Allow me to share something with you that I read on the internet this week. It is a news report from September last year. It stated “A Christian man has been sentenced to six years in prison for “insulting” the prophet Muhammad following a dispute with a Muslim colleague in Egypt. Makram Diab, a school secretary, was given double the maximum sentence for Defamation of Religion, prompting accusations that the judge acted to appease Muslim groups at the court …. An angry 2,500-strong mob gathered outside, demanding the death penalty for the defendant. Some were reportedly carrying knives; they were blocked by police from breaking into the court. However, over 80 Islamist lawyers … filled the court, they locked the door from the inside, not allowing the judge out and preventing the defence lawyer from going inside to do his job. Diab’s crime? It was alleged that he said the prophet Muhammad had sexually harassed his disciples. The allegation was made by a teacher who was not even present in the original dispute. And according to Diab’s sister, he had simply asked whether it was true that Mohammed had married 40 wives.” How do you feel at hearing that? Sad? Angry at the sense of injustice?
Of course over the last few weeks our series on Acts has been reminding us that to live a life of faithful witness to Jesus - is to live a life marked out by unfair persecution & opposition and that we should not be surprised by that. It’s interesting how many similarities there are between that contemporary example and tonight’s episode of Acts. In chapter 24 we see that Paul too stands accused of serious disrespect to a religion - to the Jewish religion for insulting or profaning the temple. In addition he stands accused of stirring up riots and causing public order issues. Paul too has had to contend with angry mobs demanding his death and the authorities have arrested him and put him on trial. Paul too has to defend himself against absent witnesses and, as if that weren’t enough, by the end of the chapter he also suffers an unjust imprisonment.
And yet despite all this Paul sets a courageous example – persevering in gospel proclamation regardless of the outcome. And what we see in Acts 24 are 3 things that, if taken on board, can help us persevere too. So, if you haven’t already done so now would be a good time to turn to Acts 24. And my first point is that in order to persevere we need to...
1. UNDERSTAND THE NATURE OF OPPOSITION v.1-9
And after five days (since Paul’s extradition north from Jerusalem to Caesarea) the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus. They laid before the governor (that’s Felix) their case against Paul. (24.1) Picture the scene that Luke is painting for us here. On the one side are the prosecution, a large group that includes High priest himself and Jewish elders represented by this smooth talking lawyer. Then there is the presiding judge, no doubt surrounded by soldiers and servants for his every whim. And finally there is the defendant – Paul, representing himself. Just Paul! All on his own!
So the first thing we learn about opposition here is that it is often isolating. Often the battles are fought out there in the world, not as a respected, popular majority – but a maligned, persecuted minority and we can often find ourselves on our own, defending the gospel. Expect it – be prepared for it. I’m only too aware of how acute an issue this is – especially for our children. My eldest son is desperately alone in his class at school as he tries to stand up for Jesus. He has been picked on, bullied and has been physically attacked by those who think it funny to try and force a bible-basher to blaspheme. Now he’s learning some tough lessons very early on (he’s just 13), but that is part of the experience of calling yourself a Christian. And anyone who tells you otherwise is deceiving you.
No – it doesn’t make it right, and that’s the second thing we learn about opposition in this passage - it is unfair. After Luke describes the nauseating flattery of Tertullus’ opening remarks in verses 2-4 we learn just how unfair. v5:
For we have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.” The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming that all these things were so. (24.5-9)
Paul has false accusation after false accusation levelled against him. ‘Troublemaker!’ It’s a lie. ‘Stirring up riots!’ It’s a lie. ‘He even tried to desecrate the temple’ – again a lie! And Tertullus then even amends the account of what the Jews did: but we seized him. Another lie! And Luke notes in v.9 - by way of conclusion to Tertullus’ speech: The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming that all these things were so. And in so doing the Jewish leaders damn themselves. I mean these guys are so intent on trumping up charges in order to see Paul eliminated that they are willing to lie outright and flagrantly disobey God’s law. Notice though how they do this. They move away from hard facts and muddy the water with ‘opinions’ and ‘motives’ – all of which are easy to use to discredit someone – but much harder to prove. So we see in this example the Jews not accusing Paul of desecrating the temple - they know that that won’t stick - rather they accuse him of trying to desecrate the temple. It is much harder to disprove a man’s motive or intent. This is classic smear territory.
So the nature of opposition is that it is isolating, it is unfair and thirdly it can also be dangerous. Paul is in more than just a pickle. These are serious charges and his very life is on the line. At that moment Paul has the weight of 2 powerful entities bearing down on him. There is the political superpower of Rome and the religious influence of the Jews – both of whom have the potential to end his life. Death is a realistic possibility for Paul here.
Up until now the Roman authorities have acquitted themselves pretty well; they’ve saved Paul’s skin on a few occasions and that should encourage us that God can use authorities to do his work. But the salutary reminder in this episode is that secular authorities are just that – secular and so have different motives and different agendas. In Paul’s case governor Felix was motivated by what was best and easiest for him. He has no interest in truth and so he appeases the Jews for an easy life and tries to get a bribe out of Paul to feather his own nest. We must remember that while fallen authorities may be on our side to some extent, they’ll always remain fallen and have the capacity to be against us or careless towards us.
Now in Newcastle we may not face exactly the same kind of physical danger and persecution from authorities that some of our brothers and sisters around the world do (such as that example from Egypt) - but we need to be prepared to. Are we really that far away from jail terms in this country for those who hold traditional, biblical views? Are we prepared to lose our jobs, to go to prison for faithful gospel proclamation and to take a stand against authorities intent on institutionalising sin? Church leaders are already warning that hundreds of thousands of young Christians will be put off becoming teachers, doctors, nurses or other public servants if, for example, the same sex marriage bill goes through. And what of those who are already in such positions? Are we prepared to have our livelihoods threatened say for example if teachers must teach the equality of heterosexual marriage with homosexual marriage? If we are going to persevere we must count the cost, and know that opposition is isolating, unfair and dangerous.
My second point is ‘to persevere by...
2. TAKING EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO PROCLAIM THE WHOLE GOSPEL
So far, over the last few weeks, we have seen Paul take this opportunity in 2 main ways. Firstly, we have seen him take the opportunity publically (here again v.14-15): But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. Secondly, we have seen him take the opportunity though lifestyle evangelism (reiterated here in v16): So I always take pains to have a clear conscience towards both God and man.
But what we have not seen so far is him exploit the God-given opportunity of personal conversational evangelism. Look over the page to v24 which follows an effective adjournment of the case with Paul being kept in custody. After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. This episode with Felix & Drusilla is particularly interesting. For example in what ways would Paul talk about faith in Jesus? How would he proclaim the whole gospel to these two? We know from other sources that Felix himself was a ruthlessly cruel man. We also know that Drusilla was Felix’s third wife and she herself, not yet 20, had been married before. So would Paul dodge the issue that the Christian faith has ethical implications? Would he water down his proclamation? Of course not! We see in v.25 that for Paul speaking about faith in Christ meant explaining ...righteousness and self-control and the coming judgement. The simple truth is that any proclamation of the good news must first explain the bad news. The gospel does not make sense if we don’t explain how our sin cuts us off from enjoying a relationship with God. The gospel does not make sense if we don’t explain that Christ will come again to judge that sin. The gospel does not make sense if we don’t explain there is no way to avoid that coming judgement – except through faith in Jesus. So no doubt Paul reasoned with Felix & Drusilla – probably pleading with them that they needed to appreciate that because judgement was coming in the future there were implications for the way they lived in the present. Please don’t misunderstand me. That is not the same as saying that the way we live in the present in some way earns our salvation. What I am saying is that gospel is God’s power to change lives and that the gospel is not effective until it moves from a theoretical understanding into a life-changing dynamic. Until it moves from knowledge to action and righteous living. So how would Felix and Drusilla respond? Well, what happens next highlights my third and final point. And that is that in order to persevere we need to...
3. KEEP AN ETERNAL PERSPECTIVE – REGARDLESS OF RESULTS
And as (Paul) reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgement, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”(24.25) Oh no – that’s not good! They’re not interested. Paul got too close – he fluffed it! And we can be tempted to think - what did Paul do wrong? Likewise, when we get negative responses to our attempts at sharing the message, we can be tempted to think ‘what did I do wrong?’ I remember the first time this obviously happened to me. I was helping to run an Alpha course (similar to CE) for a group of our friends. We were probably about ¾ of the way through the course and we had a phone call from two of them – boyfriend and girlfriend at the time – and they said “Jon we’ve really enjoyed coming along but we’re not going to come any more. We are going too far down this path to becoming Christians than we want to and are comfortable with!” And I must confess that I had thoughts about what we had or hadn’t said. Did we go too far? Should we have left some bits out?
Maybe you think that Paul shouldn’t have spoken about issues of righteousness, self-control and judgement quite so early on. Maybe you think that was a step too far for Felix, and Paul should have met him half way. Why not amend the message, make it more palatable, miss out the bits that are likely to cause personal offence? No! Friends, for us the implication is clear. There is no area that is off-limits for gospel proclamation. There is no situation that is too dangerous, that is too difficult, too offensive or too personal. And there is no content that we leave out because we fear it may be too unpalatable. We need to remember that in evangelism the results are up to God. And if we’re tempted to think that this negative response was just a one off, look back to verse 22. There we see that Felix, who was well acquainted with the way, adjourns the case. It seems he had been in Israel long enough to know that the followers of the way were no riot inciters. He knows there is no case to answer. But Paul isn’t freed! In fact, we learn in v.27, he stays in jail (albeit with some liberties) for 2 years! There is no public vindication. It is another negative response to the gospel. Luke records both negative results to this faithful gospel proclamation to highlight an important principle: it’s faithfulness in proclamation that counts, not the results. I wonder - do you hear the call to faithfulness first, not success? Because if you don’t – every time someone comes to know Jesus because of your actions you’ll become puffed up with pride at what a good job you did. Or the other, more likely extreme is that every time you share the gospel and no-one responds you will become hopelessly depressed at your inability. God doesn’t want you to be proud or depressed. He wants you to be faithful and obedient in your proclamation – leave the results up to him.
But if that is the case, how do we really stay motivated to persevere? Answer: by keeping one eye on the eternal. The story is told of a Minister and his curate undertaking some Parish visiting. Apparently one particularly affluent parishioner, who was well known in the community, had visited their church the previous Sunday and filled in a newcomer’s card, including his address, wanting to know more about the Christian faith. So they decided to drop by and talk with him about the Good News. They drove together in the same car, and arrived at this exclusive mansion and wound their way up the long driveway which circled in front of his large, palatial home. The lawn was thick and manicured, and the landscaping was elegant. Kids were playing hopscotch out in the driveway. They could see into the back garden where there was a beautiful pool with a large, splashing fountain. There were three luxurious cars, one a classic bright red Ferrari, sitting in front of a triple garage. Parking their Ford Fiesta out front, the church leaders could see the man of the house through the window of his study. He was sitting in his large soft leather chair, beautiful wife by his side, laughing with his friends and having the greatest time, as they all drank champagne. At that moment the young curate turned to his pastor and said, "Now, tell me again, what kind of good news do we have for this guy?" It can be easy to think that way can’t it? What kind of good news do we have for our friends who enjoy the here and now? Well never forget that our good news is about the life to come – it is about rescue from coming judgement. It is not a message of prosperity and good times for the here and now. If you take just one thing from these last few sermons on Sunday nights take away this: Paul’s motivation, Pauls’ drive, Paul’s perseverance stems from his eternal perspective.
What about you? Where do you stand? If you are here tonight and you are not a Christian my plea to you is ‘don’t be like Felix & Drusilla’. When it all gets too personal and too close – don’t distance yourself from the pressing issue, don’t run away or bury your head in the sand. This is way too important for that. Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Paul has been consistently stating that he believes in the resurrection of the dead. Our OT passage from tonight highlights that some of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake to everlasting life on judgement day, some to shame and everlasting contempt. That’s what will happen at the resurrection of the dead. Judgement! But the glorious gospel is you can be right with God again through faith in the life, death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ. Trust in him tonight and claim the promise of Romans 8:1 - there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus!
For those of us here who would call ourselves Christians - remember the words of our Lord Jesus himself. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account...” Is this not what was happening to Paul? Is this not what happened to the Egyptian school secretary? Is this not what happened to my son? Does this not happen to you and me? And Jesus says we are ‘blessed’ because of it! ... “Rejoice and be glad, [eternal perspective] because your reward is great in heaven.” If you are being falsely accused, if you feel on your own, if you think it is just too dangerous, if you can’t take the rejection, if you can’t successfully defend yourself, if your misery is just too great – don’t miss the promise – your heavenly reward will be great. Keep that eternal perspective.
When we talk about the coming judgement it is easy for us to think in the negative and be full of fear. But there is something wonderfully encouraging about the coming judgement for those who live under the shield of God’s protection. Do you remember the Psalm we read out earlier? The Psalmist cries out to God for justice to be exacted against his oppressors. My friends, in the face of frequent injustices in the present we need to rest in the certainty that God sees all and knows all. He won’t be mocked and he will judge the world one day in righteousness. The only ones who won’t get what they deserve are those who trust in Jesus. So may we persevere with an eternal perspective, as Paul did, motivated to boldly proclaim the whole gospel wherever God wants us to indeed to the ends of the earth!