When life’s storms are pounding, be one who not only rests in the presence and promises of God, but help others do the same – Acts 27, Part 5

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Are you struggling in the midst of life’s storms? I write this in 2020, and it is not only shaping up to be an active hurricane season, but 2020 is filled with other storms too. Political upheaval, Covid-19, racial injustice. Each of these have affected just about all of us in very personal ways. Are you feeling scared? Increased anxiety?

It could be that you and I need to hear the message from God, “Take courage!”  Paul heard it numerous times from God, and we can hear it as well.  While we might not have a Paul right by our side getting a vision from God telling us, “I am with you,” we do have the promises of Jesus that he will never leave us or forsake us. 

That does not mean that life will always work out.  We know that.  When Jesus says, “I will never leave you nor forsake,” he means that he will be with us in the storm.  There will be storms.  We should not expect that this life will not have storms.  But we can expect that he will be with us in the storm.

I know it can be hard sometimes to make that personal, to make that promise matter in the midst of the difficulties of life. Jesus doesn’t promise that our hardships will end or that they won’t lead to death.  Not to be morbid, but we have to stare death in the face, and say, “Because of Jesus, I have hope of eternal life, and I do not fear you.”  It might be an act of convincing yourself. 

I believe Paul’s point of “have courage,” is that even when life seems hopeless or overwhelming or just too much, when we feel battered and shipwrecked, we Christians are people who fight hard against the temptation to allow ourselves to be ruled by fear and despair rather than by faith, hope and trust. It can be a battle sometimes to fight the negativity we feel.  But battle anyway.  Wage war against fear, trusting in Jesus, that he is who he says he is.  Stepping forward rather than hiding.  Over and over in scripture (more than 300 times) we read “do not fear”.  Is it possible that we have temporary amnesia, forgetting who is living in us.  We are adopted children of the King. And he is a good good God.  A good Father.  He loves us.  He does not promise ease.  But, he promises he is WITH us. 

Of course we use wisdom when we respond to the hardships that life brings. Consider Paul’s approach to the storm.  Paul could have said, “God said we’ll make it through this alive, so let’s just kick back and let God do all the work.”  It sounds more spiritual maybe.  But kick back and let God work is not what Paul did.  What did he do?  He urged everyone onboardl to eat food, and he warned the centurion about the sailors trying to escape on the lifeboat.  To have best chance for all to survive, Paul knew everyone needed the energy from the food and the expertise of the sailors.  He wasn’t freaking out and living in despair. He took practical action steps, and he encouraged those steps with confidence in God’s care, not in panic.  He faced the storm with courage because of who he is in Christ, not in hopeless desperation.  He was very wise and realistic, even though he already had the promise of God that they would all make it alive through the storm!  What we see is that practical realism is perfectly compatible with trust in God. 

In the midst of times when you feel a bit broken, beaten up by the things of life, sit with Jesus.  Remember who he is.  Make a list of his character traits.  Mediate on them and not on your circumstances.  Keep a regular, growing, physical list (on your fridge, on your bathroom wall, or in a journal) of the ways you have seen God move in your life, the ways he has shown you who he is. Choose to think of those things in the midst of pain and struggle.  It does not make the struggle go away, but it helps to keep despair and hopelessness away. 

You know what else we see that Paul did in Acts 27? He was helping others in the midst of the mess they were all in.  He did not sit in a corner and just look at his own pain.  He saw how the storm was affecting others, and he was part of directing them to God and to the presence of God.  When life’s storms are pounding, be one who not only rests in the presence and promises of God, but help others do the same.

Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is…eat? – Acts 27, Part 4

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If you like to eat, I think you’re going to like this post. I love eating. Sometimes I wonder what people throughout the centuries would think of food options that we have available to us in 2020? We eat like kings of old could only dream about. In fact, we have the foods of the world available to us all the time, and thus those kings probably had no idea what they were missing, as the options were so limited. Someone should make a TV show that envisions what it would be like for various people from ages past to walk through Costco, sampling food. My point is that eating is a genuine pleasure for most of the world in our day and age. Certainly we need to be aware of and compassionate and generous towards those who are living through famines, food deserts, by supporting local food banks. But have you ever considered that eating is sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do? Wondering how that could be true?

We find out in our continuing study through Acts 27 when we learn what happens after Paul’s speech.  Go ahead and read the rest of Acts chapter 27, verses 27-44.

14 nights of a brutal storm!  Can you imagine?  That’s horrible.  14 nights!  But there is hope.  While they don’t spot land, the depth of the water was getting shallower though.  120 feet.  Then 90.  This means land must be near, but it also means there is a new danger. The water is getting shallower and shallower, and fast! If it gets much more shallow than that, and they run aground on rocks, the ship will be smashed.  So they have to do something to slow down.  They drop anchors and start praying for day light. Interesting that they prayed.  How many prayed?  Just Paul and the other Christians?  Or like the phrase, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” maybe all or most of the 276 passengers were reaching out to whatever various gods they might have believed in. 

Clearly not all of them are good with the spiritual option, because in verse 30, some sailors try to escape on the lifeboat.  Paul intervenes with the centurion saying that those sailors are vital to their survival.  So the soldiers cut the ropes, dropping the lifeboat into the water. 

Paul speaks up again in verses 33-38, urging all to eat, saying that they have gone without food the entirety of two weeks!  Paul is right, this can’t continue.  Even when you’re freaked out, you need to eat.  I love the practicality of this.  Paul isn’t spiritualizing here.  He is simply speaking to a physical reality.  Thankfully, the people agree.  All 276 of them eat to their fill!  Good thing, as we’ll see, because they will need the energy.

Paul’s timing is great.  When daylight breaks, they run the ship aground on a sandbar, and the ship’s stern is eventually broken to pieces by the pounding surf. 

At this point, the Roman centurion and his soldiers are in a very bad spot.  If they lose their prisoners, Roman martial law dictates that the soldiers will have to pay for those prisoners by giving their own lives.  The centurion Julius intervenes stopping the soldiers from killing anyone. Eventually everyone makes it to shore safely, whether by swimming or floating on planks of the ship.  That is where the chapter ends, with God’s word to Paul coming to pass.  No one was lost, just as God told Paul. 

What can we learn from Paul’s actions and words to the people on the boat in the middle of the storm? As we saw yesterday, we can have peace in the midst of great trauma.  We can trust in God rather than become consumed by fear.  We can choose to rest on the character and presence of God and not on worst case scenarios. We can be the voice of comfort and calm, seeking to dissolve the drama. Today, we also saw Paul thinking very practically. Eat! In my own struggles with anxiety, practical matters have been incredibly important. Exercise. Eat healthy. Get a good night’s sleep. Consider taking meds. Get therapy. Breathe. Sometimes these very down-to-earth steps are the most spiritual thing you can do. Does that sound like a contradiction? How can physical acts be the most spiritual thing you can do? They are two different realms, aren’t they?

Nope. Not if you are human. We humans are a mysterious combination of the physical and the spiritual. I will admit that I don’t know how it works: body, soul and spirit. Do we have three natures? Two? One? There is a long-standing debate in theology, psychology and other sciences about this. I’m not going to attempt to resolve the debate. What I do believe is that the physical and the spiritual are somehow beautifully intertwined in humans. In other words, everything we do and think is a combo package, physical and spiritual. It is important, I believe, to see ourselves that way. Take seriously your physical well-being, just as much as you give importance to your spiritual life, and vice-versa.

If you’re thinking, “Easier said than done, Joel,” I agree.  While I implement those practical measures, I can still really struggle to trust in God rather than be consumed by fear.  There is still the reality that pain happens.  The ship broke apart!  But in the middle of the storm, where should our focus be? 

Check back in tomorrow for the final post in this five-part series on Acts 27, as we wrap up by seeking to further apply Paul’s words and actions to our own storms of life.

What to do and say in the middle of life’s storms – Acts 27, Part 3

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When you are in the middle of a life storm, what do you do? What do you say to people who are really struggling? How should disciples of Jesus answers these questions? As we have been studying Acts 27, the Apostle Paul’s journey to Rome, he is on a boat in the middle of a storm. The 276 people on board the Roman cargo ship are desperate, as the storm is relentless. Paul speaks up, as we saw yesterday, but the first words out of his mouth are rather discouraging.

Look at what Paul says verse 22.  After starting with a petty “told ya so,” now he is encouraging.  Did you notice how similar Paul’s words here in verse 22 are to the words that Jesus said to him in the vision in chapter 23:11?  I referred to that in the first post in this series.  That was back in Jerusalem when the Jews wanted to kill him. Jesus said, “Take courage.”  Now Paul says to his fellow passengers, “Keep up your courage.  Not one of you will be lost, only the ship will be destroyed.”

Don’t you wish you could see video of this moment?  The storm is raging.  People are probably shivering, dripping wet, trying to hold tightly to anything on deck that can sure them.  Remember, there are 276 people. Could they all hear Paul?  Or could only a smaller group standing near him hear Paul?  Those that heard him, did they care?  Did they respect him?  Did they believe him?  Did his words, “Keep up your courage,” inspire them at all? 

We don’t know how the people reacted at that moment.  But I do want us to consider what Paul did while the storm was pounding.  He sought to be a voice of calm, a voice of peace, a voice of hope.  That’s what disciples of Jesus do in the middle of the storm.  We bring peace.  We seek to dissolve the drama.  We unite, we encourage, we strengthen.  Paul is also a truth-teller, as we will see.  In Paul we see that disciples of Jesus bring the voice of reason and faith in the midst of the storm.  That means we are also people who listen to that voice.

It can be very difficult in the midst of life’s storms to hear the voice of reason and trust and faith, can’t it?  When we are asked to be patience, to wait, the last thing we want to hear is “just be patient.”  We want the storm to pass, and we want the sun to come out.  We want to see those rainbows. 

When you’re out of a job, you just want a job.  When you’re in a broken relationship, you just want it to be healed or resolved.  When you’re sick, you want to feel better. When you’re dealing with difficulty, is hard to hear, “Hang on, hold on, be patient, keep up your courage.”  But sometimes we need to hear that.  Perhaps especially in the middle of the storm, when we’re not sure we can make it, when we’re wondering if we’re going to fall apart, that is the moment we need a calmer heart and mind to reassure us.  I know I can need that.  This past week I had some pains and a headache and in a matter of minutes I’m anxious thinking I have Covid and wondering if I will die before I finish my doctoral program.  Anyone else over-react like that?  Fixate on the worst-case scenario?  Well, you’re not alone.  In those moments, we need to hear the steady message of “Keep up your courage.” We need to have ears and a heart to listen and receive words like that.  We need to have hearts that choose to meditate on truths of God and who He is.  

As if to show the passengers that he was not issuing them just a slogan, Paul goes on, and now he presents some evidence to them, maybe helping explain why they should take courage.  

Read verses 23-24. How about that?  Another vision!  And this time the vision is a prophetic word that everyone will be safe.  Again, I don’t know how the other passengers received these words from Paul.  I don’t know if Paul was respected as a prophet, as one who received messages from God.  Maybe some were skeptical.  But just maybe it would have helped some passengers know that his comments of “We got this!” are not just empty words.  Paul is backing up his encouragement with a message from God. 

Paul’s conclusion in verses 25-26 features encouragement tempered by realism.  Here comes the truth-telling I mentioned above. He says, “We’re all going to make it, but we’ll lose the ship.”  For the realists in the crowd, that might actually have helped them believe Paul.  They couldn’t caricature him as “just another religious whacko.”  Back in Fair Havens on the island of Crete, his previous weather forecast was right.  He was realistic then, and my guess is that it seemed pretty obvious to everyone that what he says, in verse 26 about losing the ship, was going to happen.  The realists on board who might be tempted to eye-roll the religious claims Paul was making, would now have to admit that he was not only correct about the storm, but also maybe his religious comments had merit too.  It is also good to note that God’s message was realistic too; they would lose the boat.  It wasn’t simply going to magically get 100% better.  There was still a storm and still consequences to a storm.  But God was with them.  They need to choose what their focus would be on:  the storm or his presence through it.

What happens after Paul’s speech? Check back tomorrow to find out.

What NOT to say during the storms of life – Acts 27, Part 2

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Does 2020 make you feel like yelling? Losing your temper?

Our local school district had a board meeting last evening, and people expressed their frustration with the plans, or lack thereof…depending on their opinion, for having kids return to school safely in the middle of a pandemic. It is a very emotional time we’re living through. Sometimes, in the middle of intensity, we don’t handle it well. Paul was also facing a desperate situation. How will he handle it?

In the previous post on Acts 27, we left Paul, now a prisoner, headed to Rome to make his appeal to Caesar. He’s on board a large freight ship, carrying not only a load of grain, but also 276 passengers, and bad weather has them docked in the port of Fair Havens on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. Winter is upon them, and because travel will be difficult for months, they need a safe harbor until the weather changes. Ironically, Fair Havens doesn’t live up to its name. The Roman centurion guarding Paul, along withe captain and owner of the ship want a better port for winter. Paul, reading the weather, remarks that they should stay in Fair Havens. The others disagree. All they have to do is make a short hop of 50 miles down the coastline of Crete, from Fair Havens to Phoenix. No big deal, especially considering how far they’ve already traveled. They won’t head out to the open waters of the ocean, they’ll hug the coast. It sounds like a reasonable plan, despite Paul’s warning. What happens? Read Acts 27:13-20.

When they start, a gentle wind blows, and it seems like the majority was right and Paul was wrong.  But a nor’easters hits, and the ship was powerless against it.  Instead of heading northwest up the coastline of Crete, they are blown south west into the Mediterranean Sea, at the mercy of the storm.  This wasn’t just any old storm. It was a terrible storm that lasted many days, and the travelers grew more and more desperate.  The sailors take numerous measures to keep the ship from being blown too far off course, throwing stuff overboard hoping to avoid sinking.  But the storm just keeps pounding and pounding and pounding. For days!

Do you know the feeling?  Does 2020 feel that way?  This year is special, and not in the good sense.  2020 feels like the relentless storm that just keeps pounding and pounding and pounding.  It started with contentious presidential politics during the impeachment proceedings.  Then Covid hit, and while we could roll our eyes at politics as discouraging business as usual, Covid was anything but business as usual.  The world shut down.  As death tolls rose, so did the feeling the fear inside us.  Then George Floyd was murdered, sadly, one in a long strand of similar murders.  That led to protests and more conflict.  I write this in mid-August, and thus far, none of these three have stopped pounding.  Furthermore, those of you who have children in schools and those of you work in the schools are trying to navigate what that looks like and what this upcoming year of education might be like.  To top it off, it is hard to know what to believe about these issues. Whether from the news media, from government leaders, and pretty much from everyone else, there are loads of conflicting opinions that we must sort through.  Do you feel battered? 

What do you do when it feels like life is pounding, pounding, pounding?

Maybe Paul will help us answer that question.  I want us to both hear what he says and observe what he does. 

I can’t imagine what it must have been like on a boat, in the middle of the sea, in a raging storm.  Remember this is not a passenger ship.  The 276 people on board are likely spending most of their time on deck, exposed to the weather.  The waves are kicking like crazy.  Could the people sleep?  Was there water everywhere?  Was it freezing cold?  How do you keep going through that? 

What does a disciple of Jesus do and say when the storms of life are pounding? 

Well, what does Paul do? Read verse 21.

Woah!  Not the way I expected him to lead off.  He basically says, “Told ya so.”  We’ve heard a lot from Paul over the last few weeks, and I have to admit there are times when he can make bold comments that are counterproductive.  This is one of them.  Sometimes we make selfish, stubborn, hurtful comments too, especially in the middle of the storm. We can let our frustration, our emotion, our confusion, our anger flow out unchecked. Have you done that? During the pandemic, given the many difficulties of 2020, I’ve seen a lot of unkindness and meanness online or in personal conversations.

We need to see that behavior as unbecoming of a disciple of Jesus. Thus we need to humble ourselves and repent, publicly.  If you’ve been unkind online or in person, I urge you to repent and ask forgiveness as publicly and boldly as you were when you made the unkind comments.

Thankfully, that “told ya so” is not the only comment Paul makes. In fact, he takes on a whole new tone with what he says next, and we’ll look at that in the next post.

What do you do when it seems like the storm of life is pounding you, and it won’t let up? – Acts 27, Part 1

I’ve been listening to a podcast called Deep Cover, the wild, true story of an FBI agent who, in the 1980s, goes undercover, posing as a member of a biker gang, to try to find out info about drug trafficking that they were involved in.  As the months go by he earns the trust of numerous people in the gang, all the while learning about their supply chain and the people involved. Their drug ring is deeper and wider than he ever imagined. He goes on trips with them to various parts of the USA to meet the suppliers, and he gains their trust too.  The months turn into years, and he just keeps rising up the ranks, learning how far-reaching this drug scheme goes.  Three years in, some FBI agents show up at his door, surprising him and his wife with the news that some people in the biker gang have discovered his true identity and they are out to kill him.  He and his wife have to leave immediately to a secure location, while the FBI tries to deal with the threat.  After three years, most of which was an adrenaline-soaked life undercover, he is alone with nothing to do in the middle of a secluded forest, just waiting for a phone call from the FBI to say they are in the clear.  You’d think he would feel a sense of relief or peace, now that he was away from the storm of undercover life.  The opposite happens.  The storm of anxiety breaks all over him with ferocity.  He struggles hard with uncontrollable anxiety. 

Ever had that happen to you?  That is literally what happens to me.  I make it pretty well through tough situations, but it sure hits me hard when a bit of calm might come.  What do you do when it seems like the storm of life is pounding you, and it won’t let up?  Turn to Acts 27, because Paul was in both a literal and figurative storm.  What he says just might be what we need to hear today. 

Last week we studied Acts chapters 24-26, all of which took place in Caesarea, the Roman town on the northwest coast of Israel. There Paul testified before two Roman governors and King Agrippa.  At one point, Paul, a Roman citizen, appealed to Caesar, which the one governor, Festus, accepted.  We learned at the end of chapter 26 that Festus and Agrippa agreed that Paul had done nothing wrong, and could have gone free, if he had not appealed to Caesar.  Now Paul will continue his journey to Rome, right in line with the vision Jesus gave him in chapter 23 verse 11, when Jesus said to Paul, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, you must also testify in Rome.”  But Rome is very far from Israel, even by today’s standards.  Given the transportation technology available in the first century AD, it felt like a world away.

So turn to Acts 27:1.  In verses 1-12, Paul’s journey to Rome takes to the seas. First of all, in verse one, notice the word “we.”  The author is including himself among the group sailing with Paul.  Luke was on the boat!  We learn that Paul is not the only prisoner, and a Roman centurion named Julius is given command of a group of soldiers guarding the prisoners.

The group of travelers also includes one of Paul’s friends, Aristarchus, from Thessalonica, who we met before, though briefly. 

In verse 3 where we learn that when they stop in Sidon, where the centurion Julius allows Paul’s friends to care for his needs. 

They soon sail again, eventually making it to the port of Myra, where they board a different ship.  The author of Act, Luke, tells us that it was an Alexandrian ship, which is a reference to the city of Alexandria in Egypt.  So the ship was coming from Alexandria, heading to Italy. 

Scan down to verse 18, and we learn that this was a cargo ship, a freighter.  I also want us to peak ahead to verse 37 where we learn that not only was the cargo grain (some scholars believe it was probably corn), but there were also 276 people on board. 

Hearing that I have a whole different vision in my mind of what kind of boat this was.  When I think of ancient boats, with the exception of Noah’s Ark, I think of smallish boats, like Jesus and his disciples would have used to catch fish on the Sea of Galilee.  But this is some boat.  Think about how big that ship would have to be to carry 276 people and a load of grain?  I had to know. So I did some digging.

One author notes that, “There is little doubt that the ship in question was one of a very special fleet, designed and constructed by the Romans ex­pressly to transport grain from the fertile land of the Nile to Italy, par­ticularly to Rome.” (Hirschfeld) She goes on to cite ancient sources describe the immense size of these grain boats.  If you’ve ever been to Boston, and seen the USS Constitution, one of the huge US Navy battleships that fought in the War of 1812, it is about the size of the boat Paul was traveling on.  This is a big, big ship Paul is sailing on. 

And that raises a question: why was a cargo ship carrying that many people?  Sailing was a major method of transportation in the ancient maritime world, such as the Roman Empire.  In our day and age, when we think of ocean travel, we think of cruise ships, traveling the ocean for pleasure.  When we think of transportation from country to country, we are used to traveling by air.  Can you even travel on a passenger ship anymore simply for the purpose of transportation over any distance beyond a barge that carries cars across a river?  The days of the Titanic are over!  But in the ancient world, because sea travel was so prevalent, even cargo ships would carry passengers, as a way to make additional profit.  That means this was not a passenger ship with rooms below deck.  The passengers likely spent most of their time on deck, in the open air, a reality that will become very important in this story.

Back to the story, it seems that they boarded the grain boat in hopes of a quicker journey to Rome by sea.  They could have taken the land route from Myra to Rome, but it would have been much longer.  Unfortunately, the sea route turns out to have terrible weather.  They suffer through head winds and the going is slow.  At the port of Fair Havens on the island of Crete, Paul warns the people that if they proceed further, it will be disastrous for them.  This doesn’t seem to be a prophetic warning, but instead a reading of the meteorological situation.  Paul has now added “weatherman” to his resume!

But the Roman centurion, Julius, believes it best to keep sailing to a better port on the island of Crete, one that they could pause their journey for the winter.  That port is named Phoenix.  Considering how far they had sailed already, this would only be another 50 miles or so by sea. No big deal, right? The majority agrees, against Paul’s warning of a bad weather forecast. What happens? Check back tomorrow and we’ll find out.

Why Christians should be talking about the resurrection constantly – Acts 24-26, Part 5

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Though he had previously persecuted Christians because he thought they were followers of a false teacher, when he met the risen the Jesus, Paul was totally changed.  There was no denying this story of Paul’s life history.  The resurrection of Jesus changes everything.  I wonder if we have taken Jesus’ resurrection for granted?  I wonder if it has become ho-hum to us? 

If the resurrection of Jesus really happened, it changes everything. 

What does that mean?  “If Jesus really rose from the dead, it changes everything.”  How does it change everything?

First, imagine if the resurrection is false.  What would we be left with?  As Paul himself says in 1st Corinthians 15, if the resurrection didn’t happen, or as he puts it, if resurrection is not possible, then our preaching is useless, our faith is futile, our sins have not been forgiven, and we are to be pitied above all people.  In other words, we’re believing a lie.  And we should stop believing the lie.  We should stop being Christians, if Jesus did not really rise from the dead.

But if Jesus really did rise from the dead, then hold on.  Stop everything.  Life cannot go on business as usual.  If Jesus really did rise from the dead, then Jesus is God.  He is the way, the truth and life, like he said he was.  He is a massively big deal.  We should give our lives to believe in him, follow him, and live for him.

So how about taking part in a social experiment this week with your family and friends, neighbors and co-workers.  Ask them what they think about Jesus’ resurrection.  First, do they believe it actually happened?  Or do they think it didn’t happen?  Second, ask them, if it did happen, what does it matter?  What is the significance of Jesus’ resurrection?  Does it matter only to Christians?  Or does it matter to everyone?

Paul clearly thought the resurrection mattered to everyone.  When the risen Jesus proved to Paul that he, Jesus, was alive, Paul did a complete turnaround.  Paul went from persecuting Christians to being a passionate Christian, giving his life to talk about how Jesus was alive, and how Jesus’ resurrection makes it possible for a whole new life, a whole new world. 

Consider what he said in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  I life I live in the body, I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave his life for me.” 

Or Philippians 3:10-11, where Paul writes, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

Or consider Ephesians 1:19, continuing a prayer starting in verse 17, where Paul prays that Christians might know God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.  That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead.”

Just as God raised Jesus to new life, he wants to raise us to new life as well, and amazingly, as Paul says, he wants us to experience his new life by living in us.  His new life, his power, is in us, at work in us. 

That’s why I have come to emphasize, in the last 15 years or so, what Jesus called the abundant life, which is his life in us, by his Spirit.  I still very much appreciate the hope of eternal life, a concept that is important.  But I appreciate Paul’s vision for human transformation now, which is possible only because of the resurrection of Jesus, and the power that God wants to work in our lives.

We need to talk about this!  Do you need to start talking about it? 

The transformative power of the resurrection available to all people is how we talk about Jesus!  We tell the story of how he is alive and well and still at work in our lives, and he wants all people to know him and experience the abundant new life that only he can bring.

How to talk with famous people – Acts 24-26, Part 4

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Have you ever had the chance to talk with someone famous? Did you feel nervous? Star struck? Sweaty and anxious?

Christians reading this post, do you get excited when you hear that famous people become Christians? Or do you get excited when you hear that a president or star athlete or other celebrity is already a Christian? I have felt that sense of excitement within me many times in the past. Why? Because I have hopes that the famous person in question could help many other people become Christians too. It’s rather opportunistic, isn’t it? Of course, it is not wrong to want anyone to become a follower of Jesus, because we Christians believe that following Jesus is what Jesus called, “the way, the truth and the life.” We want everyone to experience that abundant life. But do we get starstruck by famous people? Do we have too much hope and expectation for their potential influence? What is the right perspective Christians should have about reaching famous people? In this next post in our five-part series on Acts 24-26, I believe Paul is a great example for how to approach famous and influential people.

As we saw in the previous post on Acts 24-26, Paul’s conversations with the two Roman governors and one King focused on the most important Christian topic, the resurrection of Jesus. In Acts 26, Paul told his story to Governor Festus and King Agrippa. When he mentioned the resurrection, Festus interrupted him, calling Paul insane. After assuring them of his sanity and reasonableness, Paul continues, now addressing Agrippa, “The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

Paul’s comments to Agrippa are a bit vague.  What is he talking about, that these things were not done in a corner?  Remember that Festus is new to the nation of Israel.  He had only just arrived to take over for the previous Roman governor, Felix, a few days before Paul’s speech in chapter 26.  But King Agrippa has been around for a long time. 

We know from historians that Agrippa was 17 years old when his father Herod Agrippa I died.  We met the father, Herod Agrippa I, in Acts chapter 12 when God broke Peter out of prison.  There we talked a bit about the many King Herods in the Bible.  Agrippa I, the king who put Peter in prison, had an uncle who was the Herod that put Jesus on trial.  Now Agrippa I’s son, Agrippa II, is here listening to Paul talk about Jesus.  That means Agrippa II was very possibly alive when Jesus was alive.  Paul would have known all those details about the kings and when they were alive, as that kind of thing is common knowledge, just as most of us can recite from memory who was president of our country, and what years they were in office, going back to the 1960s.  Wait…can you?

So Paul is saying to Agrippa, “You are aware of this.  This is not insane.  This happened.”  In other words, Paul is saying, “Okay, Festus, I get it that resurrection sounds insane, but Agrippa was here when it happened, and he can vouch for it.”  In the book of Acts, the author, Luke, never tells us what Agrippa’s personal beliefs are regarding the resurrection of Jesus.  But Paul seems to think that Agrippa might have good cause to admit that the resurrection of Jesus really happened.  And if Agrippa can admit that, he is not far from the Kingdom.

In fact, Paul looks directly at Agrippa and says, “Do you believe in the prophets?  I know you do.”  Whew.  That is a bold statement from Paul, in which Paul is basically trying to get Agrippa to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets because Jesus rose from the dead.

At that moment, Agrippa has a choice.  Whether or not he believes the resurrection of Jesus happened or not, he could have a discussion with Paul about the events.  If I’m Paul right then, inwardly I think I would be brimming with nervous excitement.  I would be thinking, “I might be able help a king become a Christian!” But should I be thinking like that?

Sadly, just like that, the moment passes, as Agrippa chooses not to engage Paul in a discussion.  I wonder if Agrippa was feeling embarrassment, given that Festus, the new Roman governor, is right there too.  Agrippa probably wants to impress Festus, so Agrippa doesn’t give Paul any ground.  Remember, Festus has just called Paul insane.  Imagine how emotionally and relationally difficult it would be for Agrippa to throw his lot in with Paul, just after this new powerful Roman governor, Festus, called Paul insane.  The peer pressure on Agrippa was probably intense.  So Agrippa plays it off.  I can imagine him doing an eye roll to Festus, “Can you believe this Paul guy, thinking he is going to convert me? Yeah, right.”  Yes, adults face loads of peer pressure too, and we often give in to it! Even powerful kings and leaders can succumb to peer pressure.

Paul seems unfazed by the peer pressure, though.  Paul just keeps going, saying that he is praying that all those listening would become followers of Jesus like himself.  He seems not to be in awe of the big name leaders in the room, like Agrippa seems to have been of Festus, even though Agrippa is also a big name leader!

Interestingly, twice Paul has mentioned something that shows he is aware that though he has an audience of elites, he is not star struck by them.  First in Acts 26:22, he mentions his desire to testify to small and great alike.  Here in verse 26:29, he says he is praying for not only the king, but for everyone listening to him.  Of course we don’t know who in the audience that day.  In addition to the elites, the governor, the king, and their wives, the audience likely included aides and assistants and soldiers, some of whom would not have been elite.  Paul wants all to be saved, because people are people, whether big or small.  He is trying to reach all, and it was the resurrection that was central to his mission and message. 

In our final post on Acts 24-26, tomorrow, we’ll discuss the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in our day.

The most important topic of Christianity that rarely gets talked about – Acts 24-26, Part 3

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What do you think is the most important topic of Christianity? Perhaps it would help to consider Christian symbols. The cross and the Bible are probably to two most prevalent. They are both very important, but are the most important? I think there is a topic that is more important.

If we dig deeper into the conversations that Paul has with the two Roman governors, Felix and Festus, and with King Agrippa (which we started studying in the first post in this five-part series here), he talks about that most important topic.  If you want you can pause reading this post, open a Bible and scan Acts chapters 24-26 to see if you can determine what that topic might be. Then continue reading below.

There are potentially multiple candidates for “most important topic” in Acts 24-26, such as Paul’s life change, commonly referred to in Christian lingo as salvation, but the topic that the author of Acts features, and that I want us to examine more deeply because I would argue that it is the most important topic of Christianity, is resurrection.  We Christians talk about it on Easter, of course, but how often do we talk about the resurrection throughout the rest of the year?  How often should we talk about the resurrection?  If Paul is any indication, and I think he is, we should talk about the resurrection often!

How many times is resurrection mentioned in these chapters?  Let’s look at each specific reference.

First in chapter 24:15, Paul talks about his hope in God, that there will be a resurrection.  Paul seems to be talking about a future resurrection more than about Jesus’ resurrection.  But they are connected.  In other places like 1st Corinthians chapter 15, Paul says that Jesus’ resurrection is a kind of first-fruits that points to the future resurrection of all those who are true followers of Jesus.

Next in Acts 24:21, Paul says that it was his comment about the resurrection that got him in trouble with the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  He knew some in the Sanhedrin disagreed with the concept of resurrection, but he challenged them to examine his life and produce any evidence that he had done anything wrong.

Jump ahead to chapter 25 verse 19, where Festus tells Agrippa that Paul claims Jesus has been risen from the dead.  Paul has made the resurrection such a focal point of his teaching that other people are now talking about it!  Probably not because they agree with it.  But it is an example showing us that Paul’s focus on resurrection was noticed by his Roman audience too.

In 26:8, when Paul tells his story to the Roman rulers he says, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” He goes on to ground his claim in the historical expectation of the Jews that God would send a savior, a Messiah to his nation Israel.  For Paul, the Old Testament prophets talked about this coming Messiah in such a way that made it entirely reasonable to believe in resurrection.  But how would these Roman leaders respond to Paul’s claims about resurrection?

What Paul goes on to say in 26:22-23 is crucial: “I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

At that statement, the Roman governor Festus interrupts Paul, accusing Paul of having gone insane from his great learning.  Kind of a like a person who has earned advanced degrees but doesn’t have common sense. What is Festus getting at?

Try to put yourself in Festus’ shoes.  Festus is thinking, “Resurrection is impossible.  Things which are dead do not come to life.” 

Keep Festus’ interruption in mind, and then let me ask you if you’ve ever heard something like this, “In the ancient world, people believed in miracles because they didn’t know any better.  But we live in the modern world, with advanced science, and we know that miracles like resurrection are just not true.   So therefore the Bible is an antiquated artifact that we need not rely on.” 

Yet look what we just read.  Festus, one of those people in that ancient world, did not believe in resurrection.  He thinks Paul is insane.  Last week we talked about how the two Jewish religious groups, the Sadducees and Pharisees had divergent viewpoints on resurrection.  The Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection while the Pharisees did.  So the resurrection was debated in the ancient world too.  That tells me that people like Paul and the early Christians had just as much reason to disbelieve in the resurrection as we do, and yet they didn’t.  Why?  Because they met the risen Jesus!   Why else would Paul do a 180 degree change in his life? Why else would he endure so much persecution around the Roman Empire? Why else would he present his case so strongly in these various trials before Jews and Romans alike? Because what Paul was saying about Jesus actually happened! 

So of course, Paul responds in Acts 26:25, “What I am saying is true and reasonable.” Thus far, though, Paul has not convinced the Roman governor, Festus. What about King Agrippa? In the next post, we’ll learn if Paul can reach him.

For now, I encourage you to reflect on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. If you’d like read more about it, check out posts here and here.

Paul…on trial again – Acts 24-26, Part 2

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Have you ever been on trial in a courtroom? I was once. I was 17, scared, nervous, and very guilty. I wrote about that story here. This week we’re learning from the Apostle Paul how to talk about God, and in Acts 24-26 he’s back on trial, but this time Paul testifies before the bigwigs in Israel, two governors and a king. I wonder if Paul was scared or nervous. He seems quite bold and courageous, and as we observe what he says, we’re going to learn how to talk about God.

We last left Paul in Caesarea, one of the many towns across the Roman Empire named in honor of one of the Roman Caesars, the emperors. This port city of Caesarea is located in northwest Israel, along the Mediterranean Sea.  Acts chapters 24-26 take place while Paul is in prison in Caesarea. 

We start in Chapter 24.  Throughout verses 1-23, in Caesarea, Paul is on trial, and the Roman governor Felix hears arguments from both the Jews, who have traveled from Jerusalem to present their case, and from Paul, who makes his defense.  Basically, each side makes the same arguments we heard in Acts 22-23 when Paul was on trial in Jerusalem.  The Jews accuse Paul of being a law breaker, and Paul retorts that he is innocent.  The Roman governor Felix adjourns the trial, saying that he will wait to make a decision until the Roman commander arrives from Jerusalem.  We met that Roman commander in Acts 22-23, the soldier who protected Paul, and eventually sent Paul to Caesarea.  In the meantime, Governor Felix keeps Paul under guard, but with the allowance of freedom so that Paul’s friends can care for his needs. 

But the Roman commander never arrives.  Instead in verses 24-26, Felix and his Jewish wife, Drusilla, spend time with Paul, who ends up teaching and preaching to them.  This results in Felix feeling afraid, probably because Paul is talking about judgment, maybe leading Felix to experience some guilt, so Felix puts a stop to Paul’s teaching.  The author of the book of Acts, Luke, reveals that Felix was looking for a bribe from Paul, so Felix calls for Paul often.

This goes on for two years!  Luke never mentions the Roman commander further, the guy Felix was waiting for to make a ruling on Paul’s case.  In verse 27 we learn that Felix is succeeded by a new Roman governor, Festus.  Paul has remained in prison this whole time, two years, because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, but there’s a new governor now. How will Festus treat Paul?

This brings us to Chapter 25.  In verses 1-5, the new governor Festus goes to Jerusalem, where, even though two years have gone by, the Jewish leaders are still making accusations against Paul, urging Festus to have Paul brought to Jerusalem, though of course the Jews don’t tell Festus that they are plotting to kill Paul.  Festus, instead, invites the Jews to Caesarea for another trial.

At the trial the same thing happens as in the trial before Felix.  Look at verses 6-12.  Paul and Jews again make opposing statements.  This time, Festus tries to get Paul to go to Jerusalem, but Paul appeals to Caesar, which Festus honors.  The vision in 23:11 is coming true.  That was the vision I mentioned earlier, in which Jesus told Paul that he would preach in Rome. 

But right around that time, another ruler shows up.  In verses 13-27 the author of Acts, Luke, tells us that King Herod Agrippa II and his wife, Bernice, arrive to greet the new governor, Festus, and they all end up discussing Paul’s case.  Agrippa is curious, and he asks to hear from Paul.  Festus agrees and the next day brings Paul in for an audience before Agrippa.

Now we have come to Chapter 26.  Verses 1-23 should be very familiar.  Paul retells his story of salvation.  It’s the same story that we first heard in chapter 9, and that we heard last week in chapter 22, when Paul told his story to the angry crowd in Jerusalem.  It is the story of how Paul, a zealous Pharisee, was persecuting Christians, and Jesus appeared to Paul, changing his life.  Paul now became a vigorous missionary preacher for Jesus.    

This time, though, Paul is not talking to Jews.  He is talking to Roman governors, their wives, and perhaps attendants and soldiers in the palace.  Look at verses 24-32.  In verse 24, Festus interrupts Paul, saying Paul is insane.  Why?  What had Paul just said?  Most likely Festus is referring to Paul’s claims about Jesus’ resurrection.  Paul turns to Agrippa, because he knows Agrippa is acquainted with the events Paul is talking about, and Paul says, “The King,” meaning Agrippa, “is familiar with these things…because it was not done in a corner.”  In other words, Paul is saying, Agrippa should be able to verify that these events he is talking about are true because they are well-known. 

Really?  Paul thinks Agrippa will back him up on this?  Hold that thought.  We’ll come back to it in future posts.  For now, let’s see how this chapter finishes.  Paul presses Agrippa, particularly on prophecy.  Read verse 27, where Paul urges Agrippa to agree with him.  Agrippa deflects the question, asking Paul if he thinks he could persuade Agrippa to become a Christian in so short a time.  Paul essentially says yes, but that the timing doesn’t matter.  Rather Paul’s desire is that those listening would become what he, Paul, is, except of course for the chains.  When Paul mentions his chains, I suspect he has a sly grin on his face and twinkle in his eye. I also have a feeling that joke might have been well-received, probably getting some laughs from the rulers.  Of course I don’t know that, but when Agrippa, Festus, and Bernice leave, Agrippa says, “Paul hasn’t done anything deserving of death.”  Festus responds that Paul could have been set free, except that he appealed to Caesar.  That’s how chapter 26 ends. To Rome Paul will go. 

Considering these various interactions that Paul has with Roman governors, what can we learn about how to talk about God? In posts three through five of this series, we’ll take a closer look at what Paul says, and a theme will emerge. I’m convinced that this theme is a key for how we can talk about God in our day. Frankly, I wonder if we’ve taken it for granted, and we need to recover the theme. What is the theme? Check back tomorrow!

How not to talk about God – Acts 24-26, Part 1

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How should we talk to people about God?  

A friend of mine recently told the story about how when he was growing up, his parents faithfully took he and his siblings to church on Sunday mornings.  As their family drove to church, he remembers driving by people on their bikes, out for a ride on the country roads.  One time, with the windows of the car rolled down, he and his siblings yelled out, “You should be in church!”

Why would they do that?  You can imagine a child repeating the words they heard from their parents, probably many times: “Look at those people, they should be in church,” a parent might say.  I don’t know if my friend’s parents said that.  But I have heard adults say that.   It takes child-like freedom, however, to actually yell it out to people. 

Were either the kids or the parents right?  Is showing up for a church worship service all that Jesus actually wants?  No.  While Jesus clearly wants Christians to gather and support one another, there is more he desires. How we talk about God reveals what we believe about what Jesus desires.  So how do we talk about God in a way that is consistent with Jesus’ desires?

Too often we are like the kids who yell out, “You should be in church!”  Think about how you talk about God to people. Do you communicate that following Jesus amounts to doing certain things and not doing others?  If so, why do some of us feel comfortable with talking about God that way?  Is it possible that we are talking about God and what it means to believe in and follow him in the wrong way?

In this series of five posts on Acts 24-26, we’re going to look at how the Apostle Paul talked about God.  No longer is he with the Jews, as we studied in the previous series.  In Acts 22-23, Paul spoke with Jews, his own people, with whom he had much common ground.  In their sacred scriptures, the Hebrew Bible, which we Christians call The Old Testament, Jewish prophecies foretold of a Messiah, a savior who would come to rescue Israel.  Paul declared to the Jews that Jesus was that promised Messiah.  As we learned last week when we studied Acts chapters 22-23, the crowd of Jews in Jerusalem wasn’t buying it.  In fact they wanted to kill him.  So the Roman military escorted Paul under cover of night to the Roman city of Caesarea.  Now, as Jesus told Paul in a dream in Acts 23:11, Paul has begun a journey that will take him to the capital of the Empire, Rome.  How will he talk about God to the Romans? In the rest of this week’s blog series, we’ll find out, and we just might learn from Paul how to talk about God in our day and age.