I’ve seen many a book on evangelism – ie, talking about Jesus to people who aren’t yet Christians. And one was entitled How to share your faith without losing your friends. And what’s good about that title is that it’s honest about our big fear in evangelism – which is how people will react. But what’s bad is that it suggests there’s a way of sharing the gospel where you run no danger of negative reactions. And the apostle Paul, who we’re currently following in this series on Acts, would have laughed at that. Just last week we saw how a crowd tried to kill him because he told them the gospel and they didn’t like it. Paul knew from experience what happens if you tell people that Jesus is their rightful Lord, and that they need to stop living as if he wasn’t, be forgiven, and start life over again with him in his proper place. That’s the gospel in a nutshell, if you’re still just looking into all this. And wherever the gospel is shared, you get two reactions. Some people accept Jesus as Lord. But others react negatively – because they want to keep running their own lives their own way.
So Paul wouldn’t have thought much of the title How to share your faith without losing your friends. He’d have preferred a recent book entitled Evangelism made slightly less difficult. Some of us remember the Aussie evangelist John Chapman. He died last year, aged 82, and he was always so realistic about evangelism. His often-repeated saying was: ‘The first 50 years are the hardest.’ So this sermon is basically on the theme ‘evangelism made slightly less difficult’ – because Acts is all about evangelism, and the bit we’re in at the moment is all about Paul’s example in evangelism. So let’s rejoin him in Acts 22. And let me re-cap what we saw last week.
Paul has come to Jerusalem (Acts 21.15f) and in a visit to the temple he’s been falsely accused of bringing in a Gentile (ie, a non-Jew) with him (Acts 21.27f). So the Jewish crowd tries to lynch him. Thankfully, a Roman commander steps in and rescues and arrests Paul. He then lets Paul speak to the crowd. But the moment Paul tells them that Jesus is offering salvation to the Gentiles, the crowd tries to lynch him again, so the Roman commander hustles Paul away into custody. So now we rejoin it at Acts 22.30:
But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why he [Paul] was being accused by the Jews, he [the Roman commander] unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them. (22.30)
And Paul’s example in what happens next gives us three lessons in evangelism:
First, AIM TO LIVE WITH A GOOD CONSCIENCE BEFORE GOD (23.1-5)
Look onto chapter 23 and v1:
And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” (23.1)
Now why does he kick off with that? The answer is: because they were saying, ‘Look, Paul, ever since you became a Christian, you’ve disregarded God’s law and can’t possibly claim to have a ‘good conscience’ about living up to his demands.’ And they made that accusation because Paul taught that Jesus’ coming has changed how we relate to the OT law – and that some of it no longer even applies. (That’s why, eg, there are no priests or sacrifices in the church today; and why, eg, male believers don’t have to be circumcised.) So most Jewish people heard Paul to be saying, ‘God’s law doesn’t matter. Obedience to God doesn’t matter. You can trust in Jesus, be forgiven and live as you please.’ But Paul never said that. He said: the whole point of what Jesus came to do was to bring us back into genuine, willing obedience to God – which actually only happens when Jesus forgives you and comes into your life by his Spirit. That was Paul’s experience, which is why he could say, v1:
‘“Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” (23.1)
And notice he doesn’t say ‘clear conscience’ – as if he’s claiming to be sinless. He says, ‘good conscience’ – which is claiming to be sincere. He’s saying, ‘I haven’t obeyed God perfectly, but follow my round for a day and you’ll see that obeying him is what I sincerely aim at.’
But these Jewish leaders reckoned that was a gigantic lie. So, v2:
And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (23.2-3)
So Paul’s point in the end of v3 is that Ananias is claiming to uphold God’s law, when in fact he’s blatantly breaking it by roughing Paul up like this. Because Leviticus 19.5 – which is part of God’s OT law – says:
‘Do not pervert justice… but judge your neighbour fairly.’ (Leviticus 19.5)
And that was the foundation of the Jewish legal system, which treated you as innocent until proven guilty and insisted you got a fair trial. And that’s the Biblical foundation on which our whole legal system is based. So Ananias is blatantly disregarding God’s law here. And, by the way, we know from sources outside the Bible that he was notoriously corrupt – eg, he stole huge amounts from temple funds. And he was notoriously violent – so that on one occasion he was actually cautioned for it by the Romans – which really was the pot calling the kettle black.
But then what do you make of the beginnning of v3?
… Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! (23.3)
At this point, several Bible commentaries say that Paul lost his temper, that he’s a bad example here, but it reminds us he wasn’t perfect. Which of course he wasn’t. But I doubt that’s what’s going on here. Because this isn’t an insult. It’s a prophecy – echoing Ezekiel’s prophecy against the false leaders of his day (see Ezekiel 13.8-16). Ezekiel said they were like a whitewashed wall, which underneath the whitewash was crumbling and would one day fall under God’s judgement. And that’s what Paul’s saying here. He’s saying that underneath the whitewash of Ananias’s apparent commitment to God’s law, his life is crumbling and immoral and God will bring him down. Which he did: within 10 years, Ananias was murdered by his own people.
So then what about the next bit? Verse 4:
Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God's high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” [which is quoting God’s law in Exodus 22]”’ (23.4-5)
And, again, several Bible commentaries say that Paul realised he’d badly overstepped the mark and needed to grovel in apology. But again, I doubt it. I think there are two ways to take this. One is that Paul didn’t know that it was the high priest, but that in v5 he’s not retracting his prophesy, but showing respect for the office of high priest, despite the fact that it’s currently occupied by a corrupt hypocrite. The other way of taking it is that he did know full well that it was the high priest and that in v5 he’s being sarcastic – he’s saying, ‘I didn’t realise he was the high priest’ – I didn’t think high priests behaved like that!’ But again, end of v5, he shows respect for the office in a way that Ananias blatantly doesn’t.
Well, backing off the detail of all that, the point is: Paul can genuinely claim he’s aimed to live with a good conscience before God. And that’s a crucial foundation for our evangelism. It’s always crucial that people can see that we’re sincerely aiming to live what we preach (albeit imperfectly). But it’s especially crucial when we’re being accused or attacked in some way for our faith. So, eg, I remember speaking on a Durham University Christian Union mission. And the week started with myself and a few others on a ‘Grill a Christian’ panel. And this student got very aggressive and accused us all of hypocrisy – ‘For example’ he said (looking at me), ‘Jesus told you to sell your possessions and give to the poor. I bet you haven’t done that have you? I mean how much of your money do you give away?’ And of course Jesus also said you’re not to trumpet your giving before others. So I said, ‘Well, I do give money away.’ And he said, ‘How much? Come on. Tell us.’ So I said, ‘If you ask me privately afterwards I’ll tell you the percentage of my income that I give away per year.’ And it was striking. Because he quietened down. And he didn’t come and ask me afterwards – because I guess he decided from my answer that I was sincere.
People are watching us; listening to us; and they may ask us questions like that to see if we’re for real. And it will make our evangelism slightly less difficult if we’re aiming to live with a good conscience before God. That’s lsson one, here. The next lesson is:
Secondly, WHEN OPPORTUNITY COMES, GET TO THE HEART OF THE GOSPEL (23.6-10)
Look on to v6:
Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope of the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. Then a great clamour arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks. (23.6-10)
Now again, some Bible commentaries say: Paul knew he’d be protected in Roman custody; and that if he mentioned resurrection it would divide this council and create uproar; so he threw the theological cat among the pigeons, to get himself taken back to safety asap. But again I doubt that, because Paul was the most fearless evangelist I can think of. After all, back in Acts 19, he’d already said,
‘I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ (Acts 19.13)
And now he’s got this extraordinary opportunity to speak to the Jewish leadership. So do you really think he just mentions resurrection as a ploy for his own safety? I doubt it. Partly because Paul’s example again and again was to put other peoples’ need to hear the gospel above his own personal comfort. But partly because of the end of v9 – where the Pharisees ask:
‘What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?’ (23.9)
Now what’s prompted that question? It must be that Paul hasn’t just been talking about resurrection in general. He’s been doing what he always did – talking about Jesus’ resurrection, and claiming that the risen Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and spoke to him. Which is why, v9, they ask,
‘What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?’ (23.9)
You have to assume that the speaking in Acts is highly abbreviated. So when Paul says, end of v6,
‘I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead’ (23.6),
he must have said more – and in particular, he must have said that the way we know we are going to rise from the dead at the end of time is that Jesus has already done so, within time – that first Easter time.
So, I don’t think this was just a ploy to create uproar and get out of there. I think this was Paul taking an extraordinary opportunity to get to the heart of the gospel with these Jewish leaders. Yes, he knew they were divided over their beliefs, as v8 says:
For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit [ie, they didn’t believe in any personal existence beyond death – they were the liberals of the day], but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. (23.8)
So, yes, he knew that talking about Jesus’ resurrection would divide them. But his ultimate aim must have been to speak the gospel to them – hoping, especially, that his fellow-Pharisees would be open to it, because they already believed in resurrection. And that explains v9:
Then a great clamour arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” (23.9)
So, backing off the detail of all that, the main lesson of this second bit is: when opportunity comes, get to the heart of the gospel. I mentioned John Chapman earlier. And in his evangelism training he gave principles for answering peoples’ questions. Eg, imagine someone asks you, ‘How can you know God is there?’ How do you answer that? Well, one of John Chapman’s principles was: answer in a way that gets you to Jesus. So for that question you could say, ‘Well, if Jesus really did rise from the dead to show he was the Son of God, then we can know God is there, because he’s been here.’ And as John Chapman used to say, ‘That gets Jesus out onto the deck.’ And you can then see how the other person responds. Eg, they might say, ‘You don’t really believe Jesus rose from the dead, do you?’ Which then gives you permission to say more.
So, answer in a way that gets you to Jesus. And I say that to myself first, because I don’t always get this right. Eg, just after Easter, we were visiting my parents, who aren’t Christians. And Mum said, ‘So what do you think of the new Archbishop?’ And I said, ‘Time will tell.’ Which was a true answer. But it was an evangelistically hopeless answer, because it didn’t get anywhere near Jesus. And having looked at Acts 23, you can now tell me what I should have said. I should have said… ‘Well one good thing about him is that he really believes Jesus rose from the dead.’ I wonder where the conversation might have gone if I’d said that. But I blew it.
So onto the final lesson from this passage:
Thirdly, WHEREVER WE ARE, THE LORD HAS PUT US THERE TO TESTIFY TO HIM (23.11)
So by v11, Paul is back in his cell. And you could understand it if he’d been thinking, ‘Lord, how does this serve your plan to get the gospel to the ends of the earth?’ After all, let’s remind ourselves what Paul’s plan had been. Just turn back to Acts 19.21:
Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” (19.21)
By which he didn’t mean, ‘I’ve always wanted to see the Colosseum and try one of those legendary San Crispino ice creams.’ He meant, ‘I want to preach the gospel there.’ And we know from his letter to the Romans that his plan after that was to evangelise Spain. So you can imagine him sitting in his cell thinking, ‘How is this getting the gospel any further?’ And the answer is in v11:
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.” (23.11)
Ie, the risen Lord Jesus is saying, ‘Getting you to Rome is my plan, as well – it’s just not going to happen the way you thought. But what matters is that wherever I put you, it’s so you can testify to me.’
So maybe Paul was thinking he’d follow-up some of his church plants en route to Rome, and then do ‘Mission Rome’ based at the church there. When what actually happens is that he gets to Rome as a prisoner, having appealed his case to Caesar. But on the way, the Lord puts him in the most extraordinary places to testify to him. Eg, as we’ve seen tonight, to the entire Jewish leadership. And as we’ll see in the rest of Acts, during his time in Roman custody, Paul gets to evangelise some of the highest people in the Romand Empire. And what he later wrote to the Philippians shows how well he grasped this. He wrote:
I want you to know… 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 the lesson is: wherever we are, the Lord has put us there to testify to him.
So, eg, the Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon told the story of a woman who said to him, ‘I wish I could go to the mission field – but I’ve got six children.’ To which he replied, ‘Then you have no need to go – the Lord has already given you a mission field.’ And I certainly talk to young Mums at our church who feel they’re now doing relatively little, Christianly, compared to before children came along. But the children are now their primary sphere of gospel ministry. It may feel like it’s only touching one or a few. But one striking statistic is that most full-time ministers and missionaries come from Christian homes. Which testifies to the depth of spiritual foundation that children of Christian parents can receive.
And then this applies to the workplace, as well. I pick up that many of us here feel that work militates against our Christian service. Eg, I was talking to one of us who is heading into middle management, with more responsibility and time and travel-commitments. And one school of thought says it would be better for Christians not to be in jobs like that if, eg, it means he can’t lead a Home Group any more. But that overlooks this truth that wherever the Lord puts us, his plan is for it to advance the gospel. So,eg, this friend reckons he’s the only Christian in a company of 500. Well, how many of them will meet another Christian outside work? And I wouldn’t want the regular business flying any more than he does – but times on planes and trains have given me countless gospel conversations, where people have been remarkably open precisely because they’re 99.99% certain they’ll never see me again. ‘Friendship evangelism’ isn’t everything – a single conversation with a stranger can be very fruitful.
So, wherever we are, the Lord has put us there to testify to him – to live with a good conscience before him and, when the opportunity comes, to try to get to the heart of the gospel with people. And even if we think different circumstances would make our evangelism easier, we need to trust that the Lord knows what he’s doing.
And if the Lord is leading us to get that building in the west of the city and start a work there, the most important thing is: that he knows what he’s doing. We don’t know right now how to make a church happen in that area, how to reach the different people within, say, a five mile radius of it; and we don’t have experience, yet, of everything it’ll take to make it happen. But then again Paul didn’t know how to evangelise a Roman Emperor – that was going to be a first for him, too. So the most important thing for him was to trust that the Lord knew what he was doing with him. And the most important thing for us in the days and weeks ahead will be to trust that the Lord knows what he’s doing with us, as well.
TWO GOOD BOOKS TO HELP US IN OUR EVANGELISM
Know & Tell the Gospel by John Chapman (Matthias Media) is a classic on what the gospel is and then how to explain it and anwer questions about it.
Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman, (Kregel): one of its strengths is that it gives a lot of thought to the challenge of how you get anywhere near Jesus in conversation, when no-one is talking about spiritual things. Another strength is that it helps with today’s objections to Christianity (like, ‘Why are you so intolerant?’ and, ‘Aren’t you homophobic?’).