Viewing the World through God's Word

Month: February 2018 (Page 1 of 2)


Hear “Nixon”, and you think “Watergate” (unless you were born after 1975).  Hear “Felix”, and you should think of Paul’s first Roman trial complete with a corrupt, ruthless governor and two years in prison.

“Five days later the high priest Ananias went down to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus, and they brought their charges against Paul before the governor. When Paul was called in, Tertullus presented his case before Felix: ‘We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly. We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him. But the commander, Lysias, came and with the use of much force snatched him from our hands and ordered his accusers to come before you. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.’  The Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true” (Acts 24:1-9).

The Roman tribune has chosen to transfer Paul to a high authority.  With a huge contingent of Roman military, he takes him sixty miles north to Caesarea and Governor Felix.  Five days after arriving, Paul is brought before the governor.  Ananias, the high priest from Jerusalem, some elders and a lawyer, Tertullus, are present for the prosecution.

Tertullus (prosecutor):  “You’re the empire’s greatest governor! (Oh, puh-lease!)  You’ve wisely created much-needed reforms and ushered in perpetual peace (what about all those uprisings and Felix’s ruthless reactions who only sparked more Jewish violence?).

“But, let me be brief.  This man (finger pointing) has stirred up riots among the Jews all over the world (shattering Roman peace) and is a ringleader of the (notorious) Nazarene sect.  He even tried to desecrate the temple!  We wouldn’t have bothered you with this but Lysias, the Roman commander, forcibly grabbed him from us and ordered we come to you.  Your examination will show all these charges to be true.”

“When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: ‘I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense. You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship.  My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city.  And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me.  However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.  So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.  I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance.  But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin–unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today'” (Acts 24:10-21),

Paul (defendant):  “I didn’t argue in the temple.  I didn’t stir up a riot in the city.  My accusers have no proof of their charges.  It is true that I worship the God of our fathers ‘as a follower of the Way.’  But I believe everything in the Law and Prophets, and, like them, hope in the resurrection of the dead.  For that reason I seek to keep a clear conscience before God.

“I came to Jerusalem to bring gifts for the poor.  I created no trouble.  Asian Jews started it all.  They should stand before you with their charges.  Or Tertullus and these Sadduccees should name the crime they say I committed—unless it was my shout that set them off: “It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today (this is irrelevant theology to the Romans).

 “Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. ‘When Lysias the commander comes,’ he said, ‘I will decide your case.’ He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs” (Acts 24:22,23).

The wheels of government grind slowly.  Felix declares, “We’re adjourned.”  He needed no more information about Christianity, being “well acquainted with the way.”  But he did want to hear from the Roman commander on scene.  Until then, Paul was to be guarded but granted some freedoms.

Lysias was never summoned.

“Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.  As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison” (Acts 24:24-27).

Soap Opera:  When Drusilla was six, her father promised her to an Armenian king, if he would be circumcised.  Years later, he refused.  So her brother gave her in marriage to a Syrian king.  At a dinner party (I made that up) Felix saw Drusilla across the room and her beauty sparkled stars in his eyes.  He wooed and won her away from her husband.  Drusilla, divorced and remarried.  So when Luke writes “Jewess”, don’t think “godly.”

Curiosity:  I’m assuming this is why Felix sent for Paul.  But his curiosity turned to terror when Paul told of God’s coming judgment. “No more.  I’ll call you when I’m ready.”

Corruption:  Government’s not only slow: it’s corrupt. Felix talked frequently with Paul hoping he’d bribe him to get out.  Two years later—no bribe from Paul.  But Felix is gone, leaving Paul under guard.

 * * *

What was God doing?  Okay, the Romans did rescue Paul from death by Jews.  And as long as they held him, the Jews couldn’t get him.  And Paul got to deliver the gospel to Governor Felix (who wanted a bribe more than righteousness).  But, two years in prison with Lord knows how many “conversations” with the greedy governor.  Two years!  Couldn’t God just have gotten Paul passage on a ship headed west?

When troubles come, our first response is, “Why?”  Our second is to explain to God why this trouble makes no sense, and he’d be a lot better off getting us out of it.  There’s no changing God’s mind, though.  And let’s face it:  we don’t understand some things God does.  Think there’ll be a long line in heaven?  Folks lining up with all our “why?”  questions.

‘Til then, we’ll just have to accept our ignorance and trust God’s wisdom.





If You Are Willing, You Can

News about him spread all over Syria,
And people brought to him

all who were ill with various diseases,
those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed,
those having seizures, and the paralyzed,
and he healed them (Matthew 4:24).

 Then Jesus said to the centurion,
“Go! It will be done just as you believed it would”.
And his servant was healed
at that very hour (Matthew 8:13).

 When evening came,
many who were demon-possessed were brought to him,
and he drove out the spirits with a word
and healed all the sick (Matthew 8:16).

 Jesus turned and saw her.
“Take heart, daughter,” he said,
“your faith has healed you”.
And the woman was healed
from that moment (Matthew 9:22).

 Aware of [the Pharisees’ plot],
Jesus withdrew from that place.
Many followed him,
and he healed all their sick (Matthew 12:15).

Then they brought him
a demon-possessed man
who was blind and mute,
and Jesus healed him,
so that he could both talk and see
(Matthew 12:22).

 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd,
he had compassion on them
and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14).

 . . . the people . . . brought all who were sick to him,
And all who touched [the fringe of his cloak]
were healed (Matthew 14:35,36).

 Then Jesus answered,
“Woman, you have great faith!
Your request is granted”.
And her daughter was healed
from that very hour (Matthew 15:28).

 Great crowds came to him,
bringing the lame, the blind,
the crippled, the mute and many others,
and laid them at his feet;
and he healed them (Matthew 15:30).

 Jesus rebuked the demon,
and it came out of the boy,
and he was healed from that moment
(Matthew 17:18).

 Large crowds followed him,
and he healed them there
(Matthew 19:2).

 The blind and the lame
came to him at the temple,
and he healed them
(Matthew 21:14).

 I see Jesus,
walking through Galilee.
In his wake the hopelessly sick
are joyously well.
And, Jesus is the same
yesterday, today and forever.

I know Jesus healed the sick
to reveal his kingdom,
where all the sick will be always well.
But he healed out of compassion, too.
So I plead his compassion now.

A verse from 1 John intrudes:
“And this is the boldness
we have in him,
that if we ask anything
according to his will,
he hears us.
And if we know that he hears us
in whatever we ask,
we know that we have obtained
the request made of him.”

I say “intrudes”,
because his will trumps all.
So, a leper kneeling begged Jesus,
“’If you are willing, you can make me clean.’
Filled with compassion,
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.
‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’”

 What, I wonder, made Jesus willing?
Compassion?  Faith?
Either answer, he didn’t heal everyone.
Nor does he today.
Healing is a miracle.
And miracles, by definition, are rare.

Listing those healing verses above,
I want to shout: “Let faith arise!”
–as if he will always give me good health,
as if illness can always be conquered by faith.
All things are possible;
at his command disease must flee.

I must have faith, but I can’t claim what I want,
as if healing were a prize,
and I held the winning ticket.
Healing is a mystery,
wrapped in the hiddenness of Jesus’ will.

So, I must kneel, humbly, like the leper and pray,
“If you are willing,
You can make me well.”


Plot & Providence

“I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes.”  If Charles Spurgeon is right, then the Lord’s “fingerprints” are all over Paul’s escape from the Jews’ plot to kill him.

“The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot.  They went to the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul.  Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here’” (Acts 23:13-15).

Paul, a Roman citizen, remains in Roman “protective custody”, because twice Jews in the temple tried to kill him.  They’re not done yet.  “More than forty men” take a “curse oath” (Greek, anathematize—“bring under a curse”) “not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul.”  They arrange for the Sanhedrin to request the Roman commander bring Paul before them for more information.  They will kill him on the way.

These men may appear as fanatics.  But they honestly believed the rumors that Paul had forbidden Jews to follow Moses.  Furthermore, they were sure he had defiled the temples by bringing a Gentile into the holy Court of Israel.  God’s holiness must be upheld by the death of the transgressor!

Paul would have met a violent death had it not been for what happened next . . .

“But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul. Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, ‘Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.’  So he took him to the commander. The centurion said, ‘Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.’ The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, ‘What is it you want to tell me?’  He said: ‘The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. Don’t give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request.’ The commander dismissed the young man and cautioned him, ‘Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me’” (Acts 23:16-22).

With all our information about Paul, we know nothing of his family life.  Well, almost nothing.  He had a sister, who had a son.  Where did she live?  If not Jerusalem, why was her son there?  Author Luke doesn’t say.  Just that the young man hears somehow of the Jews’ plot and tells Uncle Paul—an act of God’s providence.  Paul is accessible to the young man, because he’s in “protective custody”, not imprisoned.  And since the soldiers almost flogged a Roman citizen, they’re apparently eager to keep Paul reasonably happy. The commander believes Paul’s nephew and warns him to say nothing about their meeting.

“Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, ‘Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. Provide mounts for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix’” (Acts 23:23,24).

A military force that large shows the Romans took the Jewish threat seriously and considered Paul an important prisoner.  One man in “protective custody” riding in the middle of 200 soldiers, 70 horsemen, and 200 spearmen!

“He wrote a letter as follows: Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen.  I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin.  I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment.  When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him” (Acts 23:25-30).

The commander is not only getting Paul out of Jerusalem; he’s transferring Paul to a higher authority than himself—Governor Felix.  The governor was once a slave, but was set free either by Mark Antony’s daughter or Emperor Claudius (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20.137).  His administration was marked by violent disturbances, his brutal reactions only turning the Jews more passionately against him.  Tacitus (1st century Roman historian) said that Ananias “practiced every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of [a] king with all the instincts of a slave” (Histories 5.9).  To that governor Paul is now taken . . .

“So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris.  The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks.  When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him.  The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, he said, ‘I will hear your case when your accusers get here.’ Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace” (Acts 23:31-35).

The military force leaves about 9 p.m. on what seems a forced march, and travels 35 miles through the Judean hill country at night without incident.  They reach a trade-route crossroads on the border of Judea and Samaria—Antipatris.  The threat of Jewish ambush lies behind; ahead lies a flat coastal plain inhabited by Gentiles.  The infantry and spearman return home, while the calvary takes Paul the last 25 miles to Caesara.  There the officers “delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him.”

* * *

If Spurgeon is right (and the Scriptues teach God is sovereign over all things:  he “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”–Ephesians 1:11), then  over Paul  and the might of Rome’s legions was the hand of Providence.  As he rode in that military contingent, I imagine his mind drifted back to the Jerusalem night when the Lord appeared and said . . .

“ . . . just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem,
you must bear witness also in Rome” (Acts 23:11).

That memory must have encouraged Paul, surrounded by Rome’s military power.

I’m not a prized Roman prisoner.  The Lord hasn’t appeared and told me the purpose for my suffering.  But, because God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”, I believe the same hand of Divine Providence hovers over me.  To that hand I cling.








Keystone Kops Court

One of my favorite psalms is the second:  Why do the nations rage? Why do the people waste their time with futile plans?  The kings of the earth prepare for battle; the rulers plot together against the LORD and against his anointed one. “Let us break their chains,” they cry, “and free ourselves from this slavery.” But the one who rules in heaven laughs. The Lord scoffs at them (Psalm 2:1-4, NLT).  Can you picture God laughing?  I bet he did during Paul’s interrogation before the Jewish high court.

Having found Paul to be a Roman citizen, the tribune can’t interrogate Paul with flogging.  Still, he wants to know why the Jews had rioted against him . . .

Since he wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews, the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them (Acts 22:30).

The “chief priests and the entire council” are the Sanhedrin, Israel’s supreme court.  It’s composed of 71 “sages” (including the high priest), who meet in the temple daily, ruling on legislative and judicial issues and serving as the final authority in matters of Jewish law.  Before this august body the apostle now stands. The Roman tribune is present.

While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth (Acts 23:1,2).

Paul takes the initiative.  He declares he’s lived “with a clear conscience before God”.  That got him a strike on the mouth courtesy of the high priest’s impetuous order.  What so incensed the high priest?  Paul speaking before being asked?  The idea that he could be a good Jew though a Christian?  Paul’s “holy boldness”?

Whatever the specific reason (and author Luke doesn’t tell us), Ananias was acting in character.  Jewish historian Josephus writes that Ananias disgracefully profaned his sacred position by, among other things, taking the tithes that should have gone to the common priests (Jewish Aniquities). Five years earlier the Syrian governor sent him to Rome on suspicion he was involved in a bloody outbreak between Jews and Samaritans.  He was cleared; nevertheless, the high priest was well-known as a ruthlessly violent and greedy man.  He administered pro-Roman policies, making him an enemy to many Jews.

At this Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” Those standing nearby said, “Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people” (Acts 23:3-5). 

His mouth still stinging from the slap, Paul angrily prophesies against Ananias.  “ . . . you whitewashed wall”—a tottering wall with deficiencies hidden.  “God will strike you”—a prophecy fulfilled less than ten years later when war broke out with Rome.  Jews dragged him from an aqueduct where he was hiding and put him to death along with his brother.

Was Paul’s prophecy a burst of uncontrolled temper?  More likely justified anger, because the slap was punishment even before the trial. Nevertheless, it brought a reprimand from “[t]hose standing nearby.  ‘Dare you insult the high priest?’”  Paul immediately apologizes, quoting from Jewish law in Exodus 22:28b.

But how could he not know that the man who commanded the slap was the high priest?  Presiding over the meeting in his high priestly robes certainly gave him away!  Some have suggested Paul spoke ironically: “I never thought a high priest would do that!”  Others think Paul may have been looking away and so didn’t know who spoke.  This all amounts to speculation, since we’re not told and no suggestion seems to satisfy.

When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks (Acts 23:6-10).

Author Luke points out that Paul sees the council is split between Sadducees and Pharisees.  So when he identifies himself as a second-generation Pharisee who held to “the resurrection of the dead”, council Pharisees concede that a man who holds to so central a tenet of faith can’t be all bad.  Council Sadducees, meanwhile, explode.  For, as author Luke explains, Sadducees deny end-time resurrection and the spirit world, as well.  Pharisees, believe in both.

Paul’s words ignite a sharp conflict between the two groups.  When the uproar makes it clear no serious examination of Paul can be made, some of the law experts (who are Pharisees) declare, “We find nothing wrong with this man.  Maybe a spirit or angel spoke to him”.  Now the conflict becomes violent.  The tribune, afraid they’ll “tear Paul to pieces”, orders soldiers to grab Paul and bring him into their fortress.

That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” (23:11).

Paul is disheartened.  His worst anxieties about his fate in Jerusalem are being realized.  Twice, crowds of Jews physically threatened his life.  How will he get out of the city to fulfill his dream of preaching in Rome and further west?

That night, inside the Roman fortress, the Lord appears to the prisoner.  “Be encouraged!” he urged.  And then the Lord promised, “ . . . just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem (as Paul had spoken to the crowd in the temple), so you must bear witness also in Rome.”  During the next two years of imprisonment and trials, the apostle must have clung to that promise.

* * *

The Lord wanted to get Paul to Rome his way (  Neither Roman flogging nor the Jewish Supreme Court could hinder.  And the way he freed Paul from the court is quite funny.  Picture Paul before that august body open-mouthed watching them fight over theology, so violently that the Roman tribune has to rescue Paul from possible harm.

Government—even “godly governments ordained by God”—prove inept and ineffective.  They’re only (fallen) human.  And while we’re charged to obey the authorities–and we should be thankful for good government–our lives don’t depend on them.

We are in the hands of the eternal God, our Father in heaven through Jesus Christ.  And he will fulfill his good purpose for us—even if he has to make our enemies act like zany, inept Keystone Kops.


I’ve found plenty to read recently about suffering as a Christian—not so much about miraculous deliverance.  Got to admit, though, the Bible is full of God’s people in pain.  But, God protects his people too.  Take this incident in Paul’s life . . .

Remember: hostile Jews had grabbed Paul in the temple and would have killed him had the Roman military not intervened.  Before soldiers dragged him into the fortress, Paul was given opportunity to address the crowd.  When he mentioned being sent to the Gentiles, the mob exploded again . . .

“As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and questioned in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this” (Acts 22:23,24).

Why had the Jews rioted against Paul?  This the tribune must determine.  He’ll use torture to interrogate him.  (Both NIV and NRSV imply flogging and questioning were separate events.  Rather, the Greek says “examine with lashes”.  In other words, the tribune intended to beat the truth out of the prisoner).

Beating was not new to Paul:  five times by Jews and three by Romans. But flogging would be far worse.  A soldier would lash his stripped back with a whip of thongs studded with pieces of bone or metal secured to a wooden handle. Tied to a pillar, his back stretched and arms secured, Paul couldn’t protect himself at all.  Flogging like this usually caused permanent physical damage, even death.

But God wanted Paul in Rome.  Not just in the city, but inside Caesar’s elite imperial guard (Philippians 1:12,13).  He couldn’t have Paul maimed or killed in Jerusalem.  So, even though author Luke doesn’t mention it, God had preordained Paul be born a Roman citizen.

“As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, ‘Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?’ When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. ‘What are you going to do?’ he asked. ‘This man is a Roman citizen.’ The commander went to Paul and asked, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ he answered. Then the commander said, ‘I had to pay a big price for my citizenship.’ ‘But I was born a citizen,’ Paul replied. Those who were about to question him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains” (Acts 22:25-29).

As soldiers stretched Paul’s arms and tied them with thongs, he asked the centurion overseeing the torture.  “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”  Under Roman law, citizens could be flogged who were convicted of a crime, but not before conviction.

The centurion takes Paul’s question to the commander, who nervously asks Paul, “ . . . are you a Roman citizen?”  Paul answers, “ . . . I am”.  The commander admits he had to pay a large sum for his citizenship, maybe a bribe to administrators or a flat-out cash purchase from the government.  In any case, Paul has accomplished what he wanted.  Both men now know that Paul is at least a social-legal equal to the tribune.  And he can’t be flogged.  The soldiers back off.

“The next day, since the commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews, he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the Sanhedrin to assemble. Then he brought Paul and had him stand before them” (Acts 22:30).

The Roman commander still wants to learn why Paul was accused by the Jews.  Next day he orders the Jewish court to interrogate him.  Paul will now stand before the Sanhedrin, Israel’s Supreme Council.

* * *

Five decades earlier, Paul had been born in Tarsus (today’s Turkey), a large trading center on the Mediterranean coast.  How his Jewish father gained Roman citizenship isn’t known.  Perhaps success in business earned him that standing.  It was a stature to be prized:  it entitled him to Roman rights and privileges throughout the empire, especially the right to a fair trial and humane treatment. As children of immigrants gain citizenship by birth in the U.S., so Paul gained Roman citizenship by birth to a Roman citizen father.  To Paul, a zealous Jew sent to Jerusalem to study the Mosaic law with Pharisees, it probably meant little.  Until now.

Was it a “lucky break” that Paul could escape flogging?  To the contrary, the psalmist writes, “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all”.  Put that together with David’s words in Psalm 139:13, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”, and you’ve got a God who is intimately involved in our births.  Not only when but where and to whom.  There are no “lucky breaks”, only a Sovereign God who rules all.

Paul’s rescue from flogging is hardly the kind of miracle that draws curious crowds to revivals.  But Paul’s birthright, which saved him  50 years later, is no less an act of God than if an angel snatched the whip from the soldier’s hand.

God intervenes in our lives (even before our lives) to protect us.  No, it doesn’t mean we’re spared suffering.  But there are times when God says to our pain, “That’s enough.  Go no farther.”






Defense: Conversion Story

My conversion to Christ was pretty tame.  Hand raised.  Walk to the front with a dozen others.  Prayed over.  Pretty tame, even for a ten-year-old.

Paul’s conversion was anything but–as he soon will tell us.

But, first,  remember he’d been in the temple completing a purification rite with four other Jews.  Rumors were flying:  he rejected Moses, banned circumcision, forsook customs.  Asian Jews spotted him.  Immediately, they grabbed him, shouting for others to help.  The crowd became a mob madly trying to kill him.  Roman soldiers showed up, pulling him from the mob, dragging him up to their fortress.  At the top of the stairway, Paul asks to address the crowd at the bottom.  The tribune assents.   Paul makes his defense:  it’s his conversion story.


“’Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.’ When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: ‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of the Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished’” (Acts 22:1-5).

Paul asks the Jews to hear his defense.  They fall silent when Paul speaks their native language.  He tells how he was raised in Jerusalem, thoroughly trained under Rabbi Gamaliel (a Pharisee doctor of the law and recognized leader of the Sanhedrin), and so fervent for God he had “followers of the Way” imprisoned.  He had even been authorized by the Council to arrest “these people” in Syria and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.  He thought he was right.

So did I:  raised in a Christian home, regularly attended church, basically obeyed my parents, believed in God, even believed in Jesus.  But I never “received” him, never said “yes” to his “Follow me.”  I thought I was okay.


 “’About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not hear the voice of him who was speaking to me. ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.  “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there.  He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said: ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth.  You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.  And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name’ “ (Acts 22:6-16).

It was near Damascus, Syria, about noon, on the way to arrest “followers of the Way”, when “suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed (periasypapto—lightning-like)”. It knocked him to the ground.  A voice called his name and asked, “Why do you persecute me?”  Paul, trembling, asked who was asking.  The answer was astounding: “I am Jesus of Nazareth”.  Crucified Jesus of Nazareth.  Alive. 

Humbled, fearful Paul asked what he should do.  Jesus told him to get up and go into Damascus.  “There you will be told all you have been assigned to do.”

Paul was blinded. The proud persecutor had to be led by the hand like a child into the city.  His fellow persecutors were left in the dark:  they saw the light but heard no voice.

Paul tells how, in the city, a devout and respected man named Ananias visited him.  He commanded Paul (still called Saul) to receive his sight.  “At that very moment I was able to see him.”  Ananias then explained Paul had been chosen to see and hear “the Righteous One” and to be his witness to all.  So: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”

The preacher invited whoever wanted to receive Jesus to raise their hand,  An urging rose in me.  Not because of the speaker; nothing special about him.  The invitation was the same one I’d heard dozens of times before.   And I knew what would come next:  “Stand up and come to the front for prayer”.  I was a shy kid.  Standing up among a few hundred Sunday school students and adults was, well, terrifying.  But now that didn’t matter.   My heart was compelling me.  Looking back, I believe Jesus was calling.  No blinding light.  No knock to the ground.  Just a pull–by Jesus.


“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ he said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’  ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you.  And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’  Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles’.  The crowd listened to Paul until he said this.  Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him!  He’s not fit to live!'” (Acts 22:17-22).

Paul returns to Jerusalem.  He goes to the temple to pray. There he falls into a trance–(Greek, ekstasia) in which he sees the Lord speaking:  “Quick!  Leave Jerusalem immediately because they will not accept your testimony about me.”  He argues that the Jews’ knowledge of his zealous past persecution will only make his testimony now more credible.  But the Lord said again:  “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”  “Gentiles”.  The spark re-ignites the riot.  The mob shouts, “Get rid of him!” the mob shouts.  He doesn’t deserve to live!”

Paul’s defense is over.  The Roman tribune orders him brought inside.  What now would happen to his mission to the Gentiles?

I paced our apartment’s kitchen.  I hated my sales job, wasn’t any good at it, didn’t want to go.  For three years I’d bounced from job to job.  I felt trapped.  Suddenly, I felt an urging to study to become a pastor.  It was the same compulsion I felt to raise my hand ten years earlier.  I came to believe the Lord had trapped me, until my only escape was “yes” to a mission.

* * *

Paul’s defense/conversion story raises a probing question:  If I was arrested for spreading the gospel to Muslims, say, what would my defense be?  Hire a lawyer?  Plead ignorance?  Blame my church?  Or, would I tell how Jesus came into my life and changed me and wants me to spread his good news to everyone?

In other words, would Jesus be so real in my life that I “blamed” him?









Paul did it.  He took James’ advice (Acts 21:23,24).  Went to the temple.  Entered into the rite of purification with four Jewish believers.  Paid for their head-shaving. Hoping this would quiet Jewish rumors that he was anti-Moses.  Hoping this might make peace between Jew and Gentile believers.

It didn’t work . . .

“When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, ‘Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.’ For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple” (Acts 21:27-29).

Purification rite day seven.  End in sight.  Suddenly, behind him, Paul hears shouting in the temple. “Men of Israel! Help! This is the man who teaches against our people and tells everybody to disobey the Jewish laws. He speaks against the Temple — and he even defiles it by bringing Gentiles in!” Paul turned to reply.  But they were on him before he could speak.  He tried to pull away, but the angry crowd was growing.  Nowhere to go.

Even as he was attacked, Paul understood.  Earlier, they’d seen Trophimus the Gentile Ephesian with him and assumed Paul had brought him into the inner Court of Israel.  Death to the man who allows Gentiles into Israel’s court.  Jewish purity must be upheld.  Their survival as a people depended on it.

“Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut” (Acts 21:30).

News spreads like wildfire across the city.  More Jews join the fray.  Paul tries to argue back; but the crowd’s noise has become a roar.  Blows to his rib cage knock the breath from him.  He loses his footing.  They grab his clothes and drag him out of the temple.  Behind him he vaguely hears the temple doors slam shut.  He’s dragged further, pummeled more.  A warning thought crosses his mind:  they can legally kill him for these charges.  He’s helpless.  The mob surges like a violent river at flood stage, drowning him in its madness.

“While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came, arrested him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; he inquired who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. When Paul came to the steps, the violence of the mob was so great that he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, ‘Away with him!’” (Acts 21:31-36).

Next to the temple stood the Antonia fortress, headquarters of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem.  The Roman tribune, charged with keeping peace, receives word: the whole city is in chaos.  Quickly, he calls his soldiers and centurions.  They follow him, running to the temple.  Suddenly, Paul feels the mob back off.  He hears what must be the Roman tribune arrest him, chain him.  “Who is this man?” he demands.  “And what has he done?”  This sets the crowd shouting–a rush of senseless-sounding charges.  Paul hears the tribune groan, exasperated.  Relief and anxiety fill him as he hears the tribune order his men to carry Paul into the fortress.  Breathless and bruised, he welcomes the rescue.  The voices of the crowd ring in his ears:  “Away with him!”

“Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander, ‘May I speak to you?’ He replied, ‘Can you speak Greek? ‘Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?’ But Paul said, ‘I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city; and I implore you, permit me to speak to the people.’ So when he had given him permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, saying . . . “ (Acts 21:37-40).

At the top of the fortress’ stairs, just as Paul is to be dragged inside, he asks to speak to the commander.  The tribune supposes Paul an Egyptian, who three years earlier had appeared as a prophet in Jerusalem.  He had attracted a large band of followers to the Mount of Olives, told them to wait until at his command the city walls would fall, and they should then overtake the Roman garrison and control of the city.  But Procurator Felix sent troops who killed some, took others prisoner, and dispersed the rest.

Paul, still panting from the attack, explains, “I’m a Jew, a citizen of the prominent city of Tarsus.  Please let me speak to the people.”

The tribune relents.  Paul gathers his breath, stands at the stairway top and motions with his hand to quiet the crowd.  When they’re silent, he begins, in Hebrew.

* * *

Paul will spend the next three-plus years in prison awaiting trials and will ultimately be shipped to Rome to stand trial before Caesar.

Why does God allow this?

In Lamentations,  Jews are grieving over their exile from Jerusalem.  Pagan armies have destroyed the city and ravished the temple.  Through it all,they affirm God’s sovereignty . . .

“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (Lamentations 3:38).

God didn’t only allow Jerusalem’s destruction, he sent it.  God didn’t only allow Paul’s arrest, he sent it.

We can’t blame James for bad advice, or Paul for taking it in a futile attempt to appease hostile Jews.  ” . . . both calamities and good things” come from the Most High.

But, why this calamity?  Almost five years later, from Roman house arrest, Paul will explain in writing to the Philippian church . . .

“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (Philippians 1:12-14).

God wanted Paul in Rome.  God wanted Caesar’s elite troops in Rome to hear about Christ.  God wanted the gospel to reach into Caesar’s very household.  God wanted the brothers there to be encouraged to speak God’s word more courageously and fearlessly. So he had James advise the purification rite and Paul to agree.  He had Paul arrested in the temple.  He had Paul imprisoned, tried and finally shipped as a prisoner to Rome.

Paul planned to go to Rome after Jerusalem.  God planned for Paul to go.   God’s way won.

“In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).

In this case, the Lord answered our “why?” question.  He doesn’t always.   Sometimes the Host High sends calamities without explanation, and gives no reason.  What then?

Read Paul.

And believe the Most High.

Paul’s calamity gives us ammunition for the  fight of faith in our calamity.






Decisions, Decisions

From some Bible texts lessons fairly leap off the page.  Others are an enigma, leaving us wondering why they’re in the Bible at all.  Acts 21:17-26 is like the latter.

“When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard it, they praised God . . .  “ (21:17-20a).

Paul is relieved to reach Mnason’s house.  It isn’t just the warm reception.  He and his band of about 12 men are carrying the Gentile offering for the poor Jerusalem church.  Besides, he’s looking forward to telling James and the elders what God has done through him.  The next day in a large room in James’ house he does, in great detail, city by city, five years’ worth.  The longer Paul testifies, the louder grows the elders’ praise to God.

But now the atmosphere changes.  Praises die out.  The room falls silent.  Facial expressions turn stern.

“Then they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come’” (21:20b-22).

“Now, Paul,” James begins.  He’s near enough to touch Paul, but speaks loudly for all to hear.   “Jewish believers in Christ Jesus number in the thousands.  And they are all eager to keep the law.”

He hesitates, searching for the right words.  “It’s rumored that you teach the Jews living among Gentiles to forsake Moses’ teaching, to not circumcise their children, to not practice Jewish customs.  They’re suspicious of you, Paul.  So what should we do?  It won’t be long, and they’ll know you’re here.”

Paul has preached, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11).  But he manifestly hasn’t taught what the Jews rumored.  Suddenly, Paul feels trapped. But James’ question isn’t really seeking an answer.  He already has one.

 “So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law.  But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (21:23-25).

“Do this, Paul.  Four poor Jews are under a dedication vow.  Join them.  Undergo the purification rite with them.  Pay for their head-shaving.  Then everybody will know that ‘you are living in obedience to the law’.  As for converted Gentiles, we accept them as long as they meet the conditions outlined in our letter.”

“Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them” (21:26).

Paul complied.

* * *

This text raises three questions.  One, what is “the vow”, this “rite of purification”?  Two, did Paul, by participating, play the hypocrite?  And, three, what in the world has this to do with us?

It’s generally thought that the vow was the “Nazarite Vow”.  It was taken by men or women who voluntarily wanted to dedicate themselves to God.  It usually lasted for thirty days, during which time he/she was not to drink any fermented drink, nor drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins, was not to cut his/her hair for the length of the vow, and was not to go near a dead body.  At vow’s end, he/she was to cut his/her hair and present it at the Jerusalem temple, burning the hair as part of animal and grain sacrifices (Numbers 6:1-21).

Sounds like a Jewish custom to declare devotion to God, sort of a formal way of presenting one’s body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1,2).  But did the animal sacrifice imply an offering for sin? (Numbers 6:21 specifies “a lamb for a sin offering”. If so, Paul here was a hypocrite.  If not, he was simply trying to make peace, trying to win those under law by becoming like them (1 Corinthians 9:20).

John Stott (Anglican leader of the worldwide evangelical movement) comments on James whose solution this was: “James . . . had a sweet and generous spirit, he has a conciliatory spirit, the solution that he’s advocating is a concession in the area of practice only.”  But James Montgomery Boice (author of the Cambridge Declaration on the Inerrancy of Scripture and founder of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals) writes: “This, what Paul did here, was hypocrisy. It was compromise. He was going to offer a sacrifice? In front of the very priests who had killed, who had crucified Jesus? It is a turning of his back on the sufficiency of Christ.”  Many commentators, however, suggest we don’t have enough knowledge about the situation to judge.  Many commentators claim we simply aren’t given enough evidence to decide.

Now:  what has this to do with us?  I think Luke intends us to understand Paul did all he could to forestall a riot by the Jews (it happened anyway–Acts 21:27 and following).  So, one lesson for us is our best peace-making intentions don’t always produce peace.  A second lesson for us is the Christian life presents us with tough choices.  Everything isn’t always black-and-white.

Take divorce, for instance.  You, dear wife, made a vow before God.  But your husband has been verbally abusive and having sexual relationships with other women for years.  Instead of improving, he’s getting worse.  Should you hold to your vow, despite his vow-breaking, and trust the Lord to take care of you?  Or should you break a marriage covenant he’s already broken?

The best we can do in some situations is to find applicable principles in God’s Word, pray, trust the Holy Spirit to guide us—then, without a clear biblical text and a definitive word from the Spirit, decide. 

“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God,
who gives generously to all without finding fault,
and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).



Going Where Trouble Waits

Our story continues–the last leg of Paul’s journey from Miletus to Jerusalem . . .

“When we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. When we found a ship bound for Phoenicia, we went on board and set sail. We came in sight of Cyprus; and leaving it on our left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there” (Acts 21:1-3).

The ship plowed through the Aegean. Miletus’ harbor and the Ephesian elders  were behind.  Paul nursed warm memories–memories mingled with sadness of the final farewell.  He turned his thoughts to Jerusalem.  This last leg of the journey would brimg him home.  “To what?” he wondered.

Favorable winds blew the coastal-trader to Cos in a day, Rhodes the nex day, then Patara.  Paul and company would need a larger ship for the eastern Mediterranean.  Patara’s fine harbor had them.  They scouted the choices, found one bound for Phoenicia, Syria’s province, and boarded.  The trader would take them 400 miles. One day, Cyprus, the island Paul had preached through on his first journey, appeared on the left.  Then, over the eastern Mediterranean’s favorable seas, Tyre rose on the horizon.  There, the ship would unload its cargo, Paul and company included.  Jerusalem awaited 300 miles to the south.  Damascus stood 100 miles to the east.

Paul's Third Missionary Journey Map

“We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home” (Acts 21:4-6).

A church had been planted in Tyre–Jews dispersed from the persecution that rose with Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 11:19).  Paul and company searched for them.  They stayed with the disciples a whole week while their ship was unloaded and readied to sail.   The familiar warning came again. Paul had told the Ephesian elders ” . . . the Holy Spirit testifies in every city saying that chains and tribulations await me” (Acts 20:22,23).  Now again, through the Tyre disciples the Spirit warns.  “Don’t go to Jerusalem!” the disciples urge.  But Paul is determined.  The same Spirit who warns of persecution  compels him to go to Jerusalem (Acts 20:21).  Reluctantly, they walk Paul to the beach.  There they pray and say goodbye.

“When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais; and we greeted the believers and stayed with them for one day. The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy. While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.  He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, ‘The Lord’s will be done'” (Acts 21:7-14).

 Paul’s ship sails south 27 miles to Ptolemais–a fine harbor, a prosperous metropolis, and a Roman colony.  Evangelized at the same time as Tyre, it offers Paul and company Christian fellowship for a day.  The next day another 30 miles brings them to Caesarea in northern Israel.  The city is a Roman administrative center, the Roman capital of Judea Province,  and also a center for Christianity in its early years.  Philip lives there with his four unmarried daughters.  Philip had been one of the seven chosen to distribute food to Jerusalem widows (Acts 6:1-5), had preached powerfully in Samaria  (Acts 8:5-12), and had led the Ethiopian eunuch to faith in Christ on a desert road (Acts 8:25-36).

Several days later, another prophet, Agabus, arrives from Jerusalem.  Without a word, he grabs Paul’s long cloth belt, wraps it around his body and announces, “The Holy Spirit says the Jerusalem Jews will do this to the man who owns this belt and give him to the Gentiles.”  Agabus’ warning is so dramatic, everyone, including Paul’s companions, urge him not to go.  But Paul answers:  “Why are you crying and breaking my heart?  I’m ready to be bound.  I’m even ready to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

They can’t change Paul’s mind, so finally they say nothing, only resignedly, “Let the Lord’s will be done.”

“After these days we got ready and started to go up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea also came along and brought us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we were to stay” (Acts 21:15,16).

So they get ready and start for Jerusalem.  Some of the Caesarea disciples come along and accompany Paul 64 miles to the home of Mnason of Cyprus, a man who came to Christ through Pentecost (Acts 2).  Mnason’s home will be their home during their days in Jerusalem.

So the stage is set.  Paul, the primary player, is in place.  He’s been warned, multiple times.  Still, he’s come, the Spirit testifying to prison and persecution waiting.  The image of bound Agabus lurking in his mind.  And, all the while, the Spirit drives him on.

* * *

Paul walking into hostile Jerusalem reminds me of missionaries today who  serve in gospel-hostile countries.  They know the dangers.  If found out, they could be expelled, or worse, arrested, imprisoned, abused.  Like Paul, they go because the Spirit compels them.  They go where the gospel is silent.  According to Joshua Project, 6900 of 16,500 people groups in the world remain unreached.  Countries most dangerous for Christians  include Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, India, Syria, Vietnam and over forty more.

So here I sit at my computer in the safety of my house, while good friends serve in a gospel-hostile country reaching people previously unreached.  Well, that’s their mission, right?  Wrong!   It’s my mission too. When the offering plate passes, whatever bit of cash I happen to have in my pocket is not enough.  When I pray for my health and my family, to forget to pray for them is to go AWOL on duty.  Paul  walked into danger for the gospel’s sake.  Many missionaries do, too.

They mustn’t go alone.


Even If God Does Not

King Nebuchaddnezzar built a giant golden statue,
a self-image rising magnificently on the plain of Dura
in his empire of Babylon; it is for worship.
The herald calls to one and all:
“O people, nations and languages,
when you hear the sound of the horn,
you are to fall down and worship
the king’s golden statue.”

Thus, when the music sounded,
all Babylon within earshot bowed low
and worshiped the king–
except three.

Three among exiled Jews in the empire,
three chosen to serve in the king’s court,
three who now stand to answer the king  in his court,
because Babylonians, eager to denounce Jews,
pointed fingers at the three:  “Treason!”

Furious the king:  “Is it true?”
“It is,” confessed the three.
“One chance more,” the king replied,
or a blazing fiery furnace will be your fate.”

One expects a pause, a waiting to weigh their choices.
But the three speak quickly–and bravely.
(Or is it foolishly?)
“We have no defense, O King.”
It’s true–no defense, no power.
“We speak only this:
‘If we are cast into the blazing furnace,
the God we serve can deliver us,
and he will, O King.
But even if he does not, know this, O King–
we will not serve your gods;
we will not worship your image of gold.'”

The climax, we know.  Into the furnace the three are cast.
Enraged, Nebuchadnezzar peers to see his enemies burn.
Instead, he sees not three . . .
“But I see four, walking freely, unhurt in the fire,
and the fourth is like a son of the gods.”

So we celebrate, and we debate who truly is the fourth.
But  it is the words of the three that capture me
(To a furious despot before a blazing furnace):
“Even if our God does not deliver us,
we will not worship the gold image you’ve made.”
“Even if . . . ”
No assurance of deliverance, no promise of rescue.
This belief sure:  our God can . . .
This outcome in doubt:  he may not . .. ”
This devotion firm:  “Even if he does not . . . ”

This, then, is where we stand.
Not outside the fire, but in.
And we are not unhurt.

Shall we think our God absent?
Shall we say he cares not?
Shall we quake with fear and anger?
No!  We shall sing.
Stubbornly, defiantly, we shall lift our hands
and sing.
And if we cannot sing, we shall speak.
And if we cannot speak, we shall whisper.
And if we cannot whisper, we shall mouth:
“I know you’re faithful and I know you can
save through the fire with your mighty hand;
but even if you don’t my hope is you alone.
I will not bow down to the gods of unbelief.”

And we will remember, even if we see him not,
Or feel him not:
We are not abandoned, not alone;
One walks with us in the flames.

*Special thank you to my daughter, Meridith, and niece, Michele, for sending me this song!

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