Date: 22 October 2023
Speaker: Ps Daniel Tan
Sermon Text: Acts 24:1-27
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Blessed Sunday to everyone. How has you week been? Have you seen God’s providential hand at work these past 6 days?
I have and it’s found in the daily news from the middle east. News that has been filled with details of the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
News that has contained the challenge faced by visitors to Israel trying to find flights out of Israel.
On 15 Oct, CNA reported that 5 Singaporeans were able to leave Israel via the courtesy of the South Korean military.
If the conflict had erupted not on 7 Oct but a month and a half later, 45 of us from Hebron, Carmel, Grace and Hermon would have firsthand experience of this conflict.
Now some are turning to consider visiting Turkey and Greece, cities that you and I would be familiar with since we have been going through the Book of Acts.
Cities such as Ephesus, Philippi and Corinth that Paul visited in his 3 missionary journeys.
May I share an overview of Acts to help us see where we are currently.
Using Acts 1:8 as the guide, we see that Acts 1 and 2 records for us Pentecost and Apostle Peter’s sermon and the baptism of 3000 souls in Jerusalem.
In Acts 3 to 7, we remember Peter and John being questioned before the Jewish Council for preaching in the name of Jesus and the martyrdom of Stephen.
In Acts 8 to 12, Luke shares about Philip’s evangelism to Samaria, the Ethiopian Eunuch and we have the significant conversion of Apostle Paul on the road to Damacus.
Here too is recorded the breakthrough of the Gospel to the Gentiles through Peter’s interaction with the Centurion Cornelius.
Then in Acts 13 to 22, we have Paul’s three missionary journeys into Asia Minor and to Greece.
Finally, last week we read that God told Paul, take courage, as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome. The very heart of the empire.
From Acts 22 onwards, Paul, we see, is no longer a freeman. He will be under Roman guard all the way to his house arrest in Rome.
So over the past 2 sermons, we have begun our journey with Paul, to Rome.
Today’s text situates Paul in Caesarea.
Paul had been brought there by the Roman commander for safe custody after the assassination plot of him had been discovered by Paul’s nephew.
If there is one thing that stands out in the spread of the Gospel according to Acts 1:8 is that the success of the Gospel witness is accompanied with much persecution.
It seems they go hand in hand.
And Ps Luwin has already reminded us last Sunday, living for Jesus is not going to be a smooth journey. It will be fraught with challenges.
Last week, we saw how we can proclaim the Gospel before persecuting powers.
May I offer for our consideration that this morning, we can learn from Acts 24 that to Live for Jesus is to be competent in our defence of the Gospel and to be credible in our testimony for Christ.
Competent in our defence of the Gospel
Acts 24 is Paul’s first official trial before the Roman rulers. A few days earlier, Paul had been brought before the Jewish Council in Jerusalem.
No guilty verdict was pronounced as the council could not agree. The Pharisees sided with Paul and said, “we find nothing wrong with this man”.
The fighting between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was so intense that the Roman commander was afraid that Paul was going to be torn to pieces by them.
This intensity of opposition to Paul continues in their pursuit of Paul all the way to Caesarea. Now the journey on foot to cover this 100 km from Jerusalem to Caesarea would take about 4 days.
Then it would take at least 1 day to arrange for Governor Felix to hear the case.
It meant that they left the moment Paul arrived at Caesarea. Mind you, Paul left in secret and under the cover of night. What intelligence these Jewish leaders had.
Not only were they in hot pursuit, this time, they brought along a trained lawyer Tertullus. They spared no expense, it was going to be a formal trial in a Roman court, so they hired a lawyer trained in Roman law.
Researchers have found that when they compare the speeches of Tertullus and Paul with official protocols of actual court proceedings of that period, their arguments were very much based on how things were done then.
According to commentators, there were 4 parts that was recommended for lawyers to present and defend their cases:
Firstly, there was the commendation of the audience. Both Tertullus and Paul addressed Felix and commended him in the areas that would persuade Felix to rule in their favour.
Tertullus told Felix that they had enjoyed peace during his rule. This thus makes Paul’s alleged action of stirring up riots an affront to what Felix is trying to achieve.
Paul on the other hand reminded Felix, you have been a judge over this nation for many years. It means you know the customs of the Jewish faith. So, you can verify that what I’ve done in Jerusalem was only that of a pious Jew.
The next section is that of Narratio, where they both state the facts of the case.
Do note that there is no Acts 24:7 in the ESV. This verse is found in the some of the original manuscripts but not in all and not found in the oldest manuscript.
The decision to omit it, I understand is because it is not in all the originals and deemed a later addition by a scribe to add more details to the charges.
Paul counters the charges of sedition by saying he was not disputing nor stirring up any trouble in the temple. Moreover, they cannot prove their case.
Finally, the conclusion. Paul defends himself by showing how he took great pains to have a clear conscience towards God and man, how the original accusers, the Jews of Asia are nowhere to be found.
And with that, Paul turns the case on its head.
Tertullus was trying to use the crime of sedition to convict Paul. That was punishable by execution in the Roman courts.
Paul, instead with his final word reverted it back to that of a religious and theological dispute – “It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day”.
So, if it was a theological dispute, it will not concern Governor Felix.
Remember Felix had already received the letter from Commander Lysias who wrote:
Acts 23:29 I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.
The Jews had to engage a professional lawyer to present their case, Luke records shows us that Paul was able to match up to Tertullus.
He had the competence to defend the Gospel.
I submit that God enabled all of Paul’s experience in the past to be useful for his defence - the fact that he was a Pharisee, educated under Gamaliel, knew Greek and was born in Tarsus, a significant city, and a Roman Citizen.
All this was brought to bear on the trial. Paul is seen being comfortable and competent to defend the Gospel in Jerusalem as well as in the Roman courts.
What does that mean for us today?
Not all of us would be put in such a situation as Paul to defend the faith in the courts of law, but we know that some of us will.
If you are in health care, a lawyer or in law enforcement, God may give you the opportunity to be in the ethics committee of your profession. In such situations, may God empower you to bring your faith to bear in the committee deliberations.
If you are in the teaching profession or in social work, there too, in the formulation of policies for the younger generation and the more vulnerable, I’m sure there are plenty of opportunities to view them through biblical lenses.
All of us, I’m sure will find ourselves having to justify our faith to our loved ones at one time or another. Is it not then our privilege to exercise our competency in those moments?
Whatever our sphere of influence and our current competencies, I’m observing that our abilities to defend the Gospel is getting more complex.
Let me share an example of a recent ongoing case that I read in The Gospel Coalition website on 5 Sept 2023.
A trial in Finland recently concluded before the Helsinki Court of Appeal where Päivi Räsänen, a former government minister, stood accused of “hate speech” on account of three expressions of her Christian faith.
The charges were based on her tweet, a 2004 church pamphlet, and a 2019 radio interview. The state prosecutor made the case to criminalize “insulting” Christian speech.
In 2019, Räsänen criticized Finland’s largest church body’s announcement about becoming an official partner of Helsinki Pride 2019. She asked, “How can the church’s doctrinal foundation, the Bible, be compatible with the lifting up of shame and sin as a subject of pride?” In the tweet, she included an image of Romans 1:24–27
This tweet led to a lengthy police investigation and her being charged for “agitation against a minority group,”
The prosecutor commented in her opening statement that “the authors of the Bible are not indicted” today. She continued, “You can cite the Bible, but it is Räsänen’s interpretation and opinion about the Bible verses that are criminal.”
“If you put all the statements together, it is clear that they are derogatory towards homosexuals. Condemning homosexual acts condemns homosexuals as human beings,” the prosecutor added.
Räsänen’s lawyer, responded that his client “never said that homosexuals are inferior to heterosexuals. This is going in the direction of lying. She said none of this.”
It is now known as the Finnish Bible Trial. It is a test of the limits of free speech and religious freedom in Finland. The outcome of the trial could have implications for Christians and other religious minorities in Finland and beyond.
The trial is also a reminder of the importance of protecting free speech and religious freedom within international law.
She was originally acquitted in the Helsinki District Court in March 2022, with a unanimous verdict that ruled she acted within the limits of the law in her expression of her religious convictions about homosexuality. However, that ruling wasn’t final and was appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The trial concluded on September 1, and the court is expected to deliver a verdict by November 30.
Singapore, many say is 10 to 15 years behind the West. Not sure if that is true anymore, but it will increasingly be more challenging to be competent in defending the faith.
What then are the resources that God has given us?
Firstly, and most importantly, He has preserved His Word for us today. Let’s help one another accurately understand and apply it.
God has provided us servants like Ps Luwin and the Elders to be bible equippers.
Secondly, God has provided websites like The Gospel Coalition, Crossway and locally Salt & Light and Ethos. They engage in public theology. Helping to address current issues with biblical lenses.
Let’s make use of them to sharpen our understanding on how the faith can be defended amidst complex issues.
Finally, prayer. Be in the spirit of total dependence upon God. May these 2 verses be our comfort:
Jas 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
Lk 12:11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
Church, there is a need for us to emulate Paul. Gospel Living means becoming competent in the defence of the Gospel. May our love for Jesus keep us striving for improvement.
And the same time, Gospel Living also means giving our prayer support to the theologians whom God raises up.
Those who battle in the forefront of issues confronting the church and society.
Credible in our testimony for Christ
A person who defends the Gospel is usually known as an Apologist.
Famous ones are like Lee Strobel, C.S Lewis, Tim Keller and Norm Geisler. I’m sure many of us have been blessed by them.
If you haven’t read any of these books yet, may I confirm that they would be a great investment of your time.
Some in the past, may have include this man - Ravi Kumar Zacharias. He founded Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM).
He was involved in Christian apologetics for a period spanning more than forty years, authoring more than thirty books.
Ravi died of cancer in 2020.
Multiple sources have posthumously accused him of serious sexual misconduct. In February 2021, the law firm hired by RZIM to look into these allegations, confirmed the integrity of those allegations.
As a result, RZIM issued an apology and subsequently announced that it would undergo a name change and remove all material related to Zacharias.
Ravi’s moral failure left a bitter taste in the mouth for many. His credibility as an apologist has been tarnished by his moral failure.
The sad fact however is that his failure is not the first and it will not be the last.
But what we have in today’s passage is Paul’s exhortation that we should strive to be credible in our testimony for Christ.
Let’s not strive to be the negative example of what a Christian ought not to be. Let’s instead live out Mt 5:16
Mt 5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
In today’s text, Luke shows us how Paul sought to be credible with his testimony for Christ:
Acts 24:11 You can verify that it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem, 12 and they did not find me disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd, either in the temple or in the synagogues or in the city. 13 Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me. 14 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, 15 having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. 16 So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.
Paul went to Jerusalem to worship, not to cause trouble. We know he went to deliver the collection from the Gentile churches, he had purified himself ritually and had also paid the vows for the 4 men.
I’m sure his conduct as a pious Jew would be evident to all. He continued to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He believed everything that is laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets.
He belonged to the Way, meaning that Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah is the true direction of the Old Testament and the fulfilment of all of God’s promises to Israel.
Thus, he is no deviant of the Jewish faith. Instead, it is precisely in Christ Jesus that there is hope in God for there will be a judgement day in the future for all man.
So, woe to the person who stands before God without the covering of the blood of Jesus.
Paul was attesting to his credibility. Everything I say and everything I do is consistent with my belief and profession.
And with this credibility, Paul challenged Felix as they spoke privately.
Acts 24:24 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. 25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”
Luke says, Felix heard Paul speak about faith in Christ Jesus. The emphasis of ‘Christ’ before ‘Jesus’ is that we are not speaking about Jesus from Nazareth but Jesus the Messiah. Jesus who is Lord and Saviour.
The implication is that when you become a believer, there is a transformation that happens. You are no longer the captain of your ship, Jesus is now your Master and Lord.
Felix is with his wife Drusilla. Now Drusilla is the daughter of King Agrippa I. He is the Herod of Acts 12:1 who persecuted the church.
Now Felix and Drusilla are in an adulterous relationship. It was Felix who lured Drusilla away from her first husband.
And so, it is very telling that in Paul’s Gospel presentation, he touches on righteousness, self-control and judgement.
If Jesus is the Christ, then there are implications towards how Christians should behave.
Remember Paul said, I take pains, I take lots of effort and trouble to have a clear conscience towards God and man.
Man can see the manner of our behaviour. God sees our motives and our attitudes.
If Felix as Luke records had a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, he would be familiar with what Jesus said about the day of judgement:
Mt 12:36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
In the context of Matthew 12, Jesus says a good tree will bear good fruit. The credibility of our lives is the fruit of God’s grace working in us.
Felix is thus rightfully alarm, but he chooses not to heed the Spirit’s prompting. Instead, he does what many who reject the Gospel do.
Firstly, he will procrastinate. He sent Paul away.
If you are yet a believer today, today is the appointed time, tomorrow may not arrive.
Secondly, he will attempt to see if he can benefit from the Gospel materially. He wanted to obtain a bribe from Paul.
If you are yet a believer today, know that Jesus is your true and eternal treasure.
Finally, he gave in to social pressure. He wanted the favour of the Jews, so kept Paul an innocent man in prison.
If you are yet a believer today - you do you!
Your eternity is at stake. Seal it in King Jesus and invite your loved ones too.
Church, when we emulate Paul, we are living for Jesus.
It means we take pains to have a clear conscience towards both God and man. It means we seek to live credibly in our testimony for Jesus.
I started with my own reflection on how the conflict in Israel had personally affect me.
The strip in Gaza besides being surrounded by Israel also borders the country of Egypt. In Egypt’s very long history, they once had an ‘Israeli’ Prime Minister.
His name was Joseph. His story is found in the book of Genesis.
Like Paul, Joseph experienced tremendous misunderstandings.
His older brothers were jealous of him and so when Joseph was a tender age of 17, they sold him to merchants who carried him to Egypt.
And when Joseph got to Egypt, he was sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
Now Joseph was blessed by God with good looks and great organizational capabilities. Potiphar’s wife took a liking to him and wanted him sexually.
Joseph refused saying it will break Potiphar’s trust and also sin against God.
But for that he was maligned by Potiphar’s wife and sent to prison.
In jail, Joseph met the king’s cupbearer and God gave Joseph the ability to interpret the cupbearer’s dream.
Joseph told the cupbearer, you will be restored to your position and do remember me when that happens.
The cupbearer only remembered after 2 long years.
Then, because Joseph was able to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh, he was able to help Egypt. Joseph prepared the land during the 7 years of plenty for the 7 years of famine to come.
Joseph was 30 years old when he became Prime Minister.
Now not only did Egypt experienced a great famine, but also Canaan where Joseph’s family lived. So, the brothers had to go down to Egypt to buy grain.
There, they were united with Joseph and this is what Joseph told them:
Gen 45:4 And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life….7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God.
God preserved the people of Israel through the terrible journey that Joseph experienced. Through Joseph and his brothers, came the 12 tribes of Israel and from the tribe of Judah came our Lord Jesus Christ.
Though under much social pressure, Joseph stood tall and credible in his testimony both before man and God.
Joseph saw his life as lived under the sovereignty of God and he determined to live faithfully in whatever circumstances God permitted.
May the lives of Joseph and Paul who both lived for Jesus, encourage us to similarly strive to do the same.