When we last left Paul, he had gone to Jerusalem despite warnings that when he went, he would suffer. While there, he met with the Jerusalem church leaders and learned that some Jewish believers were concerned that he was against the Jewish people. To prove this wasn’t true, Paul decided to participate in a traditional Jewish ceremony.
Today’s Scripture picks up as Paul is finishing up the ceremony. Before we begin, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The Strange Time
The lesson begins in Acts 21:29 where Paul is completing the temple ceremony.
I picture him sitting in the mikveh pool relaxing with cucumbers over his eyes and soothing chanting in the background.
But then one of the cucumbers falls off.
And before he can put it back on, he notices some people who look familiar.
Opponents from his mission journeys.
People that hated him.
Paul tries to hide his face under the water, but it was too late:
Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul in the temple. they stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law, and against this place. And now he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (Acts 21:27-28)
The first accusation was an exaggeration of the truth:
Paul did not preach that the Jewish culture was bad.
Paul did preach that the religion the Jewish leaders were teaching was bad.
They taught that you needed to following Hebrew traditions in order to make God love you and possibly, although not probably, earn your way to eternal life
Paul taught that you can’t earn God’s love, but God loved you so much that he suffered on a cross in order to absolutely earn your way to eternal life.
The second accusation was a bald-faced lie.
According to Jewish tradition, it was unlawful for a Gentile to enter the Jewish temple.
Paul knew this and hadn’t brought any Gentiles with him into the temple.
But this group had seen Trophimus, one of Paul’s comrades, in the city. They assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple. (v.29)
Long before Twitter.
Just like on Twitter.
It didn’t take long for others to join in the outrage.
The whole city was stirred up.
The people rushed together as a mob.
They seized Paul.
They dragged him out of the temple.
They had the “the gates…shut.” (v.30)
And Paul was surrounded by his enemies.
Let’s kill him.
Sure! But how?
Does anybody have any stones to throw?
Maybe we could ask one of the priests to borrow the knives they use in sacrifice.
While they were looking for a way to kill him… (v.31a)
The bell rang as the local law enforcement chief stepped out of a nearby coffee shop.
He took a sip of his cup o’ joe
And dunked his Jerusalem jelly donut in his coffee.
He almost spilled as concerned citizens got his attention!
“Sir, there’s a riot!”
“Sir, come quick!”
“Sir, you’d better get some of our best soldiers. It could get ugly.”
He immediately took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. (v.32)
As the crowd heard the sound of Roman chain mail rustling towards them (like the Ancient version of a police siren) and saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. (v.33)
Then the commander approached Paul.
He arrested him.
And gave an order that he should be bound with two chains.
The commander turned to the crowd:
What are you doing?
What’s going on?
Who is this guy?
What has he done? (v.33)
Some people shouted one thing.
Some people shouted another.
Some people just shouted.
It reminded the commander of a riot that had taken place in Jerusalem years earlier.
A mob had brought a man to the Governor’s palace in order to crucify him.
What was that guy’s name?
The commander motioned to his soldiers.
They needed to remove this man from the crowd if they wanted answers.
Two soldiers grabbed Paul under his arm pits and helped him climb some nearby stairs, while others cracked their whips to keep the crowd at bay.
II. The Testimony
As they made their way towards the barracks, the noise faded.
The commander began to relax.
He grabbed his donut out of his pocket, Jerusalem jelly all over his fingers, when…
“Sir, may I say something to you?” (v.37)
It was the prisoner.
You know Greek?
I thought you were that Egyptian terrorist who started the revolt?
Aren’t you the leader of almost 4,000 notorious assassins?
Paul smirked and shook his head.
“I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city. I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.” (v.39)
The commander looked at him.
“Let me get this straight. You want to speak to the crowd that wants you dead?
The commander gave the soldiers permission to allow him to talk.
Paul went back to the high point of the steps.
Raised his hands towards the crowds. (v.40)
Gentlemen, brothers, and fathers, listen to my defense, which I am now going to make to you.
When they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew dialect, they became even more quiet. (22:1-2)
I am a Jew. (v.3)
I was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, a Jewish city.
I was brought up in this city, Jerusalem. Very Jewish.
I trained at the feet of Gamaliel, a very famous, Jewish rabbi. Perhaps you know him.
I was trained according to the strict ways of the law of our Jewish fathers.
Friends, I don’t hate the Jews,
I am one.
I am just as zealous for God as all of you are today. (v.4)
I persecuted this Way, this teaching of Jesus, to the death.
I tied Christians up.
I threw Christians into prison.
If you don’t believe me, ask your high priest.
Ask your leaders. (v.4)
I think I still hold the record for most arrests in one day!
In fact, that’s what I was doing on my way to Damascus.
I was going to arrest all the Christians who had scattered there and thought they had gotten away from my holy hand of the law. (v.5)
While I was on the way and approaching Damascus, about noon a very bright light from heaven suddenly flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (v.7)
I didn’t recognize the voice.
I didn’t recognize the figure.
I did notice that he appeared to have a hole in each of his hands.
“Who are you, Lord?”
He said to me, “I am Jesus.” (v.8)
As in, the guy who started Christianity.
As in, the guy who was killed on a cross.
As in the guy who people had reported as resurrected.
As in the guy, I was persecuting.
I said, “What shall I do, Lord?”
The Lord said to me, “Get up and go into Damascus. There you will be told about everything you have been assigned to do.” (v.10)
Then, he was gone.
So was my sight.
My comrades had to lead me the rest of the way to Damascus (v.11)
There I sat in darkness.
Finally, I heard a knock at the front door.
A man entered named Ananias.
He said to me: “Brother Saul, receive your sight!”
At that very moment I was able to see him. (v.12-13)
Then he said, “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear the sound of his voice. For you will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. Now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” (v.14-16)
What was I to do?
The guy I thought was dead? Was alive.
The guy I was persecuting? Had somehow decided not to kill me.
The guy I thought was a nobody? Was God himself.
I got up.
I was baptized.
Jesus washed my sins away.
And I have been serving Jesus ever since.
Which is why I returned to Jerusalem.
Not this time, another time.
I returned thinking I could preach to all of you.
As I was praying in the temple.
That very temple.
I fell into a trance and I saw the Lord telling me: “Hurry, get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.” (v.17-18)
Of course, that didn’t make sense to me.
I figured that you all knew me.
That you all trusted me.
That you would at least listen to me.
I thought, “Jesus, you’re wrong. They’ll at least give me a chance.”
Judging by your response to me today?
Jesus was right.
He said, “Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” (v.21)
At this, the people shouted for Paul’s death.
The rioting recommenced
Paul was taken away to prison.
III. The Truth
There it is.
Paul’s suffering began exactly as the Holy Spirit said it would.
But as it’s recorded, we get to witness to the incredible changes that have occurred within Paul.
They are changes that happened as a result of witnessing the Risen Lord Jesus with his own eyes.
They are changes that happen to us as we witness the Risen Lord Jesus through the Gospel.
(1) The Witness of Jesus Changes Your ETERNAL FATE
At the end of this pandemic, we are going to have a party.
And at that party, I think we should award Pandemic superlatives.
They’d be just like Senior superlatives only about the Pandemic.
Most creative mask wearer.
Greatest tweets about lack of toilet paper.
Longest run of meals made from food found at the back of the refrigerator.
What superlative would you get?
If you’re anything like me, maybe the one you’d win wouldn’t be all the desirable.
Biggest worrier about money.
Largest lack of faith that God will work things for good.
Most easily angered at being cooped up with kids.
Most effective at making your spouse feel like a failure with your rude comments.
Most impressive at hiding your racist prejudices with defensive words on Facebook.
Can I show you what Paul wrote about himself? He wrote, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16)
“Worst of sinners.”
Not that we should compare sinfulness, but if you challenged Paul for the big blue 1st place ribbon for most sinful…
He thinks he’d win.
Think about it:
Paul didn’t just not believe in Jesus.
He hunted down people who believed in Jesus, threatened to kill them, and threw them in prison.
His life goal was to rid the earth of the Gospel that brings people to heaven.
What might you imagine would happen when Paul met face to face with the death-defeating, demon-destroying, hell-fire-wielding, Jesus that he was persecuting?
Not what happened.
Because what happened was unexpected.
Jesus gently redirected Paul.
Jesus graciously sent Ananias to speak to him.
Jesus washed him from sin.
Jesus forgave him.
Jesus promised him a place in heaven.
The witness of Jesus changed Paul’s eternal fate.
From the eternal hellfire that an enemy of God deserves to the incredible gift of eternal life.
Dear friend, the witness of Jesus brings the same message for you.
In Jesus, you are forgiven.
No matter how much sinful junk you accumulated over your lifetime…
…in Jesus you are forgiven.
From the first of sinners to the worst of sinners and every sinner in between…
In Jesus you are forgiven.
(2) The Witness of Jesus Changes Your WITNESS
As a Pharisee, Paul’s witness had simply been:
Destroying Jesus’ message? Good.
In fact, he believed it so deeply that he dedicated his life to destroying the witness of the Gospel.
When he visually witnessed the Risen Savior?
His verbal witness changed.
From “Jesus is dead,” to “Jesus is alive.”
From “Jesus is bad,” to “Jesus is good.”
From “Jesus is not the way to eternal life,” to “Jesus is the only way to eternal life.”
From “Look at what an amazing person I am, God ought to love me,” to “Look at what a wretched man I am, God ought to hate me. But he didn’t and he doesn’t, because of Jesus.”
Jesus changes the witness for us too.
There’s a newer feature on Social media called “Stories.”
On “story” you can build your own brand.
You can do so without having to deal with comments of “haters.”
You can use your story to show yourself doing a good deed.
You can use your story to show yourself being a good mask wearer.
You can use your story to show yourself doing an impressive job teaching your kids.
But do you know what I’ve noticed?
No one ever uses their story to show their sin.
Here’s a photo of me yelling at my kids.
Here’s a graphic of something racist I once said.
Here’s me cheating on my wife.
No one wants sin to be part of their story.
But since we can’t get rid of sin, we just distract from it.
There’s this underlying tone on social media I must showcase the good that I do so that it will distract from the narrative that I might not be that great of a person.
But Jesus changes that story.
No longer is the story about how impressive you are.
Nor is the story about how unimpressive you are.
The story is about how impressive Jesus is.
About how he loved you.
About how he saved you.
About how he made you a part of his family.
About how you will be with him in heaven.
The story is that in Jesus, you are forgiven.
(3) The Witness of Jesus Changes WHAT YOU SEE
Something happened to Paul when he was blinded by Jesus.
Suddenly, his physical inability to see matched his spiritual inability to see.
But when Ananias showed up, he gave Paul his physical sight and spiritual sight.
A spiritual sight that changed what Paul saw.
For example, when you look at this account in Acts 21, what do you see?
…an angry mob?
…a violent crowd?
…Paul being beaten within an inch of his life?
That’s what I see too.
He didn’t see that.
He saw an opportunity.
An opportunity for a witness.
Jesus changes what we see.
Instead of seeing a never-ending pandemic, Jesus helps us see opportunity to tell others about how Jesus promises an end to all pandemics in heaven.
Instead of seeing insurmountable racial tensions, Jesus helps us see opportunity to tell our black friends that their lives do matter. They matter so much that Jesus died for them!
Instead of seeing tension in my own family, Jesus helps us see an opportunity to ease that tension with the Gospel.
Friends, may Jesus, who changed our eternal fate, empower us to witness for him even during unexpected opportunities. Amen.