Date: 15 October 2023
Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong
Sermon Text: Acts 22:22 – 23:35
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It may seem a distant reality for us in Singapore, but being dragged before judges and authorities on account of our faith in Christ is a real and present danger for so many Christians around the world – testimonies of religious persecution by the powers that be abound across the globe today.
Indeed, for as long as Christ has been proclaimed, Christians have been persecuted. In the course of Church history, proclamation and persecution have often gone hand in hand.
Not that it is something strange, mind you. The Lord Jesus made clear to his followers what we can expect to experience in this world, fallen and hostile towards God.
In Luke 21, Jesus told his disciples.
12 they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness.
16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.
This was the experience of St Polycarp of Syrma. Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John, which meant that he learnt Christ from those who have walked with him in the flesh.
Together with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Syrma is regarded as one of the three chief apostolic fathers of the church.
Ignatius once wrote to Polycarp, saying, “This age is in need of you if it is to reach God, just as pilots need winds, and as a storm-tossed sailor needs a port.”
That is some high regard.
At the age of 86, Polycarp died as a martyr of the faith. He was reportedly burned at the stake, but when the flames did him no harm, they stabbed him, and his blood gushed forth and quenched the fire before he died.
I suspect there was some embellishment somewhere in that report. But he died a martyr at the stake at the hands of Rome, that much is clear.
Now Polycarp was 86 when they arrested him, already one foot in the kingdom, so to speak. And he had a reputation of good works. In fact, when the soldiers came knocking, Polycarp invited them in and prepared them a meal, after which he prayed for two hours, interceding for the church.
Now, the proconsul offered him a way to escape the stake. He said that Polycarp just had to do two things, “curse Jesus and offer incense to the Roman emperor”, and he will be set free.
Polycarp famously replied, “Eighty-six years have I served Jesus, and he never did me any injury: how then can I now blaspheme my Savior and my King?”
See, Polycarp could have chosen to live, but he didn’t. Is it the case that faithful Christians should bravely and willingly embrace all sorts persecution for the sake of Christ? Should we not try to avail ourselves of legal defense ourselves or to lodge protests against unjust treatment? Is it unChristian to try to extricate ourselves from the persecution if we can?
What we will see, from our passage today is that the goal as a disciple is not so much to die for Christ as it is to live for him. If living for him lands us to the stake, so be it, but the goal is not the stake, it is Christ and his gospel for the world.
The passage today reminds that Christians, we may be called to proclaim Christ in the face of persecution by the powerful.
Let’s get into the text.
23 And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this.
25 But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?”
Wishing to quell a frenzied, violent mob, and at the same time, wanting to prevent an extra-judicial murder taking place within his jurisdiction, the tribune ordered for Paul to be rescued from the Jewish mob.
Which is well and good, but then he proceeds to command that Paul be tortured to extract information from him. Would not the first option simply be to ask? He jumped straight into what is today called “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
In order words, Lysias the commander, is not the hero in the story. He may have rescued Paul, but he only did it to save his skin.
Paul, on his part, did not stand for it. He said to the centurion, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty of a crime?”
The answer being “no”. You see, it was within the tribunes’ power to flog a non-citizen Jew without a trial. He knew Paul was a Jew from Tarsus because Paul had told him. But what he didn’t count on was that Paul was also a citizen of Rome.
Which made what he had commanded illegal. So the tribune embarks on an attempt to save his skin.
26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.”
27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.”
28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.”
He first ascertains if Paul was indeed a Roman citizen. And then he shares that he bought his citizenship for a large sum of money.
Why he volunteered this information was in order to establish who, between the two of them, was higher ranking in the social hierarchy. Okay, they were both citizens, but who was superior socially? If he was superior to Paul, then perhaps he could get away with what he did to Paul you see.
So “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” is conveying to Paul that he was a man of status and means prior to becoming a citizen of Rome, and he continues to be somebody in Rome – a tribune, no less – which meant that he would out-rank the typically immigrant turned citizen.
But Paul replies, I was born a Roman citizen. Which meant that Paul was a tier above the tribune, socially speaking. And he could therefore get into big trouble, for what he just did to Paul.
Which explains the following reaction.
29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
What we see here is Paul flexing his citizenship to demand that he is treated justly, according to the law. There is no shame in a Christian, under arrest, persecuted, demanding to be treated lawfully by the powers that be.
And we see this repeated as he stands before the council – the “high court of the Jews”.
1 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.”
2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.
All Paul said was,“Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” Basically, “I’m a good guy. And he got struck on his mouth, which was again, illegal – this time, according to Jewish law.
3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?”
So Paul once again lodged his protest against unjust treatment. “God judge you! You’re here accusing me of law-breaking, and yet you guys are breaking the law by hitting me.”
And here’s how they replied:
4 Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God's high priest?”
5 And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
Their response side-stepped Paul’s complaint entirely, and consists simply of “how dare you!”.
Now Paul’s reply was peculiar, he says “I did not know, that he was the high priest”. Now this is a tricky statement.
Even if Paul didn’t recognise Ananias, it would not have been difficult to figure out who the high priest was when the council is sitting for a formal hearing. If you entered the supreme court today during a hearing, you would see quite a few people dressed formally, a few in robes, but it would be obvious to you, who the presiding judge was.
Even in a modern society where dress codes aren’t strictly enforced, you’re more or less able to tell when you enter a meeting room, who the boss is. Even in Henderson, a newcomer can roughly guess who’s the speaker, who’s the worship leader. It’s the social cues that makes in obvious, it’s where we sit, and how we dress, it’s when we come up to the pulpit to speak. Paul knows how the Sanhedrin operates, it’s highly unlikely he couldn’t figure out who was in charge.
If this was the case, how do we interpret his statement?
I believe that Paul was speaking ironically. He’s accusing the high priest of violating the law and was, in effect, saying: “I did not think that a man who would issue an unlawful order to strike me could be the high priest.”
It’s like when Kianna first started school. I live right across the road, so sometimes I was tasked to pick her up from the school gate. And the protocol was that the teachers won’t realise the kids unless they could see that a parent was there. And Ramona will say to me, Luwin when you’re at the school, please behave like a parent, behave like an adult. You go there an behave like a clown the teachers are not going to release Kianna to you.
Paul is saying along those lines. “Oh, was he the high priest? Sorry, couldn’t tell. He certainly didn’t behave like one. Had I known, I would never have rebuked him”.
So what we see here is an entirely Christian response to injustice. It is not necessary for us to remain silent at accept mistreatment. We can protest, we can object, and we demand a fair and lawful trial.
And while we’re at it, let us not forget the reason for our persecution – the proclamation of Jesus Christ, and embrace opportunities to do so.
6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council,
“Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.”
7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided.
8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.
“It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” Paul defends himself by reminding everyone why he’s arrested – because he was preaching the risen Lord Jesus. Everyone in the Council knew what he meant, or rather, who he meant, when he mentions “the resurrection from the dead”. He has a specific resurrection in mind – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Council is made up primarily of for two sects in Judaism – the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees recognises the entire Old Testament Scriptures – the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets as authoritative. The Sadducees only recognise the Torah – the first 5 books, the books of Moses – as canon. The tricky thing is, references to a general resurrection of the righteous can only be found in the Psalms and prophetic books. You will not be able to derive a doctrine of a resurrection of God’s people from the Torah alone.
As a result, the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, but the Pharisees acknowledge that there is.
So what happens?
9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?”
We see the Pharisees undermining the trial by supporting Paul, not because they approve of Paul, but because they dislike the theology of the Sadducees more than they dislike Paul.
Was this a tactical move, to disrupt the trial by way of a “hung jury” a jury divided within itself? And therefore having no choice but to acquit Paul?
Possibly, but unlikely, because it had quite the opposite effect. Paul almost died as a result of their argument. The Tribune had to rescue him once again.
More likely, Paul was seeking to demonstrate the absurdity of the trial, where the prosecution can’t even agree on their case, and taking the opportunity, once again, to remind everyone of the one who resurrected from the grave.
When you are faced with persecution because of your proclamation, do not focus merely on the persecution. Focus on the proclamation.
And Jesus affirms this.
11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
Jesus appears to Paul the following night. He commends him and encourages him. Jesus commends Paul for testifying about him, namely, his resurrection. And he encourages by assuring him that Paul will not die at the hands of the council in Jerusalem, but will make his way to Rome, not as free man, mind you. Still under arrest, still facing trial at the hands of unjust men, but he will be kept, he will be protected, for future witness in Rome.
“so you must testify also in Rome.” If God says it, it’s as good as done.
Paul can take courage based on this sure and certain promise.
So in fulfilment of the promise, the very next day, the tribune sent word to Paul that he will be transported to Rome.
No, that’s not what we see. Here’s how the story continues.
12 When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. 14 They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. 15 Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”
It's the opposite. We were promised protection, weren’t we? But the very next line we read about a plot. An assassination plot no less. Notice the way it is described – in the starkest of terms, in the gravest of tones.
What’s the plot, what’s the plan? “Kill Paul, kill Paul, kill Paul.” Three times, in case we didn’t get the point.
And how determined were they do to it? The forty or so men bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. It’s do or die for these men. Either Paul perishes, or they do.
Who is involved? The Jews, more than forty men, the chief priests, the elders, the council. Basically everyone in power in Jewish society is in cahoots in this conspiracy against Paul, who was by himself.
Except, he was not by himself. Just last night, the Lord stood by him.
And after reading about the plot against Paul, we read, in the very next verse,
16 Now the son of Paul's sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul.
Coincidence? The reader of the bible would know better than to think that. The Lord who promised that Paul be protected and arrive in Rome is the Lord who sovereignly places Paul’s nephew within earshot of the plot, so that Paul would be informed, and so too the tribune.
19 The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. 21 But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.”
What does this episode teach us? It shows us that God’s providential care and protect often comes to his people by way of other people. When God wants to provide for us, he doesn’t appear on earth and hand us a cheque, he uses the generosity of his people to meet our needs. When he wishes to protect Paul, he uses Paul’s nephew to thwart the plan of Paul’s assassins.
So what does it mean for us? It means that God has placed us in our faith community, in the family of Mt Hermon, purposefully. One of those purpose is that we might be the means by which he extends his care, his love, his provision and protection of one another. And that if you distance yourself from the community of God’s people, you are shutting yourself out from a channel of blessing, from a means of grace by God cares for you.
It also means this: that we must feel responsibility to care, to love, to provide and to protect one another in this family. We are not here by accident, there are no accidents with God. We are here to worship God, by serving one another, encouraging one another, protecting one another.
And together, we can persevere in proclamation, knowing that the promises of God will be fulfilled, because he’s sovereign, and because he’s given us one another – Gospel partners for Gospel work, until he comes again.
To recap, three things we can draw from our text today.
In the face of persecution, Christians:
Protest against injustice
Persevere in the promises of God with the people of God.
And Lysias, the Tribunes letter to Felix recaps all three elements.
25 And he wrote a letter to this effect:
26 “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings.
27 This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. 28 And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. 29 I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. 30 And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.”
Three things we see in the letter all pertinent to our application.
Lysias learnt that Paul was a Roman citizen, because Paul protested his mistreatment at the hands of Lysias.
Lysias found that Paul was being accused about question of Jewish law, because Paul proclaimed the Resurrection of the dead.
And it was disclosed to Lysias that there would be a plot against Paul, because God promised that Paul will be preserved till his arrival in Rome, and his nephew informed Lysias of the plot.
So then, in the face of powerful persecution, let us protest in accordance with the law, let proclaim our hope in the resurrection of Christ, and let us persevere with the promise that he never leave us nor forsake us, and he is present with us, not least in his body here on earth, the church.