“Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Instead, I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple complex and were trying to kill me. To this very day, I have obtained help that comes from God, and I stand and testify to both small and great, saying nothing else than what the prophets and Moses said would take place — that the Messiah must suffer, and that as the first to rise from the dead, He would proclaim light to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:19-23 HCSB)
As I write these words, we are in the midst of a global health and financial crisis, a global pandemic triggered by an unseen enemy, a microscopic virus now dubbed COVID-19, is wreaking havoc on our physical and mental health, as well as our financial health. Some have been living in isolation or quarantine for more than a month or longer while others are just a few weeks into this “new normal.” At this time, nobody knows how long this might last or when we will begin to see some relief. Everyone hopes it is short lived, but we all anxiously wait for the light to turn on at the other end of this tunnel. None of this was in our plans for the spring of 2020.
In today’s focal passage, Paul continues to make his defense before the Roman Governor Festus and King Agrippa II. Last week we focused in on Paul’s message of repentance as he was obedient to the heavenly vision and began to preach the “gospel” or good news about Jesus, the Messiah or Christ. If you remember from last week, Paul calls on us to “repent” and turn towards God, and then to do works that are worthy or “weigh the same as” our words. To put it another way, our actions as believers must be consistent with our declaration of repentance and faith in Christ. We move from walking in darkness to walking in the light. With the light of Christ, we can clearly see the spiritual path that leads us to a life of joy and peace walking with our Father God.
This week, I want us to focus in on what happens to Paul after he makes a commitment of obedience to the heavenly vision of the Lord Jesus. As I mentioned above, we have found ourselves living in a time of uncertainty and challenge. While none of us wants or desires this challenge, we are called as believers to embrace the opportunity to minister in the midst of this challenge and be obedient to our Lord. Notice that Paul points out that as soon as he began living and acting in complete obedience to the heavenly vision he encountered strong opposition. It is this opposition to Paul’s obedience where I would like us to focus our attention, today.
As Paul presents his defense to King Agrippa, he focuses in on how his faith in Jesus as the Messiah is consistent with his Jewish heritage, their beliefs and the Old Testament prophets and their prophecies. In other words, faith in Jesus should not come as a surprise to anyone in the Jewish faith and anyone familiar with the Old Testament prophecies, even King Agrippa. God wasn’t doing something new, He was doing what He had been planning and proclaiming, from the very beginning. When the light of Christ is turned on then you read the Old Testament with new clarity and insight and you see the promise and presence of Jesus throughout it.
A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
So, why is this important and how does it relate to our modern faith? This same God who began His work many, many millennia ago, is still at work completing what He began… no longer through Paul, but now through you and me. We are all in shock and even grieving over the impact this virus is having on our lives, families, friends, jobs, community, our world and, yes, even our church. But I want you to know that this same God who proclaimed the life, death, resurrection and work of Jesus many thousands of years before it ever happened was NOT blindsided by these events. In fact, the events we face today are just some of the very reasons why God sent Christ to proclaim this message of hope and faith then, and why He’s sending us, now.
He says, “It is not enough for you to be My Servant raising up the tribes of Jacob and restoring the protected ones of Israel. I will also make you a light for the nations, to be My salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6 HCSB)
I realize that some question the love and even the very existence of a God who would even permit this devastating virus incident to happen. There’s an old philosophical claim originally put forth by the ancient philosopher Epicurus and, more recently, summarized and restated by David Hume that basically states: If God is unable to prevent evil then he is not all-powerful and if he is unwilling to prevent evil then he is not all-loving. There have been many critics and skeptics in recent decades who have echoed Hume’s sentiments but they tend to miss the underlying assumption that renders the argument impotent – God’s omniscience (His incomprehensible and limitless knowledge and understanding). These critics all assume that they have an unlimited understanding and knowledge of human nature and the impact of evil. In reality, their knowledge and understanding falls far short of an omniscient God. Let me see if I can illustrate my point…
As I write these words, I am eating lunch on Saturday afternoon and my dog is lying near my feet. She is looking longingly at each bite I take and even drooling on the floor. A few feet away is a dish full of food that she hasn’t even been touched. What she wants desperately she really shouldn’t eat, but that doesn’t change her desire or her longing for those things. In fact, if she could express her thoughts verbally in words I could understand, she would probably call me cruel and my decision to not give her my plate an act of sheer evil. I hope you see my point. Her viewpoint of my actions is entirely based on her limited perspective and knowledge while my decision is based on my superior knowledge, understanding and a perspective of what can be truly harmful to a dog. She might like and desire something that is entirely harmful and even dangerous while despising something that is actually good and beneficial. Her understanding and knowledge are limited since she is a dog, but that has little impact on her feelings about me, at the moment.
The philosopher’s view above falls into the same trap. The philosopher or skeptic assumes a knowledge and understanding of human nature and human need that is based on his desires and his personal perspective and not from a position of full and unlimited knowledge and understanding. However, God has knowledge and understanding that goes so far beyond ours so as to make ours appear similar to a dog’s, at least by comparison. It is tempting to respond that such an idea is just outrageous, isn’t it? But, is it? If God created the Universe and all that is in it, how much greater must His knowledge and understanding be beyond yours and mine? As far as you and I are from the most distant star, too far to even fathom. That’s how far above us God is… do you get it now?
Like my dog, I sit and stare at God wondering why this should happen and what is the purpose in it all? And like my dog, I cannot truly understand or embrace the answer God gives. It is just too much. Yet, He longs for me to come alongside Him and to walk with Him, to trust Him and to allow Him to guide me into what He knows is best for me. Not to understand each incident, but to trust Him in each one.
So, how does this relate to Paul and our focal passage? Notice that Paul faces situations that also seem out of place and, what some might consider, out of character for a servant of God. He has been told, by Jesus himself, that he is a chosen instrument but yet when begins to be obedient to Jesus’ commands then he immediately begins to face challenges and persecution. He relates how his obedience to the Word of God results in the Jews seizing him and trying to kill him. Isn’t it ironic that the very place where this persecution occurs is in the Temple at Jerusalem by the Jews, God’s people, and where they say God’s very presence dwells? However, it is worth noting that Jesus warned His disciples that they would face these kinds of challenges in their faithful obedience to Him.
“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you. They will hand you over to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of My name. It will lead to an opportunity for you to witness.” (Luke 21:12-19 HCSB)
An opportunity to witness…
If you didn’t catch those last few words of that quote, go back and read it again. “It will lead to an opportunity for you to witness.” Witness of what? Of God’s grace, faithfulness, love, compassion and care. To witness of the unity that should, no, that MUST exist in the body of Christ, the Church. This unplanned event in our lives is also an opportunity to witness about Him. To be a witness to the unity of the Church. To witness of the faithfulness of God, of His grace, His love, His compassion and His caring. How are these attributes of God expressed in this global pandemic? Through the hands and selfless actions of loving doctors, nurses, aides and caregivers. Through the acts of sacrificial service and kindness offered up by neighbors, friends, family and even complete strangers. We are witnesses when the church acts in any manner that is consistent with the character and commands of Christ.
Paul certainly used the challenges in his life as an opportunity to witness. In fact, he was even wearing chains as he made his defense before King Agrippa. We face the double challenge today to bear witness to Christ even while we are in isolation and practicing “social distancing.” In that respect, technology has provided us with the perfect means of staying in touch while staying physically separated. While you might be reading this post, I also use this same text to present this message via Facebook Live streaming and YouTube videos. We would love for you to join us live or to watch our archived videos.
Help from God?
Finally, I want you to notice how Paul ends his defense. He notes that he has “help that comes from God.” This help might not be readily obvious or apparent to the outsider, but it is present in the life of the believer…
“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful.: (John 14:27 HCSB)
We often question God’s help when it doesn’t come in a form that is expected or desired. If you consider Paul’s circumstances, you might wonder what help Paul could possibly be referencing. “Help from God, I don’t see any REAL help from God! He’s still bound by chains and sitting in a prison cell for his faithful service to Christ.” Yet, if you take the statement of Christ’s purpose in calling Paul as a witness, that he would testify to Kings (see Acts 9:15) and would experience “chains and afflictions” (see Acts 20:23) then it might be possible to view this with a different perspective. Paul has received lots of help from God to pursue God’s purpose and plan for his life.
We often do the same, don’t we? We place our prayers before God, but we expect Him to answer them in the way and manner that we deem appropriate…
“A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9 HCSB)
In 2 Corinthians 13, Paul talks about how some question whether he can pass the “test” of being a real Apostle. They had expectations of what an Apostle would look like or how he should demonstrate his Apostolic power, position and authority. In other words, he couldn’t be a “real” Apostle because he didn’t match up with their assumptions and expectations. Dangerous things… assumptions and expectations. Especially when it comes to God. Yet, Paul wasn’t called to “live up to” their expectations but to be obedient and submissive to the purpose, power and will of God. By the way, as a believer that’s what you are called to do, as well.
So, the help that we receive from God is not help to be rebellious or disobedient but to be fully obedient and in the very center of God’s will for our lives. Let those words infect your prayer life and mind the way that this virus threatens to infect you. Let those words get deep into your soul and mind. God’s help is intended to help you be an obedient servant acting consistent with His character and purpose for your life. But, how often do we pray for things that we know are in direct conflict with God’s will and then wonder why He doesn’t grant our request?
My desire for you is to know God’s peace and His powerful presence. In the midst of this storm, you too can find that He will come alongside you and walk with you. He offers hope when the world knows only despair. He offers life when the world struggles with death. He offers His peace in the midst of your storm. Will you walk with Him? You can respond to this message with comments or post a prayer request to me here…