Paul is a really vulnerable position here. He as at the mercy of 2 layers of unjust systems... yet he is using them according to his understanding of them in ways that platform the gospel and preserve his own life. Paul is a citizen of heaven first, but he is not ignorant of the laws of the land and his rights as a legal citizen of Rome. This is a great example to us of being culturally engaged and savvy while not being culturally bound. Paul is leveraging laws and jurisdictions and politically driven realities within the different ruling bodies for gospel advancement and personal protection.
This is what Christian presence demands of us in our own society... that we become thoroughly engaged where we are and well educated as to the intricacies and nuances from the different spheres of culture so that we can leverage our place for gospel purposes. Paul is not a doormat for needless and unjust suffering here. And neither should we be. We are biblically faithful in our Christian witness when we expose injustice, stand up against corruption and tyranny, and assert our rights in a winsome way... That's not unchristian at all.
We should labor for equity and speak out against injustice of all kinds. But how we do this matters. And that we maintain our witness in the midst of that injustice matters. We do our part, and as we see in this situation, God will do what only He can do... which includes his ability to use the arm of even godless governing officials and legal processes to preserve and protect his people and his purposes. So, we humbly do the possible, and then represent him boldly in whatever direction things go. That's what missionaries do... and if you're a Christian, than you are a missionary and called to represent Him in all things and at all times.
- So what does it look like to leverage your place and position for gospel representation? What does gospel fidelity require of you in in your vocation, location, and social situation? Consider one concrete thing you can do today to explicitly represent Jesus.
There is one word in this whole text that oddly has landed on me today. Paul is on trial for his life. He's been beaten, falsely accused, harshly judged, unjustly imprisoned, publicly ridiculed, and personally attacked all for his devotion to Christ and the gospel in the midst of a religious community to which he once belonged. His life is on the line and with his life, presumably, his ministry is on the line.
Paul is sitting there listening to all these lies and accusations and mischaracterizations, and Acts 23:10 slaps me in the face. Paul responds to these accusations, not aggressively, defiantly, angrily, stubbornly, boldly, or even frustratedly or impatiently. Paul defended himself, not defensively, forcefully or confrontationally. He defended himself cheerfully. That's astonishing to me.
I cringe to think how rarely I would be characterized by cheerfulness, even when things are good. I must confess that even in my upbeat state I'm more often characterized by intensity than cheerfulness. And when I defend myself on something, I'm most assuredly to be characterized by defensivenessness if I'm to be characterized accurately. I'm struck by this thought... that I can legitimately defend myself or even the gospel, without being defensive. And I wonder too, if cheerfulness itself is not it's own defense against accusations.
As the pastor of a church and a parent to 6 children, I have experienced an accusation or two. Oh, how much I long to have a rootedness in Christ and absorption in the Spirit that would empower a cheerful disposition toward those people who think little of me, and toward those words which disparage me. Most days I want to be free from such accusations. Today, Acts 23 has given me a new and greater desire... to be cheerful in the face of such things.
And let me add to this, that I want no part of a frivolous cheerfulness... I want real cheerfulness. I don't want to pretend to be unaffected while my blood boils. I want to be genuinely grounded in the joy of my union with Christ and his more-than-adequate defense of me, so that whatever defense I might offer flows out of a secure standing in the grace of Jesus which defines me.
I'm convinced that my lack of cheerfulness in general is one of the most limiting factors in my effectiveness in ministry. And I'm convinced that a lack of cheerfulness among Christian's is one of the crippling factors in our witness as a whole.
There are two separate verses that say very similar things. Felix, the Roman governing official, along with his successor, Festus, are both said to have wanted to "do the Jews a favor." The idea here is that both wanted to be in the good graces of the Pharisees. We aren't told why they wanted this, just that they wanted this. And it's puzzling because they were in authority over the Pharisees and Israel. If anything, you would think the Pharisees would want to do the Roman governor a favor, not the other way way around.
So rather than speculate on the possible reasons or the psychology behind Felix and Festus wanting to please the Pharisees, I just want to acknowledge that that was their desire, and it's something we can all relate to if we're honest. We all want to please different people for different reasons. And we can't always explain why. But something in us deep down wants approval, affirmation, validation, support and the favor of certain people. Sure, some of us are incessant people pleasers... we want everybody to be happy with us. But all of us want certain people to be happy with us. Even those of us wired to not care what people think of us, we care what some people think of us.
Neither Felix nor Festus after him found any evidence against Paul or reason to punish Paul according to any of the charges brought against him. They protected Paul at some level, you could argue. But both left Paul in prison solely to do the Pharisees a solid. That is complete corruption and injustice. And even if we aren't all positioned with official capacity to commit such acts, we are all positioned to treat people equitably and graciously in different arenas. And we are all susceptible to this temptation to treat people unfairly and gracelessly, in the pursuit of someone else's approval. We are all tempted to gain personally and enhance our own standing by the subtle and seemingly harmless treatment of others, which is actually unjust and an assault on their dignity.
Felix and Festus are a vivid example of how we all bend toward exploitation in our relationship to people, whether individuals or groups. And they provide a clear contrast to God's heart toward us and for us.
The gospel reinforces the intrinsic value of every person and the significance of every life. The gospel levels social hierarchy and radically reorients around us around equality and charity. The gospel is so powerful precisely because it perfectly displays the divine design for the use of power, which is to take up the cause of the vulnerable, the marginalized and the oppressed.
We've all been Paul in this scenario. But we've all been Felix and Festus too. This reminds me that I want to consciously fight the impulse to please people of power, status and influence, particularly when it comes to further disgracing and mistreating those who are already more weak and vulnerable.
It's just a remarkable thing when you consider that God has literally set Paul before the most powerful man in the world. Paul is still in chains, but it's as a prisoner that he is sitting before kings and governing officials to proclaim the gospel. We've read previously that everyone in different cities or areas had heard the gospel because of Paul's ministry and the expansion of the church. But God is orchestrating things in such a way as to set Paul before people of incredible power and influence.
I think about where Paul referes to himself as a prisoner for the Lord, or a slave of Christ... I wonder how much these things paint his perspective. Sure, he is a prisoner of the Jews, and the Romans, but he realizes that while he is bound the gospel is being loosed. While he appears on lock down, the grace of Christ is being advanced. And Paul sees God's purposes unfolding despite man's purposes.