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.

God on the Move: “Heed the Call” – Acts 21

bobdylan1I doubt if anyone was thinking that a movement was going to be fostered by the ballad songs of a baby boy born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota – but that is what would happen some eighteen years later… as Robert Allen Zimmerman entered the stage as Bob Dylan. One of the popular lyric writers of the 1960’s he penned these words:

“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.”

A platform favorite of demonstrators was the plea to “heed the call” of the masses. In Christian circles, we used the terms “heed the call” to refer not to political movements – but the movement within the follower of Jesus by God’s Spirit to the place of ministry. Believers are called by God and placed in service by that call.

As we continue walking the Roman roads with the Apostle Paul through the Christian Scriptures, (New Testament) we have come to see Paul as a seasoned shepherd of the early church, a well-recognized author of Holy Scripture, and a bold and zealous witness for Jesus across his known western world. Looking up close, no one who examines the record of accomplishments of the Apostle Paul’s life would doubt that he was a man who was “called” by God to accomplish great things. Few Christians would argue that as believers we don’t follow a call of God to be saved, and even to serve God. Yet, we don’t spend much time describing what the call of God DOES to daily decision making…a “how it works in practical life” view, if you will.

We do repeat some truths about the call of God to believers often enough that they are well known, partly because they are easy to establish from the Word. For instance, God called you to Himself for the purpose of life-changing transformation. The people that are “the called according to God’s purpose” of Romans 8 were the same believers that were “made alive by God” in Ephesians 2, “brought out of death into life”. God’s call was evident, and God bought you to place you on a mission. That call refers to God’s choice of you – to bring you to Himself. It is not the only way we use the term, however.

A second use of “call” is related to your service for the Lord as a believer – as in: “What ministry were you CALLED to do in the body?” In that case, we often note that a believer’s call is usually indicated by the spiritual gifts God bestowed on your life at the time of your salvation. Your “call” often follows your expressed passion and normally works within your personality – as Moses who early in his life burned with a sense of injustice was called to set the Hebrews free later in his life. In addition to these ideas, every believer who has observed Scripture carefully can tell you that a believer’s call must lead them only to works that are in harmony with the values of God’s Word.

The call for service is real, and important. Yet we don’t often point out how it works its way out in daily life. In this lesson we want to look past the simple truths of the call, and peer into the functioning or the call to serve while we see how it worked in Paul’s life – on the way to instructing our own walk. Watch Paul, and you will observe some valuable traits that are the outgrowth of following the call of God – perhaps even some that are less known and harder to grasp – especially as a young believer. It all begins with the singular observation…

Key Principle: God’s call in my life should show in the choices of my life.

Let’s look through the story of Acts 21, the rough and tumble of the Prophetic warnings of incarceration to Paul into the actual arrest of Paul, where we will see “seven truths about God’s call” that may not be clear to growing believers – but are essential lessons.

Because I have God’s call – I must weigh all of the other directions that come my way (Acts 21:1-4).

When God calls a man or woman from service, it doesn’t mean there won’t be other voices calling them to do something else…

Acts 21:1 When we had parted from them and had set sail, we ran a straight course to Cos and the next day to Rhodes and from there to Patara; 2 and having found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we came in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we kept sailing to Syria and landed at Tyre; for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.

You are led by the Spirit, and you will grow to know God’s call for you – but not every believer will understand what He is telling you to do – even some who are following God wholly and love Him deeply. When God is at work in you, every spiritual “word” or “piece of advice” given to you must be measured through His call. Others may mean well and be thoroughly convinced of “God’s will for your life”, but they only know the part that God impressed upon them about their call – not your whole plan. We must learn to follow God’s direction, and cannot be so easily dissuaded by those who love God, but may not see all He told us about the situation.

I have seen this often, but it requires some explanation.

Years ago I worked in Elkhart, Indiana for a time, building robots on a shop floor in a manufacturing unit. During that time, the company I worked for was led by a nominal Christian man, who had a son in Seminary at a good school. The company owner knew I was a believer, and pulled me aside one day to lament that his son was making the decision to take his new bride and move overseas to Africa on a mission endeavor. He complained, “Don’t you people know how many people live in the US that needed God? Why in the world do you insist on traveling far from home in places like this to preach, when we have churches to preach from right here?” I tried to explain that his son wasn’t choosing where to go – only WHO to follow. If God told him to go – obedience was demanded.

It wasn’t hard to see that my boss was lamenting “losing” time with his son and future grandchildren. I understand that pain – but he didn’t understand the choice – because he didn’t grasp how a call to service works. God called the play – his son was just being obedient. His son knew what Jesus wanted.

Not to be overly personal, but this has happened many times in ministry through my life. When I came to Sebring, Florida, I got the amazing opportunity to serve in the church beside some fabulous men and women. Several of them are with Jesus now. One in particular stayed with our ministry and NEVER shared his thoughts about my teaching and preaching (out of loyalty) with anyone else but me. Would it surprise you to learn that not all the senior men who stood by my side truly agreed I was handling the pulpit properly? I am not saying that they thought I wasn’t preaching the Word. I am saying they weren’t happy with the diet as I planned it from the Word. One in particular believed that I wasn’t open to topical preaching, and he made it clear on a dozen occasions that his ministry was built on holiday preaching and hot topics. He told me many times I was “off the mark” preaching through books. I loved him, and still do –but I knew what God wanted me to do – and that was cover as many chapters as I could in the year. I began a second service and didn’t do what anyone else did – and heard repeatedly how I should repeat messages.

Stop for a second and hear what I am saying. I am not hurt, and those memories are not painful at all. I am not bringing this up to put down someone or elevate me – I am making a point. I knew God’s call for me. Others weighed in, and had I not been certain of God’s direction, I would have changed what I was doing – as I have countless times after consulting with our leaders on issues in which God hadn’t given me a specific direction. The point is this: even good people led by God will weigh in on some things that you must stick to because of what God told you to do. Paul understood that. They told him –nudged by the Spirit of God – that Jerusalem was a costly choice– and he booked a boat anyway.

Because I have God’s call – I cannot allow emotional attachments to stop me from following a walk of obedience (Acts 21:5-14).

Related to the first truth, but a bit different is the recognition that emotions cannot drive decision making when it comes to God’s will. Take a look at the following verses…

Acts 21:5 When our days there were ended, we left and started on our journey, while they all, with wives and children, escorted us until [we were] out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach and praying, we said farewell to one another. 6 Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home again. 7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and after greeting the brethren, we stayed with them for a day. 8 On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him. 9 Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. 10 As we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'” 12 When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents [began] begging him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, “The will of the Lord be done!”

Other prophetic words were handed down by God’s people, and they all sounded like: “Danger ahead!” Agabus dropped by to offer a graphic picture of Paul’s coming days… and it was not going to be any picnic! I am not making light of the issue. It was clear that it broke Paul’s heart to think that he would be taken from the other believers, and not see their faces again. Paul knew the stakes; but Paul knew God’s leading. If arrival in Jerusalem was the instruction from God for Paul, failure to arrive was disobedience. He couldn’t shirk his responsibilities for the sake of more time with loved ones. What foreign called missionary couldn’t say they understand Paul’s feelings and his tears?

The call of God to accomplish an area of ministry doesn’t mean you DON’T feel what anyone else feels – it means you trust God to care for your needs, and you know what He told you to do. The choice comes down to following Him or not – and you care more about His will than your feelings. As our culture continues to exalt one’s personal feelings above all else – this is fast becoming a foreign concept to people – to deny ourselves and follow God. The words of Jesus must still ring true in His people:

Mark 8:34: “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.”

Notice how Paul responded when people pressed him about the future in verses thirteen and fourteen. First, he instructed the people that he felt as they did. Second, he made the point that he was following a path and was ready to do so. It appears to me from the narrative that did NOT stop the people from pressing him – but he would not be persuaded. Even in the first century believers were unsure about how the call of God worked in overruling the emotions – but Paul knew what he needed to do.

Because I have God’s call – I cannot allow rumor and misinformation to drive my path unless it will confuse the Gospel (Acts 21:15-25).

Finally arriving in Jerusalem, Paul was not finished demonstrating how God’s call worked in his life. Luke recorded:

Acts 21:15 After these days we got ready and started on our way up to Jerusalem. 16 [Some] of the disciples from Caesarea also came with us, taking us to Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple of long standing with whom we were to lodge. 17 After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After he had greeted them, he [began] to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it they [began] glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 “What, then, is [to be done]? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 “Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. 25 “But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”

Paul eased into the Jerusalem scene along with some friends and travel companions. He was “gladly received”, so we should picture some hugging, sharing and maybe even a few tears as God’s people joined together. He sat for a time with Jerusalem’s Pastor (James) and some of the other elders of the church and reported to them all that God was doing in and through him, and something remarkable happened in the room… An entire group of kosher believers began to praise God and celebrate the work of God among the Gentiles! They may not have had great experiences with these God was transforming, but they were excited that God was at work calling people to Himself!

After a time of praise, the leaders presented to Paul a local issue that needed to be dealt with – that of his reputation among Jewish believers. The words of Paul were, in some cases, misunderstood. The letter to the Galatian believers still is largely misunderstood by many as an antinomian rant – when it is nothing of the sort. Add to the uncertainty from Paul’s friends the blatant lies and deliberate rumors of his foes to Jerusalem’s leadership in the Temple – and it was no wonder that Paul was maligned in Jerusalem. The elders were excited that so many Jews knew Jesus and also kept the laws that God told them never to set aside. Jesus didn’t cancel the command for Jews to keep Sabbath – it was a forever command. Jesus didn’t cancel circumcision for Jewish infant boys – it was a forever symbol of the covenant God had with Abraham. Jews didn’t cancel the food laws given to Jews in Leviticus 11 – for they were restrictions God placed specifically on the children of Israel for signs of a special covenant relationship. The symbols didn’t justify them – that came from the payment of Messiah on Calvary. At the same time, Messiah didn’t cancel them or the men would have been embarrassed admitting these men were both believers in Jesus and active in keeping the Law.

Don’t forget that Paul didn’t CORRECT them for having Jews that followed the Law –he went out of his way to make sure those very believers DIDN’T believe that he was saying that at all. Bible teachers that make this seem like “he was just being a Jew to Jews, but didn’t think Jews needed to keep the Law given them” make Paul into the worst kind of pandering politician in my view. The record seems clear. The elders were thankful the Jewish believers kept the Law, and Paul didn’t want them to believe he wasn’t one of them. Either that was genuine, or it was pandering to the polls.

Note the assurance of the record: “…all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you.” It seems clear enough from the Scriptures that integrity of the leaders would demand they not be putting a false front on Paul’s beliefs – they didn’t think he was teaching Jews to stop keeping the Law – and they reiterated the fact that although there was but ONE WAY to be declared righteous by God (the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary), there were two distinct paths of sanctification – the walk of obedience of one who knows and follows God. Verse twenty-five reiterated the four standards for Gentiles passed by the Jerusalem Council years before – i.e. “meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” – as a clearly different occurrence than what was happening in Jerusalem among Jewish believers.

Paul wanted to clear the air, not to protect himself, but because what was being said was confusing to the Gospel. God didn’t tell Jews to accept Jesus and stop being distinctly Jewish in lifestyle. God didn’t “kosher” the hams. At the same time, God wasn’t interested in Gentiles trying to replace the Jewish people by acting like them. God created one new man – Jew and Gentile, bond and free, male and female. All entered justification the same way. Each had a separate path for sanctification – because God wanted to do different things by different people. Paul wanted that message clear. He wasn’t doing things to defend his reputation – but for the clarity of the Gospel.

People don’t have to like us as God’s servants, but we have a sacred responsibility to make sure the message we were given is communicated lovingly, but carefully. We must not adjust the message, nor hinder people by giving it in a way that is distracting from the message.

Because I have God’s call – I must expect the opposition of the Deceiver and his planted forces (Acts 21:26-28).

The clarity of the message wasn’t Paul’s only problem. He also had a problem that was caused directly by the interruption of the father of lies and those who promoted darkness. Luke told the story…

Acts 21:26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them. 27 When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, [began] to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”

He went to take a vow, though he knew he had a score of enemies in that place. Men openly lied about the things that happened and acted as if they were defending the purity of God’s holy place. They were doing nothing of the kind. Paul knew their type. He spent many years surrounded by arrogant men who pretended to have more concern about God’s reputation than was real.

Paul lived day to day following God guiding hand. He never expected that to mean that things would “always go well” for him. In 2 Cor. 11:24-25, Paul told the church that:

• Five times he was beaten with 39 stripes of Jews (Dt. 25:1-3 says 40 stripes, one less was offered so the punishment was not overdone).
• Three times he was beaten with rods (at least one was recorded in Philippi in Acts 16:22).
• He was once stoned and left for dead at Lystra (Acts 14:19)
• He had three times been shipwrecked (with one day and one night in “the deep”).

We can now add to that list a number of things that happened after 2 Corinthians was written:

• Paul escaped a plot against him in Corinth (Acts. 20:3).
• This scene of his arrest in Jerusalem was anything but “just” (Acts 21:32).
• Another (fourth) shipwreck in Acts 27 was in his future here.
• A lengthy imprisonment in Caesarea and later Rome awaited him (28:30).
• After a second arrest, and eventual execution brought his service to an end.

All of that, and he served with a “thorn in the flesh” of some kind, which was apparently an eye problem. (2 Corinthians 12:5-10; Gal. 4:12-15). What is the point? Paul FOLLOWED God and SERVED God – and that kept him in trouble – not in constant peaceful circumstances. He learned contentment amid trouble, not blessing amid ease.

Because I have God’s call – I should anticipate hatred and unfair treatment that is not rational (Acts 21:29-31).

On the contrary to learning in ease, Paul anticipated unfair treatment, and recognized that was part of following Christ. Listen to what Luke recorded during the scene of his tumultuous arrest…

Acts 21:29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. 30 Then all the city was provoked, and the people rushed together, and taking hold of Paul they dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. 31 While they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the [Roman] cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion.

They dragged him. They wanted him dead. A lynch mob didn’t seek proof he did anything wrong – after all, in the keeping of the purity of God, too bad if he wasn’t actually, you know… guilty. They wanted to keep God’s reputation, so they skipped past all the parts of the Law that cautioned against injustice to get to the parts where they could just kill the one the mob said was guilty!

If you have ever been ganged up on in a class because you had the audacity to stand up and say you believed that God actually created the world, or that God had standards for things like human sexuality – you know what I mean by the fear and adrenaline push that can easily take over under attack. People in packs are incredibly brave. Without their buddies, they would whimper if they were attacked – but together they are strong and have no problem attacking you. Anyone who believes that followers of Jesus aren’t actually HATED today, hasn’t been in a chat room or on a thread in social media. Our Savior is STILL hated. Our message is STILL despised. We should not be surprised. Following God doesn’t exempt us from feeling the hatred of God’s enemy and his followers. They did not spare our Savior – and they will do all they can to eliminate us. Maybe it won’t be killing, but it will be marginalizing and muscling us to the corner of the society. We should expect it, and we should challenge it while we can – but that won’t go on forever.

Because I have God’s call – I should anticipate even physical opposition and pain (Acts 21:32).

Luke included the note that:

Acts 21:32 At once he took along [some] soldiers and centurions and ran down to them; and when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.

The people were beating Paul. He wasn’t tried by a court, he was beaten by a mob. They didn’t SEE him do something wrong, they HEARD that he might have committed a crime. He was guilty because he associated with Gentiles, and that was enough for people to lash out. Here is a special word for our time…

Be especially careful about “piling on” on the web. When someone makes a “report” about something, check sources carefully. Believers are being duped into passing false reports on many things, and it is bringing the cause of Christ into derision. What is more, some believers will argue and fight on the web with the worst of tempers – sounding like those in the world. Remember this: you can say the right thing the wrong way – and it is worse than if you never said anything. Don’t feel pressure to defend God’s reputation and pile on unless the nudge is from God – and not your ego or angry streak. In the end, I am certain some well-meaning people were throwing punches at Paul because they thought he did something, but they weren’t sure of the fact. Don’t join into the chorus of protest unless you are sure of the facts and the sources of those facts.

Because I have God’s call – I should look for any opportunity to share Jesus with people (Acts 21:33-40).

The remarkable this about Paul was that in the tumult, he had the presence of mind to try to move the scene to a presentation of Jesus. The text recorded:

Acts 21:33 Then the commander came up and took hold of him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; and he [began] asking who he was and what he had done. 34 But among the crowd some were shouting one thing [and] some another, and when he could not find out the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 When he got to the stairs, he was carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob; 36 for the multitude of the people kept following them, shouting, “Away with him!” 37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 “Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 But Paul said, “I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.” 40 When he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying..”

Where many would see only a need to defend and struggle, Paul was looking carefully for an opportunity to share the truth of Christ. Where many would focus on pressing for their rights, Paul felt his responsibility to the Gospel. I love that level of composure! Remaining composed in the face of trouble likely occurred because Paul knew his call to ministry…

I don’t know if you know the preacher from Texas named Tony Evans. If you do, the story is only better… Tony hates elevators, and is always afraid they will break while he is inside them. A few years ago, the elevator of a high rise met his expectations and stopped half way up to its destination, many floors above the lobby of a large building. Tony tells the story well, and I won’t do it justice – but he talked about how some people began screaming, hoping loud noise would be noticed. Others pounded on the doors and walls, hoping that would get the attention of the world outside. Tony looked in dismay as the small gathering unraveled, but as he scanned the area next to the door, he saw a little door with the symbol of a phone on it. He moved across the elevator, and picked up the small handset, and called the front desk of the building – the phone got an immediate response. All the shouting and pounding looked more effective, but a quiet phone call got them help… because a man had composure in a tight place.

Composure helps us serve with a view toward our real goal – to honor the Lord in each circumstance. That is just another way that God’s call in my life should show in the choices of my life. God will lodge in your heart a burden – perhaps not unique to others, but deeply resonant within you. It is your opportunity to serve Him!

Your call from God is not a PROJECT; it is the means through which God will show you the PRIZE of your life!

There is an old story about a large boulder that blocked the normal passageway of the roadway along a pass outside of a village, half way to the neighboring township. Traveler after traveler used the road, and found it difficult to pass the boulder, because it forced them to stop and carefully move their carts around to the edges of the road, veering off the main ruts to get around this inconvenient obstruction. People passed, day after day muttering, “Can you believe that? Someone should get that big thing out of the way. What an inconvenience!” One day a man came by and saw the blocking boulder, took a branch from a tree and used a small rock as a fulcrum, dislodging the boulder and pushing it from the roadway – clearing the path. Directly beneath the rock, he noticed a small bag and a handwritten note. Curious, the man snatched the note and read it. Scribbled on it were these words: “Thank you for being a true servant of our kingdom. You did more than recognize the work that needed to be done; you took the time to actually do it. Many have complained; you have acted on the problem. Please accept this bag of gold that traveler after traveler passed by simply because they didn’t act to serve everyone else.”

Following His Footsteps: “Aiming at the Wrong Target” – John 6

target1Did you ever have an embarrassing moment that just wouldn’t go away? Olympic athlete Matt Emmons can sympathize with you, I’d bet:

Matt Emmons was just focusing on staying calm. He wishes he had been more concerned with where he was shooting. Emmons fired at the wrong target on his final shot, a simple mistake that cost the American a commanding lead in the 50-meter three-position rifle final and ruined his chance for a second gold medal. Ahead after nine shots and needing only to get near the bull’s-eye to win, Emmons fired at the target in Lane 3 while he was shooting in Lane 2. He had cross-fired — an extremely rare mistake in elite competition — and received a score of zero. That dropped Emmons to eighth place at 1,257.4 points and lifted Jia Zhanbo of China to the gold at 1,264.5. “On that shot, I was just worrying about calming myself down and just breaking a good shot, and so I didn’t even look at the number,” said Emmons, 23. “I probably should have. I will from now on.” (Washington Post: Emmons Loses Gold Medal After Aiming at Wrong Target – Monday, August 23, 2004)

Wow, that had to be tough! I took some consolation in the fact that it was a “second” gold metal – no sense in being stingy. At the same time, to lose because he aimed at the wrong target had to be one of those moments he relived a few hundred times in his mind. There are others in sports with such embarrassing moments, and they are rumored to have started a “club”:

Minnesota Vikings “iron man Jim Marshall” played an NFL-record 282 consecutive games at defensive end. Yet, it will likely take a miracle for Marshall to lose his grip on his other notable mark: the most negative yardage accumulated on a single play in NFL history. On October 25, 1964, in a game against the San Francisco 49ers, Marshall recovered a fumble and ran 66 yards with it the wrong way into his own end zone. Thinking that he had scored a touchdown for the Vikings, Marshall then threw the ball away in celebration. The ball landed out of bounds, resulting in a safety for the 49ers. Marshall later received a letter from Roy Riegels, infamous for a wrong-way run in the 1929 Rose Bowl, stating, “Welcome to the club”.

Let’s all agree that we cannot win a game or a medal if we don’t aim in the right direction. While we are on the same page of agreement, can we also recognize the spiritual truth as well? Let’s say it the way John did in John 6…

Key Principle: To gain eternal life we must focus on accepting Jesus and what He did for us, not the other distractions that draw our eyes away from Him.

For some, the point of the Gospel – a relationship with Jesus – is obscured by other diversions. The passage suggests five. There are people who seem to be…

Desiring the benefits, but not a relationship with the Lord.

Some people want what God can DO for them – but not God Himself. Consider this account:

John 6:22 The next day the crowd that stood on the other side of the sea saw that there was no other small boat there, except one, and that Jesus had not entered with His disciples into the boat, but [that] His disciples had gone away alone. 23 There came other small boats from Tiberias near to the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor His disciples, they themselves got into the small boats, and came to Capernaum seeking Jesus. 25 When they found Him on the other side of the sea, they said to Him, “Rabbi, when did You get here?” 26 Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. 27 “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.”

Jesus made His way out to the disciples walking on the water, and that wasn’t intended to me a display, but a way He could get home to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples saw Him, and He entered the vessel –but that didn’t seem to be the original intent of the walk. Jesus wasn’t trying, even after the fact, to make His walk a matter of public witness. The fact that Jesus was there, and the fact that they all saw the disciples leave without Him gave rise to the question in verse twenty-five: “How did you get here?” Jesus cut through the question, and drove the discussion to their true desire. The people weren’t really asking about HOW Jesus got there – they wanted to know if He was going to continue to “make lunch” for each gathering. They didn’t come with the need for a healing, but they could always use a free lunch.

Jesus’ warning is valuable even generations later. He told them: “Don’t labor for the physical fulfillments, but rather place your hungers in what I can give you in the spiritual fulfillment of eternal life.” The Savior knew and openly expressed that God gave to Him some who were marked for a relationship with Him.

In 1922, a woman named Rhea F. Miller wrote a poem. In 1932, while struggling over some enticing offers to use his voice for financial gain, a copy of that poem was placed on the top of an organ in a family home in New York by a worried mother. Seated at the organ was a 23-year-old musician named George Beverly Shea. Shea read Miller’s poem and the words on the paper brought deep conviction. George took the time to set them to music. As he played the finished product and sung each word, George’s mom tearfully encouraged him to sing the new song in church the following Sunday. Those words are known to Christians in much of the world:

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold, I’d rather have His than have riches untold; I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands, I’d rather be led by His nail pierced hand. Refrain: Than to be the king of a vast domain, And be held in sin’s dread sway; I’d rather have Jesus than anything – This world affords today.

Life’s prize for a true Christian is not wealth or fame or worldly acceptance – the prize is Christ. The center of his faith is not deep self-understanding or calming inner peace – it is intimacy with Him. The pattern is not found in the popular and the successful of this world – but the Savior who gave Himself for others. The goal is not temporal accomplishment – for all will quickly fade when standing before the One whose Majesty is unparalleled in the Heavens. Paul understood this when he wrote: “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Yet the gain was not simply embracing the long departed family of earth, nor entering a Heavenly home of delights set by a street of gold – rather it is standing in the clarity of the light emanates from the Son, with no need for any other light. The prize to the Christian is a life with Jesus. Since that is true, we must tailor our appetites to long for that, and not for peace, acceptance, wealth or fame. These tasty morsels of earth will be bland in tasteless above in the banquet halls of Heaven – offering nothing but distraction from the beauty, majesty and wonder of our Savior at the wedding feast.

Yet, even today, in the presentation of Jesus to lost men and women, we often hear those who make the presentation about inner peace, self-fulfillment or even riches. There have always been those who came to Jesus, but didn’t want Him – they wanted a “fix” for some problem. When He didn’t deliver in the time and way they hoped, they wandered off – because they didn’t come seeking Him.

Hungering a list to perform, not a relationship to cherish.

In that same way, Jesus showed another distraction people fall into…

John 6:28 Therefore they [the men speaking to Jesus] said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.

Notice the question they asked Jesus in verse twenty-eight. They were not asking for relationship with the Son (which is what Jesus just told them they needed). They asked how they could “work the works of God” – as if the works would substitute for a relationship. Jesus’ answer was the beginning place of relationship with Him – belief that He truly came from God and was on the mission He made plain in His speaking.

If one would come to Jesus to invite Him to be Savior, he or she must believe that Jesus was sent from God, and can deliver on the desired salvation because God has ordained the work of the One Who was called “Savior”. Without divine sanction and origin, Jesus was a good man Who desired to bring a message of the need a love for God and fellow man – a message He could do little to secure beyond pointing out the needs. If He is Who He claimed to be – the Eternal Son of God with power over sin and God’s appointment to pay fully for its darkness – then His mission needed to be embraced for His identity to be recognized. Jesus made the point that it was not enough for one to seek a list of works and fulfill them – the answer was found in the authorized connection between the Father and the Son.

Let’s be clear: If Jesus was sent from God, He existed before His birth in Bethlehem (as is clear from the teachings of the Apostle Paul in places like Colossians 1 and Philippians 2). If He was sent from God, the work He accomplished could secure the salvation He promised. If He was not from God – He was a well-meaning impostor. Jesus made clear it was not essential to begin with lifestyle changes and lists – it was essential to begin by believing that Jesus came from the Father, and His mission was approved by the Father. The issue was this: Jesus either came and fulfilled what God desired for redemption, or He did not. Jesus made the point that belief in that connection was the beginning point of receiving Him.

This is where the believer and the non-believer divide in our understanding. The world has, for the most part, been willing to see Jesus as a “good man” – but not as One Who was connected to God in the way that He described Himself to be. A Jesus of a manger in Bethlehem, a baby soft and cuddly is a threat to no one. Forgotten is the Jesus Who cleared the Temple in zeal – unless it is reformed to show how He hated “religious” people – which wasn’t really the point of the story. Forgotten is the Jesus Who gave Sinai’s law – for the Jesus “on the street” let the adulteress go – an ever understanding One who “knows our failures”. In essence, the Jesus of “pop culture” is a caricature of the One in the Bible. The One Who stands above all, the name at which every knee should bow and tongue confess as Master is not the Jesus on the street of America. Sadly, He is not the Jesus in many churches anymore, either. Our modern approach to Jesus has been to make Him more of a friend, a guidance counselor, a toothless chaplain – ever seeking to make our performance in life more successful and our heart during the journey more at peace. Though that isn’t the Jesus we need – it is the Jesus many want. Jesus told these men from the beginning the “divine connection” and Father’s initiative in the work was an essential understanding that put one on the road to recognizing His true mission.

Worshiping the men, but not their Master.

If you keep reading, yet another distraction from truth is mentioned…

John 6:30 So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform? 31 “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.'” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. 33 “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.

The men made clear they had expectations of Jesus’ performance – they wanted to compare His works against those done before – particularly by Moses in the wilderness. In verse thirty, they called on Jesus to offer another “free lunch” like He did when they followed Him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They pressed Him: “What WORK will you perform?” They continued: “Our fathers got bread from Heaven, in fact, the Scriptures say that HE gave them bread to eat.” In their words, they quoted Psalm 78, but misdirected the pronouns of the verses.

Psalm 78:19 said: “Then they spoke against God; They said, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? 20 “Behold, He struck the rock so that waters gushed out, And streams were overflowing; Can He give bread also? Will He provide meat for His people?

At that point, the “he” pronoun sounded to many like MOSES who struck the rock – yet the He that caused the rock to yield water was the Lord – not His servant. The passage continues in the Psalms:

Psalm 78:21 “Therefore the LORD heard [ not the striking of the rock, but the complaints of the people] and was full of wrath; And a fire was kindled against Jacob and anger also mounted against Israel, 22 Because they did not believe in God and did not trust in His salvation. 23 Yet He [God] commanded the clouds above and opened the doors of heaven; 24 He rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them food from heaven. 25 Man did eat the bread of angels; He sent them food in abundance.”

Generations later the people still apparently ascribed the work to Moses more than God. Jesus made that clear in His response – it WASN’T MOSES that gave you food in the wilderness – that came from Heaven!

People have the tendency to look at the servant of God and give him or her the credit for what God Himself does. We bring a message of truth, but the truth is not ours – we are the messenger not the source. A few chapters into the Book of Acts, people were seeking the shadow of Peter and John to fall on them – but these men made clear they had Jesus to give others – and there was nothing better. We must expect people to follow people before the message they bring – but as they mature they should not remain in that state. They should grow up and place their allegiance in the Lord above – or their faith will torque into a man-centered religious expression.

Hungering for temporal satisfactions, not eternal solutions.

At the core of many people is a distraction by a “here centered” life. Take a look at the words of Jesus…

John 6:34 Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. 36 “But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. 37 “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. 38 “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. 40 “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” And later in… 49 “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 “This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”

At the heart of the problem of belief is a hunger for fulfillment and success in the wrong place, and a blunted view of what is real, lasting and truly fulfilling. We see life on earth the center of all, and the “afterlife” as some addendum. Yet, this life is short, and the next is eternal – or the message of Jesus is a sham.

Jesus said He is the bread sent from Heaven – the needed element of sustenance. He said the Father had given Him some to follow Him. He said it was His Father’s plan He followed – and that those who followed Him would have eternal life, being raised up on the last day. He claimed the bread, once consumed, would give eternal life and make Him not die. Yet, Jesus was speaking of spiritual life and brought the antidote to sin sickness. His effort was not to fill our stomach, but to fill our heart, our spirit. The problem is simple: One who is looking for a full stomach will miss the offer of a full heart. Many people want “salvation” but they mean it in a “this world” sense. The fact is that we quickly recognize the dangers of a disease to the body – but not to the spirit. We “get” why Ebola is a scary disease – but not why sin is a much worse problem – because we focus on the wrong world.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss, in her book The Heart God Purifies wrote this: “Most of us have become so familiar with sin that we no longer see it as a deadly monster. Sin is more dangerous than wild bears, more deadly than blazing forest fires. Ask Nebuchadnezzar, who lost his mind because he refused to deal with his pride. Ask Samson, who was reduced to a pathetic shred of a man because he never got control over the lusts of his flesh. Ask Achan and Ananias and Sapphira, who all lost their lives over ‘small’ secret sins.”

Pastor Jonathan Fallwell noted in a broadcast email yesterday that: “While Ebola destroys the body, sin destroys the inner man, which means it separates us from God and sends us in a spiritual tailspin. We see it in our culture, which has become obsessed with sinful behavior. Imagine watching virtually any modern television show or ad in the context of the cultural climate just 40, 30, even 20 years ago. Tragically, America has adopted a tolerance and acceptance of sin and it does not appear that this trend will soon end.”

Jesus was trying to get the men to realize that they were looking for food to get through the day –but He was offering food that would get them through eternity. It is hard to grasp God’s objective when the view of it is blocked by temporal hungers.

Perceiving a good man, not recognizing the “God-man”.

As He spoke Jesus encountered another reaction that was rooted in disbelief and distraction…

John 6:41 Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, “I am the bread that came down out of heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, I have come down out of heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered and said to them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. 45 “It is written in the prophets, AND THEY SHALL ALL BE TAUGHT OF GOD.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. 46 “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. 47 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. 48 “I am the bread of life.

The men who heard Jesus recognized Him as the son of a family they knew. They didn’t say the name of “Joseph” and “Mary” out of derision – they were a good family. Yet, they were from Nazareth (as far back as anyone cared to remember) – and Nazareth was a LONG WAY from Heaven. How could Jesus point to the Heavens and claim He was anything more than a good man who came to do good works and bring happiness to hurting people. A few healings and miracles were not enough to prove that He was anything more than a good guy with a social conscience in their view.

Yet, Jesus was not unclear about what He intended His life to be and to mean to others. He made clear that His Father was drawing people to Him, and others would turn a blind eye. He made clear that He alone had seen the Father, and that belief in Him was the necessary belief that brought life. The people were ready to see Him as a good man – but not as the One Who came down from the Father to bring life eternal – the fully God and fully man eternal Son of the Holy One. He simply said: “I am the bread of life – I am what you need. Me. Nothing else will give you life.”

Look at the words of Jesus in verse forty-seven: “He who believes has eternal life.” Believes exactly “what” is the question. Jesus made the careful point that one must believe that He is the One sent from God Who has seen God, and knows what God requires.” That is the heart of the matter. Jesus either paid the price for sin knowledgeably – or He did not. He is either from God, or He lived in a dream or delusion. What a man or woman concluded about Jesus’ coming, purpose and work made the difference between life eternal and none – according to the words of Jesus as recorded by John.

Fixating on the image, but missing the point.

The longer I preach, the more I sympathize with the last problem…people fixate on an image or illustration of a message, but seem to miss spiritual point being made. Take a look:

John 6:52 Then the Jews [began] to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us [His] flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. 56 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. 58 “This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. 60 Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard [this] said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? 62 “[What] then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? 63 “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. 64 “But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. 65 And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” 66 As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.

Jesus used an image of His body as “manna from Heaven”. In verse fifty-two the people didn’t grasp how they could “eat His flesh”. Strip away church history and the layered theologies of generations with the debates over “consubstantiation” (the doctrine of many of your Lutheran friends that the substance of the bread and wine “coexists with the body and blood of Christ” in the elements of the Eucharist) and “transubstantiation” (The liturgical view, as with your Roman Catholic friend) that the bread and cup at the mass undergo a “conversion” of the substances into the actual body and blood of Christ while the appearances of bread and wine still remain). Go back to the Jewish village of long ago – and recall the dramatic ways Jews were taught never, never, never to INGEST blood. Eating blood was worse than having a ham for dinner.

Jesus told them they needed to “eat His flesh” and the Jews rejected outright the image. Even the disciples told Him: “Nobody is going to listen to that!” Jesus’ answer reveals what the disciples and other listeners were doing with His point – obscuring what He was truly saying. He simply replied: “You guys are stuck on the flesh and missing the spiritual point of the whole illustration!” The flesh, food and eating wasn’t what Jesus was literally talking about – spiritual ingestion of an inner relationship was the point of the saying! He said: “The flesh profits nothing!” In other words, “I am not talking about baking me into your bread – I am talking about spiritual truth!”

How well I understand this comment. In the middle of a series from the Word, I may search for a personal illustration that opens a window to an elusive idea. Let’s say I tell you about the time I went skiing in the Pocono Mountains – and broke all the fingers on my left hand above and below the knuckles – all the way across. That is a true story, and the skiers among us may snap back from wandering in the message to hear about the incident. Those on the staff who like poking fun at me because I am no sportsman will listen intently. It will become the source of several jokes for future staff meetings. Sadly, whatever I was trying to illustrate from the text will quickly be forgotten. Illustrations to aid learners are important, but people can get caught up in the images. I see it all the time.

Let me be clear: Jesus doesn’t want you to EAT HIM in any physical sense. He doesn’t need to mystically add His blood to your communion wine. The bread we eat, if measured under a microscope after any priest of Pastor prays will still be, in every microscopic way, bread – nothing more. Jesus wasn’t telling people they needed daily bread blessed by a priest into becoming His body to go to Heaven.

Sin is of the heart. You don’t need to do anything to rebel against God in your heart. Greed is of the heart. Lust is of the heart… and so is salvation. It doesn’t come in a wafer – it comes in surrender to the Savior in the heart – and that was His point. The rest of the deep theology, for centuries, has served only to obscure the point and remember only the illustration.

Our permanent relationship with God in Heaven came at a price Jesus paid for us! The picture of intimacy and transformation from within was graphically offered, but not easily understood.

• Disciples then, and now, must see Jesus in His place – Who is Jesus?
• Disciples must understand where real life is – Where does Jesus fulfill us?
• Disciples must understand that only believers will get it – What does Jesus require of us?
• Disciples must understand that God enables the process – How does a believer find the truth?

Until we understand the place of Jesus, and recognize that reality is primarily in the spiritual realm (the physical is a reflection) we don’t understand the core of His message. When those truths are accepted and we change our lives to conform to the truth, God opens new doors to us.

Three Responses to Jesus (6:66-71)

Look at the responses to Jesus:

Some left to seek fulfillment elsewhere (6:66). John 6:66 “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.”

When Christianity is about Christ, and not about self-fulfillment, some people leave – because they weren’t there for that reason to begin with!

Some remained and understood He had the truth (6:67-69). John 6:67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” 68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. 69 “We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

Some stayed but weren’t real (6:70-71) John 6:70 Jesus answered them, “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?” 71 Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.

Yet, not all that left were lost forever (some would later return). Note that not all that stayed were truly “with the program” – Judas was sitting right there!

The response that was essential was inner surrender to Who Jesus is, and acceptance of what He does for us in our place.

Adrian Rogers told years ago of a man from Romania named “Josef”. He and Rogers were talking about the difference between “commitment” and the word “surrender” as preachers used them. Josef made an important distinction that is worth noting as we close: “When you make a commitment, you are still in some limited control no matter how noble the thing you commit to. One can commit to pray, study the Bible, give his money, to make automobile payments, or to lose weight. Whatever he or she chooses to do, they commit to it. It is a renewable quantity… Yet the term surrender is considerably different”, the man said. “If someone holds a gun and asks you to lift your hands in the air as a token of surrender, you don’t tell that individual what you are committed to. You simply surrender and do as you are told.” The key word concerning Christ is surrender, not simply commitment.

We are to be the slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ.” We must recognize that we come not to train Him to meet our desires better, but to be trained to find our sufficiency in Him. I would argue that we have enough commitment in the church today… we may lack a sincere understanding of surrender!

To gain eternal life we must focus on accepting Jesus and what He did for us, not the other distractions that draw our eyes away from Him.