“He summoned two of his centurions and said, “Get 200 soldiers ready with 70 cavalry and 200 spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. Also provide mounts so they can put Paul on them and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” He wrote a letter of this kind: Claudius Lysias, To the most excellent governor Felix: Greetings. When this man had been seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them, I arrived with my troops and rescued him because I learned that he is a Roman citizen. Wanting to know the charge they were accusing him of, I brought him down before their Sanhedrin. I found out that the accusations were about disputed matters in their law, and that there was no charge that merited death or chains. When I was informed that there was a plot against the man, I sent him to you right away. I also ordered his accusers to state their case against him in your presence. Therefore, the soldiers took Paul during the night and brought him to Antipatris as they were ordered. The next day, they returned to the barracks, allowing the cavalry to go on with him. When these men entered Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him. After he read it, he asked what province he was from. So when he learned he was from Cilicia, he said, “I will give you a hearing whenever your accusers get here too.” And he ordered that he be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.” (Acts 23:23-35 HCSB)
The rights and privileges of citizenship differ greatly from country to county. The freedoms I take for granted, many of you only hope to enjoy, some day. Persecution, especially based on religious beliefs, is not declining but appears to be increasing globally. This is true, not just in countries that seek to suppress religious beliefs but also in countries which claim to have “religious freedom.” Some religious oppression emanates from government and its representatives while some, unfortunately, emanates from its individual citizens.
One of the most basic rights of which I am most appreciative in the United States is stated in the first amendment to the United States Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. In other words, citizens of this country have the basic human right to worship freely without governmental interference or the establishment of a “favored” religion, to speak freely and peaceably protest and petition when we believe we are being oppressed.
In today’s focal passage, we find Paul being protected and safely escorted by the Roman soldiers at the command and direction of the Tribune. As mentioned last week, a plot was developed by a group of Jews who sought to kill Paul and the plot was revealed to the Tribune by Paul’s nephew. The tribune is charged with keeping the peace and protecting Roman citizens and he obviously considers this plot a serious threat to Paul’s life. If you’ll remember, some Jews from Ephesus started this entire incident when they assumed Paul had brought Trophimus, an Ephesian Gentile, into the Jerusalem Temple. The original claim (of bringing a Gentile into the inner court of the Temple) appears to have taken a back seat to the truth of the gospel and, especially, the resurrection of Jesus. As I mentioned last week, if the resurrection is true (and I believe there’s overwhelming evidence that it is) then it changes everything – including the Jesus’ authority over the Sanhedrin Council and the Temple, itself.
One more, huge thing that the resurrection changes is Jesus’ authority over you. You see, if Jesus is the King of kings and the Son of God then he also has authority over you and your life. It is important to note that this authority, while true and absolute, may not be immediately recognized or followed but will, eventually, be realized and experienced. To put it somewhat more direct, if Jesus is God then there can be little doubt that He has absolute authority over you, even if you don’t believe in His authority or Lordship. He has given us the freedom to discover His existence, experience His love and submit to His authority, in this life. However, there is coming a day when His authority, power and position will no longer be a matter of faith (or doubt) but will be clearly seen, experienced and fully known. On that day, EVERY knee will bow before Him in humble acknowledgement of His righteousness and reign as King of kings – as God Almighty.
Today, I want us to stop and consider the implications of this authority in our daily lives. Paul is clearly being held unjustly and under false pretenses. The Roman Tribune, Claudius Lysias, even acknowledges such in his letter to the Governor, Felix. Lysias points out to Felix that he has found no justification for Paul’s death or even his imprisonment (or chains). Yet, Paul remains bound and imprisoned. If you’ll recall, we have encountered Paul in prison before. He was arrested, beaten and imprisoned in Philippi before being released. In fact, Paul even notes in his second letter to the church at Corinth (see 2 Corinthians 11) that he has suffered many beatings by the Jews, lashes from the Romans and even survived being stoned. Here’s the underlying question we all want to ask, “Why, God?”
While we might possibly ask this question of God concerning the struggle Paul faced, we really want to ask that question of God concerning our own struggles. Why God? Why me? Why this? Why now? I’ve often stated to my children and my church members, “God isn’t afraid of our questions but we often dislike His answers.” We often tend to approach God with a “holier than thou” attitude and you really need to catch and understand the irony in that statement. Let me clarify… we expect, even demand, an answer from God regarding our circumstances as if we know better what we need or deserve.
First, let me state clearly that evil does exist in our world and some skeptics like to claim that disproves the existence of God, at least a loving, kind, compassionate God like we see in Jesus. Their conclusion is, if evil exists then a God of love cannot exist. However, that is to presume a knowledge and understanding of life that is equivalent to God. They assume that true love cannot permit the possibility of evil. However, the Biblical narrative tells us that evil is not the direct creation of God but is the result of rebellion against God. In other words, God allowed for the possibility of evil when He created creatures (human and angelic/spiritual) that were capable of choosing or rejecting His love and authority.
In contrast, if God doesn’t exist then evil doesn’t really exist either. That statement might shock you a bit, but hear me out. If God doesn’t exist then this world and everything in it is just the result of a cosmic accident or the result of chance. In other words, the things that we consider to be “evil” are really not evil but are the result of chemical reactions, genetic mutations, evolutionary chance and circumstances outside of our control. In other words, I’m not really responsible for my choices because they are the result of nature and chance. It isn’t evil, it is just nature, just natural, just evolution. If God doesn’t exist and this same process has been occurring for billions of years then why am I surprised by my circumstances, why am I disappointed and why would I be expecting different results and outcomes? If it has ALWAYS been this way then why should I be expecting anything different?
Ah, there’s the question. Why? But why ask why if God doesn’t exist? No, really. Why? You see, we do expect and long for something different, but why? Why are we dissatisfied and disappointed with our lives and our circumstances? Because we sense down deep in our souls that this ISN’T the way things are supposed to be. This isn’t natural, this world is broken and desperately needs to be fixed. Why do we hate evil? Because we have an innate sense of something better, not just better but something absolutely good, kind, loving. Some skeptics respond that our belief in God is just our desire for something better or the dream of someone to relieve our suffering (i.e. Marx’s opiate of the people). But why would we dream of someone or something to change our circumstances if we had no knowledge or sense of something better?
So, what’s my point? If God does exist and He created us and everything we see, and I absolutely believe He did – and I hope and pray that you do – then He must be kinder, better, more powerful and knowledgeable than we are and, thus, more capable of giving guidance to our lives than we are. That’s where we find Paul in our story, absolutely trusting God as he begins this journey away from Jerusalem and towards Rome. This is not a journey of convenience or comfort. It is a journey towards difficulty, danger and dependence – dependence on a trustworthy God. You see, God isn’t trustworthy because He gives exactly what we want and, thankfully, what we deserve. He gives us what is needed to move us towards Him, towards His love and forgiveness, towards Christlikeness and away from our selfishness and failures.
Our story presents a man, Paul, who seems to be at the mercy of the Romans. His life seems to be spinning out of control. He has been under constant pressure and threats as he preaches the gospel. Now, his life is being threatened by these Jewish assassins and the tribune takes great measures to assure Paul’s safety. But Paul is not at the mercy of the Romans and his life is being guided by the very hand of God. Those of us who are believers may look back on Paul’s circumstances and see the very hand of God at work. Yet, we struggle to see His hand at work in our own lives when our circumstances resemble Paul’s. Thus, our cries of “Why, God?”
As I write this paragraph, I’m facing challenges of my own. None of us are exempt. For me, the question isn’t “why is there evil in this world?” but, “why is there goodness and love?” My physical, human desire is to respond to these specific challenges I face with anger and violence, but that goes against my spirit. My spirit reminds me that while I am a citizen of two kingdoms, one earthly (physical) and one heavenly (spiritual), I still have just one King, Jesus. He has authority over my life in both kingdoms and not just the spiritual one. If He is your Lord, then you also share that same dual citizenship with one King. Do you trust Him in both? Are you obeying Him in both?
Let me conclude this week by challenging you to recognize our tendency to try and live our physical and spiritual lives independently of one another. Our culture even encourages us to keep them separate and treat them differently. We are told that our religious beliefs are fine but we should keep them out of our public lives. We can hold and act on those beliefs, privately.
Now, most of you will recognize that this is not a biblical approach to life but we have still been influenced by our culture and we are doing this in ways that are not entirely obvious. We often tend to make business decisions without considering their impact on others. Yet, unscrupulous business practices are strongly condemned by God. We have often voted based on one “factor” we consider good and righteous while ignoring others. In all honesty, as I approach retirement age I have evaluated some personal decisions and even voting based on how it will best fit with my retirement goals and plans. In other words, I’ve approached some issues with an eye towards what God would want and other issues with an eye on what I want. Not very spiritual, is it? Who’s really King in that situation or circumstance? You don’t need to answer that question, I already know the answer.
So, here’s my prayer for you and me… that we would learn to stop putting our faith in a box that we can set aside when it is convenient or expedient. We need to learn to trust God even in the questions and fears. We need to follow Him regardless of what it leads us away from (Jerusalem, old beliefs, habits and rebellion towards God) or leads us towards (Rome, fears, struggles, chains, obedience and trust in God). Remember, two kingdoms, ONE King!