Remain Faithful.

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ Revelation 2:8-11 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapThe city of Smyrna was only about 35-miles north of Ephesus. Like Ephesus, it was a wealthy and prosperous city, but also had a reputation for its wickedness and strong resistance to the gospel at the time John would have written this letter. The name Smyrna actually means “bitter.” It is translated from the Hebrew mor or myrrh, which was a fragrant perfume used in the embalming of dead bodies. The fragrance of myrrh is released when it is crushed, and this will prove to be an accurate metaphor for the little congregation of believers trying to exist within the confines of this immoral city. Jesus introduces Himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8 ESV). This designation is intended to provide the members of the church in Smyrna with encouragement, relating to them the eternal nature of the one whom they worshiped. Jesus had died, but He was alive. He had risen from the dead and was seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. He had returned to His rightful place, where He has existed for all eternity. These people were experiencing tribulation and poverty as a result of their faith, and Jesus lets them know that He is fully aware. He reminds them that they are actually rich, having received the gift of God’s grace in the form of His Son’s sacrificial death. The apostle Paul had a lot to say about the richness that comes from our restored relationship with God the Father made possible through the death of Jesus, His Son. He described he and his fellow ministers as, “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10 ESV). He also told the Corinthians that Jesus had graciously taken on human flesh and offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of men, “so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). And James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminded his readers that God had chosen “those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5 ESV).

The believers in Smyrna were poor according to every measurable standard of their day. But Jesus wanted to remind them of the value of their relationship with Him. They had something money could not buy: a right relationship with God the Father, purchased by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Along with their poverty, these Christians were having to endure slander from Jews living in the city. But Jesus describes these people as not being Jews at all, but instead, labels them as “a synagogue of Satan.” The apostle Paul provides us with additional insight into what Jesus is saying about these people.

28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

The local Jewish population was attacking the fledgling church, slandering its members in the community. In his commentary on Revelation, Charles C. Ryrie notes that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred in A.D. 155, and “these Jews eagerly assisted by gathering on the Sabbath wood and fagots for the fire in which he was burned” (Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation). The animosity against Christians was intense in the sophisticated society of Smyrna. Even other religious minorities like the Jews treated the believers there with contempt.

But Jesus warns them that it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

And yet, He tells them not to fear. He encourages them to remain faithful even to the point of death. In essence, Jesus is giving the church in Smyrna more bad news. They were already suffering persecution, poverty and slander. Now, He was letting them know that Satan himself was about to unleash his full fury on them, resulting in some of them ending up in prison. And Jesus lets them know that it will all be a test. This is an indication that the entire ordeal will pass through the sovereign hands of God Almighty. Satan has no power to persecute them without God’s divine permission. Satan’s intentions would be to test their faithfulness to God, using ever-more intense persecution in an  attempt to get them to abandon their hope and trust in God. But Jesus wants them to remain faithful. God will use this same test to prove their allegiance to Him. Again, the apostle Paul, who was well-acquainted with suffering and persecution, wrote:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. – Romans 5:3-5 ESV

Jesus lets them know that their tribulation will be short in duration. It will last only ten days. There is no way to know if this is to be taken literally or figuratively. But it would seem that Jesus is attempting to juxtapose the short-term nature of their suffering with the long-term benefits of the eternal glory awaiting them.

Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

Even if their persecution should result in death, Jesus reminds them that death is followed by eternal life. The crown of life is not an additional reward reserved for those who go through martyrdom for their faith. It is a reference to eternal life itself. That’s why Jesus encourages them to be faithful even to the point of death. For the believer, death is not something we are to fear. As Paul put it:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.
 – Romans 8:38 NLT

Our suffering in this life is temporary in nature. Even if that suffering should result in death, it is not the end. And our death will only result in our immediate transfer into God’s presence. Which is what led Paul to state, “we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NLT).

And Jesus closes His message to the church in Smyrna with a reminder to every church in every age:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. – Revelation 2:11 ESV

The “second death” is a reference to the great white throne judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15.

11 And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. 12 I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. 14 Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. 15 And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Jesus assures the believers in Smyrna and every other believer who has ever lived, that we will not have to worry about this judgment. We won’t be there. It is reserved for those who have refused to accept the free gift of salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who suffer and die as a result of their faith in this life, don’t have to worry about suffering eternal death in the next life. Our eternity is secure. Jesus wanted these believers to remain strong, even in the face of persecution. He wanted them stay faithful, even if it resulted in their deaths. Jesus was not making light of their troubles, but was attempting to remind them of the magnitude of their eternal reward.

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Behold, He Is Coming.

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Revelation 1:4-8 ESV

The book of Revelation is filled with mysteries and wonders. It contains fantastic images of never-before-seen creatures and indescribable scenes. John is going to share his personal visions of heaven and reveal the sometimes disturbing nature of events far into the future. There will be times when his words confuse and confound us. And there will be other times when what he has to say comforts and encourages us. We will find ourselves tempted to decipher his somewhat cryptic messages and place meanings on every word he says. Reading Revelation can be like working a puzzle, where you feel the constant need to be in puzzle-solving mode. But it is a book that must be read with patience and discernment. It is not a riddle to be solved or a complicated equation which requires us to find the one and only answer. As its name implies, Revelation is a revealing of something. And John gives us a clue as to what the core message of that revelation is all about: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds” (Revelation 1:7 ESV).

John told us right from the start that this was “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1 ESV). God gave this message to Jesus, who then made it know to John by passing it to him through an angel. And because John wrote down all that he saw, it has now been passed on to us. John “bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:2 ESV). The book we are reading contains the revelation of Jesus – not His incarnation, like the gospels contain – but concerning His second coming. Throughout the Old Testament, there were prophecies concerning the coming of Jesus to earth. They spoke of him being born to a woman (Genesis 3:15), who would be a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), and His birth would take place in the town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). They predicted His rejection by His own people (Isaiah 53:3), His betrayal (Psalm 41:9), His trials (Isaiah 50:6, 53:5), His sacrificial death (Isaiah 53:10-12), and His resurrection (Psalm 16:10-11; 49:15).

But Revelation is about something altogether different. It deals with a different coming of the Lord – His second coming. This book contains a message to the church of Jesus Christ regarding His future return. And while Revelation is filled with disturbing images and predictions of judgment and coming tribulation, it is meant to be an encouragement. We are told, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3 ESV). The majority of what is contained in this book is future-oriented. It tells us of things yet to come. But it should impact how we live in the present. It is a reminder that our God is in control and that His plan is not yet complete. His Son came and, by His death, made salvation possible. But His Son is coming again, and when He does, He will make the restoration of all things possible, including that of the people of God, the nation of Israel.

But to whom was this message of revelation intended? What audience did God have in mind when He provided the content in this book to John? Verse 4 tells us. John addressed his letter to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4 ESV), and in the following chapters, he will disclose exactly which churches he had in mind: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. But why these churches? And why only these seven? Was his message only applicable to them and no one else? The consensus of opinion is that these churches were chosen because they provide a comprehensive representation of the church over the ages. These seven churches varied in size and spirituality. They existed in different cultural contexts and, as we will see, their spiritual health and vitality was all over the map. It is believed that these seven churches are intended to represent the church of Jesus Christ over all the ages, since the church’s birth on the day of Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts. In Scripture, the number seven is always used to convey the idea of completeness. These particular churches were chosen because their stories provide us with a comprehensive outline of how the church has handled its role in the world over the centuries. To a certain degree, we will find that each of these churches, as they are described, have existed in every age, including our own. There is the faithful church, the lukewarm church, the compromising church, the suffering church and the dead church. But these seven churches may also provide us with a historical representation of the church over the ages, with each representing a different phase or dispensation in the life of the church of Jesus Christ. We will explore that idea in greater detail later.

John addresses these seven church with the following salutation:

4 Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. – Revelation 1:4-5 ESV

In these two short verses, we have the inclusion of all three members of the Trinity. John refers to “him was is and who was and who is to come.” This is most likely a reference to the eternal nature of God the Father. The seven spirits are believed to be a reference to the Holy Spirit. Once again, the number seven is most often used in Scripture to refer to completeness or perfection. By saying “the seven spirits”, John is speaking of the Spirit’s diverse, and all-encompassing ministry. Just as the seven churches represent all churches over all time, the “seven spirits” represent the Holy Spirit in all His glory and majesty – in other words, His completeness and perfection. Finally, John mentions Jesus Christ the faithful witness. He was faithful in the sense that He did what God had commissioned Him to do. He came and witnessed to His own role as Savior and Messiah. He preached of the Kingdom of Heaven and the availability of a restored relationship with God through faith in Him. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). And John refers to Jesus as the firstborn of the dead. He was the first to be resurrected, but He will not be the last. The apostle Paul wrote about this very thing.

18 Christ is also the head of the church,
    which is his body.
He is the beginning,
    supreme over all who rise from the dead.
    So he is first in everything. – Colossians 1:18 ESV

And when Paul had stood before King Agrippa, facing false accusations and the possibility of death, he told the king that Old Testament prophets had clearly predicted that “the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:23 ESV). It is because of Jesus’ resurrection that we have hope. His resurrection is what guarantees our future resurrection. Paul reminds us:

20 But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.

21 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 23 But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 NLT

Which brings us back to John’s primary message in this book. “Behold, He is coming!” John reminds us that Jesus loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom of priests to his God and Father. But that’s not all. He’s coming again and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” (Revelation 1:7 ESV). This is the point of the book. This is why it is written to the church, the body of Christ. It is a reminder to us that God is not done. His plan is not yet complete. There is still more to come. And John wraps up his salutation with following words from God: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8 ESV). God is the everlasting one, who has always been. But so is His Son. Listen to the following words, spoken by Jesus, and recorded later in the book of Revelation.

12 “Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” – Revelation 22:12-13 NLT

It is Jesus who is going to bring about the culmination, the end, of God’s grand redemptive plan. His first coming made the redemption of mankind possible. His second coming will make the restoration of all creation and the final glorification of His people possible. The words, “Behold, he is coming” should bring us great joy and provide us with confidence because our God is not yet done. The best is yet to come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When the Afterlife Becomes an Afterthought.

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 ESV

For Christians, reading the words of Solomon found in the book of Ecclesiastes can be a bit disconcerting. After all, we place a high priority on eternity and heaven. The New Testament is replete with encouraging words regarding both. In fact, right before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” – John 14:1-3 NLT

The apostle Paul wrote a great deal about the afterlife and always in glowing terms and with a great deal of eager anticipation. He told the believers in Corinth:

51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die – 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 NLT

In his second letter to the same body of believers, he compared life on this earth in our physical bodies with the life to come, when we receive new, glorified bodies.

While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 NLT

And yet, all throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon seems to paint the afterlife in a negative light, almost as if it is something to be avoided at all costs. How could this man, who had been given wisdom by God, and who had been called to lead the people of God, have such a dim view of eternal life? Part of what we must understand is that the Hebrews did not have a well-developed theology of heaven. Their concept of rewards, for instance, tended to focus on this life. Their understanding of the covenant relationship between God and His people was tied to earthly rewards and blessings. That’s why they viewed those who were wealthy as somehow blessed by God, and those who were poor or sick, as having been punished by God for some hidden sin they had committed. The great patriarch of the Hebrew faith, Abraham, had been blessed by God with flocks and herds. His reward was in this life. Solomon himself had been blessed by God with great wealth. It is not so much that the Hebrews did not believe in the afterlife, it is that they had no consistent idea of what it looked like. That was God’s domain. He alone knew what life after death held. And since men cannot see into the future, they were left to experience and enjoy all that this life has to offer – for as long as they could. The Torah, one of the most revered of all Jewish sacred texts, has little or nothing to say regarding the afterlife. The emphasis is placed on this life. And that is how Solomon has treated this entire book.

Even in the closing verses of the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon returns to his fear-filled view of death. He states:

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. – Ecclesiastes 11:8 ESV

Notice that he believes in some kind of existence after death, but he describes it as “days of darkness” and concludes that whatever comes after death will be vanity or a meaningless existence. Solomon understood that life carried with it the undeniable reality of a future judgment. He knew that God was holy and just. He recognized that there would be a day when God would mete out His judgment on all mankind, and no one could be fully assured how that would turn out. Solomon would have fully concurred with the words of the author of Hebrews: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 ESV). But what Solomon didn’t understand was the hope that the author of Hebrews had because of his faith in Christ. He immediately followed the previous statement with the encouraging, hope-filled words: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 ESV). Solomon’s advice was:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

In other words, live your life. Have a good time. Enjoy all the pleasures and joys that life has to offer, but always remember that there will be a judgment. God will one day reward you for how you lived your life on this earth. That was Solomon’s perspective. We can only imagine how his theological thinking had been skewed by the influence of all the false gods he had embraced. His religious views had to have been a toxic blend of pagan beliefs and Jewish doctrine. He was a man who wasn’t really sure what he believed in anymore, other than what he could see, touch, and taste. For Solomon, the unknown was nothing more than unknown. The afterlife was a mystery whose secrets were hidden from mere men. So, Solomon placed his emphasis on this life. He embraced each new day with a sense of hope, which is why he stated, “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun” (Ecclesiastes 11:7 ESV). Waking up was a positive to Solomon, because it meant you hadn’t died in your sleep. Remember what Solomon said earlier in his book: “There is hope only for the living. As they say, ‘It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!’” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 NLT). Solomon is an old man, sharing his views on life and all that he has learned during his many days under the sun. And his final words in this book are directed at the young. “ Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:10 ESV). In other words, stop worrying so much. Take care of yourself. Enjoy your youth while you can, because it is going to be gone before you know it. Like everything else in life, it is a vapor, here one day, gone the next. Before you know it, your youth will have been replaced by old age.

So, what do we do with all of this? How are we to respond to the words of Solomon. It seems that, far too often, we attempt to take the book of Ecclesiastes and treat it like his other book, Proverbs. We read Ecclesiastes, picking and choosing those verses or statements that have some kind of positive application to them. We seek out the wise sayings of Solomon about diligence, hard work, prudent investing, and the avoidance of foolish behavior. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that strategy. But the question we must ask is why the Spirit of God inspired Solomon to write this book in the first place. Why Solomon? And why was he prompted to write this book at the end of his life, not at the beginning? The book of Ecclesiastes provides us with a unvarnished glimpse into the life of a man who had it all, including a relationship with God. He had been raised by a man whom God described as a man after His own heart. Solomon had been given every opportunity in life. He had been provided with the privilege of building the temple for God. He had been blessed with wisdom from God. But at some point in his life, Solomon walked away from God. He allowed himself to become obsessed with his possessions. He compromised his convictions. He made false gods of equal value to the one true God. And if we are not careful, we can fall into the same trap. Even as believers in Christ, we can allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of spiritual complacency and moral compromise, searching for meaning and purpose in life from the things of this world. The book of Ecclesiastes was not meant to be a stand-alone reference for godly living. It is one book among 66 books that make up the entirety of God’s inspired Word. The Scriptures are to be read in their entirety, so that they can provide us with a well-balanced, Spirit-inspired understanding of God and our relationship with Him. It is essential that we take the views expressed by Solomon and compare and contrast them with those of the New Testament writers. When we read the words of the apostle John, found in his first epistle, we begin to get a clearer view of what it was that Solomon was missing in his book.

15 Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 16 For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. 17 And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

This world is a wonderful place, created by God for our enjoyment. But it is fallen and suffering from the effects of sin. Everything has been marred by the fall, including mankind. God has provided us with tremendous blessings in this life. This planet provides us with incredible pleasures to be enjoyed as gifts from the hand of God. But we must never lose sight of the fact that there is something far greater to come. This world is not all there is. Our faith is in God and our hope is in what He has planned for us in the future. And that preferred future is available only through faith in His Son. And there is no better way to summarize the final words of Solomon than by listening to the words of Jesus Himself.

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

18 “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. 19 And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. 20 All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. 21 But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:16-21 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

This Is Not the End.

23 When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. 24 And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. 25 And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:

26 “‘Go to this people, and say,
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
27 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.’

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 28:23-31 ESV

pauls-journey-to-rome1.png

As we prepare to wrap up this study on the Book of Acts, we come to Luke’s concluding paragraphs covering Paul’s arrival in Rome. In a sense, Luke doesn’t complete the story. He leaves us hanging, with Paul in prison and his final fate left unstated. It’s almost as if he was planning a sequel. The way he ends the book is much like the final episode in the first season of a Netflix TV series. It’s a cliff hanger that leaves us wanting to know more. But the second season of Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles”, if he ever planned one, never aired.

What we do know is that just three days after his arrival in Rome, Paul called for a meeting with the local Jewish leadership. He wanted to explain why he was there and what had happened in Jerusalem to necessitate his arrival as a prisoner of the Roman government. The local Jews had received no news regarding the events leading up to Paul’s initial arrest. There had been no visits from the representatives of the Sanhedrin and, as a result, the Jews in Rome had no idea what Paul was talking about. But they wanted to hear more. And hear more they did. Luke tells us that Paul met with them from morning until evening, “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23 ESV). Paul may have been a prisoner of Rome, with a Roman guard attached to him at all times, but he never shirked from the commission given to him by Christ. He continued to share the gospel, doing everything in his power to persuade Gentiles and Jews that Jesus was the Savior of the world. And Luke reveals that the crowd was divided over what they heard Paul say that day. Some believed, while others rejected his message. And Paul broke up the meeting when he quoted from the prophet Isaiah:

26 “‘Go to this people, and say,
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
27 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.’ – Acts 28:26-27 ESV

Paul quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10, where God spoke to the prophet, providing him with a message concerning the people of Judah. God was warning Isaiah that they would not listen to a word he said. They would hear, but not understand. They would see, but not perceive. Why? Because they had hard hearts and deaf ears. And God inferred to Isaiah that their stubborn resistance to His message of repentance had been His doing. God could have softened their hearts, but He chose not to. He could have opened their eyes to see the reality of their situation and the incredible graciousness of His offer to take them back if they would repent. But He didn’t. And the people of Judah would eventually end up defeated by the Babylonians and taken into captivity.

Paul directly tied this prophecy from the prophet of God to the people of God living in his day. And Paul was not the only one who had used this passage to indict the Jewish people in the first century. Jesus Himself quoted it to His disciples. But right before He did, He told them, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. That is why I use these parables…” (Matthew 13:11-13 NLT).

Jesus explained His parables to the disciples, but He didn’t do the same thing for the Jews. And the majority of them continued to reject His message regarding the Kingdom of God and His role as Messiah. And the same thing was true in Paul’s day. They were still wrestling with the idea that Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth, who had been crucified by the Romans, had actually been the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. And they most certainly struggled with the concept that Jesus had been raised back to life by God, as proof that He had been who He had claimed to be. Which is what led Paul to break the news to them that he had been sharing with other Jews all throughout his journey to Rome.

“Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” – Acts 28:28 ESV

The majority of the Jews would not listen, but the Gentiles would. And Paul had seen that reality proved out time and time again in place after place. He had repeatedly gone to the Jews in every city he visited, and he had watched them reject his message and respond in anger at his audacity to insinuate that they needed salvation. And even during the two years that Paul remained in Rome, he would continue to preach the gospel to anyone who would listen, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31 ESV).

Luke has brought his book full circle. He began it by talking about the Kingdom of God, and he finished it the same way. In the opening lines of his history of the Christian church, Luke told Theolophilus that the gospel he wrote had been intended to deal “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” (Acts 1:1-2 ESV). The Book of Acts had been written to pick up the story where the gospel had left off, when Jesus had “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3 ESV). Jesus had spent His final days with the disciples, telling them about the Kingdom of God. And now, we see Luke closing out his book with Paul speaking about the Kingdom of God. As stated earlier, Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to Paul. He was still a prisoner of the Roman government. He had been brought to Rome, at great expense, to stand trial before Emperor Nero. But Luke doesn’t provide us with those details.

According to Clement, the Bishop of Rome from 88-98 A.D., the apostle Paul eventually died, but he also provided no details as to the means of his death.

5 Through envy Paul, too, showed by example the prize that is given to patience: 6 seven times was he cast into chains; he was banished; he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West, he obtained the noble renown due to his faith; 7 and having preached righteousness to the whole world, and having come to the extremity of the West, and having borne witness before rulers, he departed at length out of the world, and went to the holy place, having become the greatest example of patience. – 1 Clement 5:5-7

Church tradition has long held that Paul was eventually beheaded by Nero, as part of his persecution of the church. But there is no compelling evidence that proves how and when Paul died. It seems that Luke was less interested in ending his story with the death of Paul, than eluding to the fact that the gospel was going to the Gentiles. Jesus had commissioned His disciples to take the gospel to the “ends of the earth.” Rome was not the end of the earth, but it was the center of the world at the time. And through its wide-spread influence and network of roads to virtually all point in in the known world of that day, the gospel would continue to spread, and the church would continue to grow. Paul would eventually die, but the gospel would not. The apostles would all fade from view, passing away and out of the limelight. But the message of salvation, made possible by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone would make its way around the world, completely transforming the landscape of society for generations to come. And God’s message of redemption continues to spread. The world has gotten smaller. Advancements in technology and travel have made the remotest parts of the planet accessible and the transmission of the gospel into every imaginable tongue, possible.

Interestingly enough, Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome, where he reminded them that God had plans for the Jews. The very ones whose hearts He had hardened and whose eyes He had blinded to the truth, He will one day restore.

25 I want you to understand this mystery, dear brothers and sisters, so that you will not feel proud about yourselves. Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. 26 And so all Israel will be saved. As the Scriptures say,

“The one who rescues will come from Jerusalem,
    and he will turn Israel away from ungodliness.
27 And this is my covenant with them,
    that I will take away their sins.”Romans 11:25-27 NLT

 

God was not done in Paul’s day. And God is not done in our day. Paul was in prison, but the gospel was not. Our world seems resistant and even hostile to the message of the gospel, but God is not done bringing in the “full number of the Gentiles.” The history of the church did not conclude with the last chapter of Acts. It continues to be written and only God knows when and exactly how it will all end. But Paul gives us an insight into what that day will look like.

16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died will rise from their graves. 17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. 18 So encourage each other with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Hope of Israel.

11 After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead. 12 Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. 13 And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 14 There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. 15 And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. 16 And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him.

17 After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. 18 When they had examined me, they wished to set me at liberty, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. 19 But because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar—though I had no charge to bring against my nation. 20 For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.” 21 And they said to him, “We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken any evil about you. 22 But we desire to hear from you what your views are, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” Acts 28:11-22 ESV

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After their shipwreck on Malta, the Roman centurion and his troops who had been assigned the task of delivering Paul to Rome, determined to spend the winter on the island. In the early spring, when the weather made safe travel possible, the centurion booked passage on a ship headed to Italy. Luke makes an interesting observation, commenting that the ship that would carry Paul on the last leg of his journey has a figurehead on the bow that represented the twin gods. This was a reference to the Greek gods, Castor and Pollux. We can’t be sure why Luke chose to include this information, but it’s almost as if he is trying to convey the irony of the situation. If you recall, back in chapter 14, when Paul and Barnabas had gone to Lystra and had healed a man with crippled feet, they were immediately lauded as gods, with the people shouting, “These men are gods in human form!” (Acts 14:11 NLT). They claimed that Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes. Well, Castor and Pollux were the sons born to Zeus as a result of his relationship with a human, Leda, queen of Sparta. According to Greek mythology, Zeus transformed his two human sons into gods and gave them the responsibility of providing for he safety of sailors. So, perhaps Luke found humor in the fact that the figurehead on the ship to carry Paul (Hermes) to Rome represented the two sons of Barnabas (Zeus). On top of that, these two gods (Castor and Pollux) were supposed to be the ones who protected sailors from the storms at sea. Considering all that Luke and Paul had just endured on their journey to Rome, all of this would have come across as more than a bit ironic.

When the finally set foot on Roman soil at the port of Puteoli, they were greeted by fellow believers. We’re not told how these people came to faith. But we know that, on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, there had been individuals from Rome in the crowd that heard them speaking in foreign languages.

Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” – Acts 2:9-11 ESV

These visitors from Rome and elsewhere in Italy, were most likely Jews, who had come to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover and the feast of Pentecost. And we know that more than 3,000 people came to faith as a result of Peter’s impromptu sermon. It’s likely that some of the visitors from Rome and other regions of Italy were among those who came to faith. So, they would have returned to Rome, ready to share the news of the gospel with their friends and family members. Regardless of how these people had come to faith, Paul and Luke found themselves surrounded by fellow believers as soon as they stepped off the ship. And they stayed with them for seven days.

Upon arrival in the capital city of Rome, Paul and Luke were once again greeted by fellow believers. This must have been a tremendous encouragement to these two men, who were far from home and who had just endured a great deal of pain and suffering to make it this far. What a powerful reminder this must have been to Paul of the unstoppable power of God’s sovereign plan. Paul had grown used to arriving in a town and being the lone Christian, responsible for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with people who had never heard His name before. But here he was, in the heart of the Roman empire, where no apostle had been before, and God had already been there. The gospel had already arrived and the Spirit had begun His work.

One of the things we learn about Paul in this passage is his relentless desire to share the gospel with the Jews. Just three days into his stay in Rome, he called the leaders of the local Jewish congregation, desiring to share with them all that had gone on and why he was there. Paul was getting ahead of the game, preempting the Jewish leadership from Jerusalem, who had surely sent a contingent to Rome to represent their case against Paul before Caesar. Paul wanted to make sure that the local Jews heard his side of the story before the opposition had a chance to poison the well. And so, he related all that had happened in Jerusalem, assuring them of his innocence, and clearly presenting the basis for his imprisonment and presence in Rome: “it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain” (Acts 28:20 ESV). Once again, he tied his arrest and imprisonment to the claim that Jesus was the hope of Israel: The Messiah. These Jews would have known that Paul was referring to the Messiah. The arrival of the Messiah was something all Jews hoped, wished and prayed for. Even Jews living as far away as Rome, would have longed for the day when their long-awaited Messiah showed up and returned the people of Israel to their former state of glory. Those Jews living in the capital of Rome would have been in the minority, surrounded by the power and paganism of Rome. They had no temple. Every day they faced reminders of their own oppressed state and the weakened condition of their own nation. They were no longer a force to be reckoned with, as in the days of David and Solomon. The Romans and their gods were the bullies on the block.

It would have been hard for these people to maintain their hope in the Messiah while living so far from Israel. Their sense of anticipation would have been beaten down and driven from them by the daily affairs of life. With each passing day, their hope would have diminished and their resignation would have increased. But Paul came bearing good news, and they desired to hear more. They admitted that they knew nothing of Paul’s confrontations in Jerusalem and had received no visitors bearing news or words of ill will against Paul. But they expressed their desire to hear more, telling Paul, “we desire to hear from you what your views are, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22 ESV). They had heard about Jesus, but to them, he was nothing more than the martyred leader of a religious sect that had a less-than-ideal reputation. And yet, they were interested. Their curiosity had been piqued. Here was Paul, the messenger of the good news to the Gentiles, being invited by the Jews in Rome, to tell them more about Jesus, the hope of Israel. God works in mysterious ways.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Shipwrecked, Snake-bit, and Sovereignly Spared.

39 Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to run the ship ashore. 40 So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders. Then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach. 41 But striking a reef, they ran the vessel aground. The bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was being broken up by the surf. 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape. 43 But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44 and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

1 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.

Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him, healed him. And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed. Acts 27:39-28:10 ESV

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Paul was headed to Rome. While it would appear that his journey was the result of a decision made by the Roman governor, Festus, and in keeping with Paul’s own request for a trial before the emperor, Luke repeatedly insinuates that Paul’s trip was due to the sovereign will of God. Yes, the Romans were funding the trip and had provided the soldiers to accompany Paul all the way to Rome. The sailors were piloting the ship on which Paul was a passenger, but as we have already seen, they were far from in control of the situation, and completely unable to deal with the weather conditions hammering their ship. Until Paul had intervened and assured them of God’s sovereign plan to spare all their lives, they had been ready to abandon all hope of survival. The sailors had even tried to escape by using the lifeboat, but were prevented from doing so by the Roman soldiers. Through the words of an angel, God had made it clear to Paul that everyone would be spared, even though the ship would be lost.

Luke wants us to recognize that this entire affair, from Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem to his repeated hearings in Caesarea and his departure for Rome, had all been part of God’s divine plan for Paul’s life. None of this had happened by chance. And while everyone from the Jewish high priest, the Roman governor, King Agrippa, the centurion in charge of Paul’s safety, and the ship’s captain, thought they were in control, Luke repeatedly reveals that it was the sovereign God of the universe who was in charge of any and all things – from the wind and the waves to the decisions of men. As the angel had foretold, the ship carrying Paul eventually ran aground and began to break up. Everyone on board was forced to abandon ship and swim for shore. And while they had no idea where they were, God did. Upon reaching shore, waterlogged but safe, they discovered themselves to be on the island of Malta. And as the angel had predicted, not a soul had been lost. Every sailor, soldier, prisoner and passenger had been spared by God. What had appeared to be a hopeless ending to a very difficult and doomed journey, had ended in no loss of life. And the shipwrecked survivors found themselves surrounded by the caring citizens of Malta, who Luke describes as having showed them “unusual kindness.” They had built fires on the beach in an effort to warm the weary men who had washed ashore. So, not only had they survived the shipwreck, but they were greeted and well taken care of by the people of Malta. They hadn’t washed ashore on some deserted island or along an uninhabited section of the Maltese shoreline. Again, the sovereign hand of God had been propelling them along and protecting them every step of the way.

But God was not done. As Paul was adding wood to one of the fires, a venomous snake escaping the flames, sunk its fangs into his hand. The natives of Malta, seeing Paul shake the snake from his hand, assumed the worst. They quickly made the determination that Paul was an ill-fated soul who, while having escaped drowning at sea, was destined to die for his sins.

“No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” – Acts 28:4 ESV

Yet, once again, Paul survived. He was far from ill-fated, cursed or doomed. He was under the watchful eye of God Almighty. His life was not destined to end as a result of drowning or poisoning. Storms would not take his life, neither would a snake. God was not done with Paul. Paul was under the impenetrable force-field of God’s protective plan. There was nothing anyone or anything could to to him that did not first have to come through God’s hands and with His permission. Paul had a confidence in God that matched that of the author of Hebrews.

5 For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.”

So we can say with confidence,“The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6 NLT

In fact, what can the storms of life do to me? Or vindictive Jews? Or all-powerful Romans? Or governors and kings? Or even a deadly venomous snake? For Paul, the answer was nothing. Nothing at all.

When the people of Malta failed to see Paul swell up and drop down dead, they had determined that he must have been some kind of god. How else could they explain such a miraculous scene? They had no concept of God Almighty. And while they believed in the idea of supernatural beings, knew nothing of Yahweh and were completely ignorant of Jesus, the Messiah. But it would not be long before they saw the power of God on display, as Paul was given the opportunity to perform a miracle in their midst, healing the father of a man named Publius. And Luke tells us that when news of this incredible event for out, “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured” (Acts 28:9 ESV). Paul’s presence on Malta was eventful. From surviving a deadly snake bite to healing the sick, Paul was.a walking advertisement for the power of God. And while Luke doesn’t report it, there’ss little doubt that Paul was sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with everyone who would listen. He didn’t waste a single second of his time on Malta. Yes, he performed miracles. He healed the sick. He cured those who came to him with diseases. But based on what we know about Paul, he shared the good news of salvation made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And according to verse 11, God would provide Paul with a three-month window of opportunity to do so. He was still headed to Rome. That would be his final destination. But Malta would prove to be a divinely determined detour that had been a part of God’s divine plan all along. Stormy seas, helpless sailors, a shipwreck, and a poisonous serpent were no match for the sovereign will of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Take Courage.

21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on some island.”

27 When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven across the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. 28 So they took a sounding and found twenty fathoms. A little farther on they took a sounding again and found fifteen fathoms. 29 And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. 30 And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.

33 As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” 35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 (We were in all 276 persons in the ship.) 38 And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea. Acts 27:21-38 ESV

pauls-journey-to-rome

Earlier in the voyage. Paul had warned the ship’s officers of a bad premonition he had regarding the outcome of their voyage if they proceeded. And Paul had minced no words, saying, “I believe there is trouble ahead if we go on—shipwreck, loss of cargo, and danger to our lives as well” (Acts 27:10 NLT). But the soldier in charge of Paul and the rest of the prisoners on board had listened to the advice of the ship’s captain and crew, who had all agreed to keep sailing, in search of a safer port. Now, they found themselves in a predicament. They had sailed for days in violent seas, their ship battered by the waves and wind. The storm was so intense that it blocked out the sun during the day, thrusting Paul and his 275 shipmates into a perpetual state of darkness. For days on end, the sailors had battled the storm, unable to eat or sleep, and Luke indicates that they finally abandoned all hope. 

But in the heat of the storm, Paul addressed the crew, reminding them that they should have heeded his initial advice. All that he had predicted had come true, and now they were on the brink of disaster. Things were out of their control. They had done all they could do, but the storm had proven too great and their attempts to save themselves, too small. Yet, this wasn’t a case of Paul telling them, “I told you so.” He wasn’t rubbing their noses in their failure to heed his advice. He was letting them know that His God was greater than the storm.

22 “But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down. 23 For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, 24 and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’ 25 So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. 26 But we will be shipwrecked on an island.” – Acts 27:22-26 NLT

Right in the middle of what was probably the worst storm any of these sea-hardened sailors had ever experienced, Paul stood up and told them to take courage. He encouraged them not to fear. Can you imagine how ludicrous his words must have sounded to those men? Here was some Jewish prisoner and landlubber, attempting to calm their fears and assure them that none of them would die. All would turn out well. And, even more incredibly, this man was basing his words on a dream he had received from his God.

Paul had faith, and his faith would prove contagious. He had heard from God and he believed what he had been told. So, he told the men, “euthymeō” – take courage. They were to be of good cheer. Now think about what Paul was saying. The storm was still raging. The waves were still crashing against the side of the boat. The rain was still pouring down. The noise must have been deafening. But Paul was telling them to take courage and he clearly stated why they should. “For I believe God. It will be just as he said” (Acts 27:25 NLT). Paul trusted God. Even in the midst of the storm. Nothing had changed. Their circumstances had not improved. Paul was telling them to trust a God they didn’t know and couldn’t see, while everything was crashing down around them. Paul had learned not to focus his attention on immediate circumstances. What was happening around them was not proof of what was going to happen to them. While they had abandoned all hope, they had not been abandoned by God, and Paul told them as much. “God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you” (Acts 27:24 NLT).

This story reminds me of a poem written in 1774 by William Cowper.  

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

All the sailors could see was the storm raging around them. They were drenched from the incessant rain and weakened from going for days without food. They had lost all hope. They had probably called out to their various gods, begging for salvation. They had thought about their wives and children at home and the likelihood of never seeing them again. They had exhausted all their mental and physical resources trying to save themselves. And now, Paul was telling them that his God had everything under control. They would be safe. There would be a shipwreck, but not a single man would be lost.

As the storm progressed, the sailors determined that their best hope of salvation was to abandon ship. Under the pretext of setting out additional anchors to keep the ship from running aground on the rocks, these men attempted to lower the ship’s skiff or lifeboat. But Paul warned the guards who were watching he and the other prisoners, that if the sailors did not stay on board, everyone would die. So, the soldiers cut the ropes to the lifeboat, allowing it to drift away in the storm. Now, they had to trust God. There were no other options. For the sailors, the lifeboat had become an idol, a false hope of salvation. But Paul knew that it would have failed them. They would not have survived the storm in a boat so small. Their best hope for salvation was to remain in the ship and under the watchful care of God Almighty. But their actions reflect those of every human being who, when caught in the storms of life, attempts to find a way out. They seek a way of salvation and escape. Rather than place their trust in a God they can’t see, they rely on something more tangible in nature. When the Israelites had been set free from slavery in Egypt and found themselves in the wilderness, they began to wonder about this God of Moses. While Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, the people determined to make their own god, an idol made of precious metal. They sought to create a god of their own making, something they could see. Their leader had disappeared. He had gone to the top of the mountain and they had assumed he was not returning. And the God that had rescued them seemed to have bailed on them. So, they took matters into their own hands and fabricated their own source of salvation.

Paul wanted everyone to know that the best course of action was to remain right where they were. They were to stay on the boat, not to abandon ship. What they believed was going to be the source of their death, would actually play a vital role in their salvation. They were going to have to trust Paul, who had placed his trust in God. And Paul was so confident, that he encouraged the men to eat so that they could regain their strength, assuring them, “For not a hair of your heads will perish” (Acts 27:34 NLT). Then, Luke tells us, “everyone was encouraged and began to eat—all 276 of us who were on board” (Acts 27:36-37 NLT). The faith of Paul had infected the entire ship. When everyone else on board had abandoned hope and the sailors had tried to abandon ship, Paul had remained confident in the faithfulness of God. Instead of fear, he had exhibited faith. When everyone else was panicking, he was trusting. While the crew had grown weak and abandoned all hope, Paul had remained strong. He was exhibiting the very characteristics he had encouraged the Corinthians to have. “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13 ESV). And his courage had made an impact on all those around him.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Abandoned Hope.

1 And when it was decided that we should sail for Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan Cohort named Julius. And embarking in a ship of Adramyttium, which was about to sail to the ports along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica. The next day we put in at Sidon. And Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him leave to go to his friends and be cared for. And putting out to sea from there we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us. And when we had sailed across the open sea along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy and put us on board. We sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, and as the wind did not allow us to go farther, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone. Coasting along it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lasea.

Since much time had passed, and the voyage was now dangerous because even the Fast was already over, Paul advised them, 10 saying, “Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” 11 But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. 12 And because the harbor was not suitable to spend the winter in, the majority decided to put out to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, facing both southwest and northwest, and spend the winter there.

13 Now when the south wind blew gently, supposing that they had obtained their purpose, they weighed anchor and sailed along Crete, close to the shore. 14 But soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land. 15 And when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 Running under the lee of a small island called Cauda, we managed with difficulty to secure the ship’s boat. 17 After hoisting it up, they used supports to undergird the ship. Then, fearing that they would run aground on the Syrtis, they lowered the gear, and thus they were driven along. 18 Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo. 19 And on the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned. Acts 27:1-20 ESV

pauls-journey-to-rome

Back in chapter 19, Luke reported that Paul had been compelled by the Spirit of God to visit Macedonia and Achaia before going to Jerusalem. Paul was constantly receiving input from the Spirit, providing him with direction and even preventing him from going to certain places. His ministry was motivated by his desire to obey the commission given to him by Jesus, but it was directed by the Holy Spirit. In chapter 16, Luke records just such an occasion.

Next Paul and Silas traveled through the area of Phrygia and Galatia, because the Holy Spirit had prevented them from preaching the word in the province of Asia at that time. Then coming to the borders of Mysia, they headed north for the province of Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there. – Acts 16:6-7 NLT

And somewhere along the way, Paul had been given what had to have been a Spirit-inspired desire to go to Rome. Acts 19:21 reports Paul’s impassioned statement: “I must go on to Rome!” And now, after his hearing before King Agrippa and Festus, he was on his way. But this journey was not going to be an easy one. He was still a prisoner and he was on his way to stand trial before the emperor of Rome, still facing charges that could result in his death. Nothing about this phase of Paul’s life was easy or trouble-free. It seems that with every step he took, the difficulties increased in number and intensity. And yet, he was innocent of any wrong-doing, a fact with which both the governor and the king concurred.

Luke spends a great deal of time chronicling this portion of Paul’s life. He provides a lot of detail, describing each phase of Paul’s journey to Rome with what appears to be keen interest. But why? It seems that Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was trying to show that Paul’s desire to go to Rome, while Spirit-inspired, was not a guarantee of a trouble-free journey. God was sovereign and orchestrating each step of Paul’s trip to Rome, but that did not exempt Paul from difficulties or trials along the way. Paul’s confrontation with the Jews in the temple courtyard and eventual arrest by the Romans, had stretched into more than a two-year delay. He had been moved to Caesarea for a hearing before Governor Felix, but had remained in confinement when Felix found himself unable to arrive at a decision as to Paul’s fate. And Paul had remained there for two years, until Felix had been replaced by Festus. It was to Festus that Paul had demanded a trial before Caesar and now, he was on his way.

The beatings, imprisonment, false accusations, threats, and plots against his life had just been the beginning. His trip to Rome was going to prove equally as intense and full of inexplicable trials and tests. But it is essential that we read this account as Luke intended it to be read: With a knowledge that God is in control. None of the events described in this chapter happened outside the sovereign will of God. And no one understood that better than Paul himself. We must give careful consideration to the attitude and actions displayed by Paul throughout this story. There was no sense of panic or fear. At no time does Paul seem to consider the troubles surrounding his life as an indication that he was somehow out of God’s will for his life. From the moment he stepped foot on the ship to the day he arrived in Rome, Paul was content and at peace with the knowledge that his life was in God’s hands.

In verse four, Luke gives a short, but telling glimpse into what was to come: “…the winds were against us.” The entire journey will appear to be marked by a supernatural, spiritual-based conflict. There is little doubt that much of what Luke describes is meant to convey the battle taking place in the heavenly realms, as Paul himself described it. 

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12 NLT

Paul was being led by God, but being opposed by Satan every step of the way. Luke does not provide us with a step-by-step description or blow-by-blow account of how this battle unfolded. He does not attribute the storm to Satan. He doesn’t even mention him. But his narrative provides us with a foreboding sense of the spiritual warfare going on behind the scenes.

We sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, and as the wind did not allow us to go farther, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone. – Acts 27:7 NLT

Coasting along it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens… – Acts 27:8 NLT

Since much time had passed, and the voyage was now dangerous – Acts 27:9 NLT

Paul advised them, saying, “Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” – Acts 27:9-10 NLT

…soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land. – Acts 27:14 NLT

we managed with difficulty to secure the ship’s boat – Acts 27:16 NLT

fearing that they would run aground on the Syrtis, they lowered the gear, and thus they were driven along. – Acts 27:17 NLT

Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo. – Acts 27:18 NLT

When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned. – Acts 27:20 NLT

All hope was abandoned. Or was it? There was at least one man on the boat who seemed to know that there was still hope, because there was still a God who had all things in His hands and under His control. Nowhere does Paul express fear that he had been abandoned by God. He did not view the storm as a sign that God was punishing him or somehow preventing him from arriving in Rome. His Spirit-inspired desire to go to Rome had not diminished. And as we will see in the next section of verses, God will provide Paul with clear confirmation that he will make it to his final destination without the loss of a single life. The storm was going to prove no match for God. And Julius, the Augustan Cohort in charge of delivering Paul to Rome; Aristarchus, the Macedonian traveling with Paul; and all the sailors on the ship, were going to get a first-hand display of the power of God. They may have lost hope, but Paul hadn’t. They may have feared for their lives, but Paul had an assurance from God that not a single life would be lost. Paul was headed to Rome. The winds would blow, the waves would crash, the boat would sink, the sailors would panic, but Paul would rest in the sovereign hand of God. His faith was in his God. His eyes were on the One who had called and commissioned him, not on the storms of life. And this story brings to mind a similar scene from the life of Jesus, when He and His disciples encountered a storm while sailing on the Sea of Galilee.

37 But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water.

38 Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?”

39 When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm. 40 Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” – Mark 4:37-40 NLT

Paul experienced the same storm the sailors did, but without fear. Paul had faith. He trusted God. And it seems that Luke is silently asking us whether we will do the same.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Become As I Am.

19 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”

24 And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” 25 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. 26 For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” 28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” 29 And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”

30 Then the king rose, and the governor and Bernice and those who were sitting with them. 31 And when they had withdrawn, they said to one another, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” 32 And Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” Acts 26:19-32 ESV

caesarea-map

The governor and the king sat in rapt silence, as Paul continued to make his defense. But whether they realized it or not, Paul was on the offensive, with a single goal in mind: To share the truth regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ with the two powerful men sitting before him.  Up until this point, the resurrection had been the central theme of Paul’s entire talk. In fact, he claimed to have seen Jesus alive, having received a “heavenly vision” directly from Jesus Himself. And all that Paul had done since the day he received that vision, had been in obedience to the command of Jesus, the risen, living Messiah. Jesus had provided Paul with an explanation for His appearance to him and a description of his assignment.

16 “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” – Acts 26:16-18 ESV

And Paul claimed to have been obedient to the task given to Him by Jesus. It was the very fact that Paul had done what Jesus had told him to do that he had been arrested and beaten by the Jews. “For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me” (Acts 26:21 ESV). Paul knew full well that the reason for his ill treatment by the Jews had nothing to do with him violating the Mosaic law by bringing Gentiles into the forbidden areas of the temple grounds. That had been a ruse. Their real issue with Paul was the message he had been preaching about Jesus being the Messiah, and the fact that he had been preaching it to Gentiles. Paul’s work had struck a nerve with the Jews because it had struck a chord among the people. Both Jews and Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ. But the real stumbling point for the Jewish leadership was that Paul had been propagating the idea that the Jewish rite of circumcision and adherence to the laws of Moses were not necessary for Gentiles to be made right with God. So, in the end, it was Paul’s message regarding the resurrection and the means of attaining righteousness that was at the root of his problem with the Jews.

Paul had an astute awareness of God’s sovereign power and constant presence in his life. In spite of the fact that the Jews had tried to kill him, he knew that it had been God who had rescued him, keeping him alive because there was a greater purpose for him to accomplish. “To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great” (Acts 26:22 ESV). God had protected and preserved him because He had unfinished business for him. And here he was, standing in front of Festus and Agrippa, sharing that “the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:23 ESV). What an incredible opportunity. Even Paul, in his wildest dreams, could not have imagined or envisioned that he would one day stand before a Roman governor and a king, sharing the message of Christ’s resurrection and the hope of salvation that it made possible.

But to Festus, it all sounded like the ravings of a lunatic. He suddenly interrupted Paul and shouted, “Paul, you are insane. Too much study has made you crazy!” (Acts 26:24 NLT). This had not been the first time Paul had heard a Gentile refer to the gospel as crazy talk. He would later write to the church in Corinth, describing the typical response he encountered from both Jews and Gentiles.

So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. – 1 Corinthians 1:23 NLT

Festus knew little about the Jews and their religion. And all Paul’s talk about a crucified rabbi miraculously coming back to life sounded like crazy talk to him – much as it does to many today. On the other side of conversion, the message of the cross always sounds ridiculous. Paul put it this way, “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 NLT). In other words, it is only after coming to faith in Christ that one can truly understand the remarkable truth of the cross and Christ’s death on it. The description of Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of mankind sounds farfetched and difficult to comprehend. It comes across as little more than some kind of religious fantasy story. But for those who have come to faith in Christ, the cross becomes the hope on which their salvation hangs and their eternal life depends. Again, Paul expressed this sentiment to the church in Corinth.

24 But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:24-25 NLT

Festus thought Paul had lost his mind. But Paul insisted that his words were truth, not the crazy thoughts of a madman. And at this point, Paul turned his attention to King Agrippa, appealing to his knowledge of the Jewish people and their ways. Paul somehow knew that Agrippa was aware of all that had happened concerning Jesus. He also knew that Agrippa was the great-grandson of Herod the Great, the man who had been king when Jesus had been born. He was the one who had tried to eliminate the potential threat of Jesus, who the magi had described to him as the newborn king of the Jews. Herod the Great had ordered the executions of all baby boys under two living in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Agrippa had a family heritage that was directly linked to Jesus, the Messiah. And Agrippa, as the official who had jurisdiction over the temple and held the authority to appoint the Jewish high priest, knew the ways of the Jews. He was familiar enough with Jewish history and their beliefs to know that what Paul was saying was based on truth, not fantasy. And Paul boldly asked the king, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (Acts 26:27 ESV). What is Paul doing here? Is he claiming that Agrippa was a God-fearer and believed in the Hebrew Scriptures. That’s unlikely. But Paul was putting Agrippa on the spot. He was creating a dilemma for the king, by forcing him to state whether he believed what the Jewish prophets wrote or not. Because of his close connection with the Jewish people as their king, his oversight of the temple and his ties to the high priest, Agrippa had to be very careful how he answered Paul’s question. If he replied that he did not believe what the prophets had written concerning the Messiah, he would risk offending the Jews. So, he chose not to answer the question at all, replying instead, “Do you think you can persuade me to become a Christian so quickly?” (Acts 26:28 NLT). He avoided the question by asserting that Paul had been trying to convert him. And Paul didn’t deny it.

“Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that both you and everyone here in this audience might become the same as I am, except for these chains.” – Acts 26:29 NLT

It would have been Paul’s greatest wish to see Agrippa, Festus and every other person in the room that day come to faith in Christ. He wanted them to become as he was. Paul was chained, but a free man. They were free from chains, but imprisoned by their sin and under the curse of death because of their rebellion against God. Paul’s desire was that they might discover the joy of forgiveness for sin and freedom from the penalty of death found in Jesus Christ and made possible by His death and resurrection. But there would be no one saved that day. And Paul would remain a prisoner of the Roman government. In fact, Agrippa replied that, had not Paul made his appeal to go to Caesar, he could have gone free, because he had done nothing worthy of death or imprisonment. So, Paul was destined to go to Rome. His fate was sealed. But it was all part of God’s perfect plan for his life and His overarching plan for the redemption of mankind.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God Raises the Dead!

“I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.

“My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?

“I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.

12 “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” Acts 26:2-18 ESV

caesarea-map

Paul is in Caesarea, where is about to give his defense before the governor, Festus, and King Agrippa. He has been provided this unique opportunity because the king happened to be in town and the governor was desperate to find some formal charge he could level against Paul before sending him to Rome for trial before the emperor. Festus had high hopes that King Agrippa, after having listened to Paul’s story, might be able to determine a crime for which to charge Paul. Up until this point, Festus had found Paul innocent of nothing worthy of death, which is what the Jews had been demanding. So, now Paul, with these two powerful men as his audience, began his defense. But what he will have to say to Festus and Agrippa will have little to do with the actual facts of the case against him. Paul was less interested in giving a defense for his actions than he was in providing a well-reasoned defense of the gospel. He was not out to prove his innocence and win his freedom. He wanted to win these two pagan political leaders to Christ.

But he started out by honoring the men before him, expressing his gratitude that he was being given the opportunity to speak before Agrippa, because he had knowledge of Jewish affairs. The emperor had assigned Agrippa the principality of Chalcis, and given him authority over the Temple at Jerusalem, including the responsibility to nominate the Jewish high priest. So, Paul was legitimately pleased to share his story with someone who had a working knowledge of Jewish religious affairs and the ability to discern the truth of what had happened that day in the temple courtyard when Paul had been beaten and arrested.

The next thing Paul did was provide Agrippa with a bit of background. He informed the king that he was a Jew and a former Pharisee. He was not part of some radical religious sect determined to stir up trouble or bring about insurrection against the Jews or Rome. He was a God-fearing Hebrew who happened to be teaching and preaching about the very hope of Israel.

Now I am on trial because of my hope in the fulfillment of God’s promise made to our ancestors. In fact, that is why the twelve tribes of Israel zealously worship God night and day, and they share the same hope I have. Yet, Your Majesty, they accuse me for having this hope! – Acts 26:6-7 NLT

Paul wasted no time, but cut right to the point, clearly articulating that his only “crime” was that of claiming that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of the Hebrew nation. Jesus had been the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Every God-fearing Jews since the time of the Patriarchs had believed in and hoped for the coming of the Messiah, and Paul was simply claiming that his arrest was due to the fact that the Jewish leadership refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. And Paul raised the real stumbling block for the Jews: the resurrection of Jesus. They had gone out of their way to see that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. To them, He was nothing more than a dead man, a former rabbi who had propagated heretical teachings, violated the Mosaic law and had constantly ridiculed them before the common people. But Paul and the apostles had been teaching that Jesus was alive. Yes, He had been killed, but God had raised Him from the dead. Which is what led Paul to ask, “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8 ESV).

The resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of the Christian faith. Even in Paul’s day, there were those who struggled with the idea of a man being raised back to life. Within the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, there were the Sadducees, who rejected the whole idea of a bodily resurrection, and the Pharisees, who embraced it. And within the early church, there were those who wrestled over the concept of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul had to address a group of these individuals who were part of the church in Corinth.

12 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? 13 For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. 15 And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16 And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 18 In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! 19 And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. – 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 NLT

Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no Christian faith. There is no hope. Forgiveness of sin and any chance of being made right with God evaporate if Jesus was not raised back to life. His payment for mankind’s sin, accomplished by His sacrificial death on the cross, was incomplete if He was only a martyr. It was the fact that God restored Him back to life that proved His death had been sufficient and had fully satisfied the holy and just wrath of God against sin. The resurrection of Jesus was meant to provide us with hope of our own future resurrection from death and with the incontrovertible proof that we have been restored to a right relationship with God. Paul makes that point very clear to the church in Corinth:

20 But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.

21 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 23 But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 NLT

So, for Paul, the real heart of the issue surrounding his arrest had been his teaching of a resurrected Messiah. And he provided King Agrippa with his own personal story of how he had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. It was at this point in his defense that Paul told of his conversion on the road to Damascus. The point of Paul sharing his testimony was that it revolved around the fact that he had experienced a face-to-face encounter with the resurrected Jesus. The whole reason for his radical transformation from persecutor of the church to a proponent of the gospel, was that he had met Jesus, the very one the Jews had coerced the Romans to crucify. Both Festus and Agrippa would have been aware of the events surrounding the death of Jesus. His trials and crucifixion had not happened in a vacuum. They would even have heard the rumors regarding his resurrection. But this would have been the first time they heard such detailed accounts backing up the claim that He had been raised back to life by God.

The next thing Paul did was bring his testimony to a powerful conclusion, focusing his attention on the one point that would resonate most clearly and personally to the two men in his audience: His calling to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He related to Festus and Agrippa the words spoken to him on the road to Damascus by the resurrected Jesus: “Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18 NLT). Look carefully at what Paul was doing. He was boldly sharing the gospel message with two powerful Roman political figures. They were Gentiles and, whether they recognized it or not, they were living in darkness. Agrippa was having an incestuous affair with his own sister, Bernice. But Paul was offering them forgiveness from sin and a place in the family of God, through faith in Jesus Christ. All they had to do was believe that Jesus was the resurrected Messiah, the Savior of the world. The main issue was going to be their own disbelief in the resurrection of Jesus. Which brings us back to Paul’s question: “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?

Festus and Agrippa, just like every other person who has ever lived, were faced with the choice of believing the good news regarding Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, or rejecting it as farfetched and unnecessary. Paul knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was alive. His life had been radically transformed by the risen Christ. Now, he was offering the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and His offer of forgiveness of sin and eternal life to two men who desperately needed it, but would have to make the decision to accept it.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson