We actually see, in these verses, Paul embodying some of the themes that are threaded throughout his New Testament letters. Paul emphasized the freedom we've received in Jesus, particularly from the burden of the Law. He stresses salvation by grace alone, through faith, in Christ alone, that this "not the result of works, so that no man may boast." And yet here, he almost betrays these doctrinal distinctives which are so key to Christian theology and an understanding of the biblical gospel. But it's very instructive for us.
Paul's emphasis on freedom is different than our modern American emphasis on freedom. We tend to think of freedom as our individual rights to asserted on our own behalf. Paul sees our freedom as having right which we are empowered to lay down for the good of others. That is a radically different view of freedom. And that's the freedom Paul display here.
He is asked to engage with Jewish religious practices which the gospel has freed him from, and which Paul proclaims as oppressessive, enslaving and anti-gospel. And Paul willingly and humbly does enter into these practices in order to remove barriers to the gospel among the Jewish Christians. Paul does not want to present a stumbling block as he would later write about in the epistles. This is such a good example of how love for his brothers and devotion to the gospel led Paul to do that which he felt free not to do. His focus was the honor and glory of Christ. And what we see here in Acts 21 is Paul didn't just preach or write about that... he lived that.
In the later part, v. 27-36, we see just some of what Paul was willing to suffer on account of the gospel. I just think about our brothers and sisters across the world who suffer like this for identifying with Jesus and proclaiming the gospel. And I think about our own cultural descent and the increasing hostility toward the gospel and Christianity.
We certainly aren't to this point yet, but the insanity of the Jewish leaders, plotting against and violently persecuting Paul for believing and preaching a doctrine counter to their own, is something our culture is moving toward rapidly. For Jews, it was the dogma of Mosaic law. And for us as Christians, we could certainly become consumed with religious conformity to the point of personal cruelty. We must guard against such drift and corruption of the biblical gospel.
But it's our cultural doctrine of tolerance and inclusivism that is reminiscent of the Jewish response here. An ethos of universal acceptance and embrace of all lifetsyles is underneath a hatred and hostility toward Christian conviction on moral matters in general and sexual ethics and identity in particular. To be on the "wrong side" of these issues in todays climate is to subjet oneself to public shaming at the very least. Worse things are coming for God's people in the U.S... it's essential that we are grounded in the grace of God if we are to hold fast to the word of truth against the mounting social pressure to accommodate the culture, and to steadfastly endure with Jesus, whatever the cost.
There are lots of little things in this text that I notice... like in v. 38 where the Roman ruler links Paul to the "Assassins in the wilderness," like he's a gang leader or something. This is so common in our culture. So much speculation and rumors linking people to causes and other people and cartonnish portrayal that are aimed to discredit and embarrass people we oppose. I can only imagine the blog articles, tweets and social media posts about Paul in the first century and what they would have said about him. There is a degree of silliness out there that we simply must not participate or get caught up in... Foolish arguments and controversies as Paul would later call them. They're to be avoided now as much as ever.
I appreciate Paul's approach to his own defense too. He speaks the lagnuage of his accusers, and establishes common ground with his accusers, as a precursor to sharing his testimony with his accusers. He even identifies himself with the Jews as one who formerly persecuted and killed Christians. He's not posturing as better than them or even different than them. He's simply saying, "I was just like you... even more zealous than you... but something happened. I encountered someone."
Paul is using his own defense as a defense of the gospel. I love that. You can't shut this guy up. No matter what they do, he's confronting people with the reality of Jesus, crucified and risen. Wherever God gives him an audience, and no matter the context, he's going to bring up Jesus. Nobody has to accept his testimony of Christ, but everybody is going to have to consider his testimony of Christ.
I wonder if Jesus is real enough to you that you can't help but speak of him to others. This isn't about a goal or program or commitment or something we should do... it's about our identity being so bound to Jesus, our hearts being so captured by his glory, and our lives being so tied to his purposes that, like Peter and John in the early part of Acts, "we can't help but speak of what we've seen and heard."
The point at which Paul's Jewish audience stopped listening was the point at which Paul explicitly expanded God's salvation to include the Gentiles, whom the Jews despised. There are all kinds of legal things in play here, and Paul's familiarity with the various laws being enforced or violated by the different governing bodies, and who had what jurisdiction over which aspects of life. I don't want to get bogged down in those things here...
I'm just overwhelmed that the Jews actually were listening to and seemingly considering Paul's testimony until he had the audacity to place Gentiles under the umbrella of redemption. They had a murderous and violent outrage over his suggesting that a salvation they did not believe in was available to and inluded non-Jews.
v. 22 exposes the racism and nationalism that was prominent in first century Israel, as it is among 21st century peoples. This is an evil and dehumanizing instinct that pervades all human societies throughout human history. Some mask it better than others, but we must be aware of this deformity in our own hearts and honest that we too are tempted to diminish the worth of people based on earthly factors. We have an instinct to elevate ourselves above others based on factors such as race, ethnicity, status, success, neighborhood, dress, religion, sexuality, education level, political affiliation, and all manner of other things.
The intrinsic worth and dignity of every person is equal regardless of their standing before God. We are all image bearers of God and our lives have eternal value and earthly significance. Additionally, the scope of redemption and the gospel is as wide as our diversity dares to categorize us. Everyone is within the reach of God's grace. We are all invited to come to Christ, without regard to our past sin or present status or personal stories... we are all welcomed on the same basis: repentance of sin and faith in Christ.
To define anyone outside of the scope of the gospel is to deny the gospel. Period. I think about the language of John's gospel, and how Jesus, over and over again, offers salvation to "anyone" who believes; welcomes "whoever" will come; and promises real life to "everyone" who eats and drinks of him. The gospel is good news for anyone, whoever and everyone, always.
I hope our gospel is big enough to include forgotten people. I hope our gospel offers dignity and deliverance to the most marginalized. I hope the grace we've been given is sufficient for the most morally deficient people in our lives. I hope the grace that we cherish so deeply is the grace that we embody faithfully. If it's not, it's not the gospel and grace of the real Jesus.
Paul proves to be quite clever here… it makes me think of Jesus’ urging us to be shrewd as serpents but as innocent as doves. Paul simply uses what he knows about the Sanhedrin against them… that there are doctrinal matters that they are greatly divided on and it’s easy to spark that controversy throw them into upheaval. So Paul frames his testimony before the Roman authorities in such a way as to provoke the Jewish council to this infighting described. Luke points out that Paul knew exactly what he was doing and it worked.
An observation I would make here is that we followers of Jesus are too often prone to playing the part of the Pharisees and the Sadducees here. We are too easily distracted from our main objective of declaring and displaying the gospel, and provoked instead to argue with each other about secondary or peripheral matters of doctrine. This emasculates mission and undermines our witness. That’s why Paul consistently calls us out of such foolishness and fruitlessness. Even if you win the dumb argument you’re having you are likely losing your voice, influence or testimony. Winning an argument or making a point is not worth the price of a compromised witness. We can’t sacrifice relational beauty on the altar of doctrinal clarity. The gospel produces a culture where both are taken very seriously.
Sadly, though sometimes unfairly, the Christian community is known more for it’s doctrinal doggedness and despised for our relational laziness. I think we can learn from what Paul incites among the Jews here, and guard against such pettiness and silliness that causes people not to take us or the gospel seriously.
Just notice v. 11 before you move on… “The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” God was very much involved and present with Paul. He was speaking to Paul and ministering to Paul. Paul is drawing strength and courage from the reassurance of God’s protection and plan.
That’s a particular promise to Paul in that moment, but what it tells us more generally is that God is near to his people as they suffer for his sake. And he speaks to us and strengthens us as we endure for his purposes. Jesus promised to always be with us, even to the very end of the age, and Paul is a living testimony of His faithfulness to keep that promise and empower him to keep pouring himself out for the glory of God among the Gentiles.
So, with God’s presence and reassurance, Paul is not fearfully wondering what’s next, he’s confidently moving forward in faith. God did not tell Paul anything about how he would get from Jerusalem to Rome, or what factors would play in. God didn’t tell him it would be painless or easy. He simply told him he wasn’t done with Paul yet. And independently of that, God is positioning other people favorably disposed toward Paul… so Paul’s nephew gets clued into what’s going, outs the Jewish leaders, and the Romans get another example of their corruption and backwards administration of justice.
So, God uses the Roman empire that’s adamantly opposed to Christianity, to protect Paul from the Jewish council who also hates Christianity. And at each step along the way, they keep creating a context for Paul to speak of the gospel and represent Christianity to a wider and more influential group of the very people who oppose Christianity. The gospel they want silenced, they keep giving a platform to have proclaimed. This is God displaying his divine power over earthly forces to use even them and his enemies in service to his purposes.
Whatever you fear, grieve or despise about the cultural moment we find ourselves in, I hope you’ll see it as under the sovereign rule of God and trust that sovereign rule to cover both the means and ends of his good purposes for you, his people and his creation.