Getting It Right

decision-3

“As the seven days were about to end, the Jews from Asia saw him in the temple complex, stirred up the whole crowd, and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place. What’s more, he also brought Greeks into the temple and has profaned this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple complex. The whole city was stirred up, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul, dragged him out of the temple complex, and at once the gates were shut. As they were trying to kill him, word went up to the commander of the regiment that all Jerusalem was in chaos. Taking along soldiers and centurions, he immediately ran down to them. Seeing the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the commander came up, took him into custody, and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He asked who he was and what he had done. Some in the mob were shouting one thing and some another. Since he was not able to get reliable information because of the uproar, he ordered him to be taken into the barracks. When Paul got to the steps, he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the mob’s violence, for the mass of people followed, yelling, “Take him away! ”” (Acts 21:27-36 HCSB)

All I really need to know learned in Kindergarten. At least, that’s the claim made by Robert Fulghum in his well-known book by the same name. Fulghum basically argues that the basic lessons he learned in those early days of his education are really the basis for everything else that is really important about making it in life and making life really count. He stresses that essential lessons like sharing, playing fair, not hitting, washing your hands, holding hands and sticking together when you venture out into the world (and few others – check them out here) are all things we learned early in life and that can still serve us well as adults. In essence, Fulghum says that these early childhood lessons are essential to not only surviving and thriving in a classroom full of five-year-olds, but also in the bedroom, the boardroom, the courtroom, and every other room where life takes you.

I would agree, wouldn’t you?

The problem is that, while most of us learned these early lessons, we’ve often failed to continue following them as we grew up and moved out of our Kindergarten classroom. We somehow relegated these essential lessons for life to our ancient past and have moved on to more modern, mature or “adult-like behavior.” Wait, maybe we’ve got that backwards. Aren’t those childhood lessons and actions the real basis for proper adult behavior while most “adult behavior” is really pretty childish, at its core?

Mankind has this notion that as we mature, learn, develop, evolve, progress, grow or whatever else you might try and label it, then things are really getting better and our knowledge and understanding is improving. In many ways, this is certainly true. We have made significant improvements in the past century scientifically, medically, technologically and mechanically. I am more than happy to be able to sit in my home with all of the modern conveniences of heat, air conditioning, a ready supply of clean water, proper sewage and waste disposal and food storage/refrigeration and preparation, to name just a few. But many of these improvements have not really improved us. They have certainly made life easier, more convenient, but I’m not sure you can argue that we’ve improved, as humans, because of them.

What does all of this have to do with today’s focal passage? Simply put, the Jews of Paul’s day faced the same basic problem. They believed that they had progressed and grown in their knowledge and understanding of God over the centuries. While they certainly valued those early religious lessons as God’s children, they had moved beyond them and felt that they had a better, deeper, more accurate understanding of God now than they did as children. In fact, you might even say that, while they valued the wisdom and knowledge of God instilled in them through the ancient “child-like” lessons of Moses and the law, they had developed many “adult” traditions and interpretations of those laws.

But not all adult actions are really better for you, for others, or for society. In many ways, adult actions can be very, very childish. Let’s take a look…

Incorrect Assumptions and False Accusations

Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen how the preaching of Paul has come into direct conflict with some of the Jewish Christians because they believed that Paul had abandoned the Mosaic laws and traditions of their forefathers. Now, Paul has been encouraged by James to show his loyalty to the Mosaic laws through fulfilling a Nazarite vow and his personal piety by assisting four Christian brothers in completing their vows. On the seventh and final day of his purification, Paul is spotted in the Temple by some non-Christian Jews from Asia (the region of Ephesus). These men appear to have made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Pentecost and obviously recognize Paul from his time in Ephesus. While they aren’t specifically named, it seems reasonable that they must have been involved in the riot that was incited by the Jews in Ephesus. They had seen Paul earlier in the week with Trophimus, a Greek Christian from Ephesus. These men assume that Paul has no respect for the Jewish law or the Temple and accuse him of profaning “this holy place.” Luke says that they jump to the erroneous conclusion that Paul must have brought Trophimus into the inner court of the Jews, a crime punishable by death to both parties – Paul and Trophimus. These men have made assumptions about Paul and his actions and those assumptions are completely incorrect.

How often do we make assumptions about the actions or attitudes of others based on a misunderstanding of their beliefs? While there are many examples I could cite, I would like to point out that our prejudices are all based on false beliefs, misunderstandings or fear. While it is difficult to recognize our own prejudice or false assumptions while they are occurring, we often look back and recognize them in our past. In today’s focal passage, it appears that fear is a major factor. The Jews from Asia use language that indicates they are appealing to the crowd’s fears and underlying prejudices, especially towards change and Gentiles. We have folks today who want to use fear and prejudice to control and manipulate our actions. Some of these fear mongers would have us cloister ourselves inside the church and cower in fear from outsiders. While we must be vigilant and careful to protect our children and other vulnerable members from any who might try and harm them, we must not forget that to follow Christ is to follow Him into the darkness of the tomb so that we might discover the light of the resurrection.

Luke tells us that these Jews, driven by their prejudicial fears, rushed together, seized Paul and drug him out of the Temple complex. Their intent is quite clear, they intend to take justice into their own hands and beat Paul to death. In some ways, I’m sure this seems outrageous to us. These “religious” people are so outraged by their hatred and driven by their fear that they begin to violate one of God’s most solemn commands, “do not murder.” However, I would remind you that similar events have happened in our own culture and even our own backyard in just the last century. We tend to think that most of the racial tension of the past century was in the Deep South, like Georgia and Mississippi. However, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is still considered to be one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history and, tragically, many of these racially motivated events were at the hands of those who claimed to be Christian. But, you don’t have to go back very far to see these same attitudes and actions in the recent past. Our fears are driving us to treat many who don’t share our religious beliefs or moral convictions with similar contempt.

Governmental Responsibility and Personal Sacrifice

Let me be very clear here, scripture is emphatic that government and its leaders are called by God to protect those under her care and punish those who disobey her laws (see Rom. 13:1-4). However, individuals are called by that same God to love our neighbors as we would love ourselves (see Matt. 22:39). So, while our government ought and must protect us from harm at all costs, we must be willing to give ourselves sacrificially for each other. Luke gives us a very clear example of this as the Roman Commander intervenes and, essentially, rescues Paul and saves his life as these Jews are intent on killing him.

We will see this scene played out in more detail as Paul is kept safe and alive several times in the coming days and weeks of our story. Luke appears to be showing us what a government, who is acting in accordance with God’s design, should do – protect its citizens (and preserve their rights) from those who would seek to harm them. While Paul has stated his willingness to suffer and even die for the sake of Christ, he is also willing to invoke his personal rights as a citizen of Rome to bring governmental authority to aid in his protection.

These examples give us guidance in what to expect and how to respond when we are challenged and our lives may be at stake. We must be willing to follow Christ wherever He might lead, but we should also expect our government to protect us.

Decisions Have Consequences

“The whole city was stirred up… rushed together… seized Paul, dragged him out of the Temple… at once the gates were shut!” It is easy to read these words and miss their looming importance and long term consequences. The whole city responded and the gates were shut! Decisions have consequences, don’t they? Sometimes those decisions and the resulting consequences go in the direction we had hoped and the outcome is just what we wanted. Other times, our decisions and the resulting consequences go in the other direction and the outcome fulfills our worst fears. I started this lesson with the reminder of some lessons you may have learned as a child, but one thing children really don’t grasp well is that their choices have consequences, often they are unwanted consequences.

When I was a child, my older brother and I would often play together and we made many poor choices that had unwanted consequences. For example, I remember setting off fireworks in our backyard in the middle of the night without any thought that the fireworks would wake up our parents. We were having a great time shooting bottle rockets at our next door neighbor’s bedroom window (trying to wake him up to come join us) when we realized our parents were standing at the backdoor watching us. Oops. Caught in the act. No denying this one. I also remember an explosive Easter egg that almost caught our house on fire. It’s no wonder our dad didn’t have much hair on his head, he pulled it all out because of the two of us. Our childish minds simply could not see that our actions would result in unwanted consequences.

The actions of the Jews have consequences, undesirable, unwanted, unintended consequences. When the city responded to Paul, in essence, they were rejecting Jesus and His Gospel for the last time. One last time, they dragged God’s messenger from the Temple while rejecting God’s message and Luke observes that the gates of the Temple were SHUT! Essentially, they had shut God out of the Temple while refusing to hear His message of Good News. Decisions have consequences, sometimes unintended consequences. God had left the Temple, the gates were shut and within a few short years, this very Temple would be completely destroyed and the city burned. With their rejection of Paul and his message of God’s amazing grace and salvation through the incarnate Christ, they had sealed their fate.

Your decisions also have consequences. Scientists tell us that as our brains develop and mature and around the age of 25 we begin to understand that our actions or decisions really do have consequences (our actions/decisions obviously have consequences before this age, but we usually fail to recognize they’re connected). I’ve heard college students, on more than one occasion, ask for prayer to do well on a test. My initial response is always, “have you studied, sufficiently?” I believe in prayer, but the decision to neglect your studies have consequences. Each week, I face a deadline for sermon preparation. Each week, I must make a conscious decision to pray, study, work, seek God and avoid distracting activities in order to meet this deadline. Each day, you must make a conscious decision to get up, get ready, and go to work or school then you must decide how much effort you put into your work or studies. These decisions have consequence.

Are you able to recognize that your spiritual choices and decisions have consequences, perhaps unintended consequences but, often, eternal consequences? Like these Jews, you are faced with a choice. Will you ignore God’s actions or be deaf to His words and let the gate slam shut? Will you be blinded by your own prejudice and act in disobedience to God’s command to love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself? Remember, your decisions WILL have consequences, maybe eternal consequences.

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