In Defense of the Gospel
When you know something is true, how do you respond to accusations against it, and you? You can get mad or get fearful, but Paul shows us in this passage how to defend the gospel by removing other offenses to it, sharing your experience, and using the law.
Acts: The NIV Application Commentary, Ajith Fernando
In the 1960s, Physicists were struggling to explain what gives particles their mass. A British physicist, Peter Higgs, suggested a crazy idea: There is this field of invisible particles known now as a Higgs field, that essentially drags on particles as they move through it, thus giving them their mass. He was ridiculed at the time. Peer-reviewed journals wouldn’t even publish his work originally, saying it had no obvious relevance to physics. It was too outlandish. We now know that Higgs was right on some level at least, and he knew that then. What he could have done was said, “Well, forget all you guys, I know the truth,” but instead he adapted his message to make it clearer so others could also embrace its truth. In the passage we’re looking at today, Paul is the subject of all sorts of unfair criticism and charges. He too could have just said, “Forget all of you,” but he had a concern that we should all have, that others would actually believe the truth of the gospel too. So we’re going to see him going out of his way, doing things that in an absolute sense he doesn’t “have to” do, in order to persuasively defend the gospel, and from this we can learn three ways to defend the gospel: Remove other offenses, share your experience, and use the law of the land.
Remove other offenses
Our passage begins narrating Paul’s stay in Jerusalem by telling us about his interactions with James and the elders in Jerusalem. Paul shares all that God has done; James and the elders glorify God upon hearing it. So they are with Paul and supportive of God’s work through Paul, but they raise an issue: There are thousands of Jews who have come to faith in Christ and who are zealous for the law of God, but they hear that Paul is telling Jews to disobey the law of Moses, telling Jews not to circumcise their children or walk according to their customs. James and the elders want to receive Paul into fellowship, but they realize this could create division in the church, so they ask Paul to undergo a purification ritual with four men who are under a vow and pay their expenses, which probably means paying for the animals they would have to sacrifice, to demonstrate as James put it in verse 24, that Paul too observes the law. We don’t get the details of this vow or ceremony, but such things were common in Judaism and not sinful. There was a possible offense that Paul could remove without compromising the gospel, so he did.
As the passage proceeds, Luke shows us all these other ways in which Paul is really innocent. While he’s in the Temple observing the law, people come to lay hands on him and accuse him of speaking against the temple and the law; see the contradiction? They also accuse him of bringing Greeks into the temple, which he actually didn’t do. When he comes before the Roman Tribune, they question him about whether he’s the Egyptian who stirred up a revolt, and he is not. He’s no enemy of the Jewish law, even the ceremonial parts to which believers are no longer bound, he’s not speaking against the law or the temple, and he’s not leading revolts against the Roman state like this Egyptian. The only charge against him that can really stick is that he does in fact preach the gospel, and that’s exactly what you want if you want to defend the gospel. You want to be able to actually talk about it, and one of the best ways to do that is to remove all other offenses. Paul did that first by not actually being a lawbreaker, of either Jewish or Roman law, and second by even going out of his way to show that he wasn’t a lawbreaker.
Many of you are wearing masks today and sitting 6 feet apart because you think it is the best way to stop the spread of a deadly disease. Others of you may be doing it because it’s just what the city of Philadelphia is asking us to do, it’s what you know at least some of your fellow church members want you to do, and it’s what many of your neighbors want you to do. One of the members in my Citygroup told me he’s not too worried about the whole mask thing, but he wears one to Citygroup every week because it’s what we’ve asked everyone to do. Praise God. If you get the privilege of talking to one of our neighbors about Jesus, do you really want to spend your time defending why you aren’t wearing a mask, or do you want to spend your time defending the gospel itself? Or consider race. We’re in an area of the city where 40% of our neighbors are black, and one of the big offenses for black Americans considering the gospel is the common misconception that Christianity is a white man’s religion. One of the common offenses even for other racial groups around us is that evangelicals don’t care about racism. So we need to first make sure the gospel we’re proclaiming is actually the biblical gospel that applies to all peoples and that we are obeying the biblical command to do justice, but then we should also consider ways to go out of our way to demonstrate that it isn’t just a white man’s religion and show how the Bible does address racism, not only with our words but with our actions. What are offenses you could go out of your way to remove, even costly ways (remember, this cost Paul money)? Then we can actually talk about the gospel, which is what Paul does next, by sharing his own experience.
Share your experience
Paul’s story spans from verse 1 to verse 21 of chapter 22, and from it we can learn how to defend the gospel using our own experiences, what Christians have more recently called “sharing your testimony”. Paul does that, right? In our cultural moment today, there is both an error and an opportunity in sharing your story. On the one hand, the error in our culture is the error of relativism, which assumes that each person’s story is their own story and therefore equally legitimate. So we share our story of how God saved us, and people say, “Oh that’s wonderful; I’m glad that works for you,” and the conversation just kinda ends there. But that’s not Paul’s aim; he wants to persuade, not just have a comparative religion conversation. Nonetheless, there is an opportunity here because culturally people are generally open to hearing the stories of others. So we should share our story, but use our story to highlight the upper-case s Story of Jesus, and call people to believe in Him. Let’s look at how Paul does that.
He starts by identifying with his listeners. He addressed them in their language. Of course, if you speak multiple languages, that’s helpful; I was blessed when one of our members shared the gospel with my Spanish-speaking neighbor in Spanish, because I can’t speak Spanish. Even if you don’t, there is a manner of speaking depending on the person to whom you are speaking that you can adapt; the technical term for this is “code switching,” which we can actually use to the degree we’re able to make the gospel clearer to our listeners. So Paul spoke their native tongue, but he also highlighted the parts of his story with which they would identify. He identifies himself as a Jew, educated at the feet of Gamaliel, a prestigious rabbi, and then highlights how he was persecuting the church. He’s saying to them, “I was where you are now.” Now obviously you can’t do that with everyone; Paul doesn’t do this sort of thing with non-Jews, but when you can, it’s a helpful way to connect your experience with theirs.
Then Paul talks about how despite being where they were now, Jesus saved him. Jesus is really the center of his experience. He talks about how Jesus appeared to him, how Jesus spoke to him, how Jesus told him where to go. He doesn’t talk about how he came to his senses, how he really committed not to persecute anymore, how he started living differently. Jesus is the hero of his story; is He the hero of yours? Who is the subject of the verbs in your story? Is it about how you turned yourself around or about how Jesus sought you and found you when you were running away from Him? Paul was also clear about what is offered in the gospel and how one responds in relaying the words of Ananias, where in verse 16 he points out that what is offered is the cleansing from sin, and the way one receives it is calling upon the Lord and being baptized. I hear a lot of Christians share their experience with Jesus, and many times it is very clear on the gospel, but I am still amazed how many times I hear someone share their story without mentioning sin, forgiveness, or calling upon the name of Jesus for salvation, all basic elements of what it means to become a Christian. Be clear about what Jesus has done in your life, what the gospel actually offers: forgiveness of sin, and how one actually comes to enjoy that: Calling upon the name of the Lord by faith.
Then after sharing how he was where they are and how Jesus saved him, he shares his new purpose in life, summarized in verse 21 with Jesus’ commission to Paul: Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles. As you are sharing your story, don’t just end with your conversion. Talk about how it has changed your life. Most of us don’t get as specific of a directive from Jesus along with our conversion, but we all get a new purpose in life, to live for the glory of God in all that we do, to be a part of His mission to make disciples of all nations. When I’m sharing my story, I’ll often talk about how God took me from simply trying to get people to like me to actually starting to love people, whatever they thought of me, and wanting to share this good news with them. How has your new overarching purpose changed your life?
What defending the gospel in this way does is it explains why you live the way you do. Paul is essentially saying, “Hey I know you don’t like some of the stuff I’m saying, but like, I kinda feel like I don’t have a choice. Trust me, I was all in for persecuting the church, just like you are now, but Jesus saved me, and gave me a new purpose. I can’t unsee what I saw, I can’t unhear what I heard.” What that does is, it makes his listeners’ issue more with Jesus than with him, especially by making Jesus the hero of his story. That’s the best way to defend the gospel: Remove the offenses from your life and share your experience in such a way that people get their eyes off of you and onto Jesus. And then, finally, use the law of the land.
Use the law of the land
By law here I mean the Roman law, or the law of whatever state in which you are a citizen on earth. Despite Paul identifying with his audience and sharing the gospel clearly, as soon as he mentions going to the Gentiles, they raise their voices against him in verse 22. But you see now that Paul has removed every other offense, it’s clear that the Jews are actually rejecting something basic to the gospel: Namely, that it is for all peoples. He can’t remove that offense without removing the gospel, so the Jews in this case are going to have to just go ahead and get offended. If you really do remove every offense and defend the gospel through your experience, people will still get offended, precisely because you have made the gospel clear, and the gospel is offensive to human pride, in this case to ethnic or religious pride. If you try to defend the gospel in such a way that everyone likes it, it will no longer be the gospel you are defending.
So they get offended and take Paul to try to flog him, but while doing so, Paul points out that he is a Roman citizen in verse 25. In the Roman Empire of the time, you don’t have ideals like, “All people are created equal”; Roman citizens had elevated rights, one of which was you can’t just flog them without a real trial. Paul appeals to that privilege of his in this case to escape the flogging. Notice, he could have done this earlier, but didn’t. Like when they were asking him if he was the Egyptian rebel, he could have said then, “No, but I am a Roman citizen,” and he didn’t. Why not? It would appear it was because he wanted the chance to defend the gospel to the Jews first. Now that that’s done, Paul doesn’t see any inherent virtue in just continuing to get flogged. He’s willing to get flogged if that’s what it takes to defend the gospel; we see that elsewhere in Acts, but the goal is to defend and propagate the gospel, not just to suffer. So he uses the law when it helps him in his mission, and doesn’t feel a need to appeal to it when it doesn’t.
So like, if you’re being abused, you should feel totally free to appeal to the law to execute justice on your abuser. If you’ve been a victim of injustice, you have rights, and it’s not somehow more Christian to not appeal to them and just keep suffering. And as Christians here to defend the gospel, we should consider ways to work within the system of government God has given us to defend the gospel. For example, if you’re a teacher, you probably shouldn’t try to defend the gospel during one of your class periods. But, I talked to one of you who told me about how you took your lunch break with a coworker and every Monday when he’d ask you how your weekend was, you’d share something from the sermon at church. That’s using the law to your advantage: You do have the freedom to speak about the gospel at your lunch break. In many ways that is a unique freedom we have in America, alongside of which are a host of other religious liberties, the freedom to hire according to our religious standards, to receive and remove members according to our standards, the freedom even to assemble as we are now. Though God doesn’t ultimately need such things, they are a gift that we should use for the defense of the gospel, as Paul did here.
It’s one more way we can make sure the good news of Jesus is what is really getting out there. It’s one more way we can ensure people are brought into an encounter with Him, because He really is that great. You know Paul is a shining example in this passage of how to defend the gospel, but Jesus did more than that when He went to Jerusalem. Paul went to his own people here as he points out, and his own people did not receive him. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we read that Jesus also went to His own, and His own did not receive Him, only there it doesn’t just mean Jesus went to His fellow Jews like Paul did. In Jesus’ case, He not only went to His fellow man; He went to the people He created, and still they did not receive Him! When the Jews handed him over to the Romans and He was on trial, where Paul gave a great defense, Jesus gave none. Why? He had a different mission from Paul’s. Paul’s mission was to tell the story of what Jesus did; Jesus’ mission was to do it. He didn’t come to tell the story of redemption; He came to accomplish redemption. Paul went through a purification ritual and paid for sacrifices when he didn’t have to, but if anyone didn’t have to purify Himself, if anyone did not owe God a sacrifice, it was Jesus, the true God and perfect man, who nonetheless consecrated Himself for our sake and offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, so that there would be cleansing for the sins of all who call upon His name.
So call upon His name, and don’t get so locked into what you have to and don’t have to do as a Christian. Ask rather what you can do to remove any offense besides the gospel. Share your experience as a means to sharing Jesus. Use the law when it helps you do that, and in the end, all those who defend the gospel will be vindicated when the light of Jesus shines again at His return.