Christianity is always on trial. Always has been and always will be!
Today, especially in the Western world, we’ve seen Christianity on trial all around us. No matter how old you are, no matter where you find yourself, in the courtroom, in the classroom, in the common room or in the living room, Christianity is always on trial. Followers of Jesus will always be accused, questioned and challenged about their faith. If you love the Lord Jesus and that’s not happened to you yet, get ready for it. And if you’re thinking of taking the hand of Jesus, let me give you the heads up, this will happen sooner or later.
Let me give you a few examples: Christianity was on trial when Jack Philips, owner of Masterpiece Cakes in Colorado was fined for refusing to bake a gender transition celebration cake.
Christianity was on trial when Joshua, an Australian uni student was suspended, why? Because he prayed for another student.
Christianity IS on trial in Victoria right now, whereas a Christian, you can be charged for praying with people about issues of gender.
That’s one end of the spectrum but it can also be in the simple, everyday questions like: Why are you missing our family event because of church? Or among colleagues: why aren’t you getting drunk with us tonight? They’re questions. But they’re more than questions aren’t they. There are built-in accusations like: why are you against our family? Why aren’t you one of us?
I’ve heard of a person from another church being challenged with the claim that the Bible promotes domestic violence. I’ve heard of youth being asked in the playground: “You’re a Christian, you hate gays don’t you?”
Friends, you don’t have to be in a courtroom, Christianity is always on trial and when we’re on trial as followers of Jesus, we’d do well to learn from what Paul does in this pressure-cooker situation. In this back end of Acts, we’ve been seeing how Christianity is on trial through the experience of Paul himself. Paul, the great ambassador of Christianity. Love him or hate him, Paul would have to be in the top 10 as one of the most influential people in the history of the world.
Paul’s already been on trial 3 times. Way back in Acts 22, he was first put on trial before the crowds in Jerusalem, then there was the Sanhedrin, effectively the Supreme Court back then.
In Acts 24, he fronted up to a Roman tribunal led by the Governor Felix. And as we turn over the page to Acts 25-26, Paul’s got two more trials in store. One before the new Governor in town, Festus, and another before King Agrippa.
Now there’s plenty of sources outside the Bible which confirm the existence of a Roman Governor called Festus, which means we’re talking roughly 60AD. We’re in Israel, or more specifically the province of Judea. There’s local Jewish political
and religious leadership but ultimately they’re answerable to the mighty Roman empire.
For the last two years, Paul’s effectively been under house arrest in Caesarea, is about 100km north of Jerusalem, it’s the administrative centre with Government offices and Embassies, like Canberra, but without the roundabouts. Now the fact, he’s locked up doesn’t seem to bother Paul, he’s got some freedoms, he’s even had opportunities to speak about Jesus.
But even more so, Paul knows, based on a direct word from God, that despite his current circumstances, it’s not a matter of if he’ll get to Rome, but when. And that’s because of who the main actor in Acts is, the book of Acts is 28 chapters long.
28 chapters that describe the ACTS of the Risen Lord Jesus through his apostles, by the power of the Spirit. We saw it last week in 23:11 as the Lord Jesus spoke a direct word to Paul
…. “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” ~Acts 23:11 (NIV)
Paul can take heart because God’s got it sorted. Even though he’s on trial, locked up in Judea, Paul’s 100% confident that God will get him to Rome! In fact, it just so happens that God’s way to get him to Rome is via these trials. Paul himself probably didn’t expect he’d arrive in Rome in chains and as God would have it, by appealing to Caesar himself, Paul books his ticket to Rome!
…But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!” ~Acts 25.11-12 (NIV)
The fact that this is God’s way of getting Paul to Rome, dragging him before the authorities, having his very own life threatened while riots form around him, proves yet again that God’s ways are not our ways. How much do you and I need to hear that right now? Whether it’s being forced into isolation. Whether it’s testing positive. Whether it’s having things, good things, like holidays or social catch ups cancelled. Or in our family’s case, it can be having a ticket to Hamilton, the musical, cancelled. Not once, not twice, but three times, this week, we FINALLY got to see it and boy, it was worth it the wait!!
Well, in the midst of the cloud of COVID, how comforting is it to know that ultimately, there is someone who is calling the shots.
Especially when you contrast God’s ways with the ways of evil, blood hungry Jews.
They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. ~Acts 25:3 (NIV)
With a change of Roman governor, from Felix to Festus, the Jews have hatched this new plan. Seriously, I’m amazed at how relentless these guys are. They’ve been waiting two whole
years to get their hands on Paul who is public enemy number 1.
Well, the ambush doesn’t quite happen. Now it just so happens that the Jewish King Agrippa, and his sister Bernice are in town. Maybe, just maybe, these guys will finally give the blood-thirsty Jews what they want.
The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in ~Acts 25:23 (NIV)
Russian artist, Nickolai Bodarevsky, has depicted this scene in his painting, so there’s Agrippa and Bernice sitting down in their fine clothes and jewellery along with all the other heavy weights, listening to Paul plead his innocence. Surely if anyone wanted to act in the interest of the Jews, if anyone wanted to hatch a dodgy plan to wipe out Paul, surely it’d be Agrippa. After all, it seems to run in the family, his great grandfather, hunted baby Jesus down and wanted him dead the moment he was born. His own dad ordered James, a fellow co-worker of Paul’s, to be beheaded.
Well, Agrippa doesn’t end up following in his parents footsteps, and maybe that’s because he’s influenced by Festus early on:
Take a listen to what he says to Agrippa.
I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. ~Acts 25:25 (NIV)
A few days before Agrippa and Bernice’s arrival, Paul had appealed to Caesar, it would be his only hope for acquittal.
This caught Festus off guard, he now not only needs to send Paul to Rome to front Caesar but he needs a charge. Something with enough teeth on it, enough substance to it, to
send Paul to Rome with. Otherwise, it’ll all be a waste of Caesar’s time and come back to embarrass Festus. Only he can’t find one.
But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. ~Acts 25:26 (NIV)
Even Agrippa, instead of conniving some scheme to wipe out Paul, is intrigued. He wants to hear from Paul firsthand, which is how Chapter 26 opens, with Paul laying out his testimony, his story of how he came to know Jesus.
Now Luke’s recorded Paul giving his testimony 2 other times already. So, it’s worth asking, what’s his purpose in using up precious resources? Because remember these guys were writing on parchment scrolls, using up ink. Luke obviously thinks by including these details yet again, it’ll help us have certainty in our belief. Well, I reckon it’s to prove an historical point and to make a spiritual point.
So first, the historical point - Paul wants to point out, especially in front of a Jewish big wig like Agrippa, that Jesus is God’s promised, long awaited King! The one that was predicted and promised all along throughout the Jewish scriptures. Paul wants Agrippa to join the dots, he’s got all the pieces of the puzzle by virtue of his Jewish upbringing, Paul just wants to help him put it all together. Take a look at how he opens up his speech to Agrippa, after describing how he’s a Jew through and through, raised a Jew and lived in Jerusalem.
And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O King, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. ~Acts 26:6-7 (NIV)
Paul’s saying here that, by sending Jesus, God’s now come good on his promise! A promise made way back to our original ancestors. And in case it hasn’t clicked for Agrippa yet, Paul has another crack
But I have had God’s help to this very day, 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.” ~Acts 26:22:23 (NIV)
Right, so the Messiah’s job description involves three things. Unlike every other king, this king will: first - suffer, second - rise from the dead, and third - speak a message of light not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles. That’s code for non-Jew.
Now if you’re hearing Jesus’ job description for the first time today, chances are your reaction is probably the same as Festus.
Really, Festus’ reaction describes all of us at some point or another, because let’s face it, if you’re a Christian here today, you’ve signed up to believe in some weird stuff. At least in the world’s eyes. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience of trying to share Jesus with someone else and them just looking at you blankly. “You really think this stuff is true?” Sometimes, even we ourselves ask that question. Especially when we hear the words fall from our lips. We think to ourselves: Gees - this does sound weird.
And yet, this has been the historical point Paul’s been making all along. Just a few verses earlier, Paul has described to Agrippa how God transformed him. How it took nothing short of Jesus himself appearing, grabbing his attention in the middle of the day. Blinding Paul. In Paul’s own words in verse 11, he was obsessed with hunting down Christians, punishing and even killing them. But now his new obsession is to see them rescued!
Which brings us to the second point Paul makes in his speech,
the spiritual point. If Jesus’ job description involved suffering, rising and speaking then for the new Paul, his job description, straight from the lips of the same Jesus, can be found in verse 16.
‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ ~Acts 26:16-18 (NIV)
Paul’s focus is on the Gentiles. Specifically, as he invites people to follow Jesus, he’s to:
Notice here how Paul is speaking in spiritual categories. He’s not talking about physical, tangible things. Things you and I can see on the outside. He’s not offering a new fad diet that will make you lose 20 kilos so that it’ll be obvious to everyone.
Instead he’s speaking about matters of the heart, of the soul, of what God sees and knows about us. And if, and this is a big if. If you’ve got the ears to fully comprehend Paul, he’s actually revealing something quite offensive and quite disturbing about our true spiritual situation.
What I outlined just before was putting it positively. Open eyes, moving from darkness to light etc. But let me frame it the other way around. Let’s imagine that Paul is speaking to the cultural norms. The identity statements that we live and breathe today. In five different ways, you guys are actually much worse off than you think you are. See, as much as we’d like to think otherwise we’re actually spiritually blind. I’m legally blind, I’ve even got the driver’s licence to prove it.
But left to our own devices we’re actually incapable of clawing our way out of this situation ourselves, no amount of human reason or scientific research, or technological advancement.
When we’ve yet to find a cure for cancer then we have got absolutely no hope of finding the cure for spiritual blindness. That’s because we’re not as enlightened as we think we are. We’re actually far worse off. Paul’s verdict is that we’re in complete and utter darkness.
The third thing Paul says is this, that as much as our world invites us to dream big, to imagine we’re free to do what we want, whenever we want. If only we follow our dreams and never give up. The fact of the matter is that we’re enslaved. We don’t actually have complete autonomy. There actually is someone holding us back, Satan. We’re enslaved to Satan.
The fourth statement Paul makes about our true spiritual condition is that we’re not as innocent as we think we are. That despite sincerity or despite the fact our moral compass is now self-determined. In God’s eyes, we fall short. We don’t measure up. We have missed the mark. So much so that we’re in desperate need of someone to offer us forgiveness.
And finally, we’re a people who even though we’re longing for inclusion, looking for community, we’re actually shut off. You think lockdown and iso were bad, this is far, far worse. Boil it all down and what Jesus is saying to you and me today is this: without me, you’re in more trouble than you could ever imagine.
Now to an outsider that is thoroughly, universally, completely and horribly offensive.
And yet, it’s really important to understand at this point. That as difficult as it might be to stomach this piece of news, Paul’s heard this from the lips of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus.
This is Jesus’ account, His perspective. Without Jesus, we are in a world of trouble!
Well, thankfully, Paul doesn’t leave us hanging. I’m not sure if you noticed it when Paul was making that last statement about who we are. But Jesus alludes to verse 18
…a place among those who are sanctified by…. ~Acts 26:18 (NIV)
Their spiritual performance? By their hard work? By their family background? No - it’s by their faith, their trust, their dependence on me.
Here friends is the universal welcome of Jesus. One that Paul issues to, as he says a few verses later. Verse 22 - “small and great alike”. I love that little reference!! Sure he’s addressing Agrippa, someone who’s great, but he’s also offering this welcome to the small as well, to the lowly, to the poor, to the oppressed, to the marginalised, to the victims, to the sick, to the mourning, small and great alike.
I’ve already talked about how weird Christianity and Jesus can sound to others or as we hear it fall from our lips. Well, here’s the warm welcome Jesus offers; to small and great alike.
I reckon one of the big overarching challenges the book of Acts puts before us is the call to action again and again. The invitation Acts puts on the table is to be part of someone’s story. Be part of someone’s story in them coming to know Jesus. Time and time again, we’ve seen boldness in the face of opposition. We’ve seen people speak up for Jesus at great cost. Because the fruit of that is something so special. So precious. Acts has shown us how, that as a result of people being willing to be part of someone’s story in coming to know Jesus, they’ve had their lives turned upside down. Right way up. We saw it in Paul’s own before and after story. Before he met Jesus he was the chief persecutor, throwing Christians behind bars and hunting them down. AFTER he met Jesus, it’s a different story, he is the Chief proclaimer of Jesus, a part of thousands and thousands of people’s story.
We’ve heard Paul’s story today. Let me ask you, if you’re someone who has, thanks to Jesus, had your eyes opened.
You’ve stepped into the light. You know for sure that your sins are forgiven. Who’s story are you seeking to be part of? Let me end with two concrete ways that can happen for you. First thing is to share your story, after all, that’s what Paul beautifully demonstrates for us here. The simple act of him telling his own story. Instantly, he becomes part of Agrippa’s story, he becomes part of Bernice’s story, he becomes part of Festus’s story and all the other high-ranking military officers and prominent men who were gathered with them that day.
And so, if you haven’t already, you could simply follow Paul’s structure to telling his story. Paul begins by describing what his life was like before he met Jesus. We’re told he’s religious and it got to the level of religious fanatic. So much so that he opposed Jesus and his people. For some of you, you may have had the privilege of always knowing Jesus. You can’t remember a time when you DIDN’T know Jesus. There’s nothing boring about that sort of before story. That’s an incredible privilege and all of us have a part to play in helping the kids and youth of our church be able to re-tell that story themselves, God-willing.
But others, you’ve got a distinct BEFORE story. One that, like Paul, was very clearly in rebellion towards Jesus. Either way, the next part of telling your story is to describe how you came to know Jesus. For Paul, it was meeting Jesus, in a vision, on the Damascus Road. For you, probably not similar, but you’ll have a way of describing the same reality. You met Jesus through a friend, through reading and listening to his words.
And finally part 3, how did Jesus change you. This is the after part of the story, where you outline the difference Jesus makes.
It’s very obvious for Paul, we’ve got it recorded in our Bible’s
You’ll have your own story too, you may describe how you’ve found a place of welcome, of acceptance. How you’ve been freed from the evil power of Satan or how you’ve had your eyes opened. Telling your own story is a great way to be part of someone’s story because it’s YOUR story, no one knows it more than you. It’s very natural, you don’t have to worry about getting it wrong.
But this is not the only way we can be part of someone’s story.
There’s perhaps an even easier but no less powerful and effective way to be part of someone’s story. Upon hearing Paul’s own testimony, listen to how Agrippa responds.
Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” ~Acts 26:28 (NIV)
Don’t you just love Agrippa’s honesty there? Even better is Paul’s reply
Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” ~Acts 16:29 (NIV)
So often the application of every Bible verse is read your Bible, pray or tell others about Jesus. Well, as a preacher, I for one am so glad that I can say today with a clear conscience that
Acts 26 has the last two of those applications!!! And did you notice the success here, success for Paul is not in whether Agrippa takes the hand of Jesus or not? No - it’s actually in him being truthful as he’s told his story. Directly answering Agrippa’s question and it’s in him now praying for him. Paul is so utterly dependent on God. Short time or a long time, it could be today, it could be after Paul’s long gone.
Also, he knows full well that just as God intervened in his own life, it’ll be the same God who’ll have to intervene in Agrippa’s life. But not just Agrippa, notice there: “All who are listening to me” There’s the universal welcome, the open invite God issues yet again.
Let me end by telling you the story of a bunch of guys from our 9am service last week, who, through the simple act of praying, were part of someone else’s story. Cafe. Praying. The owner asked what are you doing. One guy said we’re thanking God. That was enough, to see them front left in the Rooty Hill auditorium last Sunday. All through the simple act of praying before a meal in public.
Friends when it’s that easy, why wouldn’t you want to be part of someone’s story.