Well, tonight we return to a sermon series on the final chapters of Acts. And they’re about how the apostle Paul was on trial for his life for speaking the gospel – and how he ultimately appealed his case to the highest court in the Roman Empire, namely Caesar. And much as it’s a great story – including courtroom drama, assassination attempts and a shipwreck – you may already be wondering, ‘But what’s the relevance?’ And the relevance is that, like Paul, we also live in a society where certain people really don’t want Christians saying or practising what they believe – and where those people will try to use the law to stop Christians saying or practising what they believe.
Take, e.g., one doctor here in Newcastle. His Christian convictions led him to say that he thought a colleague’s decision to prescribe the morning after pill to someone was wrong. And the colleague reported him to the hospital trust. This Christian doctor also challenged a mother over the way she’d put her fifteen year old daughter on the contraceptive pill. And she reported him, too. Ultimately the complaints went to the General Medical Council and he has a public caution on his record.
And in the near future it’s likely that Christians and Christian organisations and churches will end up in legal proceedings like that more, rather than less, often. And the question is: if we’re Christians, how should we view and handle situations like that? Well, let’s turn to the book of Acts for answers. And would you begin by turning to Acts chapter 1, v1:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up...
[ie, when he returned to heaven after his death and resurrection] (Acts 1.1)
So the writer here was Luke. His ‘first book’ was the Gospel of Luke. That Gospel covers Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. And Luke says, ‘That’s only what Jesus began to do and to teach.’ The implication being: that now he’s back in heaven, Jesus continues to act and to speak, to bring people into relationship with him as Lord. How? Well, through his church – so, look on to v8, where Jesus told his apostles (and this commission transfers to us, today):
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1.8)
So Acts is the story of how the first people to believe that Jesus is Lord started to tell everyone else that Jesus is their rightful Lord as well. And 2,000 years on, we’re now part of that story (and proof that the Lord Jesus has kept that promise to get the gospel to the ends of the earth).
Well, now turn on to Acts chapter 9. This is one of the biggest turning-points of the beginning of the story, because it’s where the risen Lord Jesus called the apostle Paul to know him. And, having appeared to Paul and converted him on the road to Damascus, the Lord then tells this other Christian, Ananias, to go and follow him up and look after him. And Ananias says to the Lord, ‘But he’s the bloke who’s been persecuting your church.’ And look at chapter 9, v15:
But the Lord said to [Ananias], “Go, for he [Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles [ie, all nations] and kings and the children of Israel. (Acts 9.15)
And if you follow Paul through Acts, it’s an amazing story of pioneer evangelism and church planting – until chapter 21, where he comes back to Jerusalem, the headquarters of Judaism, and certain Jews try to kill him because they’re so offended by his message. Because he basically said that being a Jew and living as a Jew doesn’t make you right with God – but that only Jesus, by his death for your sins, can. And that was as offensive then as it is now. Because it is a very offensive thing to say that being a Catholic or an Anglican or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or just a ‘decent person’ doesn’t make you right with God – but that only Jesus, by his death for your sins, can. But that’s what the gospel says.
So certain Jews wanted Paul dead. But they were foiled by the Romans authorities, and Paul ended up in Roman custody. So now the only way they could remove Paul was to bring accusations against him which would carry the death penalty under Roman law. So would you turn on to chapter 25 where we pick up the story again –and look at v8:
Paul argued in his defence, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offence.” (v8)
So on the one hand, Paul’s Jewish opponents must have accused him of sacrilegious behaviour towards the temple in Jerusalem. And Roman law would punish that with death – because to keep the peace in their empire, the Romans let people get on with worshipping their own gods and insisted on tolerance towards all other gods and temples – so woe betide you if you did anything disrespectful to other peoples’ temples. But on the other hand – and most seriously of all – Paul’s Jewish opponents must have accused him of treachery against Caesar himself – after all, Paul was saying that Jesus was a higher Lord than any earthly ruler, and that Jesus should have your first loyalty. ‘So doesn’t that count as treason against the emperor, your honour?’
Now, back in chapter 24, Paul had faced a string of hearings under the Roman governor Felix. But Felix had ducked making a decision – probably because on the one hand, he knew the accusations were false; but on the other hand, he really needed to please the Jewish leaders in his province. So just look back to the last verse of chapter 24 – v27:
When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favour, Felix left Paul in prison. (Acts 24.27)
So, no justice there. Now read on into chapter 25, v1:
Now three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. And the chief priests and the principal men of the Jews laid out their case against Paul, and they urged him, asking as a favour against Paul that he summon him to Jerusalem—because they were planning an ambush to kill him on the way. (vv1-3)
So Paul’s Jewish opponents seize the opportunity. They know that Festus is the new kid on the block, and that he’ll be naive about their real intentions, and that he’ll be very keen to get off to a good start with them. ‘So, your honour,’ they’d have said, ‘We’d like to get this Paul business finally cleared up – and what better place for you to try him than here in Jerusalem, where the charges were first made?’ So, the Lord Jesus called Paul to take the gospel to the nations. And yet here he is not at liberty to go anywhere – and with his life apparently hanging by a thread. Which begs the question: what is the Lord doing here?
And that’s the first of my two headings for the rest of the time – which are two questions that open up this passage:
First, WHAT IS THE LORD DOING HERE?
After all, in Acts 1.8 he said he wanted the gospel to get to the ends of the earth. And in Acts 9.15 he said he wanted Paul to take it there. So why has he allowed this to happen? I mean, reading this, you want to say to the Lord, ‘I just don’t see how this can be serving your purposes. If I was writing the script, this wouldn’t be in it.’ As a Christian friend of mine said recently in very hard circumstances: ‘If I was God, I’m the last person I’d have chosen to cope with this.’
But actually, what Paul is going through is serving the Lord’s purposes, because in Acts 9.15 the Lord Jesus didn’t just say he wanted Paul to carry his name before the Gentiles – but before kings, as well – before rulers. And so in chapter 24, Paul’s already spoken about Jesus to governor Felix. In this chapter he’ll speak about Jesus to governor Festus and the Jewish King Agrippa. And by chapter 28 he’ll be in Rome with the opportunity to speak about Jesus to the emperor himself. Partly because rulers are just sinners like us who need putting right with God as much as anyone else. And partly because the Lord Jesus wants those who exercise so much power to know that they’re accountable to him for the exercise of their power.
And just turn back to chapter 23 and v11 to see that the Lord Jesus had already told Paul that taking him to Rome was his plan. This is just after the attempt on Paul’s life in Jerusalem:
The following night the Lord stood by him [presumably in some kind of vision] and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” (Acts 23.11)
Now I’m sure a number of us would love a similar specific word from the Lord tonight, to shed light on our situation and encourage us in it. But what we always have in all situations is the Lord’s general word in the Bible about what he’s doing in his world until he comes again. And Acts 1.8 has already reminded us that the overarching thing he’s doing is using his church – i.e., us – to be his witnesses to the world. And the rest of the book shows the Lord furthering that purpose in some ways we’d never have scripted. E.g., by chapter 7, the gospel hasn’t got beyond Jerusalem – the new Christians haven’t spread out from there. So if you were God, how would you have got them moving? Would you have appeared to some of them in visions and told them to pack their bags? Well, the way God actually did it was to allow persecution against his church – which scattered believers throughout Judea and Samaria. And we see that as a disaster we’d never have scripted; the Lord sees it as a means of furthering his purposes. And the same can be said of many perplexing things we’ve been through or are going through right now. And it’s the same with Paul being in Roman custody. Turn back over to chapter 25 and look at v9. Paul was defending himself before governor Festus, v9:
But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favour [because he’s the new kid on the block trying to suck up to them], said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” (v9)
And Paul senses that he won’t get justice where he is and so he plays the only card he has left, v10:
But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar's tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” (vv10-11)
And that was his right as a Roman citizen – to appeal his case above any regional governor to the emperor.
Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.” (v12)
So through these extraordinary circumstances that we’d never have scripted, the Lord was taking Paul to evangelise the imperial capital and the emperor. An expenses paid, chaperoned trip to Rome now awaits. And there are all sorts of circumstances represented here tonight that we’d never have scripted, that we haven’t chosen and don’t welcome. And we wonder, ‘What is the Lord doing here?’ E.g., ‘Where is my purpose now that I’m facing redundancy or unemployment, or widowhood, or unwanted singleness, or an awful workplace, or retirement, or the empty nest of a home where grown up children are gone (and so on)?’ And to all the circumstances represented here, Paul would say to us, ‘Whatever other purposes may become clear, the Lord has you there because he wants you to be a witness to him in and through those circumstances.’ So, e.g., it took me a long time to stop envying those who came from Christian homes and wishing I did too, and to start realising that the reason God had me in a non-Christian home is that he wanted a witness to Jesus in that home. That’s certainly the way Paul saw things. So, writing to the Philippians about his custody in Rome he said:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. (Philippians 1.12-13)
So that’s ‘What is the Lord doing here?’ But then the other question that opens up this passage is:
Secondly, WHAT IS PAUL DOING HERE?
And the short answer is: he’s defending himself and the gospel. And in that, he’s an example for us to learn from – not just for situations where Christians are facing a legal challenge, but also for personal conversation where falsehoods are thrown against Christians and the gospel.
So look down to chapter 25 and v4. The new kid Festus has gone up to Jerusalem to start getting to know the powers that be. They’ve asked him – knowing he won’t suspect their real, murderous intentions – to bring Paul to Jerusalem. But, v4:
Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself intended to go there shortly. “So,” said he, “let the men of authority among you go down with me, and if there is anything wrong about the man, let them bring charges against him.” (vv4-5)
Now just as an aside on that moment in the story: I take it that was a pretty unconsidered, off the top of the head decision. Festus just thought, ‘Well, Paul’s in Caesarea, I’m going back there soon, so we’ll have the trial there.’ But under God’s sovereignty, that decision saved Paul’s life. And it’s a great assurance to know that God is sovereign over all the decisions being made about us – however unconsidered, poorly considered, or even downright malicious those decisions might be. Under God’s sovereignty, those decisions can only serve Gods’ plan. Anyway, read on, v6:
After [Festus] stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea. And the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. When he had arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him that they could not prove. Paul argued in his defence, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offence.” (vv6-8)
So the first thing we learn from Paul here is that we must argue against the falsehoods that are thrown against us and the gospel. We’re not to be silent doormats.
These Jewish opponents wanted to silence Paul by getting a serious charge to stick against him in the Roman court. So they threw out these false and exaggerated charges: ‘He’s behaved sacrilegiously towards our temple. And what he says about Jesus is basically treason towards the emperor.’
Now we don’t want to have to bring up this issue, but the fact is that today one prominent group of people trying to silence Christians and get charges to stick against them are certain homosexual campaigners. I’m not talking about everyone for whom homosexuality is a personal issue or chosen lifestyle – only about those campaigning and using the law against Christians. And such campaigners have thrown out the charge that Christians are guilty of discrimination and intolerance. And when it comes to the law, they may appeal to the Equality Act whose stated aim is to ‘eliminate discrimination.’ That Act then gives a list of what it calls the ‘protected characteristics’ – ie, the things over which one may not discriminate. And one is ‘sexual orientation.’ But another is ‘religion or belief.’ So the problem is: that Equality law doesn’t help when the claimed rights of someone in a homosexual lifestyle conflict with the rights of a Christian. The law claims that the rights of both are to be protected. But that means, in practice, that the bias of whoever is operating the law will decide who is and isn’t protected.
So, e.g., Islington Council forced the Christian registrar Lillian Ladele out of her job because of her conscientious objection to performing same-sex civil partnerships. And many accused her of being discriminatory and unfit for public office. But we need to learn to argue against falsehoods like that. Because her motivation was not in the least discriminatory or ‘anti-gay’. She was simply wanting freedom of conscience, and wanting her beliefs to be accommodated, rather than have a situation where one set of rights trumps another – depending on the bias of whoever is operating the law – in this case, the council.
But, as I’ve said, this isn’t just a lesson for legal situations, but also for personal conversations. So, e.g., I’ve heard people saying recently in conversation that Christians shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children ‘because they brainwash people.’ Well, that’s a dreadful falsehood. And we mustn’t be silent doormats. If things like that come up in conversation, we need to argue against them – e.g., in that case, to say something like: ‘Well, that’s a total slur. We actually believe you can only become a Christian by freely trusting in Jesus for yourself – so we avoid any attempt to impose Jesus on our children; we know we can only introduce them to him and leave them the freedom to respond as they choose.’
So, we must argue against the falsehoods that are thrown against us and the gospel. But the other thing we learn from Paul here is that: we must appeal to a higher court if it looks like we’re not going to get justice where we are. Look down to v9 again:
But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favour, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” (v9)
So Paul senses he won’t get justice here, so skip to the end of v11 – Paul said:
“I appeal to Caesar.” (vv10-11)
So this was a case where the law was on Paul’s side; the problem was with the person operating the law – Festus. A similar eg today would be a school with an anti-Christian head teacher who’s trying to minimise or even stop any assemblies with Christian content. In that situation, the law is on the side of Christians – it still requires an act of collective worship that’s (quote) ‘broadly Christian’. But if the person operating the law is the problem, the way forward for a Christian teacher or parent in the school is to appeal to a higher court – e.g., the governors.
At a national level, several of the cases that the Christian Institute has supported recently have appealed to the Supreme Court in this country and even, in Lillian Ladele’s case, to the European Court of Human Rights. And it’s important to know about these cases and pray for them and, if you can, to support the Christian Institute’s Legal Defence Fund. Not just because these are brothers and sisters whom we should be standing with. But because any judgements in their favour set precedents which protect us all. So do pick up a free copy of the Christian Institute booklet called the Legal Defence Fund. It’s a summary of the recent cases they’ve helped Christians with – and it’s sobering and encouraging and important to know about. (The pdf of this booklet can be found at: www.christian.org.uk/resource/legal-defence-fund/ )
So to wrap up: what is the Lord doing here? He’s taking Paul to witness to the imperial capital and even to the emperor. And what is Paul doing here? Well, as he said to the Philippians, he’s realising that what’s happening is really serving to advance the gospel. Because in fact, every challenge to us and the gospel in public life is equally an opportunity for us and the gospel – if only we’ll see it that way.