Last weekend we hosted a meeting to mark the 20th anniversary of Barnabas Fund. And Patrick Sookdheo, the director of Barnabas Fund, preached here last Sunday morning. Some of you will have heard him. For those who didn’t and who are unfamiliar with the work of the Fund, it supports persecuted Christians and churches around the world, and seeks to keep other parts of the church well informed about what’s going on. And what is clear as a result of their work and that of other similar organisations is that the church around the world is often under the most severe pressure.
So what are we to make of that? And not least on this Pentecost Sunday – how do we fit the reality of the persecution that some Christians face with the fact that Jesus is the ascended Lord reigning unseen on the throne of heaven who has poured out his Holy Spirit on his disciples to empower them in his service? Well the Book of Acts helps us to get our thinking straight. And when our thinking’s straight, then how we react will be on the right lines as well, when the time comes.
This evening, then, we come to Acts 21.27-36. My title is ‘The Arrest of Paul’ – because that’s what this section is about. I want to make five points that arise from Paul’s experiences recorded here. These are all things that we need to store away in our thinking, so that when we need them, they can shape our responses to situations we encounter and that we see others encountering.
First, FAITHFUL WITNESS TO CHRIST CAN BE MET BY FIERCE OPPOSITION
Let’s remind ourselves of the situation here. Paul has gone to Jerusalem. He wanted to report back on what had been going on as he travelled round the Mediterranean world planting churches and strengthening the believers. He wanted to encourage the church in Jerusalem. And he wanted to take whatever opportunities arose to bear witness to the work that Christ had done in his life.
You might remember that Paul had been warned by the Holy Spirit that this was not going to be any kind of holiday. Back in Acts 20.22-24 Paul had told the elders of the church in Ephesus:
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20.22-24)
His friends had tried to persuade him not to go, but Paul was having none of it. He hadn’t backed off, despite what he knew was in store. Impressive that. What would you have done? What would I have done?
Not that he was provocative or aggressive. He had been as accommodating as possible to the Jews who opposed him. He understood them. He’d been one of them. But that didn’t stop fierce opposition. The fact is that widespread opposition can get stirred up by a hostile minority. That hostile minority often misrepresents the true situation. False inferences about what’s going on are drawn from innocent facts. And at times, as here, that hostile minority can use physical aggression to trigger mob violence.
Faithful witness to Christ can be met by fierce opposition.
Secondly, AN INFLAMED CROWD IS POTENTIALLY LETHAL
Have you ever seen on film one of those demonstrations of how quickly and dangerously a fire can spread if, say, a match gets dropped on a sofa or a curtain catches fire? Ferocious persecution can get going in that kind of way. Listen again to how the fire of persecution took hold and spread. This is Acts 21.27:
When the seven days were almost completed [never mind what that’s about – except to say that it’s actually Paul trying to placate his enemies by showing he’s a good Jew], the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. (Acts 21.27-31)
A susceptible crowd can be manipulated into an outbreak of mob violence. Individuality is swept up as the crowd is stirred to anger. Then the human herd acts as one, losing all rationality and de-humanising its victims. So an angry and irrational crowd can become murderous. Paul found himself becoming subject to increasingly extreme violence. They laid hands on him. Seized him. Dragged him out. Sought to kill him. Began the process of beating him to death. That was the intention.
When I was at theological college in the mid-1980s, Vivienne and I became acquainted with a young couple from Rwanda in East Africa – Alphonse and Thacienne Karuhije. Alphonse was an Anglican clergyman doing post-graduate theological study, before returning to take up a senior post. In fact he became the Dean of Kigali Cathedral.
A few years later, in 1994, the terrible genocide occurred in Rwanda in which a million people were slaughtered in a frenzied bloodbath. It was only some years later that I found out that Alphonse was one of those who had been hacked to death. He was helping to harbour moderate Hutus and Tutsis in an attempt to protect them from the violence. Thinking back to theological college days, I remember his warm smile and gentle godliness. He would tell us about the beauty of his peaceful and fertile country.
We wouldn’t have believed you for a moment if you’d told us then what would become of him, and that Thacienne would be left widowed. Just as none of us here this evening really think that any of us will fall victim to the lethal attentions of an inflamed crowd. But however apparently peaceful our present circumstances, we should be under no illusions that it could happen. Some of us here could be killed in violent persecution. Let’s pray that will not be so. But we’re not immune, any more than Alphonse was.
An inflamed crowd is potentially lethal.
Thirdly, A RAMPAGING MOB IS NOT BEYOND GOD’S CONTROL
Let’s pick up the sequence of events from where we got to. Here’s verse 31 again – and what follows:
And as they were seeking to kill [Paul], word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He enquired who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!” (21.31-36)
God protects his servants. Sometimes he does that by protecting them through suffering. He doesn’t stop it. But he brings them through it. That kind of protection might even require resurrection. And sometimes God protects his servants from suffering. In his wisdom, he does decide to stop it. And God’s providence is wonderful to watch at work. His timing is immaculate.
Just as the crowd were seeking to kill Paul, word got through to the Roman commander. Then it’s a race before Paul dies – edge of the seat stuff, like a Bourne film or something. They get there in the nick of time. Paul is made safe by the pagan power. The same army that crucified Jesus literally carries Paul into the security of the barracks, out of reach of his would be killers. God can do what he likes, when he wants, using whoever he decides. He protects his servants – sometimes through suffering, sometimes from it.
D.E.Hoste took over from Hudson Taylor as the leader of the China Inland Mission. His biography records just such a time. I quote:
The Boxer Rising of 1900 will never be forgotten in the history of the China Inland Mission…
From all parts of the country missionaries and their children sought to escape, many of them enduring incredible hardships as they travelled hundreds of miles to the coast. That so many came through alive was little short of miraculous. But for some was reserved the high honour of sealing their testimony with their blood, and before the terrible rising was eventually suppressed, fifty-eight members of the Mission and twenty-one children had been brutally murdered.
What must have been the horror and anguish of heart of those living at the Mission headquarters in Shanghai as they received report after report of fellow workers being heartlessly assaulted and massacred it is impossible to imagine… the forces of evil seemed let loose, and blow after blow fell as news came through of those in the interior who had been trapped and done to death.
There’s that mysterious combination of brutal murder and miraculous rescue. Some find themselves like the great evangelist John Wesley. He always spoke of himself as “a brand plucked from the burning” after he was rescued from their burning home as a child. His mother was convinced that he had been spared to be used by God. And so it proved.
Whatever the outcome of persecution, God remains in charge. Even a rampaging mob is not beyond his control. So sometimes he rescues. But:
Fourthly, FOLLOWERS OF JESUS CAN FIND THEMSELVES SHARING IN HIS SUFFERINGS
It’s worth noting the Christ-likeness of Paul’s sufferings here. We’ve already seen the contrast between Paul and Jesus, as the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus rescue Paul. But the similarities are notable too. The scene is Jerusalem. Jesus is accused of seeking to destroy the temple – Paul is accused of defiling the temple. In both cases the mob is stirred up by the Jewish leaders. The crowd cry out to Pilate about Jesus: “Crucify him!” The mob cry out to the tribune about Paul: “Away with him!”
This pattern points to the fact that Paul suffers as one following in the footsteps of his master. And that is the pattern, too, of all authentic Christian discipleship.
Jock and Katy Hughes are among our mission partners. They work in Indonesia on Bible translation. I remember some years ago when we got word that an extremist Islamist group had been announcing by loudspeaker their intention to exterminate all Christians in Ambon, where Jock and Katy lived. They were systematically cleansing area by area of Christians, ransacking and burning their homes.
Then we got an email from Jock and Katy. They wrote:
We have… heard news by Sat Phone that our house in Ambon and also the houses of two other colleagues have been burned down along with all the other houses in that part of the village… The attackers were armed with sophisticated modern weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades (which is what was probably used against our house), and also with automatic weapons. There have also been snipers shooting people dead in the Christian areas of the city… The situation in Ambon has been appalling, and parts of the island have been flattened.
We have come to accept that the house we have rented for 16 years and lived in all of our time in Indonesia until we were evacuated from Ambon… (and which our children think of as their primary home) has been burnt down along with most of our possessions…
Our plight, though, is nothing compared to that of our Indonesian friends many of whom have had to flee for their lives from their houses, losing everything they own.
Was God guarding the Hughes’ and all their Indonesian fellow believers? Was he really in control? Didn’t all that call into question God’s authority? Not according to Jock and Katy. Listen to what they said:
We are immensely comforted and supported by God’s presence with us. He has helped every member of our family in dealing with the emotions and sense of loss connected with what has happened. Despite the war, and the horrible things happening in Maluku, He remains the Sovereign Lord of history, and the time will come when “The Earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”
And they signed themselves: “In His grip.” They knew themselves to be safe in God’s strong hands. They knew that though what happened to them was extreme, it is normal Christian discipleship to share in some way in the sufferings of Jesus.
We need to ready for that. And we need to be confident that God gives the grace we need when we need it – beyond our capacity – because we share not only in the sufferings of Jesus but in his Spirit too. And the Holy Spirit never allows such suffering to be in vain. So finally and:
Fifthly, THE HOLY SPIRIT WHO INSPIRES FAITHFUL WITNESS ALSO ENSURES THAT IT IS FRUITFUL
The accusation that’s thrown at Paul is itself a remarkable testimony to the way that the Holy Spirit made Paul’s witness effective. His enemies hated him. They were doing all they could to silence him. But they themselves said about him (this is verse 28):
This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere… (21.28)
He is teaching everyone everywhere. That’s how they assess his impact! The gospel of Christ is unstoppable. The Holy Spirit makes sure of that.
The very ferocity of the opposition to Paul is a testament to the effectiveness of his evangelism. The reason they were attacking Paul and trying to destroy him was that his work was working. And in the light of that, one of the most encouraging things today is that in so many different areas of the world the church is being ferociously persecuted. That must be happening because the word is spreading through the church’s witness, and the world that stands opposed to Christ can see it. That’s not comfortable – not least for those on the sharp end of the attacks – but it is encouraging.
The Barnabas Fund Prayer Diary for tomorrow has this:
Pray for five Christian families in Vietnam who have endured repeated violent attacks by their fellow villagers since becoming Christians. The families, who came to Christ in 2012, have since suffered three waves of violence, the most recent taking place between 18 and 22 February. During this period, their homes and belongings were vandalised in successive night raids. On 22 February, a number of believers were physically assaulted, leaving several of them with serious injuries. One family fled in to the jungle after receiving death threats. Pray that the Lord will be the strength and shield (Psalm 28.7) that our brothers and sisters need as they endure persecution in His name.
Let’s be praying for them and others like them. But pray with confidence. The long term impact of witness for Christ may very well not be apparent in the heat of the moment. But note this too about what God is doing with Paul. This process of Paul falling into the hands of the Roman authorities ends up being all part of God’s mysterious way of getting Paul to the heart of the establishment of the Empire – first in the Province, and later in the capital city itself – Rome. God uses these attacks on Paul to bring about his own purposes. And there’s nothing new about that. That’s typical of the way the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit who inspires faithful witness also makes sure that it’s fruitful and effective.