Words of Truth and Good Judgment
“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.” As he was making his defense this way, Festus exclaimed in a loud voice, “You’re out of your mind, Paul! Too much study is driving you mad! ” But Paul replied, “I’m not out of my mind, most excellent Festus. On the contrary, I’m speaking words of truth and good judgment. For the king knows about these matters. It is to him I am actually speaking boldly. For I am convinced that none of these things escapes his notice, since this was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you believe.” Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily? ” “I wish before God,” replied Paul, “that whether easily or with difficulty, not only you but all who listen to me today might become as I am — except for these chains.” (Acts 26:22-29 HCSB)
Have you ever made a decision and then immediately regretted it? I have and I’m pretty sure you have, too. Sometimes our mouths respond before our brains can silence them and we end up reaping the results. We’ve all made this kind of mistake and then had to live with the consequences. Open mouth, insert foot. Some of you might be surprised that I would continue to work our way through this passage in Acts on Easter instead of jumping over to the gospels and landing on a traditional Easter passage and message. Honestly, the thought crossed my mind but as I thought, prayed and studied on this passage I was reminded that every Bible passage points at the story and message of Easter and this one is no different. No need to go running to the gospels for an Easter focused message because that message runs like a scarlet thread throughout scripture.
In fact, Paul states as much here when he says “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.” That, my friends, is the GLORIOUS message of Easter Sunday! Jesus came and fulfilled all of the prophecies of the Old Testament and Moses and that He suffered, died and rose from the dead. That message is a proclamation of light and life to the Jews but also to the Gentiles by that same faith, faith in Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Living Son of God. This message of light conquering darkness, of sin, repentance and forgiveness, of life, death and new life, of separation, redemption and resurrection runs from cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation. It IS the message of the Bible and it is the one I want to share with you, today.
Let me start by showing you how the world responds to this message. It is right here in our story, in this focal passage… Festus exclaims, “You are out of your mind, Paul. You have spent too much time in your books and it has made you INSANE!” Festus expresses the very thoughts that many in our culture express; belief in Jesus as the resurrected and living Lord, the Son of God is just plain crazy. Most have no problem expressing belief in Jesus as a morally good, inspiring, religious teacher. But as the resurrected and living Lord, the King of all kings, the Creator of the universe and Almighty God.. well, that’s a little far fetched. Maybe even crazy. It really depends on how far you take this religious belief. If you take it as far as Jesus demands, then you aren’t just a little religious nut, you are CRAZY!
Here’s the deal, Jesus didn’t come to just make you feel better about yourself. He didn’t come to boost your self-esteem and give you personal focus and ambition. That’s what some of those “feel good,” religious teachers today want you to hear and believe and then, by the way, you can send that nice, big fat donation check to the address on your screen. That’s what a morally good, inspiring, religious teacher might do… but that’s not what Jesus came to do. Jesus didn’t come to get something from you, He came to give something to you, Himself. Jesus didn’t come to simply inspire you, He came to redeem you. You see, Paul was inspired and motivated before he encountered Jesus, but it was all for personal gain. Our problem is not a lack of inspiration or of motivation, our problem is deeper inside us… it is a problem with our heart. We don’t need inspiration or motivation, we need transformation.
At their core, our hearts are selfish and sinful. Ah, there it is.. the “S” word. Sin. That word is not very popular and is certainly not used much, today. In fact, it is seen as offensive by most people. Why? Because it implies that my personal choices are wrong and, in the Age of Enlightenment and individualism, personal expression and choice is almighty god. You may think that I am exaggerating, but today we live for self — self-identity, self-expression, self-achievement. We might express some care and concern for others, but even that comes from our own self-awareness. Even the most popular books, seminars and courses are self-help focused. Even as our knowledge and understanding of the universe expands our focus becomes more personal and selfishly motivated.
In fact, one of the biggest factors we’ve faced over the past few weeks is the need to socially isolate in the midst of this global pandemic. Yet, we find it hard to do so. Some would say it is because we are such social creatures, but I say that part of the struggle is because we don’t like being told that we MUST do something to protect everyone else. Our focus is on what we need and want on a personal level, everyone else be “damned.” As a pastor, my desire is for our church group to be able to meet and encourage one another but I have to look beyond those personal desires and focus on the “needs” of others. Those among us who are most at risk NEED us to make smart, loving and difficult choices — the choice to protect them while denying our own personal desires or needs.
In a very real sense, that is what Paul has been doing in this story. His focus is not on his personal needs, desires or even his own well being but his focus is on being obedient to the call of Christ. He is denying his personal needs and desires while seeking to take this message of light to a very dark world. Why would he be willing to sacrifice his freedom, his health, his very life for such a cause? Because his heart has been transformed and his hope has been placed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He now KNOWS that these things (the claims about who Jesus is and what He’s done) are true and his beliefs have transformed his desires, his focus and his actions. His identity, needs and desires are now submitted and subservient to the authority and commands of Christ. Are yours? If you claim faith in Christ, then your identity, needs and desires must also be submitted and subservient to the authority and commands of Christ and not yourself.
If you do not claim faith in Jesus Christ, I’d like to share with you why you should. It all hinges on things found in our story. Paul had been an opponent of Christ. He had been doing everything he could to destroy this new movement, the fledgling church. Yet, he makes a complete and dramatic change. He goes from being the church’s biggest enemy to its most outspoken and enthusiastic evangelist. He makes a 180 degree turn around. How? Why? Because he had encountered undeniable proof of the truth of the gospel story. He had seen and spoken to the resurrected Christ. You might say, that’s not proof it is just another man’s story. But you would have to agree that it would take something really BIG to turn the church’s most staunch opponent and persecutor into its most vocal and tireless ally, wouldn’t you? Festus calls him crazy and Paul responds that he’s not crazy, but is speaking words of truth and good judgment.
So, let me get to the heart of this matter. We are basically left with two options: 1) Paul’s story and the claims of the resurrection and deity of Jesus are all just myth and legend – Jesus might be a morally good and inspired teacher but he’s not God incarnate (in human flesh); 2) Paul’s story and the claims of the resurrection and deity of Christ are true – He’s the very Son of God – God incarnate, is alive and has been given authority over life and death.
To be honest, while many religious people (even those of other faiths) are willing to embrace option #1, it simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Most scholars, even those who deny the deity of Christ and the historicity of the resurrection, agree on these basic facts: 1) Jesus died at the hands of the Romans by crucifixion; 2) the Apostles truly believed in the resurrection of Jesus as is evident in their subsequent actions; 3) the Apostle Paul was dramatically converted from an opponent and persecutor of the early church to its most outspoken and enthusiastic evangelist; 4) the Apostle James (brother of Jesus and unbeliever) was dramatically converted and became the primary leader of the early church in Jerusalem.
C.S. Lewis framed the argument this way, Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or He is Lord. Some have added a fourth option, Jesus is simply a legend – in other words, the gospel accounts are all myth or legend and not based on a true historical account of the events. So he is either a legend, a liar, a lunatic or He is Lord…
Let me start with the first, Jesus or, at the very least, the gospel accounts of his life are legends and not factual accounts. In other words, they lack historical accuracy and make claims that are outlandish and fantastical in nature. There are several problems with this theory but most of them revolve around two basic facts; 1) the gospels do not bear the marks of legend, they have been verified as historically and geographically accurate and they are archeologically verified and were written close enough to the actual historical events to contain legendary embellishments, 2) a legendary Jesus doesn’t account for the changes we see in the Apostles, and especially in the dramatic conversions of James and Paul. So, the facts don’t seem to support the “Jesus is a legend” theory.
Next is the theory that Jesus and his teachings were based on intentional lies and he was out to mislead and take advantage of others. To base your leadership on intentional lies would assume that you were out to gain something from the lies and some advantage in the intentional misleading of those who might follow you. Nothing in the historical accounts or the gospels supports this type of leadership from Jesus. He did not seek or receive financial wealth nor was he seeking personal or political gain from his actions. Did he exercise influence over his followers? Yes, but his influence and their obedience to his teachings was entirely morally based, spiritual, voluntary and did not result in any personal advantage, financial or political gain.
Was Jesus a lunatic? Well, He certainly made very strange and outlandish claims if he was just a man. That is certainly the focus of Lewis’ views in this argument. There are some who say that Jesus never made the claim to be God, at least in the early gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew). They state that the claims of Jesus’ deity are late inventions of the church and are intended as a means of exercising power and authority over the lives of people. However, the gospel of Mark is considered, by most scholars, to be the oldest (earliest – less than 20 years after the crucifixion) of the three Synoptic gospels and clearly makes claims consistent with the gospel of John (latest of all of four gospels). In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus tells a paralyzed man that his “sins are forgiven” and the Scribes (legal experts in Jewish OT law) immediately begin to think “who can forgive sins but God?” So Jesus, knowing their thoughts, replies “Why do you think these things? Which is easier to say, ‘your sins are forgiven’ or ‘get up and walk?’ But just so you know that I have authority to forgive sins (or, that I am God), he tells the man, ‘get up and walk.” If he was just a man, then his claims are crazy in the same way we would look at someone today who made a similar claim. The difference? Jesus backed up His claim with the proof of many miracles – especially the resurrection!
Finally, if Jesus isn’t a legend, a liar or a lunatic then is He the Lord of life, the creator of the universe, God in human flesh? While most of us who are gathered this Easter for worship would shout, YES HE IS!, there are some of you who may not believe or who have doubts. Let me share with you the basic reasons why I believe the resurrection is real and the best explanation for the facts.
1. The tomb WAS empty – even unbelieving scholars concede this fact. If it wasn’t empty, the Jewish authorities need only produce the dead body of Jesus to squelch this new religious sect. All of the explanations for the empty tomb fall short in explaining that empty tomb, except the claim of the resurrection.
2. The women were the first witnesses of the resurrection – the witness of a woman in this patriarchal society was not even permitted in court, so why would the gospels record this fact unless it were true. This lends strong support to the overall truthfulness of the gospels, the stories they tell and the facts they state.
3. If the resurrection was simply a hoax by the Apostles, as some claim, why would they sacrifice themselves to perpetuate what they knew to be false? You don’t die for what you know to be a lie, but you would be willing to die for what you believed to be the truth. So, the Apostles really believed the resurrection occurred. There’s no other explanation and even skeptics agree, the Apostles believed the resurrection really occurred.
4. There are more eyewitnesses than just the 11 Apostles, but certainly 11 are sufficient to establish this as a fact. In 1 Cor. 15:1-11, Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to more than 500 members of the early church, most of whom were still alive. He then goes on to say that Jesus appeared first to James (Jesus’ brother), then to the 11 Apostles, and lastly to Paul himself. Paul’s point in this statement appears to be that there are more than enough witnesses to support these facts in a legal court, if you don’t believe me then go ask them yourselves.
As Paul makes his defense before Agrippa, Festus has interjected that Paul must be mad, out of his mind because of his excessive study (grammata – books, writings or letters). But Paul says, “I am not out of my mind, most Noble Festus… but speaking words of truth and good judgment.” He then challenges King Agrippa to consider his words because he knows that Agrippa is aware of these things because they happened out in plain sight – in everyone’s view (or not in a corner). I want to end today with that same appeal, but to you!
Will you consider these facts? Paul didn’t come to this decision emotionally, but based on “truth and good judgment.” In fact, some of you may have made decisions to follow Christ based on an emotional appeal and now that your emotions have calmed down, maybe you have had doubts. Let me assure you, doubts are not unusual or destructive. In fact, if you address your doubts with facts then your faith can be solidified and strengthened. It is called faith, not because there are no facts to support it, but because all of the facts lead us to taking a step of faith in believing something that is beyond our physical comprehension and out of the ordinary. It has NEVER happened before nor since and to believe is to step beyond the ordinary into the extraordinary. Some would say, it is to believe in what cannot be seen but which is absolutely known.
When Paul asks this question of Agrippa, he responds by stating that he wishes Agrippa were just like him but without the chains. That’s how much Paul believes, so much that he’s willing to hold fast to his faith despite the fact it put him in chains. See, I told you… radical redemption. Paul wasn’t just some ho-hum, common, boring, “what nice day to go to church” kind of Christian. Paul was radically changed by what he saw on that road, and you can be changed that way, too. That’s what Jesus calls us to be. Don’t believe me? Go read Matthew chapters 5 – 7. It’s crazy! Crazy good, crazy hard, crazy life changing. Maybe that’s why Festus said, “Paul, you are mad. Crazy. Get a grip! You’ve been reading too much!” But it is that kind of crazy faith that Jesus calls us to embrace on this Easter Sunday in the midst of a crazy time, a scary world… crazy faith! Crazy faith based on words of truth and good judgment.
Let’s get out there, and be crazy for Christ!