Sermon — Acts 21:37-22:21, “Self-Protection or Christ-Exaltation?”

13 Jan

Paul has come into Jerusalem and things have not gone well. In spite of his best efforts to respect the traditions of the Jewish Christians there, some enemies of Paul from Ephesus came into town and stirred up the crowds against him. Most of the mob didn’t know exactly what they were opposing. But a combination of rumor and rage caused Paul to take a beating. It is likely he would have been killed had not Roman soldiers been called to come to the temple to deal with the disturbance. They take Paul away through the crowd and carry him to Antonia Fortress, the barracks of the Roman troops at the northwest end of the temple. At last, Paul is safe. He can get some rest in the barracks and maybe find a way to get out of this trouble. That’s what most of us would do if we were in his shoes, I think. We’d be looking to get out of that troubled mob and get some relief.

Our tendency toward self-preservation is strong, even overwhelming. I didn’t realize this very strongly until I had children. Once I had children, I started to get more concerned about safety, watching them like a hawk to make sure they didn’t fall or burn themselves, or cross the street without looking. I’ve thought about whether this tendency to self-preservation is inborn or whether we learn it. Like a lot of things, I think it is a mix. Certainly there are some fright and flight responses in us which seem to be a part of being human. On the other hand, I think a lot of our tendency toward self-preservation is learned. When I think of children, I notice that most do not have a strong sense of this self-preservation, they are just out to experience life. They are not especially cautious in most cases. To be sure, kids look out for their own best interests, but they tend to not do it in ways that are self-protective.

The self-protective person is destined for much misery. The reason for this is clear: protecting ourselves is a constant and exhausting battle, because there are always threats to our sense of self and our sense of safety. Many years ago, Simon and Garfunkel sang a song called “I Am a Rock.”

A winter’s day In a deep and dark December, I am alone, Gazing from my window to the streets below On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow. I am a rock, I am an island. 

I’ve built walls, A fortress deep and mighty, That none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island.

Don’t talk of love, But I’ve heard the words before; It’s sleeping in my memory. I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died. If I never loved I never would have cried. I am a rock, I am an island.

I have my books And my poetry to protect me, I am shielded in my armor, Hiding in my room, safe within my womb. I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain, And an island never cries.

This is like a national anthem for self-preservation. But notice in the attempt to avoid pain how much is lost . . . love, laughter, friendship, feelings. We lose so much when we try to shut ourselves off to pain and choose to pursue comfort at all costs. And it never works. After all, Simon and Garfunkel didn’t get along. They stopped singing together after 1970 and only reunited on a few occasions since. The island life never works.

The truth is you can’t control your life and neither can I. So why live for the weak and empty and fleeting principle of self-preservation? To be sure, you’ve got to eat, you’ve got to have shelter, you’ve got to do things. But “life is more than food and the body is more than clothes.” Francis Schaeffer said the two highest values of our culture are personal peace and affluence. Has your life been infected by the cultural virus of these empty values? If so, Paul’s life is a good vaccination against this disease. Let’s look at more of his story here in Acts 21 this morning–

Now notice this last paragraph of chapter 21. Most of us would take being arrested by the Romans here as a great opportunity to get out of the crowd and maybe get a chance in the quiet of the barracks to explain ourselves to the Roman leaders. Paul probably could have negotiated his way out of this and maybe even gotten Roman help to get out of the city. After all, Rome wanted order, not disorder. Paul could have done this, but he didn’t. And the reason he didn’t is because his highest value was not self-preservation. His highest value was Christ-exaltation. In other words, Paul lived for a higher priority than his own benefit. He lived for the good of the kingdom of God.

So Paul talks to the commander in Greek, asking him if he can talk to him. The commander is surprised Paul speaks Greek and immediately associates him with an Egyptian who had stirred up trouble in Jerusalem some time before. Greek was widely spoken in Egypt and much of the rest of the Greco-Roman world but was not as popular a choice among the citizens of Jerusalem, who mostly spoke Aramaic, an offshoot of Hebrew. So when this soldier saw the crazy mob and Paul in the middle of it, he assumed that Paul may be this Egyptian. The Jewish historian Josephus recounts a revolt in Jerusalem that fits what the Roman soldier shares here. An Egyptian led a large band of revolutionaries against Jerusalem, claiming that the walls of the city would be thrown down when they approached the city. This didn’t happen and the governor Felix routed them and killed many, but the leader, the Egyptian escaped. So the Roman leader assumed Paul might be this man. But Paul makes it clear that he is a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia. Tarsus was an important trading center and a well-respected city. On this basis he asks to speak to the crowd and the Roman leader gives permission.

Here is Paul, beaten and bloody, a few moments removed from almost being torn apart by this crowd, now wanting to speak to them. This is the very opposite of self-preservation. Look at verse 22 as Paul begins to address the crowd.

He talks to the crowd in Aramaic, and this causes them to pay attention. Remember many in the crowd didn’t really know why they were there, they were just part of an angry mob. They assumed on the basis of false rumors that Paul was a guy who was out to undermine and destroy all that had to do with Judaism. They had probably heard the lie that Paul had brought a Gentile into the Temple. So they were furious, but they weren’t furious with the real Paul but with their mental image of Paul. Most of the time we are mad with a person because of what we imagine them to be rather than what they really are.

Paul tells the crowd that he is going to make a defense before them. That certainly sounds like self-preservation. But pay careful attention to what he says in verses 3 and following.

Paul begins simply to share his testimony. There are elements in the testimony that are intended to show the Jews that Paul is not against Judaism. But his intention in sharing these things is not so the people will like him, not so that people will think well of him or admire him. Paul shares his background in Judaism not to protect himself but to exalt Christ. He is going to say to them, “I was just like you, but Jesus changed me.” He points to the fact that he is a Jew born in Tarsus but brought up in Jerusalem and educated under the famous Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. Paul makes clear that he was a zealous Jew, and that when Christianity began he persecuted it violently.

But then he shares his experience on the road to Damascus. At noon, the brightest part of the day, a great light shone around him. A voice spoke to him, “Why are you persecuting me?” Paul asked, “Who are You?” And the reply comes, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.” Now Paul will later say in 1 Corinthians that Jesus had appeared to him here. Paul heard the voice of Jesus and saw the glory of Christ and it blinded him, so that he had to be led by the hand into Damascus. Notice that Paul’s encounter with Jesus totally broke down his sense of self and his self-protective tendencies. Paul was zealous for the law before. He was diligent to do his duty. He was confident in his righteousness and proud of how he had advanced in his religious training far beyond those of his own age. But Paul’s encounter with Jesus put him on his face and blinded his eyes and left this authoritative leader and great man of accomplishment stammering before the voice, “What shall I do, Lord?”

And Paul begins the journey away from self-protection and self-centeredness toward the Christ-centered life. Led into Damascus by those who were with him, he comes by the leading of the Spirit to a man named Ananias, whom God had prepared to receive Paul. Paul tells the crowd in verse 12 that Ananias was devout, living by the law and well-respected by the Jews. So Paul was a Jew who had an encounter with Jesus who then led him to a devout Jewish Christian for further direction. Paul is not trying to protect himself, he is trying to exalt Christ. As he points out the Jewish setting of his conversion Paul is bringing home the truth that Jesus is not the overthrow of Judaism but its fulfillment. Ananias helped Paul make sense of this truth. Ananias tells Paul to receive his sight and he recovers his sight. Then Ananias tells him that God has revealed Jesus to Him, Jesus the Righteous One, the one who perfectly obeyed God in all the ways even the most devout man like Ananias, has failed to obey. Ananias gives Paul the pattern for his life . . . you have seen and heard Christ and now you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you’ve seen and heard. So Ananias urges Paul to repent and believe. This is what he means by verse 16 . . .  And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’ Why wait? You know the truth. Believe it. What Ananias said to Paul God says to us today. Why delay? You know Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, why hesitate to trust Him? This morning I pray that someone whom God has been working on will yield their heart to Jesus today. As Hebrews says, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart.” Paul was called to this same salvation, this same response to the voice of God. Paul’s baptism did not forgive his sins but was a sign that his sins were forgiven. Baptism was the outward sign of the inward reality. It is the same for us. If you believe in Jesus you ought to be baptized. It is the outward sign God has given us to symbolize the inward faith of our hearts. Maybe there are some here this morning who need to be baptized. I hope you will come today and make that desire known.

Earlier in his life, Paul hated Jesus and lived a self-centered life. He was an achiever. Some people seek their identity through pleasure, some seek their identity by performance. Paul was on the performance end of the scale. But the voice of Jesus broke him. Jesus revealed Himself to Paul and that changed everything. And Paul was free, because his identity was not based on his performance but was based on the perfect life and atoning death and death-defeating resurrection. FF Bruce was a great NT scholar in the 20th century. The title of his book about Paul says it all. It is called Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Because Paul had a free heart, he had a fearless heart. He was not looking to what he could do and he was not afraid of what people could do to him. Therefore, when he was arrested, he did not play it safe. He did not try to find his way out of the mob into the safety of the crowd. Instead, Paul sought an opportunity to speak to the crowd that had just beat him up. In verses 17-21 he shares one last bit of information with them.

Paul shares that later (Galatians tells us it was three years) he went back to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple. And there he fell into a trance and had a vision in which he heard God tell him to leave Jerusalem because the people would not believe him. But Paul didn’t want to leave. He was convinced that his ministry would be to the Jews. He says, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ Paul sees what we see when we read his story. This man would be the perfect instrument to take the gospel to the Jews. What better man than this man, who had lived Judaism through and through and who had rejected Christ before his conversion so strongly, what better man than this man to take the gospel to the lost sheep of Israel. But God’s ways are not our ways. Verse 21 says, 21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ” Like Isaiah getting his commission from the Lord through a vision of the Lord in the temple, so Paul received his commission from the Lord in the temple for his mission to the Gentiles.

So why did God do it this way? Why did God not allow Paul to minister among his people when he seemed so perfectly fit for the task? Well, the text tells us that God knew the people of Jerusalem would not accept Paul. This is kind of like what Jesus says, “A prophet is not accepted in his hometown.” For Paul, his life was such a strong rebuke to the Jews’ way of life that they rejected him. But there may be another reason God did it this way. I find this in 2 Corinthians 12. I believe Paul may have been sent to the Gentiles because God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Where Paul would not feel perfectly comfortable, where he would not be totally competent, this was precisely where Paul needed to be. Why? So that it might be shown that the adequacy is from God and not from ourselves.

Has God put you in an uncomfortable place in your life? Maybe a relationship, maybe a health issue, maybe some great trial, maybe just the daily struggles of life. Maybe God doesn’t want our lives to be perfect because we would be prone to forget Him. We would be prone to take up self-effort rather than living a life of faith.

I just want to close this morning once again by considering Paul’s actions here. They are just incredible. He does not choose the path of self-preservation. Instead, he speaks to the people who have just beaten him. It is not an issue of Paul speaking to the people so he can defend himself. Instead, Paul uses his opportunity to speak with the people to speak to them about who he was, what Jesus had done and what Jesus was doing in his life. In other words, Paul could have used this opportunity to try to save himself but instead he uses the opportunity to tell the people that he was already saved. He belonged to Jesus and Jesus had given him a mission: to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He knew telling the Jews this would just bring more trouble, and as we will see next week, he does get into more trouble.

But what I want you to see is that Paul does this willingly. And the reason is that Paul’s goal is not self-preservation but Christ-exaltation.

What about you? Is your goal self-preservation or Christ-exaltation? Are you protecting what you see as yours or are you seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness? Are you more concerned that your children have worldly success or that they live a godly life? Do you view the time you have each week as yours or as God’s? These are not guilt trip questions. I don’t have any interest in just making you feel bad or thinking about what you need to do differently. I just want you to think about your heart. Where your heart is . . . that’s what makes the difference. If your heart is for self you are going down a road of misery. I know that sounds so backward to you. I know you feel like if you don’t take care of yourself, nobody will. I know you feel that way because that’s how I feel. But I’m telling you, it’s a dead end. Self-centeredness is taking you nowhere good. You won’t find yourself, you’ll lose yourself. On the other hand, there is a depth of peace and power in the life of one who exalts Christ which is life-giving. It is not a dead end, it is a way to life.

Paul’s experience can be your experience. You can live with a heart set free. If the Son sets you free you will be free indeed. May it be so in our lives. Amen.

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