Well, it’s been a few weeks since we were last looking at the book of Acts, but today we are going to jump back into it! Today, we are just at the end of Acts chapter 21 – and the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. Along the way, Paul has been repeatedly warned by the Holy Spirit that imprisonment and suffering await him in Jerusalem.
And when I say “warned by the Holy Spirit” – that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit was trying to stop him or to get him to change direction, but rather, the Holy Spirit was preparing Paul (and the other believers) for what was about to happen. Paul was about to face some major persecution, and God wasn’t warning Him so that he could avoid that, but God was warning Him so that He would able to endure and be confident in God’s leading through that persecution.
Understandably, Paul’s friends didn’t want to see any harm come to Paul, and so they urged him not to go on to Jerusalem. But Paul knew that Jerusalem was exactly where God wanted him to be – regardless of any suffering that he might endure. By this point in his life, I think Paul knew that sometimes God allows and even leads us through great suffering so that even greater things can be accomplished in our lives and in the lives of others.
And so, Paul faithfully obeyed the leading of the Lord and finally arrived in Jerusalem. Upon his arrival, he was warmly greeted by all the Apostles and the other leaders in the church, but his reception among the other Jews was a little less than welcoming.
You see, as Mike shared with us a few weeks ago, the Jews had heard rumours that Paul had completely abandoned and rejected his Jewish heritage and was teaching others to do likewise – which was a pretty major issue for the Jews!
But those rumours simply were not true. Of course, Paul certainly taught that being Jewish wasn’t required for salvation – God’s free gift was available to anyone simply through faith in Jesus Christ. That meant that gentiles didn’t have to follow all the Jewish laws and traditions to be saved, but at the same time, the Jews weren’t forced to abandon all their Jewish practices to be saved either!
And so, to help alleviate the Jew’s concerns that Paul was now anti-Jewish – the church counselled Paul to take part of a Jewish purification ritual – which would show that, while Paul was not counting on his Jewish-ness for salvation, as a Jew, he could still honour God through some of those Jewish practices!
And so Paul did exactly that – and that’s where we’re going to pick up the story today.
So if you have your Bibles, we’re going to start in Acts chapter 21 – verse 26.
26 So Paul went to the Temple the next day with the other men. They had already started the purification ritual, so he publicly announced the date when their vows would end and sacrifices would be offered for each of them. 27 The seven days were almost ended when some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul in the Temple and roused a mob against him. They grabbed him, 28 yelling, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who preaches against our people everywhere and tells everybody to disobey the Jewish laws. He speaks against the Temple—and even defiles this holy place by bringing in Gentiles.” 29 (For earlier that day they had seen him in the city with Trophimus, a Gentile from Ephesus, and they assumed Paul had taken him into the Temple.)
30 The whole city was rocked by these accusations, and a great riot followed. Paul was grabbed and dragged out of the Temple, and immediately the gates were closed behind him. 31 As they were trying to kill him, word reached the commander of the Roman regiment that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He immediately called out his soldiers and officers and ran down among the crowd. When the mob saw the commander and the troops coming, they stopped beating Paul.
I’ll pause here to point out a couple of things. First of all, we see again just how strongly the Jews had been convinced that Paul had become completely anti-Jewish – even though none of that was true. They said:
“This is the man who preaches against our people everywhere and tells everybody to disobey the Jewish laws. He speaks against the Temple—and even defiles this holy place by bringing in Gentiles.” Acts 21:28
And again, none of this was true – but there is certainly a real sense here that Paul is seen as public enemy #1 to the Jews – even though nothing could be further from the truth! They believed that Paul had turned totally against them, but in fact, one of Paul’s main priorities in life was to help them and see them saved from their sin!
You’ll recall that whenever Paul would enter a new city, He would always go first to the Jewish synagogue to preach to the Jews! He wanted first and foremost to bring salvation to his own people – before taking the Gospel to the Gentiles! He loved his fellow Jews dearly! In fact, Paul would later write in Romans 9:2…
“My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief 3 for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.” Romans 9:2-3
That’s pretty incredible! Paul is so concerned for his fellow Jews that he says he would be willing to lose his own salvation if that could possibly save his fellow Jews! Of course, that was never a possibility, but it certainly speaks to how deeply Paul loved his people!
And yet, pretty much through out his entire ministry, the Jews saw him as public enemy #1. He was repeatedly attacked, imprisoned, and run out of town by the Jews in those cities. He was continually wronged and even hated by the very ones he loved the most!
And I guess, really, the same could be said of Jesus. You’ll remember how we read the Easter story last Sunday and how the crowds shouted to Pilate: “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”
They were ready to put to death the very one who loved them more than any one else! And yet, Jesus (and Paul) were willing to suffer and die for the sake of the ones they loved.
I guess that’s what agape (unconditional) love is all about. It’s about being willing to love someone even when they don’t love you in return. It’s being willing to endure being wronged, being hurt, being taken advantage of – all because of God’s unconditional, agape love.
Jesus describes this kind of love in Luke 6 verse 27…
27 “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. 30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you.
35 “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked.
Luke 6:27-31, 35
Now to be clear, Jesus isn’t saying that we intentionally pursue in these kinds of unhealthy relationships! There were times when even Jesus removed himself from the crowds that wanted to hurt him – Paul did likewise many times! So Jesus isn’t saying we should intentionally put ourselves in situations where we are in danger or where we are constantly being treated in an unloving manner. Those are very unhealthy relationships – and if you find yourself in a relationship like that – I would strongly urge you to seek some outside help. Roy & Tiffany Mitton with Your Thriving Family would be great people to talk with if you find yourself in a situation like that.
So these verses are not talking about intentionally putting yourself or even leaving yourself in those type of unhealthy relationships or situations – but rather, we need to recognize that in every relationship – even the healthy ones, there will be times when we will get treated unfairly. There will be times when our spouse or our children say or do things that hurt us – sometimes deeply. Friends betray or abandon us – bosses take advantage of us. We live in a sinful fallen world, and so we need to be prepared to be hurt by others.
But when that happens, we can choose how to respond to those people – we can choose to hold grudges, to allow bitterness and resentment and anger to grow, to allow the hurt to divide and separate us… Or through the power of the Holy Spirit – we can choose to love them like Christ loved us. We can choose to forgive them – even if they aren’t yet ready to even ask for forgiveness! We can allow our wounds to heal and give opportunity for the relationship to be restored (even though that might yet take some time).
The truth is, we can’t control how the other person might or might not respond to us – but we can choose how we react. Regardless of what they do, we can choose to love them like Christ loved us. Colossians 3:12 says..
12 Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.
This is agape love – unconditional love. A love that doesn’t keep score. A love that doesn’t hold grudges. A love that forgives and works to restore the relationship – even when the other person isn’t ready to do the same.
It’s not an easy kind of love – but that’s the kind of love God has for you. And because of His love for you, you can be free to love others in the same way!
And that’s what I see in these verses in Acts – Paul’s incredible love for his fellow Jews – even though, up until this point anyway, they have yet to return that love for him!
So now he’s been grabbed by this mob, dragged out of the temple with the gates closed firmly behind him, and he is about to be beaten to death – again, by the very people that he so desperately hopes will one day receive salvation!
But it’s at this moment, that the Roman commander gets wind of the developing riot, and rushes to the scene to intervene.
31 As they were trying to kill him, word reached the commander of the Roman regiment that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He immediately called out his soldiers and officers and ran down among the crowd. When the mob saw the commander and the troops coming, they stopped beating Paul.
33 Then the commander arrested him and ordered him bound with two chains. He asked the crowd who he was and what he had done. 34 Some shouted one thing and some another. Since he couldn’t find out the truth in all the uproar and confusion, he ordered that Paul be taken to the fortress. 35 As Paul reached the stairs, the mob grew so violent the soldiers had to lift him to their shoulders to protect him. 36 And the crowd followed behind, shouting, “Kill him, kill him!”
37 As Paul was about to be taken inside, he said to the commander, “May I have a word with you?”
Now I’m going to stop here for a minute. This is pretty good! Remember, Paul has just been dragged out of the temple by a very angry mob! He has been beaten – probably most severely since they were attempting to beat him to death! The mob is so violent that the soldiers have to lift Paul up on their shoulders to protect him and the crowd is shouting “Kill him! Kill him!”
And in the midst of all this, Paul, in what I imagine to be a polite British accent, says to the commander, “Excuse me, sir! Might I have a word with you please?”
Paul’s calm demeanour seems almost comical! He’s not flipping out or screaming for help like most people might be. He doesn’t even seem to be all that concerned that he’s just barely escaped being murdered by an angry mob! He just seems calm, cool, and collected! It’s pretty amazing!
But again, I think much of his calm assurance comes from the fact that the Holy Spirit had warned him several times before he even arrived in Jerusalem that this is exactly what would happen. Perhaps he didn’t know all the specific details, but God had told him that persecution and suffering would await him in Jerusalem – and so what was happening now was no surprise to Paul. He knew that God had either allowed or even orchestrated this to happen for God’s own good purposes – and that just gave Paul an incredible peace in his heart – even while the world around him was going crazy!
It’s like Jesus said to his disciples back in John 16:33.
“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
And this should be such an encouragement to us today! The Bible has clearly told us that our lives will be full of trouble and tribulations! People are going to hurt or betray us. Governments are going to work against us. There will be wars and rumours of wars – earthquakes, fires, famines, pandemics, economic crisis… The Bible clearly warns us that all these things are coming – but we don’t have to get all worked up about it!
None of these things can steal the peace of God in our hearts! God has forewarned us of all these things so that we may have peace in Him! Yes, here on earth we will have many trials and sorrows. That’s just a fact of life.
But the more important fact is that Jesus has overcome the world. He has defeated sin and death. He is still absolutely sovereign over all the events of earth – and He will bring it all to the conclusion that He has foreordained. Specifically, that one day, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father!
And so with that knowledge firmly planted in our hearts – what can we possible be afraid of? What could possible steal our peace? I think Paul says it so well in Romans chapter 8…
31 What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? 32 Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? 33 Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. 34 Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.
35 Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.
38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
With that perspective, no wonder Paul can endure an angry mob without hardly batting an eye! His confidence wasn’t in the strength of the Roman soldiers that rescued him from crowds – His strength and calm assurance was in Jesus Christ – the one who had died and rose again from the grave – for him!
And we can have that same strength and peace and assurance in our lives too! God’s love and care for us is no different than His love and care for Paul! We don’t have to get all worked up when we face all kinds of trials and tribulations – we can have peace in Jesus – knowing that He has overcome the world! Isn’t that a great encouragement? Praise the Lord for his kindness to us!
So now, Paul, having been rescued from the mob and about to be taken into the barracks, turns and calmly asks the commander “Might I have a word with you?” The commander replies in verse 37…
“Do you know Greek?” the commander asked, surprised. 38 “Aren’t you the Egyptian who led a rebellion some time ago and took 4,000 members of the Assassins out into the desert?”
39 “No,” Paul replied, “I am a Jew and a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia, which is an important city. Please, let me talk to these people.” 40 The commander agreed, so Paul stood on the stairs and motioned to the people to be quiet. Soon a deep silence enveloped the crowd, and he addressed them in their own language, Aramaic.
“Brothers and esteemed fathers,” Paul said, “listen to me as I offer my defense.” 2 When they heard him speaking in their own language, the silence was even greater.
And I’ll pause here for just a moment to make a clarifying comment about these different languages mentioned in the verses we just read.
First of all, we notice that the commander is surprised that Paul speaks Greek. While Greek was the universal language of the Roman empire at this time – it was primarily spoken by more educated men – men of business or of some social standing. It was not generally spoken by the common lower-class type people – which the commander assumed Paul was. Based on the riotous crowd, the commander had assumed that Paul must have been an Egyptian terrorist that had escaped into the dessert some time earlier. But now, when He learns that Paul was not that guy, and was in fact a Jew, he gave Paul permission to speak to the crowd. Presumably in hopes that Paul could settle everyone down. Which he did, when he began to speak to them in their own native language, Aramaic.
At this time in Jerusalem, Aramaic was common language of the Jews, and so Paul spoken to them in Aramaic (rather than Greek) once again affirming that he had not rejected his Jewish heritage as was rumoured – and was indeed, just like one of them.
The next several verses are Paul’s personal testimony – of how he (a very devout and zealous Jew) was dramatically met by Jesus and because of that encounter, he was never the same again. Paul explains that it was his obedience to Jesus that has lead Him to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles.
So let’s read his testimony now, starting in verse 3.
3 Then Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. 4 And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. 5 The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished.
6 “As I was on the road, approaching Damascus about noon, a very bright light from heaven suddenly shone down around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
8 “‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked.
“And the voice replied, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, the one you are persecuting.’ 9 The people with me saw the light but didn’t understand the voice speaking to me.
10 “I asked, ‘What should I do, Lord?’
“And the Lord told me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told everything you are to do.’
11 “I was blinded by the intense light and had to be led by the hand to Damascus by my companions. 12 A man named Ananias lived there. He was a godly man, deeply devoted to the law, and well regarded by all the Jews of Damascus. 13 He came and stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight.’ And that very moment I could see him!
14 “Then he told me, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak. 15 For you are to be his witness, telling everyone what you have seen and heard. 16 What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord.’
17 “After I returned to Jerusalem, I was praying in the Temple and fell into a trance. 18 I saw a vision of Jesus saying to me, ‘Hurry! Leave Jerusalem, for the people here won’t accept your testimony about me.’
19 “‘But Lord,’ I argued, ‘they certainly know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And I was in complete agreement when your witness Stephen was killed. I stood by and kept the coats they took off when they stoned him.’
21 “But the Lord said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles!’”
22 The crowd listened until Paul said that word. Then they all began to shout, “Away with such a fellow! He isn’t fit to live!” 23 They yelled, threw off their coats, and tossed handfuls of dust into the air.
For the sake of time, we’re going to stop at this point in the story for today – with the crowd raging at Paul – demanding that he be put to death.
But I find it interesting that the crowd listened very quietly and politely to Paul up until he said one thing. Verse 22 says “The crowd listened until Paul said that word.” And that word was “Gentiles.”
The jews had no problem listening to Paul’s dramatic conversation story. They didn’t even seem to have a problem with Jesus. But the minute it was suggested that God was going to offer salvation to the Gentiles, that’s when they flew into a rage – throwing off their coats and tossing handfuls of dust into the air!
You see, in their minds, it was inconceivable that God would offer salvation to the Gentiles without those Gentiles first becoming Jews. Because that would mean that God saw both Jews and Gentiles on equal footing before God – and that just couldn’t be!
The Jews saw themselves as spirituality superior to the Gentiles. After all, they were God’s chosen people! And so there was no way that God would accept Gentiles unless they first became Jews!
But that’s the amazing message of the Gospel! That every person on earth – Jew or Gentile – man or woman – rich or poor – ultra spiritual or completely pagan – all of us are accepted by God in the same way – and that is only through faith in Jesus Christ. God saves all of us – not by us becoming Jewish or some other version of a good person, but rather He saves simply by His grace when we believe in Him. Ephesians 2:8 says..
8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. Ephesians 2:8-9
We don’t have to get ourselves all fixed up before we come to God. We don’t have to clean up our act and get our sinful habits under control before God will accept us. No, God accepts us just as we are! Now of course, He’ll work with us after we come to him – empowering us by His Holy Spirit to make those changes in our life – transforming us into the people that He created us to be – but all we need to do to be acceptable to Him in the first place, is to believe that Jesus already accomplished everything for us!
I mean, really – If God can love and accept Paul – a murderer who zealously persecuted God’s church – God can certainly love and accept you and I.
As we read in Romans 8:39 earlier: No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And so this morning, if you’ve never fully believed that God could love and accept you just as you are – can I assure you that you He does. All of your faults, all of your failures, all of your sin – was all paid for by Jesus Christ when He died on a cross.
No matter what our background, not matter what our history, no matter what our long list of offences may be – we are His dearly loved children and there’s nothing we can do to that could possibly make Him love us more than he already does!
All that’s left for us to do is to believe and accept that love.