Relationship not Ritual

“And after five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus. They laid before the governor their case against Paul. And when he had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying: “Since through you we enjoy much peace, and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation, in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude. But, to detain you no further, I beg you in your kindness to hear us briefly. For we have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.” The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming that all these things were so. And when the governor had nodded to him to speak, Paul replied: “Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense. You can verify that it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem, and they did not find me disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd, either in the temple or in the synagogues or in the city. Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me. But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man. Now after several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings. While I was doing this, they found me purified in the temple, without any crowd or tumult. But some Jews from Asia— they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, should they have anything against me. Or else let these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, other than this one thing that I cried out while standing among them: ‘It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day.'” (Acts 24:1-21 ESV)

The weather in Oklahoma, regardless of the time of year, is an experience in extremes. In fact, I saw a post on Facebook last week that stated, “Mother Nature says, “you can’t have all four season in one week” and Oklahoma is like, “here, hold my sweet tea and watch this.” Today and tomorrow it is supposed to be in the mid 60’s and 70’s and then we are going to have snow on Wednesday. Crazy, right? While our weather can sometimes be a bit bi-polar, I’ve never had to really deal with a plague of biblical proportions. Have you?

Yet, our world seems to be reacting and bracing for an onslaught from the newest threat, the Coronavirus 2019-nCoV. While the threat from this new strain of the Coronavirus is very real, it is currently classified as a low threat for wide spread infection in the United States (and most other countries) with only 7 confirmed cases currently in the United States. However, there are just over 12,000 confirmed cases worldwide (11,860 in mainland China) with just over 250 confirmed deaths from the virus. By comparison, the CDC estimates that there have been 19-26 million cases of the flu with 180,000 – 310,000 of those cases requiring hospitalization and somewhere around 10,000 – 25,000 deaths related to the flu during the 2019-2020 flu season. These numbers are estimates because we’ve become so accustomed to this flu outbreak each year that we no longer report the case data completely or accurately.

Why bring this up as we prepare to look at this week’s focal passage in our study of Acts? Precisely because it illustrates how we often react and, sometimes, overreact to a perceived threat. As I read and studied for this week, I kept going back to the statement in today’s passage where Paul is called a “plague.” Not only is this descriptive of how these Jewish religious leaders viewed Paul, it is also illustrative and descriptive of how many in our world view the “perceived threat” of biblical Christianity. I am intentionally using the adjective “biblical” in this statement because I want to draw a clear distinction between those who embrace a traditional view of Christianity with scripture as their source of authority, actions and beliefs. This is in clear contrast to those who embrace a modern view where culture, feelings and psychology tend to influence their belief and actions more than scripture. For many, this traditional view of Christian belief and faith is now seen as antiquated and “out of touch.”

Now, I must admit that some beliefs and actions that get associated with this traditional view of the Christian faith are simply wrong. For example, any form of racism, sexism, slavery, domination, aggression or class distinction that has ever been tied to the Christian faith was simply WRONG and unBiblical. When these SINS are exposed then they must be confessed, renounced, abandoned, and corrected to the best of our abilities.

While life doesn’t have an “undo” button like my word processor does, we must be willing to try and correct or undo any damage our incorrect beliefs and practices have had on people’s lives in the past so that their future is unhindered by our sin and disobedience. I am very glad that Southern Baptists are taking these steps away from their past sin and seeking forgiveness from those we’ve wronged and pressing towards true Christian brotherhood and fellowship. This isn’t something that should only happen at the denominational level, but must also be sought in each church and church member’s life.

Why? Because Jesus bridged all barriers to bring people into relationship with God and with one another and commands us to do the same.

In today’s passage, we find Paul on trial before Felix, the Governor of Judea. Felix is known as a cruel and selfish man who ruled as governor from 52-60 AD. In fact, we can date Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea based on these facts. We know from extra-biblical sources (Jewish and Roman historians) that Felix’s rule ended abruptly when he was recalled to Rome by the Emperor for his part in a dispute between the Jews and Syrians which he used for extorting money from both parties and to kill many of them. It appears that Tertullus was well aware of Felix’s cruel reputation and offered lavish praise for the kindness he had shown the Jews and the supposed “reforms” accomplished under his rule. While Tertullus’ words are all lies, they are intended to elicit a favorable ruling from Felix in this matter against Paul.

I want you to notice how Tertullus refers to Paul as a “plague.” He seems to use this term as a means of drawing Felix into their scheme of dealing with Paul, their plague. By this point, it may be common knowledge that Felix is on shaky ground with the Emperor and Tertullus might be holding Paul out as bait. The main point of contention between the Emperor Claudius and his governor, Felix, is the ongoing trouble and unrest that keeps surfacing in Judea. It seems that Tertullus offers Paul up as a possible scapegoat that Felix can blame for this unrest. Tertullus may be suggesting that Felix blame Paul and his preaching of Jesus as the root cause for this ongoing unrest throughout the region while the Jewish leaders chime in with their support. Fix our “plague” problem and, while your at it, blame him for your problems, too. A bit of ancient Roman and Jewish quid pro quo, so to speak.

At this point, Paul is given an opportunity to offer a rebut in his own defense. While he offers congenial acknowledgement of Felix’s rule over the Jews for many years, he noticeably doesn’t offer the false praise that Tertullus offered. Paul states simple facts, he had not been in Jerusalem long enough to be the root cause of the unrest and his accusers had presented no witnesses of the alleged charges. It would probably have been sufficient for Paul to have ended his defense, at that point. He has an alibi (has not been in Jerusalem except the past 12 days) and they have no supporting witnesses. Instead, he readily admits to his part in “the Way” or sect, as the Jews call it, regarding the teachings of Jesus and this is where I’d like to focus the rest of our time.

Paul offers up that his faith in Jesus is not “against” the faith of his Jewish heritage but is, in fact, its fulfillment. Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18 ESV) This is an important point in the preaching and teaching of Jesus. The core truths of God and His will, as revealed in the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament, have not been discarded but, instead, have been completely fulfilled in Christ.

It is important to note that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the truth of God and the truth about God as revealed in the Old Testament Law and the proclamations of the Prophets, but to fulfill it or bring it to its intended purpose or goal. Jesus is not a new thing that God is doing, HE is the very thing that God was doing all along, where God was headed this entire time. Paul has not abandoned his people’s historical faith, he has FOUND it. Paul has finally stripped away all of the religious trappings, political diversions and cultural adornments of his religion and, in doing so, he found the simple but profoundly radical teachings of Jesus illuminating the Way – illuminating the way to God, speaking the truth of God, revealing even the very Son of God.

What we often overlook in the strained relationship between God and His people, the Jews, is how they liked to take the revelation of God as given to Moses and then “interpret” it for themselves into a set rules for daily living. If you’ll do these things, follow this pattern, practice these rituals, and pray these specific words then God is obligated to love you and give you His blessings. Not a relationship, but rules. Really? Go back and read the Old Testament again. The words that are used to describe the Jews struggle regarding God are words of relationship – love, covenant, marriage, walk, trust and idolatry. Read the prophets, read the Psalms, read the Song of Songs/Solomon, read the Pentateuch (the Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and tell me that they aren’t about a loving relationship between God and His special creation, His people.

Somehow we’ve taken the idea of reading God’s words daily, of binding them to our hands or foreheads, of teaching them to our children as we walk alongside them, of letting them be our daily guide and stripped them of their power by removing them from any personal relationship with our heavenly Father. I want you to notice that Paul was coming to the Temple, but not to perform some ritual but to worship the God he met on that road to Damascus. He was bringing alms and a sacrifice, but not because God required it but because He deserved it and Paul wanted to honor Him and proclaim his dependence and trust in Him. Is your worship of God a religious ritual or the natural result of your relationship with Him?

I passed a personal milestone this year when I turned sixty years of age this past August. Some of you might think, “what milestone? I passed that one a LONG time ago.” Still, a few of you might be thinking, “goodness, he sure is old.” Why did I consider that age a milestone? For me, it had less to do with age and has more to do with the fact that my own father died at that age, thirty years ago this July. I still remember that early morning when I received a phone call from my mother. I heard her say simply, “Gary, it’s your father.” I immediately knew what those words meant. He was gone. But, he hadn’t been sick. He was in relatively good health. How? Why? I had just talked to him. This can’t possibly be true. But, it was. It is. I still miss him. EVERY. DAY.

Why do I relate this story to you? Because I didn’t know my Dad by just reading about him, once in a while. I didn’t know my Dad by someone else telling me stories about him. Nope. I know him, intimately (and, yes, I made that statement present tense intentionally). I remember how he smelled. I would recognize his hand writing immediately. I can still feel the table shaking when he wrote or signed his name. I know the feel of his beard stubble on my cheek. I hear his voice reminding me not to torque the bolt so tight that I twist it off. But I also remember his discipline when I disobeyed. I can hear him say, “this hurts me more than it does you” as he prepared to give me a much-deserved spanking. I can even hear the sound as his belt was being pulled off for that spanking. You might cringe at that thought, I don’t. My dad loved me enough to teach me how to be a man/father/husband, to hold me when I cried, to pick me up when I fell down, and, yes, even to to discipline me when I disobeyed – which I did, far too often.

You can’t know your Heavenly Father just by hearing someone else tell you stories about Him and His relationship with someone else. You will never become intimate with Him by just reading or hearing His words once in a while. You will never recognize His voice if your prayers are entirely one-sided pleas for favor or simply an empty and vain recitation of His Words. Is it really possible to know God in these intimate ways? Absolutely. It’s possible to recognize His voice, to immediately recognize His written words or His signature, to feel His hand on your shoulder or His arms encircling you. It’s possible to sense His presence, to learn from His discipline and to lean against Him in love but it takes relationship not ritual.

Finally, I want to close with a brief look at how Paul could face his accusers, Felix the governor, and years of prison and persecution with an enduring sense of hope. Paul tells Felix and his Jewish accusers that his hope lies in his absolute confidence in the resurrection of Jesus. This isn’t some newfangled belief emanating from a cultural collective or feeling, but is rooted in the old prophecies and enduring truths of God’s Word. Our modern culture seems to view traditional Christianity as “out of touch” with reality and irrelevant to people today. To think in such a way is to misunderstand both, biblical Christianity and people today. We might consider ourselves modern, but our needs and problems haven’t really changed. They get a fresh coat of paint slapped on them and some newfangled jargon or name tied to them, but they’re the same old problems.

Let me state this next thought very, very clearly. If God came to the people of first century Jerusalem, Galilee and Samaria and declared to them the truths of God and the way to God, then He was also wise enough, powerful enough and resourceful enough to account for and provide for our needs and struggles. In other words, the same Jesus who saved Paul is able and willing to save you and me precisely because He IS Almighty God in human flesh. He longs to have a relationship with you and to express His love for you. But, what does He require?

Remember, not ritual – relationship. Love Him with everything that is within you (see Matt. 22:37). Acknowledge Him as God (see Matt. 16:13-16), recognize your need for and dependence on Him (see John 6:66-69; Romans 5:8), confess your sin/failure to love Him and to obey Him as He deserves and marvel in His grace and the forgiveness that will flow down upon and wash over you (see Romans 3:23, 6:23; 1 John 1:9-10; Romans 10:9-10). Then begin to walk with Him in that relationship and seek to obey Him, worship Him and follow Him in your daily life (see John 14:15-21).

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