An Unsafe Gospel, a Good God

This is a sermon I was privileged to share with Sunset Bible Church. I’m going to try to resurrect things here, and one thing will be to post sermons. This may (or may not) be more active down in Mexico where every sermon in our church is new :). I was privileged to finish the sermon series on Acts that the pastors were preaching, so the sermon covers Acts 21-28. A big chunk, to be sure, but we can learn from Scripture in large portions as well as in small. (It doesn’t lose the property of inspiration when you read lots of it!) 

Spoiler alert: If you’re from FBUP, don’t read this until AFTER July 5th!

We live in a world that feels increasingly out of control. Some example you might pick  are Islam and Islamic terrorism, especially with Isis wreaking havoc in the Middle East. Or, there’s economic uncertainty around the world, in Europe, Japan, and (always) in the US. Russia is playing at war in eastern Europe, China is looming in the west.  For those of us who are conservative Christians we see the rise of gay marriage and trans-gender issues. To make it all worse … the specter of a presidential election is on the horizon.

And I don’t even know what your life is like right now. You may be sitting here with a family crisis, or work stress or something that I can never know. Life is something we do not control. Today as we finish the book of Acts, we will see the same thing. A man caught in a world out of his control. Yet…he remains on mission. Paul does not stop proclaiming the Gospel. So I invite you to let go of the illusion of control in your life for a few minutes and concentrate your attention on Acts 21-28.

As you turn to Acts 21, I want to set the idea for this section of Scripture.

What’s going on? Three ideas

The purpose of Luke-Acts:

  • “…it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”Luke 1:3-4 (All Scripture here is from the ESV)
  • “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God…. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:1-3; 8

Luke is writing so his readers are both informed and confirmed in their faith. Christianity more than any other religion is based on historical facts and those point us to faith in a Savior who lived, was crucified and rose. Information is important to our faith. Yet confirmation, the grounding of lives lived out in that information is equally important. So Acts is that information AND confirmation of our mission as believers in Jesus Christ.

Roman Apology (defense): Explanation of the faith for curious Romans.

Luke consistently portrays Roman authority and the agents of the Empire in a positive light. He’s not a suckup, the authorities in his portrayal, have foibles, but he notes their fairness, noble qualities, and, especially, a lack of official condemnation of Christians or Christianity.  On the other hand, he portrays Paul, his main character, as a law-abiding Roman citizen who respects and even helps the Roman authorities in their duties.  I mention this because it is especially important as we look at the end of Acts, which is almost entirely composed of Paul’s interactions with the Roman Imperial authorities.

The Gospel Advances.

And in light of these interactions, the overriding idea of his book is that the Gospel witness advances and goes forth even in the most daunting of circumstances. What to us looks like a semi-tragedy, Paul’s arrest, imprisonment, and deportation to Rome, in no way stops the advancement of Paul’s Gospel witness. Maybe you’ve read all the warnings Paul received going to Jerusalem, and like every great story, no matter how many times you read it or watch it, when you get to that point you want to say, “No! Don’t go there! Don’t do that!” But Paul does, every time, and every time…he goes to jail.

But in that is our key point: God will advance His Gospel, no matter the hardships arrayed against it. In fact, I would perhaps argue that the whole of Acts 21-28 is simply Luke’s demonstration of Jesus statement in Matthew’s Gospel: “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18)God is building His church and there is no power on earth or in the heavenlies that can stop Him. And THAT is what we need to go home with today. God will advance His Gospel, no matter the hardships arrayed against it.

As missionaries in Mexico, we continually are asked about security and safety, which is fine (I’m tempted to take a lot more credit than I should for being in a dangerous place: “Yeah, it’s really dangerous there!”). The reality is that your perception of the dangers in Mexico doesn’t necessarily match reality. But I think back 12.5 years, when our oldest son was only 1 week old, and at a Christmas party a co-worker’s wife insisted that we could never take him there because it was too dangerous. In that conversation, I had to learn to communicate the idea that the best, the safest place for us to be is where God sends us.

There are no exceptions to that. We as Americans live in a society that is built upon the illusion of control. We think with just a few more regulations or precautions or laws or police or health care workers or money we can prevent tragedies or even hardships in life. That’s a lie. We have so little control over our lives. Let me be very personal. YOU have so very little control over your life. Acts 21-28 stands as a challenge to us control-freak American Christians: more important than control and safety in my life is the fact that God is spreading forth His Gospel no matter what the circumstances, what the challenges, what the laws and obstacles. He is in control and His Gospel will go forth. God will advance His Gospel, no matter the hardships arrayed against it. “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” How does Acts 21-28 show this?

6 Cycles of Danger-Protection-Testimony

As I read through Acts 21-28, I see 6 cycles of danger-protection-testimony, as Paul runs into a very real threat (Danger), sometimes to his very life, but then is protected (Protection), usually by agents of the Roman Empire, and then uses the circumstances to give testimony to the Gospel (Testimony).  Time will certainly not allow us to examine any of these in detail, but let me just tell you what they are, and then make a couple observations…

Cycle 1. Paul in the Temple: Acts 21:16-22:22

Danger: Riot at the Temple (Acts 21:27-31a)

The Jews think Paul brought a Gentile into the “Jew Only” section of the Temple, a capital offence.  “It’s just a simple misunderstanding” See what happens when you make assumptions!

Protection: Paul protected—arrest at Temple (Acts 21:31b-40)

The irony is that the Romans a) arrest the innocent guy and b) in so doing save his life.

Testimony: Paul’s Temple defense (Acts 22:1-22)

In 5 out of these 6 cycles, Paul shares the Gospel, usually in the form of his own story. Every time there’s a breaking point at which Paul’s audience objects to what Paul says and breaks off his talk. Here, the Breaking Point is Paul’s commission to the Gentile. His hearers seem to accept his testimony, a light and voice from heaven. They seem even to deal with Jesus as Lord. But the idea of Paul being sent to the Gentiles? That’s going too far now!

Cycle 2. Paul before the Sanhedrin: Acts 22:22-23:10

Danger: Riot at the Temple (Acts 22:22-23)

The people riot all over again…but…

Protection: Paul protected—interrogated in the barracks (Acts 22:24-29)

Here’s irony again: Paul’s Roman citizenship saves him from the Romans…Roman due process was pretty solid, if you were a Roman citizen.

Testimony: Paul’s Sanhedrin defense (Acts 22:30-23:10)

Ananias was a genuine bad guy and this resurrection debate among first-century Jews is well-documented. Paul spoke the truth but also exploited known divisions in the Sanhedrin.

Breaking point: the concept of the resurrection is too much for the Sadducees and the Pharisees to agree on.

** Paul protected: God’s promise (Acts 23:11) **

“Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”  This little interlude gives the game plan for the rest of the book.

Cycle 3. Paul to Caesarea: Acts 23:12-35

Danger: plot to assassinate Paul (Acts 23:12-15)

Who was Paul? How did his nephew get this info? We have no idea of the real answers to those questions.

Protection: Paul protected—journey to Caesarea (Acts 23:16-35)

Again, the Romans are both jailers AND protectors. 70 horsmen, 200 troops. No speech from Paul this time.

Cycle 4. Paul before Felix: Acts 24:1-27

Danger: false accusations (Acts 24:1-9)

Typical lawyerese here by Turtullus. But none of it is legit.

(Protection: Paul protected—Roman legal system) This is Luke’s context. The Roman legal system again provides protection for Paul.

Testimony: Paul’s Felix defense (Acts 24:10-27)

A straight up denial should have been sufficient BUT for…the breaking point…

Breaking point: Felix’s corruption & conviction of sin for Felix. Drusila was his third wife and she’d left her husband to be with him…so Paul speaking of sin, righteousness and judgment to come was uncomfortable for the couple. Paul never backed down, did he?

Cycle 5. Paul before Festus/Agripa: Acts 25:1-26:32

Danger: Jewish machinations (Acts 25:1-9)

Rinse, repeat from chapter 24, but with a naïve or malicious Festus, depending on your cynicism.

Protection: Paul protected—Roman legal customs (Acts 25:10-12)

Paul had escaped assassination once, had no need or desire to go back to Jerusalem, the lions’ den, so to speak.

Testimony: Paul’s Agrippa defense (Acts 25:13-26:32)

Here Paul makes a brilliant appeal to a decent man. This is maybe Paul’s greatest sermon in this section.

Breaking point: resurrection & a call to believe. A pagan like Festus had no framework for resurrection even to make sense, and Agrippa, between the Roman and Jewish world had too much to lose.

Cycle 6. Paul to Rome: Acts 27:1-28:31

Danger: Storm at sea (Acts 27:1-321)

There has been so much exploration and investigation of this voyage.

Protection: Paul protected—safety in shipwreck (Acts 27:33-28:15)

God’s promise, Paul’s certainty. God is keeping his promise to Paul.

Testimony: Paul’s Jewish defense (Acts 28:16-31)

A call to the Scriptures. Paul’s challenge is the Scripture and yet…his people hesitate. That’s the Breaking point: they are a stiff-necked people described in the Scriptures themselves.

Who’s in control?

  • The God of history. These things really happened. These were real people, breathing oxygen like you are today. I could take up oodles of time showing photos and telling stories about the characters in these stories, but I don’t have time. I would do this not to convince you of the Bible’s trustworthiness, but to remind you that while we can see these stories from the vantage point of 2000 years, the people in them could not. Paul had only the faintest of ideas how his story would end while he was getting pummeled in the Temple courts. What did his nephew risk to warn of the plot against him? The men aboard that ship had to take a landlubber’s word from God that they would survive. Acts 21-28 is an account of real people, real decisions to trust God in real time. That should be comforting to us.
  • The God of irony. The Roman Empire was only interested, by and large, in maintaining its power and subduing opposition. And yet God used the values and norms of the Empire to preserve His messenger, and carry Him into high places with the Gospel. God is the very best at using human power and strength arrayed in opposition to Him…to achieve His own ends. (Psalm 2 is a celebration of this.)
  • The God of victory. How does the book end? “28 Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” 30 He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Acts ends basically saying that God is building His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail. God will advance His Gospel, no matter the hardships arrayed against it. God wins!

Maybe some of us are astute cultural readers and see things as pretty grim. And, yeah, maybe they are. But we are not serving a God who will be stymied by America’s cultural lunacy. You are a witness to the Gospel of God here in UP, in Lakewood, Tacoma, wherever you study or work or play. We have been blessed to do that in Puebla, Mexico.  I have a sister who leaves with her family in less than a month to serve in Niger, where in January, they burned down churches across that country.  But God has promised that our labor will not be in vain, whatever our danger, we can be sure of protection and be bold with our testimony. He is in control. After the church burning in Niger, my brother-in-law sent an email from a colleague relating the courage of pastors and believers who continue to witness, who continue to see people there come to Christ. God will advance His Gospel, no matter the hardships arrayed against it. This is true there, and this is true here. God is building his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against His work. Keep building with Him here as we do in Puebla.


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