Thursday, October 30, 2014

Acts 23 - A Change of Plans

Monday, October 27, 2014 - 'A Clear Conscience'
1 Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.” 2 The high priest Ananias commanded those standing beside him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?” 4 But the bystanders said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’

Our conscience does not tell us what is right, rather it reminds us to do what we already believe to be right. Yet, what we believe may be wrong.

For example, Paul believed that he was right to speak caustic words to the high priest, yet he did not know that it was the high priest. His conscience told him that what the high priest had commanded was out-of-line and deserves an immediate and firm response. Notice Paul's response: 'I was not aware...' The role of the conscience is important in human behavior, yet it is only as useful as it is 'aware' of all the facts. If not fully educated and/or wrongly educated, it can lead us astray.

Paul also spoke with conviction: 'God is going to strike you..' How did Paul come to  assume that he could speak for God? 'No', God was not going to strike the high priest down. And 'no', Paul was himself out-of-line for saying what he did to the high priest. Not only had Paul's conscience failed him, but he used poor judgment. He hadn't waited to gather all the facts before speaking.

How did Paul get himself into such a situation? It seems he assumed that because God had clearly called him to ministry every thought he had must be the voice of God. He pleaded that he had a 'perfectly good conscience before God' because he had only thought, said, and done what his conscience had told him was 'right'. He had unwittingly equated his conscience with God's voice. While the Spirit may prick out conscience to do right things, the Spirit does not 'prick' our conscience in all things our conscience declares as 'right'. To imagine otherwise is to misunderstand how the conscience, and the Spirit, work.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 - 'Discerning Opportunities'
6 But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” 7 As he said this, there occurred a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 And there occurred a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 And as a great dissension was developing, the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them and ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force, and bring him into the barracks. 11 But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.”

Sadly, so many folks give up when disaster strikes. They spend all their effort in catastrophizing and neglect to put any effort into noticing if a 'a window has opened when the door was shut tight'. Paul was a master at seeing a variety of options. He seemed to have assumed that was the way God worked. It had almost become a favorite 'game' of his. No wonder he could write, 'if God is for us, who is against us' (Rom 8:32).

Paul looked carefully at the council and noticed two distinct groups, with contrary theological notions, were present. In that he saw his opportunity. Rather than to do anything that would unite both groups against him, he chose to divide the two groups so that they would fight against one another. It didn't take much effort to ignite a firestorm. Instantly, after declaring that he was also a Pharisee, he effectively became the favorite child of that whole group. Clever man. In fact, they shifted from being poised to condemn him to finding 'nothing wrong with him'.

The Pharisees also added a new twist to the discussion. 'What if...' Yes, maybe the things he has said and done had truly been in obedience to a  being sent from God? This is a rather stunning defense. I don't recall the Pharisees being that open minded in their conflict with Jesus a few decades earlier? Was this new generation of Pharisees that different? What might have been the result if Jesus had begun his ministry thirty years later? Would the Pharisees have been more open to his gospel?

What should we make of Luke's note that the Lord spoke to Paul that same night to encourage him in his witnessing even in Rome? The Lord did not berate Paul for not listening to the Spirit earlier when he had been warned not to go to Jerusalem. Rather, the Lord met Paul where Paul was and made something beautiful out of it. Knowing that Paul would be sent to Rome, the Lord counseled Paul to continue proclaiming his faith.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 - 'The Persistence of Evil'
12 When it was day, the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than forty who formed this plot. 14 They came to the chief priests and the elders and said, “We have bound ourselves under a solemn oath to taste nothing until we have killed Paul. 15 Now therefore, you and the Council notify the commander to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case by a more thorough investigation; and we for our part are ready to slay him before he comes near the place.” 16 But the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, and he came and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Paul called one of the centurions to him and said, “Lead this young man to the commander, for he has something to report to him.” 18 So he took him and led him to the commander and said, “Paul the prisoner called me to him and asked me to lead this young man to you since he has something to tell you.”

The sad reality of this world is that evil exists. It not only exists, but it is aggressively persistent, cannot be reasoned with, and tangling with it can be fatal. Evil must be confronted and destroyed. It is not 'evil' to destroy that which is 'evil'.

Of course, many people are persistent with their beliefs, cannot be reasoned with, and may strike out to defend their beliefs - yet they are not evil doers. They may be doing wrong things unwittingly, but that does not make them 'evil'. We all tend to persistently pursue what we believe is right, even when we are wrong, but that does not make us 'evil'. We may need to stop someone from doing what we believe is 'evil', but that still doesn't make that person evil. In fact, we may even jail or execute someone who persists in doing things our society does not favor, yet even because we had to take such an drastic action against another does not automatically make the other person an evil person.

Surely the Christians considered Paul to be a very evil person before his conversion. But, he was not. All that he persistently did arose from a desire to protect what he sincerely believed was the way of truth. He willingly arrested and agreed to have his 'enemies' executed, because he believed that Christianity was an 'evil' plague in the world, destructive to the age old Jewish faith. In other words, Christians and Jews were both calling the other 'evil'. Yet, the label did not make the other truly 'evil'.

Having said all that, what then constitutes genuine 'evil'? How can we tell the difference between a person whose views are the antithesis of ours and who persistently fights against us to protect their own views and way of life, from someone who is truly evil? If another's persistence antagonism, our inability to reason with them, and their willingness to even destroy us is not a sufficient and legitimate definition of evil, what is missing?

Evil must exceed our definition of sin, sin all of us sin, yet all sin is not 'evil'. We may have persistently broken all ten commandments, have not been open to reason in regard to our immoral behavior, and have attacked others who tried to stop us - but evil exceeds even that. Killing another person is immoral, but murder become more than a sin when cruelty is involved. Then what was immoral passed the threshold into 'evil'.

Humans have always lied to, stolen from, and killed one another for various reasons. Some, though, have raped and killed for sport and have used inhumane methods to create as much suffering as possible on the other, simply to cause pain. I have no doubt in my mind that cruelty is an act of evil. Someone may intentionally kill my child during a robbery. That is immoral and that person needs to go to prison. Yet if my child was cruelly tortured before perishing, that act would exceed being simply immoral and would then be classified as genuinely 'evil'.

Of course evil can be inflicted disguised as 'good'. When someone intentionally deceives another for no other reason other than to cause suffering, that is an act of evil. For instance, Jesus often told the unclean spirits to be quiet even though they spoke the truth about Jesus. It was because the truth they spoke was intentionally premature and designed to overwhelm the unprepared to reject Jesus as the Messiah.

What are your definitions of evil? How do you parse out the difference between someone who acts immorally and someone who is doing evil? 

Oh, and Paul had a sister and a nephew?

Thursday, October 30, 2014 - 'Thank You, Nephew'
19 The commander took him by the hand and stepping aside, began to inquire of him privately, “What is it that you have to report to me?” 20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down tomorrow to the Council, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more thoroughly about him. 21 So do not listen to them, for more than forty of them are lying in wait for him who have bound themselves under a curse not to eat or drink until they slay him; and now they are ready and waiting for the promise from you.” 22 So the commander let the young man go, instructing him, “Tell no one that you have notified me of these things.” 23 And he called to him two of the centurions and said, “Get two hundred soldiers ready by the third hour of the night to proceed to Caesarea, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen.”

How was it that Paul had relatives in Jerusalem, since he was from another region? How was it that the nephew of Paul happened to be where he could have overheard the plot against Paul? Did he have a friend that was involved in the plot? With 40 men involved it would have been difficult to keep them all bound to secrecy. Was Paul's nephew an 'intern' with one of the chief priests or elders and learned about the plan there? If so, what might have been his theological views? Were they different from Paul's? 

He was referred to as a 'young man' (v. 17) whom the commander 'took by the hand' to learn the details of the plot. Yet, he was brave enough to immediately act on the information. Whether or not he agreed with Paul's theology, he must have loved Paul enough to protect him.

Friday, October 31, 2014 - '
24 They were also to provide mounts to put Paul on and bring him safely to Felix the governor. 25 And he wrote a letter having this form: 26 “Claudius Lysias, to the most excellent governor Felix, greetings. 27 “When this man was arrested by the Jews and was about to be slain by them, I came up to them with the troops and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. 28 “And wanting to ascertain the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their Council; 29 and I found him to be accused over questions about their Law, but under no accusation deserving death or imprisonment. 30 “When I was informed that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, also instructing his accusers to bring charges against him before you.”

Saturday, November 1, 2014 - '
31 So the soldiers, in accordance with their orders, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. 32 But the next day, leaving the horsemen to go on with him, they returned to the barracks. 33 When these had come to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him. 34 When he had read it, he asked from what province he was, and when he learned that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will give you a hearing after your accusers arrive also,” giving orders for him to be kept in Herod’s Praetorium.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Acts 22 - A Chance to Speak

Monday, October 20, 2014 - 'Who?'
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, 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, being zealous for God just as you all are today. 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.

Why would that mob have instantly ceased accusing Paul and, instead, quietly listened to him? Was it simply because he had spoken in the 'Hebrew dialect'? Didn't they already know that he was a Jew? Didn't they already know who he was?

The answer to this question may be found in chapter 21:27,28. It was Jews from Asia that had 'stirred up the crowd' and had planted the information that 'this is the man who preaches against our people.' In other words, a few people with skewed views about Paul and thoroughly hated him, maliciously provoked other yet uninformed Jews to assault Paul. When Paul spoke to them in Hebrew they were immediately taken aback. They suddenly realized that they really didn't know anything about this man other than what was hearsay. They had foolishly and ignorantly rushed to judgment based solely on the claims of other Jews who were also strangers. Thus, they were surprised to discover that Paul was one of them, that he wasn't simply a rabble-rouser, but an intelligent and educated Jew.

How easily do we 'jump to conclusions' based on the testimony of others? How careful are we to check out what others say, to make sure that it is accurate? Do we keep reminding ourselves that we must think critically at all times. Do we understand that it is a fallacy of logic to assume something is true simply because (1) everyone else thinks it is true, (2) it has been believed for a long, long time, (3) high-ranking people and/or celebrities believe it to be true, (4) people we personally know and trust tell us it is true, or because (5) it resonates so very well with our current worldview? Something is true because there is undeniable empirical evidence for it. Apart from such evidence we are only dealing with private interpretation, opinions.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - 'How?'
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 author wrote that those accompanying Paul, 'saw the light, but did not understand the voice that had spoken to Paul'. Earlier, in chapter 9, the author wrote, 'the men who traveled with Paul stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one.' This must have been a terrifying experience. There was a 'sudden bright flash of light' and a sound that no one but Paul could understand. No one could confirm that what Paul 'heard' was actually the voice of Jesus. They could, though, confirm that something powerful had happened and it had transformed Paul. The light blinded Paul, but clearly had not blinded those with him since they were the ones that had to lead him by the hand to Damascus.

In what ways had Paul been 'persecuting' Jesus? Can we assume that whenever we persecute someone who loves Jesus, we are persecuting Jesus himself? Does it then follow that if I judge someone who loves Jesus that I am also judging Jesus? If I am impatient with someone who loves Jesus, am I being impatient with Jesus? If I neglect someone who loves Jesus, have I unwittingly neglected Jesus (Mt. 25:39-41). What if I judge, persecute, am impatient with, neglect or have been otherwise unkind to someone who does not yet love Jesus? Have I then done all this to Jesus as well?

The gist of this account, for most Christians, has been that God turned a persecutor of Christians into a champion of the Christian faith. This incident, though, raises a few other interesting questions. (1) was this only possible because Paul already had faith in God and had been a champion of the God he assumed he knew? (2) Were the hearts of those who attended Paul also converted through this experience? (3) Would God personally and convincingly speak to any lover of truth in order to bring them to faith - or was this a one time event designed just for Paul? 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 - 'What?'
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 only 'choice' that Paul was granted, according to Luke's account, was to submit or not submit to the overwhelming evidence that God had selected him. He hadn't invited God to reveal to him a clearer understanding of His will. He hadn't asked God to stop him if he was walking in the wrong path. He hadn't asked to be a disciple of Jesus. And he hadn't given permission to Ananias to lay hands on him or to restore his vision (Acts 9:17). God had chosen Paul to be His apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). Then God chose for Paul all that He wanted Paul to do. God effectively 'made' Paul do a 180.

Free choice is an important aspect of Christian belief, yet there are times when God makes a choice for us - even against our will - in order to carry out His own will. For the already convinced, our prayers should always be in harmony with Jesus' prayers, 'not my will but God's will be done'. This story, though, reminds us that even non-believers are subject to the sovereignty of God. Free choice always exists as a subset within God's choices. Mankind is never permitted to make choices that obstruct the eternal purpose of God.

Ananias, initially fearful of Saul (Acts 9:14), yet in faithful obedience to God despite his protest, found himself in the role of commanding the former persecutor of Christians what he was to do and when to do it. That must have been a rather scary turn of events for Ananias, not to mention for Saul.

Saul, naturally, was confused and measurably hesitant in his response. Maybe he was wondering, 'what just happened to me? What's going on here? What did this stranger just say to me?'

Ananias interrupted Saul from his uncertainty and commanded, 'so, what are you waiting for? You just heard what I said, what God told me to tell you. Get up! Get moving, now!' When we have clearly heard the command of God, we are to immediately respond with 'yes, Lord, your servant hears and is willing to immediately obey'. If and when God's command is clear, understanding 'why' He has commanded us shouldn't be necessary.

Thursday, October 23, 2014 - 'When?'
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.’”

Paul and Jerusalem just weren't a good match. From the beginning of his Christian ministry until the end, spending time in Jerusalem seemed to have been contraindicated, especially for Paul. But why?

Jerusalem was the center of Jewish faith. Though the Romans controlled this sacred city of David, the Jews were in proud control of their ancient culture. The temple - which was the symbol of all that they cherished - was there. It enshrined the whole history of God's chosen people. Without it, as when the Jews had been taken captive and brought to Babylon and their city destroyed, they floundered. Their identity as a people was closely related to the symbol of their nation.

Thus, Jerusalem was not a safe place for anyone who attempted to change it. Even the Romans were wary of the volatile Jews and were usually careful not to unnecessarily irritate them. Why should Paul have expected to be more accepted by the Jews in Jerusalem than Jesus had been? Jesus himself had been arrested and crucified in there.

Wherever uniformity of faith, culture, and symbols exist - and have existed relatively unchanged for centuries - new ideas are quickly and severely confronted and eliminated. Novelty has a far greater chance to penetrate a culture where diversity is cherished, than a culture in which unity in uniformity is valued. Those who cling to a 'one-size-fits-all' religious viewpoint, will undoubtedly and instantly object to anyone promoting any change.

Yet Paul unwittingly assumed that reason would win the day for him. Reason, though, isn't a virtue in a society where there is an emotional attachment to the symbols, beliefs, and practices of an ancient and uniformly accepted way of life. Truth, in that context, is often defined by a set of logical fallacies. Something is assumed to be true because it is very old, important people have and do believe it to be true, and an overwhelming large number of people see it as true. These are not rational means for establishing truth. Rather, these are emotionally based determinants for knowing something is 'truth'. In other words, a reasoned approach to confronting emotionally held ideas is almost always 'dead on arrival'.

When a faith is based on emotional attachment, neither a plethora of awe-inspiring miracles, nor outstanding acts of incredible compassion, will be accepted as legitimate reasons to entertain a need for change. Even well reasoned arguments from the scriptures of the peculiar people group being addressed won't budge them from their cherish status quo. They would rather die than abandon their ways. In fact, that is exactly what happened during the late seventh decade of the first century.

Jesus had wept over the stubbornness of Jerusalem. The Spirit also clearly knew all about the intransigence of Jerusalem. Therefore Paul, in the beginning of his ministry, had been  commanded to leave that city and to go to the various cities of the Gentiles. Then, later, at the end of his third missionary journey, he was commanded not to return to Jerusalem. Yet he believed that his evangelistic accomplishments and rational arguments from scripture were clear and undeniable evidence that God was with him. Thus, he dismissed all the warnings and went on to Jerusalem anyways. Surely, he thought, he could finally accomplish what even Jesus hadn't been able to do several decades earlier. Surely he could convert all of Jerusalem into a Christian city. Predictably, Paul failed.

Friday, October 24, 2014 - 'Where?'
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!” 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, stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way.

I will usually set aside a book whenever I reach the point where an author builds from an unproven assumption - unless, of course, I am reading science fiction. It does not matter how much solid science came before and/or after this point of departure. It does not matter how much empirical evidence exists for previous assumptions. Once an unproven assumption is presented and then treated as a fact, a red flag arises. All the 'good' that had been presented up till this point is not a sufficient reason to overlook an assumption that is left unproven (Ez 18:24).

On the other hand, if a newly offered assumption has been presented as a hypothesis to be tested, that would be entirely different. I would then expect the author to describe his or her deductive process for establishing the validity of his hypothesis. Paul, though, did not explain adequately explain how he came to his conclusions, especially for a group of people who were entrenched in tradition.

Paul had the crowd listening to him up to this point. That in itself had been an unexpected, yet wonderful accomplishment. Yet he suddenly lost their attention. Might there have been a different way that he could have phrased things to keep his audience listening rather than returning to their previous intent to kill him? Most likely not, no matter what he had said nor how he said it. Yet, his last comment on what God had told him, 'Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles', might have been received more favorably if he had presented somewhat differently. The way he presented it had clearly offended the Jews. It was an assumption that did not fit in with anything they believed, yet he presented it as a fact apart from adequate evidence.

Could he have said, 'I heard what I believed to have been God speaking to me. Nothing I heard, though, made any sense. It seemed contrary to everything our Law has taught us. I was about to conclude that it had been an evil spirit speaking to me, and to turn away from the voice, but something in me made me stop. Have you ever had such an feeling? As with our father Abraham - who was told to do something beyond belief in sacrificing his own son - I was hearing something that went beyond my belief, yet - like Abraham - my gut told me that this was God's voice. I wrestled with what to do. We all know that if we have doubt, we are to 'test the spirits' to see whether they are of God or not. So I decided to take what I had heard as a hypothesis and to test it out to see if, perhaps, it was truly of God. I think most of you would have done the same thing as sincere believers in the Lord, right? Now, if you would permit me, let me tell you what happened when I preached to the Gentiles....'

If Paul had spoken as I just suggested, do you think the crowd would have been more willing to listen to him, at least a few minutes longer? If so, why? If not, why not? What would you have suggested to Paul in the circumstance he had gotten himself into?

Saturday, October 25, 2014 - 'Oops'
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. 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.

It is often a good idea to have an 'ace up one's sleeve' - i.e. to keep all options open rather than to only have Plan A in mind. Paul first tried to use reason, then he pulled out his 'ace' and brought fear to those who were about to mistreat him.

In game theory one might be 'nice' at the first offense, and maybe even at a second offense, but if one's opponent continues to offend, there cannot be a third time to be 'nice'. Paul had been nice. Circumstances required him to pursue Plan B. He told the guards that he was a Roman citizen who, by law, could not be punished without a trial. Oops. The Roman soldiers had also acted on assumptions. They had not checked out the accusations to see if they were based on fact or fiction. They were in a hurry to quell the disturbance, but in their haste they nearly got themselves into trouble.

Jesus had been asked by Peter how many times one should forgive a person. The Lord then effectively blew the tit-for-tat game to pieces by suggesting 70 x 7 times. This is not how most sane humans deal with offense. The teachings of Jesus run contrary to the human spirit. To be able to follow Christ in this manner requires letting go of everything in this world. 

Paul was not thinking in 70 x 7 terms at this point. He had been offended by the Jews, but he would not tolerate offense by the Romans. Paul believed that God had much more for him to do and he was not going to permit anything or anybody to get in his way.

Alternatively, Jesus knew that the Father had called him to the cross, thus he forgave infinitely. How does 'knowing that it is our time to die' change the way we deal with those who offend us? If we believe 'to die is gain', then we can be far more forgiving. If we shun all loss, we will seldom find ourselves willing to forgive.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Acts 21 - I Did It My Way

Monday, October 13, 2014 - 'The Spirit: No #1'
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.

Paul believed that the Spirit was calling him back to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21; 20:16, 22). But was it really the Spirit or his own spirit that had prompted him? Hadn't the Spirit spoken to Paul in every city along the way - probably through the prophetic word of other believers - that only danger lay ahead (Acts 20:23)?

Here again, in Tyre, the Spirit spoke through the disciples, not only warning Paul of impending danger in Jerusalem, but that he should 'not' go into that city. It seems rather clear that it was not the Spirit that was leading Paul to Jerusalem, but his own spirit. Paul himself had confessed that the Spirit had 'solemnly testified' to him that 'bonds and afflictions' awaited him if he ventured into Jerusalem (Acts 20:23). Paul, though, had chosen to interpret those warnings as a test of his determination to follow Christ even if it led to death. Was he missing the point? Had his own desires blinded him to the actual message of the Spirit?

The Spirit hadn't given up on Paul. This was not a warning about danger, but a clear and specific command to 'not set foot in Jerusalem' (Acts 21:4). Yet, Paul continued on.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014 - 'The Spirit: No #2'
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!

The author of 'Acts' has mentioned this issue repeatedly. Paul believed God was calling him to Jerusalem. Yet other believers heard the Spirit saying 'no, don't go to Jerusalem'. Even a prophet from Judea, Agabus, reiterated what the Spirit was saying. If Paul had interpreted the will of God correctly, then why did the Spirit persistently warn him in every city he traveled through to 'not' go to Jerusalem? If Paul had heard correctly and was in obedience to the command of God, enough said, right?

No one doubted Paul's willingness to die for the Lord. No one doubted his faith in Christ. Was Paul still finding it difficult to forgive himself for his past actions against Christians? Was he overcompensating? Or, was he so intent on going back to Jerusalem and then on to Rome that he just couldn't clearly hear any voice that said otherwise? How can a Christian discern the difference between God's voice and their own human voice? If you had been in Paul's place and had received all those same warnings, how might you have interpreted them? 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - 'The Accusation'
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.

After repeated warnings from the Spirit that they should 'not' go to Jerusalem, several disciples decided to follow Paul there anyways. At first it seems like all the concern had been misguided. They were all warmly welcomed. The elders rejoiced in the report of Paul's evangelistic successes among the Gentiles. They then reported to him that many Jews had also come to accept Jesus as the Messiah. So far, so good. Paul seemed to be in good favor. Who could object to his successes? Who could deny that God had chosen him and that the Spirit had blessed him?

There was, though, one problem. There was a nasty rumor about Paul that needed to be put to rest. The Christian Jews clung to the Law more than the Spirit. Evangelistic success among the Gentiles was not as important to them as was obedience to the Law. The Jews who had received Jesus had not let go of the old covenant. Despite the fact that the Law was only a 'shadow of the good things to come' (Heb 10:1), that the communion wine symbolized the 'new' covenant (1 Cor 11:25) which had been inaugurated at the cross and confirmed at the resurrection (Heb 10:20), and despite the fact that the old covenant was obsolete (Heb 8:13), many Jewish converts clung to the 'old' Law more than to 'new' grace.

Worse, the elders of the church in Jerusalem didn't seem to 'get it' either. Thus they hatched a plan that they hoped would be a 'win-win' solution. Paul, who had written to the Corinthians, that he was a Gentile among the Gentiles, and a Jew among the Jews (1 Cor. 9:20), chose to accept their plan rather than to confront the erroneous belief among the Christian Jews. What do we cling to today that obscures the covenant of grace?

Thursday, October 16, 2014 - 'Man's Solution'
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.” 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.

Nearly from the beginning of the Christian faith it was divided into two very different groups - Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. Both had accepted Jesus as the Messiah, yet the former continued to value the old covenant while the latter the new.

Paul was urged to demonstrate that he still valued the old covenant. The elders wanted him to convince the Christian Jews that he sill kept the Law. Paul complied.

There is, though, a difference between respecting the beliefs of another (1 Cor. 9:20) and leading others to believe that you 'believe as they believe'. Mature folks learn to 'see as others see', yet do not try to pretend that they 'believe as others believe'. When we attempt to deceive others into believing that we are 'one' with them in belief, they will naturally expect us to act as they act - at all times. As soon as we fail to do so, they will cry foul. We are better off making it clear that we will be respectful of others beliefs, yet clear that they are not our beliefs. Mature 'others' will respect our respect for them and not expect conformity. But no one likes to be deceived.

The elders requested too much from Paul. Paul went too far in his attempts to reconcile. He set himself up for accusations. Could he have done anything differently? If he had been straight forward wouldn't he have also gotten in trouble with the Christian Jews? Probably. Once he was in Jerusalem he was 'damned if he did, and damned if he didn't' - which is why the Spirit warned him not to go there. All the good that Paul had accomplished among the Gentiles would not be as valued as the cherished traditions among those who were raised Jews. The Christian Jews had accepted Jesus as their Messiah, but had not understood nor accepted the gospel of the kingdom. Thus, they predictably protected the only 'covenant' they had known.

Friday, October 17, 2014 - 'Predictable Results'
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.” 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. 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. 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!

If someone wants to find something that can be used to condemn another person, it can always be found. No one is immune from a 'witch hunt'. Even Jesus was not exempt from such persecution. In fact, in His sermon on the mount Jesus told his disciples that even if they lived a perfect life, they would suffer persecution (Mt 5:10-12).

The Jews from Asia 'supposed' that Paul had brought a Gentile into the sacred parts of their Temple. Since they hated Paul and wanted to kill him, they were primed for a 'jump to conclusions'. There is an old saying, 'a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still'. In other words, we see what we want to see, regardless of the facts. No matter how supposedly 'open minded' we are, we all have biases against certain realities. We all see 'slant'.

The Romans assumed that Paul was guilty. They should have questioned their assumptions about Paul as soon as they heard the crowd shouting contradictory things about him. Instead of confronting the crowd, they took Paul away. I wonder if, in this experience, Paul finally came to the realization that he had misinterpreted the Spirit. His interpretive bias had collided with the interpretive bias of the Jews. The end result, it seems, was a whole lot of unnecessary suffering.   

Saturday, October 18, 2014 - 'Past Present'
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..'

Whether one believes that Paul had been led to Jerusalem by the Spirit or by his own spirit, it was what it was. However he got there, he was there, and he had been arrested. While he couldn't change the past, he did have some choices about the present.

Sadly, many folks relinquish their right to make choices after having discovered that they have made a wrong choice. Neglecting to make a choice, when given the chance, may be a 'wrong' choice in itself, adding 'insult to injury'. Paul kept his wits about him and chose to do something about his situation. 'What' he did and the 'timing' of what he did, made a whole lot of difference in the outcome.

Never permit your guilty past obstruct an opportunity to create of better present and future.