Jesus said it this way:

Mark 9:49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 “Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty [again]? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Our world doesn’t think like the Master Who created it. In fact, the lost world celebrated self-sufficiency with ideals like: “Blessed are the movers and the shakers, the successful, the rich, the famous, the powerful, and the self-confident.” Jesus celebrated the broken who found their completion in Him. Charles Spurgeon was reported to have once said, “Our imaginary goodness is harder to conquer than our sinful behaviors.” Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:1 and again in verse four (3:4): “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, more than lovers of God.” Do you find that hard to believe? I don’t! Most of us realize that man has no difficulty loving self; his real problem is truly loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength – enough to follow Him. That is true of Christians as well.

That is tough news, I know. Even as we grow, we must remain open to God’s continued work in us. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring! This little reminder made me smile:

A doctor called one of his patients into his office to deliver some very important news. “I have received the results of your tests and I have some bad news and some good news”, said the doctor. The patient was quiet for a moment, sensing the severity of the announcement. “Let me have the good news first, doc”, said the patient. The doctor took a deep breath and said, “You only have 24 hours to live.” “Oh my goodness”, shouted the patient, “If that’s the good news what could the bad news possibly be?” The doctor replied, “I was supposed to tell you yesterday.”

We need God at work in us daily. We need to need God daily, and know that we need God daily… We can grow in the work of ministering for Jesus – but we will never be self-sufficient in the role.

God on the Move: “The Long and Winding Road” – Acts 23

the-beatlesbNot to upset anyone, but I am not particularly a Beatle’s fan, and I never was. The emotional and spiritual journey of the “fab four” never really appealed to me – though I cannot deny they were talented young men a generation ago, and they cut new ground in their lyrics and musical scores. I was interested to learn, however, that the last song the four recorded together was a song that captured the tumultuous stages of their break-up as a band, and highlighted something we will see in our text for this lesson. Let me explain:

The song called “The Long and Winding Road” was primarily written by Paul McCartney as the tenth track on the Beatles’ album “Let It Be”. It became their last “chart topping” song in the US for the group back in 1970, and was the last single released by the quartet while all four were still alive. McCartney recalled later that the song was composed at his farm in Scotland, and it reflected the growing tension in the group as it was coming apart. The original recording was a piano piece, but it became heavily mixed in the studio using 18 violins, four violas, four cellos, three trumpets, three trombones, two guitars, and a choir of 14 women – none of which was approved by McCartney before the album release. In fact, it was in direct contrast to the Beatles’ stated intentions for a “real” recording. When McCartney first heard the mixed version, he blew up and about a week later announced the Beatles’ breakup.

“The Long and Winding Road” lyrics leave you feeling like a man knows where he will end up, but nevertheless feels like he is floundering on the journey…The song says:

The long and winding road that leads to your door – Will never disappear. I’ve seen that road before it always leads me here – Leads me to your door. The wild and windy night that the rain washed away – Has left a pool of tears crying for the day. Why leave me standing here? Let me know the way! Many times I’ve been alone and many times I’ve cried. Anyway you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried. And still they lead me back to the long and winding road.

It doesn’t take psychoanalysis to recognize that McCartney was hurting by the pending breakup, but still somewhat hopeful that things would somehow lead the men back together – as though it was their collective destiny. He knew they should be together, but he didn’t see how the path was going to lead them back to that place.

In some ways, that is exactly the sense the Apostle Paul must have felt as he sat in one imprisonment after another – not sure how he was going to get to Rome – where Jesus told him he was going. In a strange way, God was teaching Paul through a series of experiences a truth that He decided to explain to us in the record of His Word…

Key Principle: God’s will for us is not only about us – it also fits into His larger plan.

Christians need humility when looking at the experiences of their life. We often don’t know where things are going, even though we know where all things will end. The Bible offers us the ultimate destination to world history, and to our own final state – but the path to get there is not always clear. We need to be careful not to oversell our understanding of events as they come across our path. Before I get into the text for the lesson, let me offer an example that I believe will help to set the stage. The story came from a missions conference I attended many years ago…

Back in the 1970’s a young, unmarried woman went to Bible school because she believed God called her to a life in foreign missions. By all accounts, she did well in school, and she prepared very carefully for the field, reading everything possible on the African people group to whom she was assigned by her mission board. She traveled from church to church on deputation, raising the funds to go to the field. That process took almost two year, but she was nearing the end of it when she received life-changing, tragic news. Her younger sister and her husband had dropped off their three children at a baby sitter’s house, and journeyed off on a “date night” together in Texas, when a drunk driver plowed through a red light and crushed their car. Both were pronounced dead on the scene. Our young mission bound woman lost her only sibling, and she was the only family left, as they had lost their parents a few years before. Without any other family, the three children were heading for emergency foster care. The young missionary cancelled her plans to go to the field, and on the advice of the mission board, she stayed in Texas and raised her sister’s three wonderful children. Her heart was broken. Her family was gone. Her dreams and plans were crushed. Yet, right in front of her was a new family – three little children that needed love to get through the blow of losing both parents and having their whole lives changed. She poured herself into loving and raising the three – and each ended up as missionaries on an international field. She never went to foreign soil – but her legacy was multiplied by pouring vision and love into the field God gave her. God’s will was evident, and He used her training, passion and preparation in a way very different than she had planned for Him to use it all. She knew that was God’s right.

While that story sinks in, let’s drop our eyes into the scene found in the Book of Acts, when the Apostle Paul faced a mob but was assured by Jesus that he was Rome bound. The encounter with Jesus, like the one long before at Corinth that kept him ministering during the second mission journey settled Paul – he would not die at the hands of the Sanhedrin. His time was not near; some of his work for the Kingdom was still incomplete. At the same time, the path Jesus took him on was neither straight nor easy. Why not? The answer lies in the truth that God was doing other things – He was also providing solutions to other problems and addressing other needs while dealing with Paul in his series of personal defenses of his faith, imprisonments and delays to be heard.

In Acts 23, Paul stood to defend himself before what had to be considered, from the Jewish perspective, the premiere educational and religious institution of his day. These were ostensibly the leaders of God’s people, yet nothing was as it seemed that day – and it often isn’t in our journey, either. God was at work staging the events – and Paul had to learn to lean on God’s provision – no matter how “long and winding” the road.

Look at how things were so different than they appeared to be…

What looked like a setback in Paul’s arrest was actually God providing a paid bodyguard service for him to deliver a message to the Jewish leadership (Acts 23:1-10).

At this stage in the story, Paul had been “rescued” by Roman guards out of a mob scene at the Temple, taken to the garrison building, and held overnight as much for his own protection as to stop any rioting in the city. In the morning, the Apostle was walked under guard to the Sanhedrin chamber – likely beneath the southern porch of the Temple in the chamber between the two “Hulda Gates”, still visible (though closed) on the south retaining wall. We “enter the scene” with Paul on a witness dais, while the assembly of leaders was gathering in a less formal array – for not everyone had their full regalia on, signifying their various positions.

Acts 23:1 Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” 2 At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “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!” 4 Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!” 5 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.’”

Paul had been away from Jerusalem for a long time, and he wasn’t keeping up with the changes on the roster of Temple leadership. Add to that the fact that the High Priest was apparently not dressed for the occasion, so it seems Paul simply “goofed” and called the High Priest a name – a definite “faux pas” for such an occasion. Thankfully, Luke included the incident (no doubt shared in detail by Paul in embarrassment shortly later), so that Paul could reflect a simple truth: Even when God was using him, Paul still needed to be humble and guarded about the way he shared his message.

I love that the Bible doesn’t hide his mistake, and since Luke was not there – it was Paul’s choice not to do so. Paul reacted to a face slap, apparently thinking that the one who ordered it was violating the rules of the debate chamber – not recognizing he was the High Priest, who could make such an order and must never be addressed in a harsh tone. When the men scolded Paul, the Apostle apologized and admitted his error – he simply didn’t know that Ananias was High Priest at that time, or he had never seen the man in person. He went even further and showed that he understood the Law concerning his wrong behavior –verbally admitting that was an outrageous thing to do. That settled the room, as they saw he was not trying to be boisterous and rebellious.

There are two important thoughts I want to highlight about this brief exchange. First, we must be careful to be humble even when what we are saying is right, and what they are saying is wrong. Many believers spend time learning an apologetic of the faith, and become emboldened to speak truth in difficult circumstances – that is a good thing. At the same time, we who spend so much time around other believers need to be very careful about how we sound, and how we react in particular, to the world. The best evidences are lost in discourteous behavior.

I mentioned in the last lesson the idea that we should not enter a public discussion, such as that on social media sites, and simply “bomb them” with what is obvious to us – “But God’s Word says it, so that settles it” – kind of language. We need to take the time to carefully show why the instruction of the Word has proven itself reliable and worthy of heeding in the past. Truth has a track record of helpfulness. That record helps people connect to the idea, even if they aren’t believers – and that bridge may lead them to connect to the Biblical idea’s author – God Himself. Even more, let me raise a specific caution flag about how you and I answer when being “struck in the face”. The unanticipated response, and especially the cruel one can drive us to over-react, and we must understand that is ever a temptation. If we do step out of line, we should be humble and accept correction. Meekness is “power under control” – and Jesus said the meek are blessed. In fact, in all of the Gospel accounts, the only self-description of His character Jesus offered was that word…”I am ‘meek’ and lowly of heart.”

A second truth can be gleaned from the short exchange. We need to learn that God isn’t always doing what we think He is! Think of it! There is certainly irony in the “Apostle to the Gentiles” getting a Roman escort to the Sanhedrin that was currently accusing him of taking a Gentile into the holy precinct of the Temple. This account drips with irony! They had Gentiles in their chambers, but Paul never did. Yet they accused him!

Acts 23:6 Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.) 9 There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.

God sent Paul with a specific message to give to the Sanhedrin leadership – and it was successfully delivered. The message was that Jesus’ resurrection was their key offense, but not all Jews disagreed with it. That belief didn’t put Paul and other Messianic believers “outside” of Judaism – so they needed to be careful about tossing them all away as though they were not faithful Jews. Some who were not believers began to defend Paul, and the meeting escalated. The Roman commander stepped in and “pulled the plug” on the meeting.

Yet that is not the only thing that was not as it appeared…Paul was whisked away to a quiet place, his heart pumping fast from the whole highly-charged incident. Eventually, he settled down and the day passed by.

What looked like an arrest was actually a guarded and secure meeting space to meet with God (Acts 23:11).

Follow Paul down the hall to a place to rest, and Luke recorded what happened next…

Acts 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.”

The Roman tax sesterces provided a bed in seclusion for Paul to have a meeting with Jesus. That simple verse reminds me of how Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego got a private meeting hall provided by Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3. Now it’s true, the meeting hall looked like a fiery furnace – but nevertheless God provided a place at government expense to meet the Savior and have a chat. Here God did it again!

What looked like a discouraging abandonment by friends and family was actually the stage for an encouraging opportunity to show hidden support (Acts 23:12-15).

Acts 23:12 The next morning some Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. 13 More than forty men were involved in this plot. 14 They went to the chief priests and the elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. 15 Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.” 16 But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.

We know much about Paul and his companions, but little about his extended family. Interestingly enough, in this one instance we see one of his nephews saving Paul. The plot had to bother him a bit, but after all – this wasn’t exactly new to him. He had been dodging men who wanted his head for years! The encouragement was that God used his family – however distant to him in belief at the time – to send a message of rescue. Yet, there is more…

What looked like a threat to his life was actually a select invitation to an otherwise “closed” palace (Acts 23:17-24).

Acts 23:17 Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him to the commander. The centurion said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.” 19 The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?” 20 He said: “Some Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. 21 Don’t give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request.” 22 The commander dismissed the young man with this warning: “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.”

Paul eventually had to stand before Roman authorities – so this back story bode well for Paul. It was clear, at least in the report of the commander, that Paul was being “set up” and the Roman guards were preventing an injustice. Seeing this, the commander responded…

Acts 23:23 Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. 24 Provide horses for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.”

Paul is staying in style and traveling in the most secure fashion he has ever traveled – and all this was provided by God! It is true that he was not free to leave yet, but it was clear in the narrative that the commander helped Paul escape alive, and his continued intervention kept Paul well.

We have to remember that God doesn’t always provide the way we think He is going to – because there are issues beyond the scope of our own understanding that He is also carefully monitoring and caring for.

By all accounts, eagles are very responsive to their eaglets. The “mother eagle” dotes over the eggs, then over the hatchlings. That same “mother” knows that to help them, she must force them into discomfort to get them flying. She does so by taking them as high as possible and then drops them. They have never flown before, so they plummet downward. As they gain their senses, the ground is approaching quickly, so she swoops to save them and takes them high in the air again. After several drops, they begin to use their wings to fly. She is providing a way for them to live as they grow. She is giving them experience while keeping them from the ground.

Consider this: Sometimes God places us in situations that are terribly uncomfortable, so that we can learn, step by step, how to follow Him better for the next encounter. Paul was receiving help and assistance from the Romans to reach Rome with the Gospel – and we must remember that the Gospel DID reach and transform Rome – all in God’s time. God kept “giving” Paul help that didn’t look helpful, but it was…

What looked like an arrest warrant was actually a letter of introduction (Acts 23:25-35).

Paul was escorted to the palace at Caesarea with a safe escort, and a letter accompanied the entrance…

Acts 23:25 He wrote a letter as follows: 26 Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings. 27 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. 28 I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. 29 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. 30 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. 31 So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris. 32 The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. 33 When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. 34 The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will hear your case when your accusers get here.” Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.

I am certain that Paul did not want to be kept under guard, but it was better than being dead on the road somewhere, which is what would have happened had God not stepped in to rescue him from his countrymen. God works, very often, in mysterious ways… but we need to be aware that it is STILL GOD at work. Let me illustrate…

A cheerful but elderly, Christian widow was financially struggling. Her house was in desperate need of repair, yet she praised the Lord continually for His provision for her. There was an old man who lived next door who had no time for God, and he kept deriding her in conversation, saying there was no God – and she was wasting her life in belief of a fantasy. One day, the old man happened by her window moving his hose around his yard and overheard the old woman in prayer. She called on the Lord and asked for provision, for her cupboards were bare, and no additional money was expected until the following week. She simply prayed: “Lord, somehow, if You would, can You send some groceries.” Her neighbor crept away and thought to himself: “That is perfect! Now I can show her there is no God, and she is wasting her time!” He went to the nearby grocery and bought milk, bread, and some other food essentials, and placed them at her door. He rang the doorbell, and hid from view. As she opened the door and observed the provisions, she cried: “Oh, thank you God! You have done it again!” Just then, the old man came around the corner and said to the woman: “You see! I heard your prayer. I bought these things! God has nothing to do with it!” He sneered at her, but she smiled back and said: “Oh my, how exciting!” The old woman stopped and looked at the frumpy old man. “Jesus not only got me these groceries, but he got an unbeliever to pay for them! Isn’t He grand!”

You can’t go by what things look like – God may be doing many other things at the same time! God’s will for us is not only about us – it also fits into His larger plan.

Let me close this lesson by urging all of us to make the effort to seeing things differently. That’s hard to do – but it the best way for us to begin to humbly admit that most of our complaints about how things are happening are unjustly blaming God when He is busy doing what is best. Let me explain:

When a young woman seeks God for a husband and cannot find one, or a young man seeks a relationship with a young woman and she isn’t interested – all they can see on the surface is the pain of unhappiness. Yet, there could be literally a thousand things God is doing in each case to bring about His plan. Maybe she wants a husband who is being prepared in another place – and they haven’t met. Maybe he is resisting God and the Lord wants him to work out his walk before they meet. Maybe the young man wants a woman who appears to have her walk with God worked out, but secret sin exists in her life and God is sparing the young man from the pain of that situation. We know what we want – and we know if God isn’t giving it to us despite our energies chasing it. What we don’t know is WHY He is doing what He is doing. Discouragement is allowed to grow when our patience and trust in His goodness wanes.

Maybe you did all you could to raise your children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” and they aren’t walking with God now. You are heart-broken, and God hasn’t changed them. You are asking, and He doesn’t seem like He is listening. In your church family, you will hear the stories of the many “heartbreak kids” that eventually became blessings – but that guarantees nothing – and nothing short of a guarantee will make you feel better. Let me give you one: God will not leave you nor forsake you. He will tell His story. When you see Him in Heaven, you will know that He knew best and did best. That is your guarantee. Heaven has no complaint department, because it doesn’t need one. The wisdom of God is unsearchable and beyond measure.

For the one who is hurting, you are getting impatient with God’s slow response time to your prayer for healing. For the one who is working with all your strength at a job that appears to be fading – you may think God isn’t keeping track of your real needs – but He is. He is doing more than counting hairs on heads and falling sparrows today – He sees and He knows. The problem is we see only what we see – and do not understand how what we purchased today kept afloat the company of a believer half a world away. God has all of it to keep working – not just my problem. A bit of patience, mixed with a sincere dose of humility, topped by a pouring of honest trust in the character of God expressed in His Word is exactly what we need. Listen to the testimony of one woman, who was grasping for hope:

I sat in the bathroom. It was the middle of the night. No people, no “miracle” medicine, no strength left. I was too tired to fight. I sat there — four walls surrounding me. And a bleak, monotonous “bleep” from my battery-operated IV filled the silence. I couldn’t stop the sound of that miserable machine, anymore than I could control my own miserable life. So I sat there — dull, miserable, in pain, with no hope. [Then I heard] something else. I didn’t hear it with my ears — but I did in my spirit. I heard someone crying. And I immediately knew that it was Jesus crying for me. I was shocked — totally surprised. I didn’t think he would do that for me. This experience did not leave me emotionally elated. Nor did I feel a physical touch. Life was the same, except I now knew I really was not in this battle alone. Jesus cared in a way my wildest imagination would never have hoped for or expected. Slowly I got up and shuffled back to bed, my IV still “bleeping” in my ears. Life was the same but different entirely… When there was absolutely no one else that would help me, he cried for me. (From “Where the Battle Is Fought” by Lee Eclov).

The long and winding road of that woman wasn’t ended in that bathroom – it was somehow lightened when she realized she didn’t need to walk it alone. If pain continued, it was happening because it needed to happen to fulfill a purpose she could not see yet – and she needed to trust Jesus Who hurt with her.

Following His Footsteps: “I Can See Clearly Now” (Part Two) – Mark 7-8

optical shimmeringwavesDid you ever see one of these “optical illusion” pictures? I saw one recently that looked like wavy lines, until I looked at it much more intensely – and then I could actually see a face peering through the lines back at me! It was a bit unnerving, but it reminded me of an important truth… our eyes can play “tricks” on us. We cannot always trust what we see…Did you ever have someone you trusted do something that was unbelievably hurtful, and you found out they were actually being deceptive? If you have ever hurt over such a broken relationship, then you have experienced the painful “learning curve” that taught you to put away the lie that “seeing is believing” – because sometimes it is NOT. Clearly we live in times where “image sculpting” occurs in advertising – changing the literal dimensions of a face or body to offer us an “ideal” that isn’t the model at all. We see it in the political world, where a bill passes that is given a snappy title that is often the very opposite of what the bill contains. As voters, we are increasingly treated to fashioned images of leaders that are carefully choreographed by consultants and pollsters.

As web users, we encounter people who make avatars, or personal icons, and then sculpt an image of their “identity” that bears no resemblance to who they are in real life. Look further, and you will see that study after study shows that online identity is significantly and often deliberately different than actual identity, and dating sites in particular have been repeatedly found to be filled with lies by those looking for someone with whom they would like to connect. Closer to home for most of us, let me ask a question in a room full of believers about how many have been ‘stung’ by passing on information that originated from a satire site that someone reported as a ‘real’ news site” – and the room will be filled with painful groans.

Recently a number of friends contacted me about the “great new archaeological finds by the Egyptian antiquities authority of some ancient chariots in the Red Sea”. The story began with a satire site that deliberately posts items on the web to trap people into looking stupid online – a way to mock the “naivety” of people who would believe the Bible in the first place. Thousands of believers chimed in to share on Facebook how excited they were about the find – but it was a deliberate hoax – and many were embarrassed. The bottom line is this: We live in a time when we must recognize that what we see may not be the truth.

This is not a new problem. We noted in our previous lesson following the life of Jesus that the Savior was surrounded by people who did not see Him clearly, and did not recognize Him for Who He is. He didn’t sculpt His image – they just see Him clearly. They didn’t see each other clearly either. They saw only part of what was truly right in front of their eyes. We noted the first two of seven stories that help us recognize an important truth. It is so important, we broke the seven stories into two lessons – but both offer the same insight…

Key Principle: In order to represent Jesus well, disciples need to see some things clearly – the depravity of the world (the extreme neediness of people) and the complete sufficiency of the Savior.

Our world has been irreparably broken since the Fall of man – it could not right itself. The immeasurably powerful Creator was our only hope – and He saved us!

The truth is that not everyone is blind to these truths. Some people are able to see their need of a Savior, and their desperate condition– though they aren’t often the people we would expect to be able to do so. We noted that in Mark 7:1-23, neither the Pharisees, nor the disciples of Jesus could reliably see that man was so desperately broken inside – and that Jesus was their only hope. Pharisees thought they could change the inside of men by making them conform to religious cleansing and behavioral practices. The disciples bought into the same idea (because their world view up to that point overwhelmed their mind to prejudice them about what Jesus taught), and they needed to be corrected by the Savior. You would think that a doctor in the Law would be able to pick out the truth about the inner problem of man – but that isn’t true – because proximity to truth doesn’t guarantee understanding. A scientist can look at the extremely well-ordered structure of a cell in a microscope, but still conclude that it happened by random forces without any purpose – it happens in laboratories all over the western world today.

At the same time, proximity to those who carry the truth, though positive, is no guarantee that one will think correctly. Some of the greatest opponents of the church are those who grew up in one. The disciples remind us that you can spend significant time near to Jesus and His Word, and not see things more clearly. It takes an open heart that leads to a transformed mind to recognize what God is doing.

Here is the surprising part…As the passage continued, Mark showed the most unlikely people often see things more clearly than those who we think “ought to see”. Let’s observe one who DID see the truth…

The Syrophoenician woman saw things clearly (7:24-30).

Mark recorded:

Mark 7:24 Jesus got up and went away from there to the region of Tyre . And when He had entered a house, He wanted no one to know of it; yet He could not escape notice. 25 But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And He was saying to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” 29 And He said to her, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” 30 And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.

Let’s look a bit more closely at these verses for a moment. As we do that, note that Jesus left the region of the kosher villages of Galilee, and set off north and west to the coastal regions of what today would be southern Lebanon. He made His way to a “retreat” or “withdrawal” with the disciples, and made an attempt to do so quietly – without any fanfare or crowds. The Master apparently saw the “handwriting on the wall” with the Pharisees and recognized His disciples needed to be removed from their midst in order to have their default ideology reshaped.

Mark was careful to identify the woman who approached Jesus as a local Gentile woman. He was careful to identify the need she presented as well. Her daughter was afflicted by a demonic presence and the mother begged to have Jesus send it away. The very first thing we see about the woman is her IDENTITY, but the next thing we learn is her BELIEF SYSTEM. Our last story about the Pharisees and the disciples made clear that those who had the right identity didn’t necessarily have the right belief system – and this story is a direct contrast with that one. This woman trusted that Jesus was able to deliver her child. She knew desperation – but she believed in hope. When Jesus resisted because she was a Gentile (and salvation was of the Jews), the woman replied that she was not under the impression Jesus was there for her, but humbly would accept any scrap the Master may throw in her family’s direction. Her voice rang with humility, in direct contrast to the Pharisaic voices of presumption. One of the problems of living around so much Biblical truth is that we begin to be puffed up and presume that our knowledge of God is actually a way to control His actions – and that is wrong.

The Syrophoenician woman made clear that she saw the people Jesus came to reach as the children of the message, but she was willing to accept whatever He gave her family – and the Master gave her what she craved – the child was freed. Mark reported that she left Him, but went home to discover the child made well, free of the demonic presence. Let me posit a thought: the hesitation to heal the child was both to make clear Jesus’ message and ministry, as well as to keep His ministry quiet in the region. When the child was made well, the whole area heard and began to respond, forcing Jesus to move to another location to do what He planned – to spend alone time with the disciples. He needed time to teach them quietly, and the enemy did everything possible to keep that from happening. We will see that unfold in the next story, as Jesus tries to stay quiet and instruct the disciples…

The healed didn’t recognize obedience clearly (7:31-37)

Changing from his approach in this series of stories on understanding through “eyesight”, Mark dropped in a story about a man that couldn’t hear, and when his ears were unblocked, he still couldn’t hear in his heart well enough to obey the Master. It was still a “truth perception” issue, but this time through the hearing. Mark wrote:

Mark 7:31 Again He went out from the region of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, within the region of Decapolis. 32 They brought to Him one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty, and they implored Him to lay His hand on him. 33 Jesus took him aside from the crowd, by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; 34 and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He said to him, “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!” 35 And his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was removed, and he began speaking plainly. 36 And He gave them orders not to tell anyone; but the more He ordered them, the more widely they continued to proclaim it. 37 They were utterly astonished, saying, “He has done all things well; He makes even the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Like the last story, this one began with a journey. He left the region of what is now southern Lebanon, and proceeded past Galilee into the east side of the Sea of Galilee, where the Gentile cities of the Decapolis were located – an area He was less well known and a place He was looking again for some quiet time. Some of the people of the region had heard of the Nazarene, and brought to Jesus man who could not speak well, because he was deaf. They asked, just as the Syrophoenician had, for a healing. Jesus took the man to a secluded spot because He wasn’t trying to call attention to His work – that wasn’t why He was there. He miraculously healed the man’s hearing, as well as his speech impediment – and the man was changed.

After not being able to hear for an extended period, the Master spoke to him directly – and the first clear sentences he heard were those that ordered him to keep quiet about the Healer, so that Jesus could spend time there is seclusion. The man heard the words with his renewed ears, but disregarded them because his heart was not new. He promptly disobeyed what he was told – probably thinking he was serving a “good purpose” by ignoring the word of Jesus and doing what he “thought” would please God.

In our day, we see this all the time. We see a buckling from standing by the expressed word of God for some “compassionate reason”. We see people ignoring the written text and violating the standard “for love” or “for outreach”. What is essential for us is simple humility: We don’t know more than God, and we aren’t more compassionate than He is. If He gives an instruction, we may not understand all the reasons why He did – but ours isn’t to evaluate God’s abilities – just to obey God’s Word. The man didn’t obey – and he will ever be remembered for that response to God’s goodness.

The Disciples didn’t readily recognize the Savior’s ability to provide (Mark 8:1-10).

As Mark continued to show us “some who perceived truth and many who did not” – he offered another story about the disciples in the string…

Mark 8:1 In those days, when there was again a large crowd and they had nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples and said to them, 2 “I feel compassion for the people because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 “If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come from a great distance.” 4 And His disciples answered Him, “Where will anyone be able to find enough bread here in this desolate place to satisfy these people?” 5 And He was asking them, “How many loaves do you have?” And they said, “Seven.” 6 And He directed the people to sit down on the ground; and taking the seven loaves, He gave thanks and broke them, and started giving them to His disciples to serve to them, and they served them to the people. 7 They also had a few small fish; and after He had blessed them, He ordered these to be served as well. 8 And they ate and were satisfied; and they picked up seven large baskets full of what was left over of the broken pieces. 9 About four thousand were there; and He sent them away. 10 And immediately He entered the boat with His disciples and came to the district of Dalmanutha.

The scene, by now, is all too familiar to us. People were in a place where there were no kosher bakers – they weren’t far from cities – but they were Gentile cities. Jesus ministered and crowds came. They loved hearing His words, and they wanted to spend time near Him – but they didn’t bring sufficient food with them. Truthfully, away from home there was little they could do to keep food preserved well, so a bit of bread, some olives and some dried fish may have been the best they could hope to get. This time, people were there for three days – at least some of them. They were out of food and hungry – and Jesus didn’t want to send them home with stomachs empty, for fear they would collapse along the way from hunger and exhaustion.

Jesus saw hungry people on a hillside – and so did His disciples. What Jesus did next is what He often did; He drew the disciples into the situation, so that He could include them in His solution. The remarkable thing is that problems are often God’s way of blessing us – because He invites us into His miraculous power to solve issues we cannot. Jesus deliberately enlisted the help of the men, for this is what God does. He could have simply sent a full-grown man as Messiah, but He enlisted a young unmarried girl who had “never known a man”.

The only kind of people God truly wants working for Him are the people who don’t think they are worthy, and clearly don’t have the ability to solve the issues apart from the empowering of God. People who are arrogant repel the Spirit of God. People who see themselves as self-sufficient make themselves ineligible to be used. The great mystery of God is that He chooses to use most mightily the humblest and least able among us. That is how we can so easily see His fingerprints on what is accomplished in and through us.

The disciples did exactly what many of us would have done – they looked at the physical assets and concluded they didn’t have an answer. What they forgot – what is so easy to forget – is that they were ADDRESSING THE ANSWER. Jesus didn’t point out the problem because He needed consultation on how to fix the problem. He called them to see the problem so that He could show them what was on his heart, and how they could be used of Him. That is why Jesus directed them back to the loaf count. He said in 8:5: “How many loaves do you have?” They had seven, and Jesus told them to have the people sit on the ground, and to give the loaves to Him. In the Bible, God sometimes brings water from a rock, or drops manna from the wind – but most of the time He asks us to bring what we HAVE first, and let Him use whatever that is to solve the problem. As they were serving the bread, they discovered some salted fish, and Jesus told them to add them to the day’s menu!

The people were fed and were satisfied, and the four thousand were then sent home. Jesus traveled by boat across the Sea of Galilee to the area west of Capernaum called Dalmanutha. On the trip back, I am quite sure the disciples reflected on what Jesus did through them and for them. The lesson had much more impact and was deeply personal – because they participated in the miraculous distribution. Herein is the great privilege of the work.

We don’t save people – but we bring the message that can. We don’t heal marriages – but we offer the family-saving, living Word that is able to light the broken path for the hurting couple – even if the wounds are self-inflicted. We can’t conquer addictions, but we can watch God bring power to a person once resigned to weakened victimization. We can’t break the stubborn heart and turn it to God – but the kindness, power and piercing truth of God’s Word can do all of that work – and we get the opportunity to share it. The only requirement God has for us is that we do all that we can not to hinder the work of the Spirit by adopting the world’s attitudes, and by participating in the lost world’s unholy actions. When we present ourselves to Him – the collaboration begins, and the lessons we gain from the participation are deep.

Mark wasn’t finished… there were two more short illustrations about the ability to see clearly…

The Disciples didn’t see how the Pharisees’ teaching hurt them (Mark 8:11-21).

Our world has an impact on us, and the world view of the teachers who have attempted to teach us about life and its purpose have left an etching on our heart. Sometimes they have done this to our benefit. Often, they have done it to our hurt. Let me show you through something Mark 8 shared long ago…

Mark 8:11 The Pharisees came out and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, to test Him. 12 Sighing deeply in His spirit, He said, “Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”13 Leaving them, He again embarked and went away to the other side. 14 And they had forgotten to take bread, and did not have more than one loaf in the boat with them. 15 And He was giving orders to them, saying, “Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 They began to discuss with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart? 18 “HAVING EYES, DO YOU NOT SEE? AND HAVING EARS, DO YOU NOT HEAR? And do you not remember, 19 when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces you picked up?” They said to Him, “Twelve.” 20 “When I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?” And they said to Him, “Seven.” 21 And He was saying to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

The story opened with a conflict – an argument the Pharisees raised with Jesus – a demand that He produce a sign to validate the words that He taught. Jesus flatly refused to be led by them, and took the disciples away from them. The disciples didn’t know this was going to happen, and the trip came upon them suddenly. As a result, they forgot to pack bread, as they rushed to the boat and out onto the water. Jesus turned and told them: “Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” When He finished teaching them, they were quietly chatting amongst themselves about what the Master was talking about, and Jesus corrected them.

Here is the truth: The world around us IS having a devastating impact on the modern believer, just as the Pharisees – with their wrong world view – was having an impact on the disciples of Jesus in the beginning. We are all very susceptible to the world’s standards. We laugh at what our world does. We hunger for the foods prepared in a fallen world. Not everything is wrong, false and harmful – but much of it is. Worse yet, it is all prepared on a foundation at enmity with God.

John later wrote these words from the Spirit of God: 1 John 2:15 “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and [also] its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. 18 Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.

Don’t misread what John wrote in those words. He didn’t say, “Hate the people of the world.” He said that the “world” he was speaking of was three prevalent attitudes that exude from the broken world system led by fallen men. First, there was the “lust of the flesh”. Second, there was the “lust of the eyes”. Finally, there was the “boastful pride of life”. What are these attitudes? If we are to refuse to love them, to coil away from them and refuse to let them lead us – we must know more of them.

• The “lust of the flesh” is: the word “lust” is “epithumia” – and denotes an intense desire or a burning hunger for something. This is something that captures the mind and intensely yearns to be satisfied. It is a want, a desire, and in most cases it is something that masquerades as an immediate need. The term “flesh” is “sarx” – a Greek term that isn’t necessarily a negative one at all. It is the word for “things of this world” or “material things”. The whole phrase simply means this: “A burning hunger to satisfy one’s self with things that are entirely of the material world.” No believer is to frame satisfaction from things found here, apart from their direct connection to the God that made them. Food is good, but it cannot satisfy us for more than a few hours, and must not become the focus of our life beyond celebrating God’s provision. Every desire of a physical nature is to be placed under the Spirit’s control and not to drive our behavior. We must be controlled in thought and action. We must be submitted to God and ready for His approval and call to service. Let me say it simply: “Don’t intensely yearn for things of the flesh, or they will lead you away from the things of God.” Be careful how much time you allow yourself to dwell on the pleasures of this world – because we are easily trapped into feeding our flesh while starving our soul.

• The “lust of the eye” is: Like the intense burning after all things physical, the lust of the eye is a creative idiom for a covetous, greedy or self-consumed mind. We “see” things that we want all the time (that is what a buffet line is for!) – but this is about craving things not given to us. This is about dwelling on things we want but cannot afford, things we dream of “owning” but could easily become “owned by”. This is the automobile that you buy that costs more than you can afford, so you enslave yourself to extra hours at work to get. It is about the house that you “simply must have” that swallows up your life. It is the boat you dream about, until it becomes the time-sucking idol of every sunny day.

• The “boastful pride of life” is: the term “boastful” is a translation of the Greek term “alazoneia” (al-ad-zon-i’-a), which could be accurately termed “an arrogant display”. The idea is one who lives the values of our day arrogantly, boastfully and without hesitation. If Jesus’ followers were called to be humble and meek (strength under control), those living the “boastful pride of life” would be living the opposite values.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, he summarized a great many of us: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (Lewis, C.S., The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. San Francisco: Harper Collins).

There is yet one more short story – the end of the series of “clear sight” that may be the most obvious example of all.

It may take MORE for some men to see clearly (Mark 8:22-26).

Mark capped off the set of stories with a “two-stage” healing – the only one in the Gospels of this kind when he wrote:

Mark 8:22 And they came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. 23 Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around.” 25 Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly. 26 And He sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.

Someone brought a blind friend to Jesus to have his sight restored. Jesus took him aside to a quiet place and spit on His eyes, laid hands of him and asked him if he saw anything. Notice, Jesus didn’t ask if he saw things clearly, only if he could see something at all. Jesus was healing, but He was also teaching. The man replied that he saw people walking around, but they were fuzzy, unfocused… in fact they looked more like trees. Jesus touched his eyes a second time, and clarity came. The scene ended with Jesus telling the man, as He told others before, to be quiet about it – but this time He went the extra step of telling him to go somewhere other than the village he was brought from – so Jesus could get more time to be alone with His disciples.

The “two stage” healing was purposeful – not for Jesus, and not for the blind man – but for the disciples. The whole series of stories has been about their inability to see Jesus clearly. They listened to the Pharisees and didn’t truly grasp Jesus’ teaching. They avoided Gentiles, and didn’t see that some of them were more in tune with what Jesus was doing than His own countrymen. They watched Him multiply loaves for crowds on a number of occasions, and yet they seemed unsure of how they would face a lack of bread on an afternoon boat trip. They didn’t see clearly. They thought Pharisees were holy and Gentiles were useless. They thought that a lack of bread was a big problem for the One Who could calm the seas and feed the masses.

The truth is that many believers don’t really see things as they are. They don’t see lost people as truly and perilously facing a Christ-less eternity and a horrible end. Their next door neighbor seems so good and moral – they forget that depravity is a state of being that cannot be breached by good behavior – or the Messiah need not have died. Believers panic privately and online that sickness may overtake them or senseless evil may befall them – while they forget the Jesus is standing by watching over them.

Beloved, we must pick up the truth of the Word and see it clearly, while we proclaim it unceasingly. We must represent the Gospel as it truly is. Man is lost – good men and bad men – for the standard isn’t “goodness”, but “righteousness”. That cannot be attained by religion, right behavior or wrestling with self-discipline. There is no hope for the brokenness of the human condition apart from Jesus.

In order to represent Jesus well, disciples need to see some things clearly – the depravity of the world (the extreme neediness of people) and the complete sufficiency of the Savior.

Many years ago, Pastor John Piper gave an illustration that is worth considering when thinking about our need of a Savior…

Picture two people in a car out for a drive along the north shore. The rider knows that there is a time bomb in the trunk and that any second might blow the car to pieces. The driver doesn’t believe there is one, and thinks that his rider is insane. The state patrol has been alerted that the car is indeed loaded with a bomb that will soon go off. They begin their search and pursuit. The rider suddenly sees the State Patrol far in the distance to the rear racing toward the car. His heart leaps with hope for possible rescue! If you are the rider who knows that there is a bomb in the trunk, the flashing red lights in the distance are very precious, and the closer they get, the more precious they become. But if you are the driver and you don’t think that there is a bomb in the trunk, the flashing red lights are a threat.

Many in our world don’t believe the time bomb is set to go off – but the Bible is clear. They are running out of time. They are losing time with each beat of their heart – facing a certain end. The whole planet is running out of time. The rider who knows must do all he or she can to make that clear – the danger is certain and the Rescuer is ready to deliver them.

Following His Footsteps: “I Can See Clearly Now” (Part One) – Mark 7-8

digital watchIf you liked the old clunky digital watch, and you have a special place for the songs from the musical “Grease” in your heart, you probably lived through and remember 1972. That was the year that video games entered our American homes, and PONG became all the rage! The Swedish group “Abba” was formed that year, and it was also the year Johnny Nash wrote and performed the song “I Can See Clearly Now”. It reached all the way to the number one position on the Billboard top 100 chart. The song was optimistic, and said: “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone, I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright), Sun-Shiny day.” What a nice thought…Who can’t get excited about seeing obstacles move from your path and sun light up your way?

I mention the song, because the title sets up a series of stories from the life of Jesus that are about that very concept – seeing clearly. As the popular ministry of Jesus was waning by the time recorded in Mark 7 and 8 the disciples were still seeing Jesus in a “blurry way”, and the people in the society – especially leaders like the Pharisees, were still utterly blinded when it came to recognizing Jesus. Our text offers seven short snapshot stories (in this lesson we will see two of them), each that show something important about clear sight and recognition of Jesus.

Key Principle: In order to represent Jesus well, disciples need to see some things clearly – the depravity of the world (the extreme neediness of people) and the complete sufficiency of the Savior.

The first two snapshots of the passage indicate that neither the religious leaders nor the disciples of Jesus saw the utter depravity of people – and these two are what we want to examine in this lesson. It is an essential idea for the Gospel to make sense – people must know they are LOST to recognize the need to be SAVED…

Story One: The Pharisees couldn’t see depravity clearly; they thought they could “fix” people from the outside.

This is the common problem of religious people. Religious people honestly believe that if they change the behavior of people, they can get access to their heart and can make real and lasting change. Look at how the Gospel records the issue:

Mark 7:1 The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. 7 ‘BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’ 8 “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” 9 He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10 “For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER ‘; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH ‘; 11 but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13 thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”

As you scan the passage, look at the Pharisees closely. What do you see? First, you will probably notice they were intensely watching what other people were doing, and they were all too ready to get offended at behaviors to which they didn’t agree (7:1-4). Though some could argue that these men felt particularly responsible for other Jews as leaders, the way they handled the situation demonstrated they were more concerned with being offended than correcting behavior. If you have been around religious people often, you may recognize that impulse.

As believers, we need to be very careful not to emulate this. It would be easy for us to waste our energy scanning the internet to get enraged by bad behavior. We may actually believe we are “staying informed” when we are, in fact, staying “unbelievably grumpy” because we hit the “enraged button” a hundred times a day. I encourage you to get up and talk to real people in your life. More people are changed by what you are FOR than what you are against, if you communicate it with passion and maintain a more positive sense of people. In every age since the Garden man has lived in a continual state of rebellion, and it is not healthy for you to keep binoculars focused on sinners so that you can be sufficiently upset at the “darkness of our times”.

If you keep reading, you will note that verse five (7:5) the question on the heart of the Pharisees was directly exposed when they asked Jesus a question, but the words were laden with presuppositions. The words were: “Why don’t they wash their hands?” That is safe enough. It is the end of the sentence that betrayed their thinking when they said: “Why do they eat with impure hands?” In other words, they spoke as though Jesus agreed that if they hadn’t washed their hands the way the Pharisees taught, they were eating with impurity. The truth is, they hadn’t made their case. They assumed that what they believed, because they believed it strongly, was evident to everyone – but it wasn’t.

In this, we also need to be careful not to mimic the ancient Pharisees. Frequently on Facebook or Social Media, I notice that a Christian will enter a discussion and throw their “Bible verse” into the discussion as if it is evident to all that if the Bible says it is true, everyone else agrees to that idea. The truth is that in our society most people don’t think the Biblical answers are any more than interesting ancient anecdotes. That isn’t my view, and it is probably not your view – but it is MOST people’s view. When we speak as though the verse we believe ends the discussion – they look at us with a puzzled face. I would argue that we aren’t connecting with them when we do that – but rather we sound dissonant, judgmental and bossy. Because the Word is true doesn’t mean everyone sees it that way – so we will need to remember the other ingredient in our presentation: “speaking the truth in love”. Bible verses that settle issues in our midst don’t settle issues in the local PTA.

There other way – far more effective and every bit as true – is to use care and grace to explain why what the Bible instructs has proven to be effective at making society work. Remember, you will always reach many more people with grace than with a dogmatic sound.

Take, for example, this story passed to me the other day. A woman wrote a story about a sad song Garth Brooks sang about motherhood. It was a real tear-jerker – and if you have seen it I know you agree. They posted a YouTube of the song on a morning show. Beneath it, someone wrote a comment that said something like: “I hate this. I grew up without a mom, and I am just fine. I wish people wouldn’t shove that in our faces like we all need something they think we need. I didn’t and I don’t care what he thinks!” Well… Christian friends…start your engines… Out came the Bibles. She was scolded for mocking God’s design. She was derided for whining. She was “set straight” by many who had good moms. What no one did was stop and write to her and ask her what was hard about the experience. What no one did was show her LOVE and offer her GRACE. At the end of the discussion, the Christians scored all the points on the board, but the woman was not reached. I submit that Satan kept his grip on her life, and the Christians did little but pat themselves on the back that they “held the fort of truth”. Can you see the Pharisee in the story?

Jesus answered the “Kosher Police” with a few words that are worth the time to really soak in. In verse six he quoted a prophet from long before and told them their mouths were doing a better job of sounding pious than their heart was doing actually BEING PIOUS. Can anyone relate to that problem? Would you love me less if I admitted that I live with that problem every day? I can teach truth much easier than I can live truth – how about you? Jesus’ words sting me often: “THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME.”

The Master went on to make plain that these men did more than live as hypocrites (since we all do that!). They elevated their own teaching to the level of God’s Holy Word – and that emptied the value of their worship – since God desires obedience over any ritual men put together. He made clear that while they emphasized their own teaching, they neglected the teaching of God’s commands, and even felt comfortable “setting aside” the commands of God when they didn’t fit into their lives comfortably.

In verses ten to thirteen, Jesus used an illustration of exactly what they were doing. They were commanded to honor their parents and care for them. Some of them, when they made money, instead of caring for their parent’s needs, gave large gifts and set aside large endowments in the public eye to get better positions and be affirmed as “benefactors” by men. They traded what was good for their parents for what was good for THEM and THEIR REPUTATION – all the while looking like it was for a reverent cause.

Jesus said they were, in effect “invalidating the word of God by their tradition” and that they were guilty of “many things such as that.” Here is another important lesson for the believer of our time. We may believe some pretty detailed theology. We may have a very good chart that explains what we believe and how we came to that point. What we cannot do, what we MUST not do – is forget to keep the main things central to our teaching and our behavior. Red-faced screaming of theological truth is invalidated by our method of delivery. You can say the right thing the wrong way – and it will become useless and vain.

The Pharisees cloaked their selfish desires for importance and affirmation in religious robes – but God was not fooled by their pious sound. Believers who truly want to please the Master must be warned – for there were several things the Pharisees didn’t seem to see that Jesus made plain.

First, purity doesn’t come from cleaning only the outside of anything. Sin is an issue of the heart, not the hands. You can be an effective sinner while paralyzed from the neck down. All you need to be able to rebel against God and His Word is a mind set to do so. Wash the outside of the hands and thoroughly clean the pots – that will deal with behavior and conformity – but won’t change the heart. That requires INSIDE cleansing of the spiritual variety – and God alone can effectively do that when we surrender to Him.

Second, no human tradition, no matter how carefully constructed, matters like obedience to the principles found in God’s Word. King Saul’s biggest post-Amalekite barbeque couldn’t make up for simple, clear disobedience. God isn’t interested in vast and elaborate religious displays made by un-surrendered people. Many people in the history of the church could just as well have stayed home as opposed to the production they put on to curry the favor of a God they didn’t worship nearly as much as they did their own appetites.

Third, the amount of rules we keep don’t equate to simple heart surrender – just religious busyness. It is possible to be incredibly busy serving a God you have little or no relationship with – people in church do it all the time. We have an elder who will tell you he was incredibly busy in church, serving for years a God he did not personally know. Serving replaces loving when serving is all we have to show with our lives.

Fourth, it is entirely possible to use religious tradition to hurt people, while ignoring my Word completely. In the case of the Pharisees, they literally took from their own parents to feed their own ego and gain in public popularity. “What kind of person would do that?” you might ask. The kind that would rather work the extra hours that spend time with their children, because their kids are “such a pain to deal with” – they would be the type we are reading about.

The bottom line was that Jesus knew what the teachers of the Law didn’t know – men weren’t innocent until ruined by society, or left behind simply by insufficient teaching on righteous practices – men and women were born irreparably damaged – apart from a move of God! The brokenness is referred to as utter depravity. The passage moved past the Pharisees, but it is clear that the disciples had learned what the Pharisaic culture was teaching well….

Story Two: The Disciples couldn’t see depravity clearly.

Look at the way Mark made clear the disciples didn’t get the picture any more clearly….

Mark 7:14 After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. 16 [“If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”] 17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated ?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy , slander, pride and foolishness. 23 “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

When you read the account of Jesus’ words – you must be very careful. Remember that the one problem with Jesus’ sayings are that they were likely translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic forms that had poor construction for COMPARATIVES. In other words, when one wanted to say, for instance, that “Mary chose the better part” by sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha served the meals – the way to phrase it was “Mary chose the good part” – as if Martha was somehow deficient for keeping the place together instead of letting the pot boil over as she listened to Jesus. Semitic language doesn’t have the variety of ways of constructing comparatives. As a result, Jesus will urge people to love the Lord and “hate their mother and father”, when all He wanted people to do was love the Lord with so much more intensity than any earthly relationship. This passage is another comparative problem…

The truth is that there is MUCH that can go into a man or woman to defile them – and any clear reading of the Law would force you to conclude that. Jesus wasn’t actually trying to argue against those laws – only to say that the problem is minor by comparison to the HUGE PROBLEM people already have – the rebellious heart inside. Pharisees thought external practices could fix internal rebellion – but that doesn’t work. There are no rules that can be applied to a rebellious person that will make them truly obedient – only compliant. They may do what you ask because they don’t want a hassle over it.

Just like you “can’t make someone love you if they don’t”, so you “can’t make someone submissive to God if they won’t”. You can make them do what you want, but that isn’t the same thing as relieving them of the burden of a rebellious heart.

When Jesus went inside, He explained again the saying to the disciples – because they still could understand what He was truly saying. When you have been brought up in a world of religious externals, simple spiritual truths can be hard to grasp. Jesus told them the problem wasn’t defilement of the life through the stomach, but defilement by means of things that enter the heart that encourage its continued rebellion. He went on to say that even without outside help, the heart could pump out its own sewage.

Jesus taught that man was NOT basically good; he was not then subsequently ruined by poor social models and an improper upbringing. He didn’t simply “lack opportunities” that caused him to behave so badly. Jesus made clear: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts…” that we are going to see described. In other words – “the troubles between men come from the troubles within men”. Sinners don’t become sinners because of what they do – they do what they do because of what they already are. We all have sinful and rebellious inner natures – and so we rebel as naturally as we breathe. To learn to do otherwise requires the Spirit’s work of transformation.

Jesus spelled out the things that men have seeping out of the cracks of their stubborn heart in twelve sad symptoms. Look at the ways the sin nature shows:

1. He began with the term “fornications”, translated by Mark with the Greek word porneia. That term means promiscuity or if it is used in imagery it can mean idolatry. It is essentially selling myself to something that has become more important than a relationship with God. Jesus said people will easily put their sexual desires before a love for God.

2. Jesus said the sin nature causes “thefts” – the word “klopay” comes from a word that means “sneaky or under cover” and is usually used to mean dealing someone out of what is rightfully theirs. Jesus said people will try to trick people to get stuff that they didn’t rightfully earn.

3. The Master used the term “murders” and made clear that intentional, unjustified homicide came from a sinful heart. Men and women have an unbelievable capacity for cruelty to one another. Jesus said people will kill just because they can.

4. The Savior used the term “adulteries”, a word that means a casual breach of the marriage covenant – and there is little I need to say about this. Jesus said people will trash their most carefully worded commitment for a short season of pleasure because they are broken inside.

5. Jesus used the term “deeds of coveting” (pleonexia) which is a the term that comes from “counting numerically more” but is really about unbridled greed. Jesus said people will make a voracious appetite for “more” something to be admired – because of their sin nature.

6. The Savior used the terms “deeds of wickedness” (ponayria) to denote people who will deliberately causing pain and suffering. Jesus said human torture came from the rebellion in the Garden, and that we have it in the human condition because of our fallen state.

7. Jesus used the term “deceit” (dolos), a term that means deliberate “baiting” or “hooking” of people into something that will cause excessive emotional pain. Jesus said the weak would be trapped by the stronger because of the sin nature.

8. The Master spoke of “sensuality” (aselgia), which is a term for outrageous lewdness that rejects restraint. Jesus said people would become more and more vulgar and brazen about sin because they are broken inside.

9. The Lord spoke of “envy” (opthalmos: the word for the eye) by using an image word that meant excessive “gazing” at other’s things. Jesus said people will watch what everyone else has and be jealous if they don’t think they got as much – even if they don’t work for it – because we are sinners.

10. Jesus mentioned “slander” (blasphemia) which is an interesting term. Literally it is taken from the word “slow” (sluggish) to call something “good” (that truly is good). In the Christian Scriptures it is used for “switches” as in “right for wrong” (and wrong for right), i.e. One who calls what God disapproves, “right” which “exchanges the truth of God for a lie”, as in Romans 1. Jesus said people will make their own rules and trash God’s law – because they are sinners.

11. The Savior used the term “pride” (huperayfaneia)- a term that literally means “excessive shining” – but He used it to mean self-exaltation and self-absorption. Jesus said people will put themselves first because their heart is broken from the Fall of Man.

12. Finally, Jesus used the term “foolishness” (aphrosune), which is sometimes used to mean “impiety” but often should be thought of as a “lack of perspective”, emphasizing its quality (foolishness). Jesus said people will give their whole lives to things that don’t really matter because their sin nature blinds them.

He finished by making clear to the disciples the problem was already inside. In verse twenty-three (7:23) He said: “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.

Stop and consider what the Lord was saying for a moment. Jesus wasn’t under the impression that if we offered people enough social programs, spent enough money on education and made everyone prosperous, we would live in utopia. People still would not be made well. Spiritual change – inner cleansing was absolutely essential to outer peace and harmony. People can be cruel and will be cruel until they are fixed inside. Let’s be absolutely clear: Jesus didn’t have an optimistic view of humanity apart from God’s intervention and transformation.

Another very important point to make before we close this lesson is this: The disciples were not much clearer on the true source of sinfulness than were the Pharisees that taught them in the synagogues as they grew up. That is a TREMENDOUSLY IMPORTANT TRUTH for followers of Jesus even today. We must RECOGNIZE man’s brokenness inside – it is the backdrop of all that we do.

Because of the Fall of man and the truth that we are all sinners, we must ever recognize that we aren’t good – even as followers of Jesus. We cannot trust in ourselves to fix ourselves or anyone else. Believers who forget their own sinfulness get haughty and hard to live with. Pharisees of old have nothing on Christians of the present. Some of us act as if we never have sinned when we deal with the co-worker who is obviously floundering, or the brother who has clearly fumbled their testimony. We do well to remember that we are among the sinners Jesus was speaking of when He talked about the fallen condition and its symphony of sounds.

There is another reason we should recall the sin nature that is just as important, and related intricately to our mission. We must not see the lost as our enemies but as victims of God’s enemy chained to their own fallen nature and in need of the key that will open the lock – that will keep our presentation gracious. When we see ourselves as broken, we don’t talk down to the lost – but across to them. We whisk with a cool and refreshing wind of freedom instead of stifling the room with fetid condemnation.

In order to represent Jesus well, disciples need to see some things clearly – the depravity of the world (the extreme neediness of people) and the complete sufficiency of the Savior.

We have mentioned much in this passage about the PROBLEM of man – the brokenness of his heart and the wickedness that lurks beneath the surface of the masks that we wear – but we would be remiss if we didn’t speak of the GOOD NEWS. God has broken the curse of sin in Jesus!

Paul told the Galatians:

Galatians 3:10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM.” 11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” 12 However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”—14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

• The law leaves me with a need to perform, and I am not consistent.
• The law leaves me with atonement – a covering – but not truly clean. The dirt is under the covering.
• The law leaves me needing to do right things again after I do wrong things – it never stops.

Then came Jesus. He became the curse. He embodied it. He grabbed it and wore it for me. He was a condemned man – even though none of the punishment was for His own wrongdoing. He was ME.

Now I can have what I couldn’t manufacture – His righteousness. His complete cleanliness of spirit. His child-place in the Father’s house.. because of Jesus.

There was a certain old recluse who lived deep in the mountains of Colorado. When he died, distant relatives came from the city to collect his valuables. Upon arriving, all they saw was an old shack with an outhouse beside it. Inside the shack, next to the rock fireplace, was an old cooking pot and his mining equipment. A cracked table with a three-legged chair stood guard by a tiny window, and a kerosene lamp served as the centerpiece for the table. In a dark corner of the little room was a dilapidated cot with a threadbare bedroll on it. They picked up some of the old relics and started to leave. As they were driving away, an old friend of the recluse, on his mule, flagged them down. “Do you mind if I help myself to what’s left in my friend’s cabin?” he asked. “Go right ahead,” they replied. After all, they thought, what inside that shack could be worth anything? The old friend entered the shack and walked directly over the table. He reached under it and lifted one of the floor boards. He then proceeded to take out all the gold his friend had discovered over the past 53 years – enough to have built a palace. The recluse died with only his friend knowing his true worth. As the friend looked out of the little window and watched the cloud of dust behind the relative’s car disappear, he said, “They should have got to know him better.

In order to represent Jesus well, disciples need to see some things clearly – the depravity of the world (the extreme neediness of people) and the complete sufficiency of the Savior.

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.