This evening as we carry on with our studies in the Acts of the Apostles on this Trinity Sunday, we come to chapter 21.37. And we are going to work our way through to the end (or verse 29) of chapter 22. My headings are, first, “THROUGH MANY TRIBULATIONS”; secondly, “ABOUT NOON”; and, thirdly, “IS IT LAWFUL?”
So first, “THROUGH MANY TRIBULATIONS”
By way of context, you must be aware from verses 30 and 31 of chapter 21 that “all the city” – so huge crowds of people - were trying to lynch Paul. But the local Roman army commander (called a “tribune”) intervened to save Paul, although he still arrested him. Paul must have been frightened - but not surprised. For you need to note two things about Paul. First, he had learnt through previous violent opposition to face difficulties of all sorts. You read earlier in Acts that he taught others that …
“through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14.22).
That was the gist of his follow-up or “discipleship explored” teaching. You see, “tribulation”, suffering and various difficulties are part of the normal Christian life.
Who needs to learn that lesson tonight? Or who needs to be reminded of that lesson because you are going through some hard time? Well, the risen Christ, by his Holy Spirit, can strengthen you as he strengthened Paul. Paul’s current problem was through a misunderstanding. So often you will be misunderstood if you are obeying Christ. He was misunderstood by the Jews as we learnt last week – they thought Paul was flouting Jewish law. But he was also misunderstood by the Roman tribune. Look at verses 37-39 of chapter 21:
“As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, ‘May I say something to you?’ And he [the tribune] said, ‘Do you know Greek? Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?’ Paul replied, ‘I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.’”(Acts 21.37-39)
Paul is misunderstood by the tribune as being a terrorist. But the truth was he was a well-educated, multi-lingual Jew from a famous Roman metropolitan city and no terrorist.
So how do you react when you are suffering innocently because someone accuses you of, or assumes, something that is quite false? Well, follow Paul’s example. Here he is, keeping his cool. He even asks if he may speak to the crowds.
After his being realistic about suffering, the second thing to note about Paul is that he wants to seize every opportunity of witnessing to Christ. But in doing so he wants to be culturally as appropriate as possible.
You see, he first addresses the tribune in Greek - the language most educated people around the Roman Empire could speak and understand. But then he switches to Aramaic (or vernacular Hebrew) when he addresses the Jewish crowds. Look at verse 40 and verse 1 of chapter 22:
“And when he [the tribune] had given him permission [to speak], Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: ‘Brothers and fathers, hear the defence that I now make before you.’” (Acts 21.40, 22.1)
Speaking Aramaic [Hebrew] is like a Southern MP coming up here who is able to switch into broad Geordie to get a sympathetic hearing. And note Paul’s courtesy. He politely and respectfully addresses the crowds (who had been threatening his life) as “brothers and fathers”. He’d taken Jesus’ words to heart when he said in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Mat 5.11).
And like Jesus he didn’t reply in kind.
So there are lessons here for you, not least in seizing every opportunity for witnessing to Christ. And note Paul was wanting to witness to Christ in front of the top brass in the Roman world – from senior army officers to the imperial guard and Emperor (as we’ll later learn). So if you have a chance, you should witness at the highest levels.
I heard someone talking last week – it was Brian Griffiths - who used to worship at JPC for a short time before going South to become head of Mrs Thatcher’s Policy Unit in 10 Downing Street. He was speaking on a panel discussion about witnessing at work, at least by letting people know you are a Christian. He said he tried to do that in 10 Downing Street.
On one occasion there was a crisis over the Exchange Rate Mechanism that needed some extra urgent meetings. So with the key people present, the diary secretary suggested a Sunday morning meeting. But Mrs Thatcher immediately said, “No! certainly not. Brian likes to go to church then with his family.”
How we should all seize every opportunity, individually (and corporately as a church), of witnessing to others about Jesus Christ but appropriately and in the right manner. Those who were present last Monday heard from Jonathan Pryke about opportunities for witnessing in the West End of the city. If we can, how we need to take that opportunity.
Yes, Paul was a great opportunity-taker even when crowds were against him and emotionally he may not have felt like it, having just escaped death. That brings us to our …
… second heading “ABOUT NOON” and Paul’s account of his conversion (about noon) on his remarkable conversion-day and how he changed from hating, to loving, Christ and Christians. Look at verses 2-5 of chapter 22:
“And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said: ‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed towards Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.’” (Acts 22.2-5)
Note two things from these verses.
First, you can be well educated and born into a good family and think you are going God’s way but in reality you are not. You are going in the opposite direction. So you need to be converted to Jesus Christ and forgiven.
And, secondly, you can have done dreadful things, even like Paul, causing people to die. But you are never too bad to be converted to Jesus Christ and forgiven as verses 6-11 prove. For, verse 6 says …
“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ And 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.” (Acts 22.6-11)
What does that tell you? Again, at least two things.
First, it tells you of God’s sovereign work in conversion while not denying human freedom. It certainly tells you that conversion or being born again is fundamentally God’s work which then produces conversion and faith. It is not faith that produces the new life. It is so clear in Paul’s case.
Here he is, trying to secure the death penalty for some Christians and imprisonment for others for their teaching about Christ. But, out of the blue, as far as Paul is concerned, the risen Christ intervenes and meets him. Paul didn’t start to believe and so was then rewarded by Christ meeting him and changing his life. No! Christ met him and then he believed and his life was changed. So how does all this work?
Well, this is Trinity Sunday, when we are encouraged to think about the Divine Trinity. In the old Book of Common Prayer the Gospel for Trinity Sunday is John 3 – a significant choice. That is about Christ’s meeting with the Jewish theologian, Nicodemus, and how Jesus taught him about being born again. Jesus says you need to be “born of the Spirit” (John 3.8).
You need the work of God the Holy Spirit bringing new life where there was previously spiritual death. But all this new life is only possible because of the work of Jesus Christ, God the Son, and supremely his death and resurrection. And Christ’s work is from the initiative of God the Father. John 3.16 tells you it was God [the Father] who …
“… so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3.16)
So new spiritual life precedes faith. But behind that faith is the work of the divine Trinity, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
With regard to the Trinity, the word comes from the Latin Trinitas meaning “threeness”. True, the doctrinal formulations on the Trinity come from a century or two after the Apostolic age. But the reality of the Trinity is there throughout the New Testament as John 3 implies and other passages are clearer.
For example, Jesus told his disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in his Great Commission (Matt 28.19). Note – Jesus said, “name (singular”) not “names (plural)”. For the three persons together constitute the one God. So our one God is eternally both singular and plural, with the Father, Son and Spirit personally distinct but essentially one. Yes, it is beyond our understanding.
However, certainly on the Damascus Road Paul was experiencing something of that reality of the Divine Trinity. He was now recognizing that the truly human man Jesus whose followers he was persecuting was indeed, the Lord. “Who are you, Lord?” he asked. But the word “Lord” in the Greek is used to translate the Old Testament divine name for the one true God, Yahweh (or Jehovah).
So new birth and conversion is a Trinitarian sovereign work of God.
But at the same time this passage also underlines the fact that as God is working sovereignly, so he wants us, freely, to witness to Christ and tell others about him For they are influenced as the Holy Spirit works through our words to change hearts. Indeed, Paul’s mission was to do just that – seeking to persuade these Jews that Jesus was the true fulfilment of their religion and the Old Testament.
Yes, God’s sovereignty and human freedom is also a mystery. And because God is sovereign and conversion is his work, you must pray for your friends and others to be converted - and for change in this world. But because you have the freedom not to pray that is why you must make an effort to pray for your friends and for JPC to grow to 2000 over the next five years as God the Holy Spirit works in people’s hearts - and also for the defeat of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill as the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of members of the House of Lords next week.
So Paul’s conversion teaches God’s sovereignty (without denying human freedom).
Secondly, this passage tells you what real faith is. So what is it?
Answer: it is faith that issues in action. Look at verse 10 and Paul’s response to the risen Jesus who he now believes is the divine Lord – he simply said …
“What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22.10)
So his first response of faith was to want to know, and then obey, the will of Christ. Of course, it’s not obedience that saved him, but obedience is the evidence of his saving faith. Who needs to learn that tonight? Who knows there is something wrong that they are doing they need to stop, or something right that they are not doing they need to start. Well, remember: true faith results in obedience. And Paul’s obedience led him to meet up with Ananias. Look at verse 12:
“And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’ (Acts 22.12)
So Paul was baptised. I preached on Baptism on the morning of the 3rd March this year (2013). You can read that on the church website (www.church.org.uk).
All I have time now to say is that Paul, as an adult convert, is formally and symbolically washing away his sins.
And he is praying to, or confessing, Christ (“calling on his name”). The Great Commission, I mentioned earlier, shows baptism is Jesus Christ’s will for his disciples. Therefore, this mark of membership of Christ’s church must be important. So believers should be baptised. That, too, is faith resulting in obedience.
What, then, does Paul say next? Look at verse 17:
“When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw him [the Lord] saying to me ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”(Acts.22.17)
The idea Paul should have a mission to the Gentiles was the last straw for the crowds as we shall now see and so …
… our last and third heading “IS IT LAWFUL?”
Look at verses 22-29:
“Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.’ And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?’ When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, ‘What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.’ So the tribune came and said to him, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ The tribune answered, ‘I bought this citizenship for a large sum.’ Paul said, ‘But I am a citizen by birth.’ So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.” (Acts 22.22-29)
I must be very brief. The crowds would do anything to stop Paul teaching others about Jesus Christ. Sadly there are people like that today, who will do almost anything to stop you witnessing to Christ.
But the tribune again got him away from the crowds, but this time to extract information from him by flogging - a brutal form of torture. However, Paul pulled rank as a Roman Citizen, at which the tribune turned white with fear. For torturing a Roman citizen was a serious crime.
The lesson for today, therefore, is that it is right to defend yourself and other Christians against the State by using or threatening the law – as Paul did - when the State oversteps the mark. So thank God that in the 21st century the Christian Institute does just that, on our behalf, to secure Christian freedoms following Paul’s example.
I must conclude
There is much to learn from Paul’s conversion. But it was a unique event. So the principles are what matter.
The questions, therefore, are not, “Did you have a similar experience to Paul”? but, “Have you evidence of ‘convertedness’? Have you, by faith, met the risen Christ and do you now obey him?”
If the answer is “No”, why not turn to Christ tonight and pray for his forgiveness for having ignored or rejected him and pray for the Holy Spirit to give you new life, and then talk to Jonathan Pryke about baptism?