The story continues
Acts 28: Paul lived for two years in his rented house.
The adventure at sea over, the prisoner Paul arrives in Rome. There, in a rented house with a Roman guard, Paul sets up shop, welcoming those who come to talk about Jesus. Luke’s account ends here. Frankly, it’s not a very satisfying ending. When I conclude reading the gospels I finish each of them feeling quite satisfied. After all, the resurrection pretty much sums up the story. Beyond that, the book of Revelation probably wins the prize for having the most satisfying conclusion. The book of Acts, though, leaves me wondering what happens next. Here’s Paul, still a prisoner, waiting his turn to state his case in Caesar’s court. I have to look beyond the Bible to find what happens next. The most common speculation is that Paul is released after two years, probably because his case is thrown out of court. He returns to his missionary efforts, and, later on, is arrested again and this time is executed in Rome. Why our writer, Luke, doesn’t continue his account is unknown. Perhaps he leaves Rome, never to return, while Paul is held under house arrest. Perhaps he did continue with part two of his account but it was somehow lost. Maybe the cliff hanger conclusion to Acts is intended to remind me that the Book of Acts is still being written. After all, the purpose of the book is to tell how the Holy Spirit works through the Church to carry out the mission given it by the Lord. The story won’t be complete until the return of Jesus to this world. To some extent, all Christians are characters in this continuing story. We don’t think about it very often, but it might be said that we’re living in the book of Acts.
Take Away: The Holy Spirit continues to work in this world. How can I best cooperate and partner with him?
Grab a plank and hang on for dear life
Acts 27: He gave orders for anyone who could swim to dive in and go for it, and for the rest to grab a plank.
Paul’s trip to Rome starts out peacefully enough but ends in shipwreck. The attempt to move the ship just a few miles to a better winter harbor results in disaster as a huge storm sweeps in, driving the ship out to sea. The sailors do all they can to save themselves and their passengers but it appears that their worst nightmare has come upon them and that all 276 on board will be lost. Then Paul reports that for a short time overnight there was not, 276 passengers, but 277 on board. The Lord sent an angel to encourage Paul and give him a message for the entire ship’s company. The ship will, indeed, be lost, but everyone will survive without a scratch. Soon, it’s “land-ho” as an island is spotted. The ship strikes a reef and is being torn apart and the order is given to “abandon ship.” Swimmers dive in and the land lubbers find bits and pieces of the ship and float to shore. As a person who isn’t much of a swimmer I can identify with those “plank grabbers.” No doubt, I would have been one of them. Spiritually speaking, we’re all, to some extent headed for shipwreck. After all, no one’s going to get out of this world alive. The only hope I have of surviving this shipwreck is to hold on to some wood that will get me to shore. That wood just happens to be in the shape of a cross.
Take Away: I’m holding on to that cross for “dear life.”
So near and yet so far
Acts 26: Keep this up much longer and you’ll make a Christian out of me!
With Paul’s appeal to Caesar on record, Festus has a problem: he has no real charges on file against him. Rome isn’t interested in the religious arguments of the Jews. To send Paul to Caesar because of such a trivial (in Rome’s eyes) thing will reflect badly on him. In an effort to pass the buck, or at least spread the blame, Festus involves Agrippa, another Roman ruler. Agrippa is considered by Rome to be an expert in Jewish affairs, so having his name on the documents concerning this case will take much of the pressure off of Festus. After two years, Paul is more than ready to state his case and before Agrippa he brings his finest defense. Having done so, Paul directly asks Agrippa if he believes his claims about Jesus of Nazareth and the King’s response that he’s “almost persuaded” becomes his epitaph in Christian history. Some have seen his words as those of a man under deep conviction and others have brushed them aside as sarcasm. On one hand, I don’t think Agrippa is actually teetering on the brink of faith when he responds to Paul. On the other, I don’t think he’s laughing off Paul’s question either. The truth, I think, is somewhere in the middle. Paul’s defense has been eloquent and reasonable. His “offence” (that is, his invitation to Agrippa to respond concerning Jesus) is persuasive. I think that for just a moment Agrippa is moved to faith, but he quickly looks around, sees the crowd, and remembers his place of authority here. He quickly gathers himself and pushes back from the moment. I don’t know what might have happened had Agrippa became a Christian that day. It might have cost him his reputation and position. By not responding those things remained intact. As it is, historians say he lives to his 70’s. Sadly, his best remembered act is “almost believing.”
Take Away: How sad, to be remembered for “almost” doing the right thing.
Acts 25: I appeal to Caesar
Paul has been confined in Caesarea for two years as Governor Felix ignores his innocence and hopes for some kind of bribe that never comes. It isn’t that Paul is chained in a dungeon; in fact, he’s invited to chat with Felix several times. Then, a new Governor is appointed. Festus is immediately approached by Paul’s enemies who want him moved to Jerusalem, supposedly to stand trial in their courts, but actually that he might be removed from Roman protection and murdered. The new Governor knows the kind of people he’s dealing with and, instead, invites them to come to Caesarea and make their case there. In less than two weeks, Paul finds himself being wildly accused once again, this time before Festus. When this new Governor wavers and asks Paul if he’s willing to face these people (who obviously can’t wait to get their hands on him) he surprises everyone by playing the trump card available to a Roman citizen: he requests that his case be heard by Caesar, himself. This takes the Jews of Jerusalem out of play and places Paul under the scrutiny of the Emperor. In this case, Caesar isn’t an especially nice guy and he certainly isn’t known for his mercy. From Paul’s point of view, though, it’s better to take his chances with Caesar than face certain death from the Jewish leadership. I’m glad today that when I face the accusations of my failure, guilt, and sin that, rather than face the consequences, that I can appeal to a Higher Court. This Court is known for its grace and mercy. This is a place where love and forgiveness abounds. As my life is on the line and my sin moves to condemn me, I appeal to God, not for justice, but for mercy.
Take Away: Its mercy I need from God and its mercy I receive.
When trouble comes knocking
Acts 24: I do my best to keep a clear conscience before God and my neighbors.
Paul’s first formal hearing is before the governor, Felix. In spite of the compliments paid him by Tertullus, the lawyer for the Jewish leaders, Felix is a corrupt official who isn’t above receiving bribes. However, as Paul points out, Felix is in some ways best suited to hear the case. He, himself, has a connection to the beliefs of the Jews because he’s married to a Jewish wife named Drusilla. He’ll have a better grasp on some of the finer points of this case than others. Tertullus contends that Paul is a ringleader of a group of Nazarene troublemakers. Paul responds that this simply isn’t true. He hasn’t even been in the country for several years and, at the Temple, he was minding his own business when others started the riot. He adds that he makes it his practice to get along with both God and man. Paul may have been at the center of a riot, but it wasn’t his intention. In fact, if he has it his way, he makes friends with everyone and focuses his energies on doing the right thing in all circumstances. This leads me to a couple of thoughts. First, Paul’s goal should be my goal. I’m to “do my best to keep a clear conscience before God and my neighbors.” Christians aren’t to be trouble makers. Rather, we’re to be good citizens and good neighbors. Second, sometimes my best isn’t going to be good enough. Like Paul, I don’t have to make trouble to get into trouble. Sometimes trouble finds me. When that happens to Paul, he stands his ground, shows proper respect, and trusts God to see him through the unwanted trouble. His example is a pretty good example for me and for all those who live for the Lord.
Take Away: Paul’s the same guy who says, “If possible live at peace with all men.”
Acts 23: That night the Master appeared to Paul: “It’s going to be all right.”
Paul, the former pursuer and persecutor of Christians is now himself, a Christian who is pursued and persecuted. When similar pressure broke out in other places the believers have secreted him out of town and out of danger. Now, though, he’s held prisoner by the Romans. When forty or more men take an oath to kill Paul the Romans take action similar what has been done before; they move him out of town. Paul, at the center of this whole storm, is surprisingly calm and filled with hope. Why? It’s because he’s heard from the Lord that “It’s going to be all right.” His confinement has just begun and things will get worse. How many times will he return in spirit to that night at the Roman garrison in Jerusalem when the Master, himself, came to encourage him? This visitation of the Lord will become his anchor as the storm of adversity crashes down on him. We not only need some midnight visits from the Lord as we deal with the issues of life, but we also need to cherish them; to remember them and draw strength from them. Then, as the storm’s fury is unleashed on us we can draw from those midnight visitations and be strengthened to perseverance and peace.
Take Away: We not only need some midnight visits from the Lord as we deal with the issues of life, but we also need to cherish them as well.
Acts 22: I paid a huge sum for my citizenship. How much did it cost you?
The captain isn’t having a good day. He’s arrested a man thinking he’s caught an Egyptian troublemaker but now realizes he has the wrong man. He then lets the man address the crowd, and to his surprise he addresses them in Hebrew. In a few minutes, there’s another riot and the man has to be rescued again. At this point the captain has had enough; he’ll beat the facts out of the fellow and be done with it. Then, as soldiers prepare to do the flogging the man informs them that he’s a Roman citizen. To be guilty of detaining and torturing a Roman citizen could be disastrous to his career. Additionally, the captain takes Roman citizenship quite seriously because obtaining his own citizenship had been an expensive process. Now, he’s come within a few minutes of jeopardizing his career because of this mysterious man. He asks Paul how he obtained his Roman citizenship and Paul responds that he was born free. Commentators aren’t sure how it is that Paul’s a Roman citizen but the best idea is that his home town, Tarsus, has been declared “free” by Caesar. Such a town is bound to allegiance to Rome, but its citizens are unfettered by the heavy hand of Rome. These people have the rights of a Roman citizen. The captain’s impressed that Paul was born with a privilege that has cost him dearly. For my part, I’m somewhere between the captain and Paul. I wasn’t born free. Rather, I was born a slave to sin and the price for my freedom was far beyond anything I could pay. However, the price was paid, in fact, had already been paid 2000 years earlier. My freedom was obtained at great cost. How much did it cost me? Nothing; but it cost Jesus everything.
Take Away: I’ve been set free a great price: the blood of Jesus.
It’s out of our hands
Acts 21: “It’s in God’s hands now,” we said. “Master, you handle it.”
In spite of repeated warnings from God’s people that this trip to Jerusalem will end with him in chains Paul remains convinced that this is what the Lord wants. He believes that the gospel will be advanced in entirely new ways as a result of his facing whatever it is that he must face there. Frankly, I’m not clear as to whether or not this is the Lord’s express will for Paul. It may be that this is mostly Paul’s idea and that the Lord has warned him but also assured him that he can get good out of what is coming. On the other hand, this may be exactly God’s plan. I just don’t know. Paul’s friends, though, know what they want. They want Paul to stay out of Jerusalem and away from the trouble that awaits him there. The great Apostle, though, is having none of it. He’s bound for Jerusalem and nothing they say is going to change his mind. At this point they do the only reasonable thing: they hand it all off to the Lord. Why try to press the debate with Paul? Why lay awake at night and worry about it? Sooner or later we find ourselves right where they are. We don’t agree with the course of action a respected brother or sister in Christ is taking, but they’re convinced that it’s the right thing to do. At that point, we need to decide to take our hands off and trust the Lord with it. From then on, we can go on loving and supporting our friend without trying to change their mind or even holding an “I told you so” in reserve. Know what? The Master really can handle it.
Take Away: There’s a time for letting others work out their own lives; for letting the Lord and them handle things without our help.
Taking care of God’s people
Acts 20: God’s people they are…God himself thought they were worth dying for.
As did Jesus several years earlier, now Paul “sets his face toward Jerusalem” knowing that his arrival there will result in hardship. To speed his journey the Apostle doesn’t go back into Ephesus but, instead, sends word to the church leaders to meet him in Miletus, located about fifty miles south of Ephesus. Here he has an emotional meeting with his dear friends and co-workers. He charges them to guard and protect God’s people in Ephesus, reminding them that “God himself thought they were worth dying for.” Even as this great Apostle is going to go through trials so will this great church. As I study this passage I can’t help but think of the role of the ministry. Paul, I see, isn’t worried about the organization and program of the church. He doesn’t urge the leaders to focus on current worship trends or new technology. Rather, he reminds them that they’re to guard and protect the “sheep” placed under their watch care. They’re to value God’s people as God, himself, values them. Happily, Paul has good news for these leaders of Ephesus and for church leaders across the ages. He tells them that God “can make you into what he wants you to be and give you everything you could possibly need in this community of holy friends.” The work of the ministry includes guarding and protecting God’s people from false teaching. The power for accomplishing that task comes from a gracious God who works in our lives, giving us everything we need to successfully do the work to which we’re called.
Take Away: The Lord not only calls people to spiritual leadership, he also empowers them for that task.
Believers becoming receivers
Acts 19: We’ve never heard of that – a Holy Spirit? God within us?
They’re a small gathering of believers in the town of Ephesus. They’ve repented of their sins and been baptized with water, believing in the One John the Baptist preached about. When Paul arrives in Ephesus and makes inquiries as to whether there are any followers of The Way in Ephesus, someone tells him about them. They welcome him with open arms and soon Paul is updating them on what God’s doing. As he brings them up to speed he tells them of the awesome events of the Day of Pentecost. They’re thrilled at the idea of God’s Holy Spirit living in their lives. It sounds almost too good to be true. Soon these believers are receivers. They’re filled with the Spirit. Years earlier Jesus so values this infilling that he tells the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit. Now, Paul encounters this group of isolated disciples and almost immediately tells them about the Holy Spirit’s infilling. This work of God is, apparently, a priority in the Book of Acts and, is, therefore, a priority for all God’s people. Paul’s focus on the status of their relationship with the Holy Spirit is a good focus for all of God’s people.
Take Away: Have you received the Spirit since you believed?