Paul, his government, and where faith takes us

Paul before Agrippa

St. Paul before Agrippa / Sir James Thornhill, ca. 1710

Acts 26 records part of a conversation Paul had with Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice. Officially, those three dignitaries were the Roman governor, the King of Judea, and his wife. A man with his mind set on his circumstances (that is, on the flesh) would have conducted himself very differently than Paul did. He shows us faith in action.

For background, here’s a whirlwind look at Acts chapters 19-25. Paul collected money in Greece and decided to deliver it personally to the church in Jerusalem. A prophet in Corinth told him he would be bound in Jerusalem and all his friends begged him not to go. Bible teachers have been arguing about whether he was obedient or disobedient to God when he decided to go anyway.

Some Jews in Jerusalem saw Paul with a Gentile member of his staff and supposed that person had desecrated the temple. So they dragged Paul out of the temple and started to beat him. They only stopped when Roman soldiers came to see what happened.

Paul’s legal rights and legal standing

When the Roman soldier who arrested Paul found out he was Roman, he knew he had to treat him differently and arranged to have Paul speak before the Sannhedrin to find out what the problem was. Paul managed to get the Pharisees and Sadducees arguing with each other. Some Jews vowed that they would not eat or drink until they had killed Paul, but the Romans found out and took Paul to Caesarea, where the Roman governor Felix lived.

Felix knew that Gallio, Roman governor of Corinth had declared that proclaiming Christ was not a matter for Roman jurisdiction (Acts 18:14-16), but instead of releasing Paul and sending him away, he kept him in prison for two years, hoping to receive a nice bribe. Then a new governor named Festus took over.

When Festus visited Jerusalem, the Sannhedrin asked him to send Paul to Jerusalem. Festus was going back to Caesarea anyway and declined. He summoned Paul and asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem to answer the charges. Paul immediately appealed to Caesar. A few days later, King Herod Agrippa and his wife Bernice paid a state visit to Festus, and Festus reviewed Paul’s case with them. Agrippa wanted to hear more, so the three of them summoned Paul to appear before them.

Paul’s faith response

The title of this post promises to deal with the question, “where does faith take us?” There are a lot of ways to approach that question, but two facts are unavoidable: faith takes us to where we will have an opportunity to talk to others, and faith takes us to places that are otherwise uncomfortable and leave us wondering what happened. With that in mind, I just want to make three points.

Personal testimony is powerful

A lot of people say that they can’t witness to other people because they don’t know the Bible very well. Paul knew it backwards and forwards, but he didn’t use his Bible knowledge to witness to Festus and the others. He told his personal story of how he first encountered Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. All Christians ought to have some kind of personal story to tell that will convey how Jesus is a real person to them.

Now I do recall hearing the story of a man who had a religious experience that was so beautiful he wrote a description of it and read it to everyone he met. After a while, everyone he knew had heard it, and eventually it wound up in the attic. Then a new acquaintance came to the house, and he remembered his religious experience. He sent his grandson up to the attic, but rats had chewed on it and not a single page remained intact. The grandson came back and reported, “The rats have eaten your religious experience.”

There is a big difference between Grandpa’s experience and Paul’s. Grandpa’s was a treasured memory carefully preserved on paper. Paul’s was a life-changing event. He could have told any number of stories that happened since his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. That one was very important simply because it had led to so many others. He probably told it frequently as the beginning of a conversation and went on to tell more to anyone sufficiently interested.

That brings us to a sub point. Paul’s testimony was personal not only in the sense that he spoke of his own experience. He consciously and deliberately directed his testimony to persons, not offices or functions.

That is, if Paul had approached this meeting as if he were talking to the governor, the king, and the queen, it would have been more appropriate to prepare a legal defense. His objective in that case would have been only to gain his release from custody.

But he wasn’t talking to the governor, the king, and the queen. He was deliberately talking to Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice. His object was to introduce them to Jesus Christ. He wanted each of them to experience the same faith, grace, peace, and joy that he had known through all of his travels and tribulations.

And let’s not forget that he had experienced severe tribulation from the time the Pharisees of Damascus realized that he had “defected to the enemy” when he responded to the call of Christ. A lot of “witnessing” seems to take the form of explaining all of the problems a person had before meeting Christ and how Jesus solved all of them. That kind of witness can be powerful if it involves some kind of dramatic turning point, but for most of us, it’s just plain inauthentic.

Truthfully, most of us have at least as many troubles since meeting Christ, and perhaps more. After all, we know about our sinful nature and we have a diabolical enemy. Unless we can testify to something like instantaneous release from an addiction, our “after” picture can’t possibly make sense to unbelievers.

Flesh cannot comprehend the things of the Spirit

I have referred to the power of testimony, but nothing about Paul’s account of the Damascus road incident looks powerful, or even remotely successful at first glance. Paul testified to Felix for two years. Festus outright rejected his testimony and called him insane. Somehow, Festus ignored the fact that Paul was giving a personal testimony. When Paul mentioned Scripture, Festus declared that he had spent too much time reading the wrong kind of literature and it had rotted his brain. Plenty of people still think of Christians exactly the same way.

Agrippa had a different evasion. When Paul pointed out that he knew the scriptures, he asked if Paul thought he could persuade him to become a Christian in a short time. Paul essentially didn’t care how long it would take, but Agrippa had heard enough to be too frightened to risk any more. Plenty of other people over the last two thousand years have abruptly changed the subject rather than risk believing something new.

Jesus described the situation in the parable of the sower. Remember that the seed fell on the path, on rocky soil, among weeds, and on good ground. Any competent farmer would have prepared the soil to the best of his ability, but Jesus wasn’t really talking about farming. He was talking about seed (the word of God) and what becomes of it in the world.

I pointed out earlier that Paul did not give a Scripture lesson for a testimony on this occasion. He told a personal story. We find it written in Scripture, but in fact whenever anyone testifies about what Jesus has done in his own life, that testimony is the word of God even though it never becomes Scripture. Think of all the conversations Paul had with Felix.

We are responsible for the seed, not the soil. The power of personal testimony must not be measured in how worldly people respond to it.

Faith leads us into uncomfortable situations and realizations

The whole idea of witnessing to other people about Jesus scares many of us. For some people, the act of walking across the room to initiate a conversation is scary enough. But that’s not what I mean here.

Acting in faith often impels a Christian to do dangerous or inconvenient things. In ancient Syria, a monk named Telemachus saw a gladiator fight and declared that the thing wasn’t right. He tried to stop it, but that would have robbed the onlookers of their entertainment. So they killed him. The emperor at the time, Honorius, was Christian. When he heard of Telemachus’ personal sacrifice of faith, he outlawed gladiator fights.

The Greek word for “witness” is martyr. It gets its English meaning from what so frequently happened when ancient Christians stood up for their faith. Of course, witness can be difficult and uncomfortable even when there is no danger of martyrdom.

Consider a missionary in India that I read about who contracted tuberculosis and had to enter a sanitarium. He took a stack of tracts with him, but no one was interested. Most of the staff and patients were not even particularly sympathetic to have a “rich” American in their midst.

In the middle of one night, though, an older and sicker patient tried to get out of bed to use the toilet. He called out for help, but no one came. Nurses resented having to clean up after him and scolded him. One even slapped him. Other patients were, if you’ll pardon the pun, equally impatient. The next night, the old man struggled to get up again.

The missionary got up out of his sick bed, carried the man to the toilet, helped him clean up, carried him back to bed, and took him a cup of tea in the morning. The old man wanted a tract, and soon the stack was gone.

Did God give the missionary tuberculosis? Of course not. But he did send him to minister in a place where many infectious disease was rampant. He did send him into a situation where he faced a degree of discomfort and danger. Think about it: every one of us is in a situation where we face some degree of discomfort and danger. And every one of us is in a situation where it’s easier to sulk about our problems than it is to minister grace.

Personally relating to Paul

social justice

Helping a stranger

Perhaps most of us can more easily relate to that missionary than to Paul, but actually, both demonstrate the same spiritual truth. We can’t pick our circumstances, but we can pick how we respond. We’re likely to be in some kind of trouble or another all the time. Will we notice opportunities to minister grace to someone else even in our own discomfort?

Paul found himself in mortal danger nearly his entire career as an apostle. Correctly or incorrectly, he thought it his duty to deliver the Macedonian collection to Jerusalem personally, even though he knew he was putting himself into a danger he could have avoided. That’s the only reason why he ever met Festus in the first place.

In his first meeting with Festus, he appealed to Caesar rather than agreeing to return to Jerusalem. When Agrippa abruptly ended the meeting so he wouldn’t have to hear anything more about Jesus, he told Festus Paul could have been released if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.

Haven’t we all had the experience of going to a lot of trouble over something that turns out not to be necessary? Or maybe someone just inconveniences us for the longest time and then walks away without even pretending to apologize. Doesn’t it make you mad? The nerve of that guy! Two whole years down the tubes. That’s how flesh responds.

That’s not how faith responds. Scripture doesn’t describe Paul’s immediate thoughts, but we know he was a man of faith, led by the Holy Spirit. We can be certain that he didn’t waste either time or emotional energy on bitterness. Before he had ever come back to Jerusalem, he had said that he wanted to go to Rome. Now he was on his way to Rome, and the government was paying all of his expenses.

Which response is spiritually healthier? Griping to ourselves and anyone else who will listen? Or following one of Paul’s earliest written instructions, to rejoice alway, pray constantly, and give thanks in (certainly not for!) all circumstances. Paul had to learn that. And once he learned the concept, he had to train himself (or allow God to train him) to live up to it. Anyone else can learn the same thing.

Faith is never bothered or surprised by the unfairness of life. Really dangerous situations call for exercising our faith a little more. Faith always looks for God’s hand in whatever happens to us. And faith always finds God in times of trouble and rejoices in the good things he does for us.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Ed Yourdon

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