Acts 23 is very interesting because we get to see the simultaneous use of the natural and the supernatural in advancing the plan of God. First, after testifying before the Jewish leaders, Paul actually had a supernatural experience with Jesus Christ.
Act 23:11 And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.
After that, there was a Jewish plot to kill Paul by a band of 40 men who had sworn to not eat or drink until they had assassinated their target.
Act 23:15 Now therefore ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you to morrow, as though ye would enquire something more perfectly concerning him: and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him.
Act 23:16 And when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul.
In the first case, we see the supernatural providing encouragement for Paul. The text does not say if he was having doubts or any type of questions at this point, but even if he was not, I am sure he appreciated the supernatural encouragement.
In the second case, God used natural situations helped Paul remain safe. His nephew happened to hear what was going on and told Paul who told the centurions. Without that information, perhaps Paul would have been assassinated at that point.
The important part here is the plan of God was moving forward. God knew Paul needed to go to Rome. Therefore, he provided Paul with the encouragement to continue doing what he was doing. He simultaneously made sure that Paul was not killed before concluding that mission. God knew what was coming, and it was no surprise. However, it is a great privilege to be approximately to be 2000 years into the future and to have the ability to look back at how God was operating.
Paul must’ve been an interesting man. In Acts 22, the story ends with him explaining to the Roman centurion that he was indeed a Roman citizen and therefore could not punished until he was legally condemned. Paul could have said that at the beginning of the conversation. He could have avoided this entirely unpleasant episode, but he did not for some reason. Perhaps he did not because it gave him an opportunity to witness. However, it did not end there for his opportunities.
Act 22:30 On the morrow, because he would have known the certainty wherefore he was accused of the Jews, he loosed him from his bands, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down, and set him before them.
Beyond this one opportunity, he was now going to have an opportunity to speak before a Council to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them. I don’t know about you, but when I think about witnessing opportunities, I generally don’t think about beginning them coming by being arrested.
That is part of what made Paul a remarkable missionary. He did not pass up any chance he got. Particularly in this situation, he had the right to remain silent. Although that was not a right in ancient Rome like it is today, nobody was pressuring him. He could have been arrested, brought to the Roman castle, quietly went inside, explained he was a Roman citizen and then set free. It doesn’t seem that the Romans were that upset about Paul originally. However, he recognized that on the stairway, he had a chance to speak to the people. Then, he ended up going before the Council because he had gone down this path of speaking.
How would be react in this situation? I would like to say that I would be so attentive to potential opportunities that I would take advantage of them in the way that Paul obviously did. God does put us in situations where we can be utilized, and we need to take advantage of those.
In Acts 21, Paul knew what he was getting into.
Act 21:11 And when he was come unto us, he took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.
Act 21:12 And when we heard these things, both we, and they of that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem.
Act 21:13 Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.
Act 21:14 And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done.
Paul knew that he was going to be arrested. He trusted the testimony of Agabus who brought him this prophecy. However, obviously that did not stop him even though his friends were even encouraging him to avoid that situation.
This would be a perfect situation where I think most of us would try to improve on the plan that God had. God intended for Paul to go to Jerusalem, so Paul knew that he needed to go. That is admirable. On the other hand, I think it would be very easy to justify avoiding Jerusalem at all costs. Paul could have said that his missionary work was so important, and he would not be able to do it if he was in jail, so it would seem to make sense to maybe improve on the plan that God had for him.
We need to try to avoid doing that though. We might think that we can do a better job planning out the future, but as the company pray that the end of this passage, we need to look for the will of God to be done.
Paul visited Ephesus in Acts 20 for what he knew was the last time. As a result, he had some very important things to communicate to the people that had gathered at that church.
Act 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
Act 20:29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.
Act 20:30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
Act 20:31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
Fallen humans have a tendency to take that which is good and turn it into something that is not. People were going to enter the church, a good institution, and they were going to try to make people depart away from the message of Jesus Christ. We don’t necessarily know how or what they were going to do, but Paul seems to take this type of intrusion as a very serious assault which needed to be countered.
There are plenty of good things in the world today. However, it seems like people have a way of twisting them into something that is not good. For kind of a ridiculous example, food is a good thing. However, too much of it is not healthy for anyone. It is something good that has the potential to be turned into something unhealthy.
If humans are able to abuse something even that simple, then it should not be surprising that some of them were going to try to come to mess up something that is similarly good. It strikes me as the reality of living in a fallen world. The church was instituted by Jesus Himself, and it is a great institution. However, it is comprised of imperfect humans, and it is not surprising that these imperfect people make mistakes. It does not mean that what God has established is the problem however. That is the important differentiation to make note of.
Yesterday, we talked about Apollos, and today we get to see how Paul handled believers who had been taught by Apollos in Acts 19.
Act 19:1 And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples,
Act 19:2 He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.
Act 19:3 And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism.
Act 19:4 Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
Paul pointed out again that they were going in the right direction, but they did not go far enough. Repentance was incredibly important, but there was also the necessity of a belief in Jesus Christ that came after that.
Think about society today. I don’t think you will run into anyone who would argue that we live in a perfect world. I think it is rather obvious that there is something that is wrong with the world. Some people might want to believe in the ultimate goodness of humanity, but I don’t really know that we can sustain that. It seems to make sense that the world is actually imperfect.
When faced with that reality, we can certainly be sorry about it. I think that is where repentance alone brings us to. We realize that we have messed up, and that is important. However, if we are just stuck there, then I don’t see that there is hope. The hope is a byproduct of what Jesus Christ did. Because Jesus paid the price, we can have eternal life. We need the repentance to recognize our hopelessness on our own, but we need the belief in Jesus Christ to actually understand what hope we actually have. It is a complete story as we saw yesterday.
Potential is not something that should be wasted. In Acts 18, we meet Apollos. He was a great preacher, but he only knew up until the baptism of John. As a result, he did not understand all of the things about Jesus Christ. Rather than throw him out as a lost cause, two friends of Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, taught him the rest of the story.
Act 18:24 And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus.
Act 18:25 This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John.
Act 18:26 And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.
Act 18:27 And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace:
Act 18:28 For he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publickly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ.
They could have said that it wasn’t worth the time. They could have said they were too busy to straighten this guy out and fill him in on the rest of the story. However, this husband and wife team understood that there was potential here, and they needed to help do what they could to educate.
I think about this today. Rather than writing people off as lost causes, maybe we need to look for the common ground. Maybe we need to look for areas where we can see the potential. For example, there are many people in the world today who have a strong commitment to justice. Christians believe that God is a God of justice. Therefore, maybe the better approach is to use that as an area of connection. Apollos understood the baptism of John, so I am sure that was how the conversation started, but it advanced to the point where he became a follower of Jesus Christ by understanding the entire picture. My hypothetical people understand justice, but maybe they do not have a firm reason for why they believe that other than their own opinion. Maybe that’s where the conversation needs to start.
Acts 17 has become one of the hallmark chapters for apologists everywhere. I really could point to three different things in this chapter that demonstrate Paul’s interactions. We’re going to start with only two of them however because everyone writes about Paul in Athens.
Act 17:1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:
Act 17:2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,
Act 17:3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.
Act 17:4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.
Some people believed here. We obviously do not have a hard number, but after the Jewish people created trouble and drove Paul out, he went to Berea to try again.
Act 17:10 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.
Act 17:11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
Act 17:12 Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.
Many people believed here. Again, I wish we had hard numbers to go by, but at the very least it seems to be the case that more people in Berea believed than believed in Thessalonica. However, it seems like something else happened in Berea. The people actually did their homework to find out if Paul was being honest. We don’t know the content of everything that Paul said, but this is the type of situation where it seems like they made sure that he had his Old Testament prophecies in a row. They didn’t assume right away that he was right or wrong. They went to the Scriptures and saw that the prophecies were there that Paul claimed Jesus was the fulfillment of.
I think this has tremendous application for us today. We live in a very biblically illiterate culture, and there are many misconceptions about what the Bible says. I feel like one of the best ways to do apologetics is to get people into the book itself. “Oh, you think there are contradictions that make you unable to believe in the Bible? Let’s look at some of them.” “Oh, there’s no way that Jesus could have fulfilled all of this prophecies? Let’s read them.”
There is no point in attacking or defending a straw man. In a biblically illiterate society, it helps to get people back to the text itself. It is something we can both read and both talk about. It seems that that is what happened in Berea. Paul had people who knew the text, and it seems that they were convinced.
Revenge seems to be popular. On any television drama, it seems to be the case that if someone gets hurt, they immediately look for revenge. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas were put in prison, and there was a miraculous earthquake that broke all of the chains and gave them the opportunity to escape. The prison warden also saw this, and he knew that if his prisoners escaped, he would be put to death, so he was ready to kill himself.
Act 16:28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.
Act 16:29 Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas,
Act 16:30 And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?
I imagine that Paul and Silas probably knew that the warden would be put to death if the prisoners escaped, and if they were looking for revenge, this was a perfect opportunity. The warden would have paid for it, and they would be free without having to commit the act of revenge themselves.
However, they did not. Even though they had the opportunity, they remained in prison, and the warden was so impressed that he immediately asked them what he had to do to be saved. An opportunity came around because there was no revenge taken.
Bringing this to our lives then, we are faced with choices all the time. We have the opportunity to take revenge or hurt people in all kinds of ways every day. It isn’t always revenge, but when we do have these opportunities and do actually end up hurting someone else, the opportunity for a positive witness is gone. There is another family of people in heaven today because no revenge was taken in this situation where I think many people would be happy to let the warden pay for it.
Acts 15 is a chapter that highlights conflicts in the church at Antioch. The question before Antioch was regarding how much of the Old Testament law was necessary for the Gentile Christians to keep. All of the early church leaders met in Jerusalem to talk this out, and it seems that there was some disagreement. However, Peter made a comment that seems to have brought the discussion to an end.
Act 15:8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;
Act 15:9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
Act 15:10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
Act 15:11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
It is a simple point, but it makes sense. History has proven that it was not possible for anyone to follow the entire law. That was why Jesus Christ was necessary for salvation. There is no way to earn it through adherence to a moral code. No matter how hard they tried, no one was or is perfect.
As a result, why was it necessary to put particularly the ritual law on people who did not need it for salvation? As Peter had learned earlier, dietary laws no longer applied, and this entire debate was over circumcision. The moral law still applied, but there was no need to make the Gentile people culturally Jewish. As long as they were living a life as a Christian, it was all right that they were also Greek for example.
I think about us today. The moral law still applies. You can see that through the New Testament writers as well as through Jesus Christ Himself. They reaffirmed that things like murder, stealing, adultery and all the rest were wrong. However, it is possible to be American and Christian. It is possible to be Egyptian and Christian. It is possible to be Vietnamese and Christian. It is not that we need to become culturally Jewish. We need to be Christians first obviously and display among other things the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, but we can see here in Acts the early church was both united and diverse.
Paul and Barnabas were very successful, and in Acts 14, they were actually mistaken for Jupiter and Mercury. The priest of Jupiter in Lystra even brought oxen to sacrifice under the assumption that Paul and Barnabas were simply gods who came to earth. Understandably, Paul and Barnabas were not thrilled about this. They did not want to be the centerpiece.
Act 14:15 And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein:
Act 14:16 Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.
Act 14:17 Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.
Verse 16 and verse 17 stood out to me particularly because as you can see by the hundreds of religions around the world, many nations have wandered in their own ways. However, there is something significant about the fact that God left a witness for Himself by doing good. God made it clear that there was something beyond the earth. There was someone greater who was providing for people, and even though they might not have understood everything about God as revealed through the Old Testament, they understood some concepts through what they were able to see of that witness.
You can find missionaries who talk about this type of thing even today. They go to groups of people who have never heard the Gospel before. When they share it, the people are able to draw connections. They recognize where the things that they have always recognized and perhaps identified as different gods fit into the story of Christianity. They were on the right track, but once they heard the Gospel, they understood that there was a greater picture that they did not have before.
CS Lewis pointed this out very eloquently, but it simply makes sense. Christians talk about seeing the power of God at work around them, and we know to attribute it to God. Other people who may have never heard about the Christian God before would observe the same phenomena, so they would understand to attribute it to someone, but they might not understand who at first.