January 26, 2020
Pastor Ricky Smith
Almost everybody likes a good story. Now, some of you may like to read your story in the form of a novel. Others of you might like to watch your story by binge watching a show on Netflix. Others of you maybe want the silver screen, the movie. But regardless, we like a story. We like to get lost in it, and we like to see the characters develop.
And sometimes, it may be difficult to pinpoint what the big idea is or who the central character is. Play along with me, if you will. Let me pick one of my favorite stories. Let’s jump into Star Wars. Who is the central character of Star Wars? Is it Darth Vader? I mean, you could assume that it’s Darth Vader. He is the quintessential villain, and we see his story in one of the movies. There’s this little boy who grows up, and he has this inner tension, and there’s the good versus evil. He wrestles and gives into the evil. And he becomes this guy. “I’m your father.” Is he the central character? I don’t know. Maybe.
Maybe it’s Luke Skywalker. I mean, they did use his last name in the feature of the end of the story. So maybe it’s really all about him. Maybe he is the central figure in the story, and it’s about this guy who people rally around, and he’s the leader of the army, and he’s got the courage to stand in front. Maybe it’s Luke.
Maybe it’s baby Yoda. I mean, there’s so much about him we don’t even know yet, like we don’t even know his name. But he’s cute, and so we’re going to buy plush toys of him, and we don’t even know where he fits in the story yet. But he’s got to be something significant because he can do things.
But in reality, regardless of what character you like, when you pan back and you see this whole story, it has nothing to do with any of those characters. It’s all about this idea of hope. Hope really is the central thread of the story of Star Wars, that no matter how bad it gets, there’s always hope. And people are going to rally around that idea. And it’s that is the central message of that whole storyline.
“Ricky, what in the world does that have to do with what we’re going to talk about?” Well, Acts 21 has nothing to do with Star Wars, but it has a lot to do with telling a story, and it has a lot to do with, specifically, telling a story in a way that doesn’t allow any one person to become the central figure in that story, but forces the attention to pan back on the big story in all of it.
You do realize when you look at Scripture as a whole, there is this great story of relationship, of restoration, and reconciliation between God and humanity. And there are different characters that come in and out of the story along the way, but none of them are what it’s about. And that really establishes this concept that even in our life, sometimes we want to make it about us, and we want to tell our story in a way that we are the star of the show. But my life is not about me. It’s about pointing to Jesus. That’s been that central idea. -that it’s all about Jesus, and all I have is Christ.
So we’re going to dive into the story of Paul today, and it’s going to feel like, imagine if we were watching a movie, and all of a sudden we had one of those flashback episodes where we went back in time and we retold the origin story right in the middle. That’s what we read today. So let’s dive into it to set the stage, because in every story, we need to understand the stage in which it’s being told. Let’s read chapter 21 verses 37-40.
37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying:
Pause. Now, to understand where we are a little bit, you might want to go back and listen or watch the sermon from last week. Or, maybe in your own time, re-read the preceding verses, but what we understand is, Paul has been on this journey. He gets to Jerusalem. He interacts with James and the elders. They encourage him to, for the sake of keeping the peace and fellowship, to follow some of these traditional elements of purification.
So he goes through that process. He walks into the Temple. People are offended. They stir up stories because these Jews from Ephesus come in. It’s a big whole story. We’re jumping right into the middle of it, but what happened in the preceding verses because the mob got so irate, and they stirred so much dissension by spreading lies, Paul has been arrested. And now this tribune comes into the scene. We learn later that his name is Claudius, and we’re going to see over the next couple of weeks, he gets more and more engaged and more and more interaction with Paul.
And so here, setting the stage coming on the heels of this great mob, the tribune has just rescued Paul from the clutch of despair to pull him away for interrogation and for safety to keep the peace. Paul stops and says, “Hey, can I talk to everybody for a minute?” I mean, just imagine that. The world is in an uproar, and Paul is like, “Hey, can we just talk a little bit?” And he’s given permission. He gets all the attention of the people. This mob that has been screaming for his death now hushes and listens to what he has to say.
And in that moment, what does Paul do? He just tells his story. Let’s unpack it. If you’re taking notes, here’s the first thing we see in Paul’s story: It’s a moment, or a statement, of confession. Let’s read verses 1-5 and listen to Paul’s confession.
1 Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” 2 And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel
according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.
Notice, he’s speaking to his brothers and fathers. In other words, “You’re my people. We share a similar heritage.” It would be as if this were today, and he said, “My fellow Americans,” or “My fellow Columbus-ites.” (Is that what we call us? Columbus-ians?)
“My fellow community members, my people who share a common interest and heritage with me, I’ve got to make my defense.” Now, this word for defense, if you want to highlight and underline that, it’s where we get the root word for apologetics, and it literally means “to make a formal defense” or “to make a formal case for.”
So, imagine, he is with people who know him and even share at least some common cultural affiliation and background, and he’s got to defend himself to them. You and I know well that sometimes the most difficult people to defend yourself to are your spouse, your parents, your kids, or the people in your community. And that’s the audience that he has today.
Now, what does he say? He is describing that, “Hey, before Jesus, let me tell you what my life was like before Christ. I was an evil, wicked killer. I tracked people down for following Jesus, and I murdered them. That’s what I did.” And he’s standing in front of them to say, “And all of you endorsed that.” The word Way was the known descriptive name of the church at that time. “Followers of the Way.” Where does that come from?
Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” So, the Way the name of the church growing at that time, and Paul begins to now describe and unpack, “This is the Paul who used to be, Brothers and Sisters. And you were okay with that. In fact, you endorsed that. Your leaders endorsed that.”
As Paul continues in his formal justification of his life change, he makes a defense of his actions. The beauty of our defense and his defense is that the subject we will see is not Paul’s goodness, but it is God’s grace. And that’s the hope in your story, as well. It is not your goodness that you can brag about. It is the grace of God. And now we hear Paul rewinding the clock, and we know that he’s setting up for what he wants to share in a minute.
But I can’t help but wonder about the disdain, that guilt that Paul had. I mean, he had blood on his hands, and he’ll even refer to one of those encounters with Steven here in a minute. Paul remembered very vividly what his life was like before he met Jesus. And I’m just curious if perhaps you and I remember what our life was like before Jesus. The longer we pursue Christ and the more we fall in rhythm with Him, if we’re not careful, the more arrogant we can become, that we can look down on others, say, “I’m way above that behavior.”
That is just sin, and we forget that we were once there, too. Don’t forget your life before Jesus. Never forget what He’s rescued you from, and that’s that’s why Paul is being reminded here of what his life was like before Christ. Our hope for peace today, our hope for the rest of eternity is found when we confess that we need God and we have a sin problem. That’s a confession we have to make. 1John 1:9 tells us:
1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
God’s Word tells us in Romans 10:9-11:
9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
See, our life before Christ is marked by separation from God. And in that state, we deserved the full wrath of God. We deserved hell and eternal separation from Him. Romans 3:23 reminds us of this truth:
For all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.
Roman 6:23 reminds us:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Remember, life without Christ offers no peace in trial. It offers no help. Life without Christ offers no help when we’re lonely. Do you remember what it was like?
Recently, I had to attend the funeral of an uncle, and without going to detail, I’ll just say, in my extended family, there’s not a lot of Jesus. It is a very rough, dark, sin-ingrained extended family. And so, I’m in this funeral, and I’m watching and listening to people and how they grieve. I’m reminded that those who sorrow without any hope, I don’t understand how you can navigate something so painful as death without the hope of glory.
It’s a heavy burden for my family. Pray for my family with me, that they will see their need for Jesus. Without Him, it is a hopeless, empty vacuum. But what we need to understand, and as Paul unravels his story, he wants all of us understand, it does not have to be this way. It didn’t have to be empty. You don’t have to be filled with darkness. There is hope. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us:
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
And perhaps you’re here today and you’ve never put your trust in Christ. And it may be that today, the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart and is calling you into a relationship like he called Paul. And for you, like Paul, maybe there could be a moment of conversion.
That’s the second idea for today, and let’s read about it in verses 6-15. Paul begins to continues to describe in this flashback moment of his story:
6 “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. 12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.
Underlined those two words, if you would: seen and heard. See, Paul begins this story by describing what life was like before Christ. And now he begins to describe this moment when he encountered Christ, when his road of his life journey intersected in that moment, for Christ was calling him into relationship. And our story contains a component like that. I hope it does. Here’s my story:
I was I was actually young. My story is nowhere near as dramatic as Paul’s. I didn’t have a flashing light on the road, and I didn’t have that dramatic, miraculous encounter. For me, it felt a lot like this: I was in a church in Fayetteville, Georgia, sitting in the back, when a guy who was preaching the good news of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit said, “You need that.” And I said, “Okay.” And I put my trust in what God was calling me into, that relationship.
And so, that’s my story. It wasn’t some dramatic thing, but I can say I remember what life was like before. I can remember that moment, and I remember what life is like after. And the challenge for us here, like what Paul is describing, is when we have had that moment of conversion, then it’s a matter of, we have to share what we have seen and what we have heard. I can’t help it!
You do this all the time on social media. That’s why that big button on the bottom right corner that says “share” is there. They know, the designers of that algorithm know you have this natural inclination to want to share what you’ve heard. Well, why aren’t we that way with Jesus? If He’s wrecked your life and change your world and given you hope, I need to share what I have seen and what I have heard with others. Why? What’s the purpose? Again, who’s the central character of the story? Let me point you to what we read in 1John 1:1-4.
1 John 1:1-4
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Why do I want to share this story? Why did Paul want to share this story? -because he wanted them to understand what his life was like without Jesus, how he met Jesus, and he’s seen and heard and tasted that, and he needs you to know that that can be the same for you, too.
So, what we see next is this reality for you and me to understand: Our story may not be as dramatic as Paul’s, but your change is powerful because it brought you from death to life. And when you encounter God, it changes your life. For me, I can say, “I once was lost, but now I’m found. I once was blind, but now I can see. I once was dead, but I’ve been made alive. I once was an orphan, but now I am a child of God. I once was lonely, but now I have a friend who sticks closer than a brother. I once was hungry for purpose, but now I can feast on the manna of heaven that brings me peace.
Why? -because God has wrecked my life. That’s why. When you see here Jesus, it will change you. And in fact, if you want to take this entire sermon today and summarize it in one sentence, here it is: When you stand at the intersection of despair and hope and put your trust in Jesus, you will be changed.
When you stand at the intersection of despair and hope and put your trust in Jesus, you will be changed.
When you recognize, the road that I’m walking on currently will lead me toward separation in hell, that is a moment of despair, and you realize that your journey is intersecting with Jesus, which brings hope. And if you put your trust in Him, you are changed forever. 2 Corinthians 5 says, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come.” My change and hope for eternity doesn’t require that I wait for some future blessing. I also experience peace and hope and purpose today. And I’m called on mission with Him.
Watch what happens next for Paul when he responds to this call. We see it in verse 16. Ananias is speaking to Paul as Paul recounts the story:
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
It’s as if Ananias is saying, “What else do you need? What are you waiting for? Jesus has just shown Himself to you. He’s told you to come here, and you’ve done it. And you’ve met me.” Jesus might say, “What else do I have to do for you to show you that I’m calling you into relationship? What are you waiting on? Get up, wash yourself, and put your trust and confidence in Jesus.”
And now, we’re going to see in Paul’s journey, when he described what his life was like before Jesus and he described the encounter when he met Jesus. Now he’s going to begin to unpack what it looks like after Jesus is in his life, and he describes this great commissioning that God has given to him. We see it in verses 17 through 21, and it reads:
17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ 21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”
Here in this moment, after Paul’s life has changed, he is commissioned on a mission, and for Paul, it was a very specific message delivered to a very specific group of people. But you and I need to understand, we don’t get off that easy, because when we look at Scripture and we come to the Great Commission that is intended for all of God’s followers, you have been given a mission, as well. Matthew 28:18-20 describes it as the Great Commission, which is what we call it commonly. “Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I’ve commanded you.”
We are on mission with God. We have been commissioned, and we need to understand that that mission is an inseparable reality to your life with Christ, and it should be part of your story. Here’s a question I have for you: How has walking with Christ been interwoven into the tapestry of your journey?
Why do I say it that way? My life is made up of many threads and many relationships and many stories that make up who I am. And the question is, am I allowing the Spirit of God to use me in all of those interwoven relationships and all of those encounters that make up the tapestry of my life and allowing God to speak into those things?
Here’s what we need to understand. Culture, especially today, culture will tell you this: “It’s ok for you to have faith. It is okay for you to go to church. It’s okay for you to worship with your family, but that is your private life, and you need to keep it to yourself. And then you have to separate that from the rest of your life. -where you work and where you play and where you interact with your neighbors. You need to keep all that faith stuff locked up over there in your private life. That has nothing to do with your personal life. Don’t you dare share any of that on social media. Don’t you dare speak about that at work. You just keep that to yourself.”
That’s what culture tells you and expects you to do, but what we need to understand is, my life with Christ impacts and intersects every thread in the fabric of my being. I cannot separate God and faith from anything. I can’t separate my faith from my relationship with my wife. I can’t separate my faith from my parenting. I can’t separate my faith for my finances. I can’t separate my faith from my work ethic. I can’t separate my faith from how I interact with the neighbor who plays his music really loud at night and keeps me awake. I can’t intersect my faith from the interaction that I have with the people in the marketplace who drive me crazy. I can’t separate my faith and how I respond to the boss who treats me unfairly. I can’t separate my faith from any part of my life, because it’s all-consuming for you and for me.
And he has commissioned me and you as we go into all of that stuff. What am I to do? Make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them. That’s what life with Christ looks like. And this may be counterintuitive, but let me help you. You can’t do any of that. You can’t. But when you and I understand that in a moment of desperation (we’ll talk another day about being poor in spirit in Matthew chapter five), when I’m at the end of my rope, totally desperate, realizing I can’t live without Christ, that I can’t survive a day without Him and I have no hope apart from Jesus, it is all about Him. It is all for Him. It is all through Him. He is the King of Glory, and that trial, that sin, that struggle that you and I have to endure is an everyday reminder that I can’t do this apart from Him. He’s our hope. There’s life with Christ.
Here’s the next point: In verses 20-30, we see that life with Christ introduces this idea of citizenship.
22 Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23 And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. 25 But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. 30 But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews, he unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them.
Paul begins to wrap up his story, and then we see this encounter, this conversation about citizenship, and this is insight into the culture of that day. We’ll not go into great detail over this. You can read it later if you like. But the bottom line is, a Roman citizen had an exclusive status of protection. They needed to be treated a certain way, and here, Rome was in an oppressive oversight and government over the Jews. And they could treat them unfairly, but they couldn’t treat another Roman citizen unfairly. There were very strict laws.
And so, when the tribune hears that Paul is a Roman citizen, he taps the brakes and backs up. “Whoa! I’ve got to be very careful now with what I do and how I treat this guy because you are now understanding to be a Roman citizen.” And the tribune even realizes that this was common in that day. He bought his citizenship, but Paul was born as a citizen, and that’s an important insight. I think, in this context of our conversation, in light of the story that we have just read, it’s important for us to realize that we are not of this world. As followers of Jesus, we are citizens of heaven. And your birthright does not gain you that. Your wealth can’t buy you. It’s not by birth, nor by purchase, not by the favor of men, nor by the good merit of your good behavior.
Rather, it is by the influence of the Spirit of God upon us and within us and by our appropriate corresponding action in response. As God’s children, this world is not our home. We’re just passing through. We, instead, are ambassadors for Him and His kingdom, to tell all the world of what we have seen and what we have heard. You and I, like Paul, are storytellers. We have a story to tell, and your story is different from my story.
It’s unique in how God has wired us with our personality and our experience of coming to the cross. But all of our stories should be able to describe, “This is what my life was like before Christ. This is how I met Christ. This is what my life is like after and with Him. And this is the difference He’s made in my life. The details may be unique, but the motivation behind the verse we read a few minutes ago from 1John 1, verse 3, “What we have seen and what we have heard, we proclaim to you also, so that you, too, may have fellowship with us.”
You and I are storytellers, but like the Star Wars saga, we’re not the central figure. It’s not about us. It’s about pointing them to Jesus. It’s about helping them understand that there is this great rescue mission, that God sent Jesus on this earth to redeem mankind, to be in a relationship with God. That is the central message. It is Jesus. And in conclusion, I will read 1Peter chapter 1, verses 3-7. And it says this:
1 Peter 1:3-7
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
What truth that gives us peace! We don’t have to live a life of emptiness. We don’t have to navigate trials without hope, because we have a king who has authority over all of it.
- Today, I choose to put my trust in Jesus.
- Today, I commit to tell the story of hope as an everyday missionary.
- Today, I confess I have focused on making myself the central figure of my life.
- Acts 22:1 describes Paul giving a defense for his actions. This is the word from which we get the idea of “apologetics.” Share a time when you have defended the Gospel. Why is this important in today’s culture of tolerance and relativism?
- Acts 22:6-15 describes Paul’s conversion experience. Take this opportunity to share with one another your personal conversion story.
- In light of our stories, how can we hold each other accountable for sharing those stories with the world?
- Why is it important that our lives show the Fruit of the Spirit?
- What is the negative impact if our actions don’t line up with what we profess?
- Read Acts 23:1. How can we hold each other accountable to live our life with a good conscience that shows the world that Jesus is the King of our life?