Acts 25

Today’s reading is Acts 25.

When we left Paul yesterday, he was languishing in prison in Caesarea for two years (24:27). Caesarea is a nice place, right on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea but, if you’re in prison, that doesn’t matter. If I had to be in prison somewhere, I ‘d rather be locked up in Miami or Hawaii than in Alaska or Minneapolis, but I’m sure prisoners in Hawaii don’t feel like they’re in paradise, even though they technically are.

Anyway, Paul was in prison there in Caesarea for two years. He was left there by Felix, a Roman government official over Judea. Felix detained Paul for two years without a trial because he was looking for a bribe from Paul (24:26). Because he didn’t get his bribe, Felix decided, when he left office, to leave Paul in prison as a favor to Paul’s Jewish opponents (24:26-27). Leaving Paul in prison without a trial was unjust but Felix was a sinful man, so I doubt he felt any guilt in his conscience about it.

The Jewish leaders asked Felix’s successor, Festus (I always think of Uncle Fester when I read his name), to send Paul back to Jerusalem from Caesarea for trial (vv. 1-3a) because they planned to kill Paul en route (v. 3b). Paul argued against a transfer back to Jerusalem and, to ensure his safety, appealed to Caesar (vv. 4ish-11). Appealing to Caesar was Paul’s right as a Roman citizen (remember Acts 22:27).

King Agrippa–Herod Agrippa–was a Jewish client king over the same area as Festus, and Agrippa came with his wife to Caesarea to congratulate Fester (er… Festus) on his sweet new job (v. 13).

What do a Roman governor and a Jewish “king” have to talk about? Not much besides work, so that’s what Festus and Agrippa talked about–including Paul’s case (vv. 14-21). Agrippa was intrigued by the case, so Festus set up a meet-n-greet between Agrippa and Paul (v. 22). The end of our passage today (vv. 23-27) set the table for Paul’s speech to Agrippa which we’ll read tomorrow in Acts 24.

As I mentioned in my devotional on Tuesday from Acts 23, Paul used his valuable Roman citizenship to avoid a beating by a Roman solider and to protect his life from the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

Here in Acts 25, Paul used his Roman citizenship to his advantage again.

This time, he used it to get a free trip to Rome where he wanted to go next anyway (Rom 15:23-33). This was a wise move; Paul creatively used what he had at his disposal to move toward the goal he wanted to reach for the glory of God.

But notice this one thing: in Acts 22:28 Paul said, “I was born a citizen” of Rome. This was highly unusual for a Jewish man or any other non-Italian in those days. The Romans conquered many nations but did not grant citizenship to these defeated foes. For Paul to be born a Roman citizen, his father must have forked over a lot of money (see 22:27) or he did some heroic act for the Roman empire that got him honored with citizenship. Either way, Paul’s Roman citizenship came to him as a gift. He did nothing to earn it; it was conferred on him at birth.

The fact that Paul was able to use his Roman citizenship for the Lord’s work shows us the importance of God’s providence. The word “providence” speaks of God’s working his will in this world without using miracles. Often God’s providence is only visible to us when we look back at events in the past. When things are happening to us in the present, we don’t necessarily see God working out his will but, if we look back at our lives, we can often see how seemingly “random” things were actually given or arranged by God to accomplish his will in us.

Maybe Paul’s dad was proud to be a Roman citizen or maybe he was embarrassed about it and lost some credibility with his Pharisaic friends because of it. Maybe as Paul was growing up he thought his Roman citizenship had very little use to him but now he could see why God gave it to him. I’m certain he was grateful to have that benefit when Acts 25 was happening.

Think back over your life as a Christian for a little bit. Have there been any “chance” events in your life that protected you from harm or helped you serve God or walk with Him? Think back over what God has done in you and for you. Do you see anything that happened before you were born that made you the man or woman you are now? Make a list, then thank God for his providence and how it has worked out in your life. Then determine, as Paul did, to use whatever advantages you have–be they small or insignificant or great and valuable–to the glory of God by the expansion of the gospel.

Acts 24

Today’s reading is Acts 24.

Paul was taken from Jerusalem to Caesarea to protect his life from a plot by his Jewish opponents at the end of yesterday’s reading in Acts 23. Five days (v. 1) after Paul arrived in Caesarea, his Jewish opponents showed up there to charge him with stirring up conflict among the Jews (vv. 2-9). Paul answered the charges against him by appealing to what actually happened and the lack of proof his opponents had for their charges (vv. 10-13). Paul skillfully wove the gospel into his defense starting in verse 14. Felix, the governor who was handling this case, punted the case to a later date (vv. 22-23).

But a few days later, Felix and his wife Drusilla set up a private meeting with Paul (vv. 24-26). This meeting allowed Paul to specifically bring the gospel to this couple. An interesting aspect of this is that Felix was a Gentile, a Roman governor, but his wife Drusilla was Jewish (v. 24b).

So Paul had a mixed audience religiously when he spoke to this couple.

How did he handle this opportunity?

According to verse 25, “Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come….” Let’s break that down:

  • “righteousness” refers to what is right, how someone measures up to a standard. In this case, the standard is God’s perfect holiness as revealed in his Law.
  • “self-control” has to do with a person’s ability to say no to his sinful impulses and choose to do what is right instead.
  • “judgment to come” of course, refers to the fact that every person will stand before God to give an account of his or her life.

In other words, Paul spoke to Felix and Drusilla about right and wrong, about their inability to control themselves enough to do what is right, and about the fact that God would judge them individually for doing what was wrong.

What was the reaction?

“Felix was afraid and said, ‘That’s enough for now! You may leave…” (v. 25b). In other words, Paul’s conversation with them caused Felix to feel the conviction of sin and his need for a savior.

Unfortunately, he did not repent at Paul’s teaching and find forgiveness in Christ. But once again Paul’s approach when talking to him is instructive for us when we speak about Christ to unbelievers.

Almost any point of sin is an adequate starting point for the gospel.

When you are talking with an unbeliever, if they complain about an injustice in the news or about crime or about the lack of self-control they see in others or in young people, that is an opportunity to talk about Christ.

Why do people dislike it when others can’t exercise self-control? Because an uncontrolled population is dangerous and difficult to live in. But what standard do unbelievers use to complain about the sins, injustices, and failures of self-control in others? They appeal to God’s standards, even though they may not know it or even may deny it.

The Bible says that the law is written on the heart of every human. That means that we have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. Use that! Show them how they too fall short of the standards they apply to others and admit to them that you, too, fall short but that Jesus didn’t. This will give you the opportunity to share what Christ has done for us to deliver us from the coming judgment of God at the end of the age.

Acts 23

Read Acts 23.

Let’s tie some threads together as we jump into Acts 23:

  • Paul was in Jerusalem. He went there to deliver the offering collected by the Gentile churches for the Jewish believers struggling in poverty.
  • Before he went there, he was told repeatedly that he would face persecution, be bound and handed over to human authorities.
  • Also before he went there, he sent a letter to the Romans expressing his desire to come to see them after his visit to Jerusalem.

At the end of Acts 22, which we read yesterday, Paul gave his personal testimony before the crowd that had rioted due to his presence in the temple. The crowd settled down and listened until Paul spoke of his commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles. At that point, the crowd called for his execution (22:22). The Roman soldiers who had arrested him (21:31-32) prepared to interrogate him which would have begun by whipping him (22:24). Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen (vv. 25b-29). At that point, the Roman commander arranged for Paul to meet with the Jewish religious ruling council called the Sanhedrin (22:30).

That’s where we found Paul today in Acts 23.

As Paul addressed the Sanhedrin, his speech did not begin well (vv. 1-5) so he used his knowledge about the doctrinal conflicts between the Pharisees and Sadducees to create a division with the Sanhedrin (vv. 6-9). The Roman authorities took Paul back into protective custody (v. 10) where the Lord revealed to him that he would be going to Rome to testify for Christ (v. 11).

Although it is not spelled out directly, I think this is where we learn why Paul went to Jerusalem despite the many prophesies he received about his imprisonment there. Paul had told the Romans that his desire was to come to them (Rom 15:23-33). At the end of that section in Romans, Paul asked for the believers in Rome to pray for him. Note the specifics of his request: “Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea… so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed” (vv. 31-32).

In Acts 22, Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen to protect his health and his life and, as we’ll see, he later used them to appeal to Caesar. Appealing to Caesar required a trip to Rome, so Paul used the prophesied persecution plus his rights as a Roman citizen to gain free passage to Rome where he could (eventually) meet the church there and prepare for his next missionary journey.

Luke recorded all of this so that we would see how the gospel eventually infiltrated the entire Roman world.

But we can learn a lesson by example from Paul’s craftiness in this passage. He was willing to use whatever resources available to him–doctrinal division in the Sanhedrin, his Roman citizenship, whatever–to reach the goals he had set for the spread of the gospel and the glory of God.

There was nothing dishonest or unethical in what Paul did; he used wisdom to make the most of the situation in front of him. His purpose was to glorify God but he did not wait around passively for God to work. Instead, he asked for believers to pray for his safety, then did what he could to wisely move toward the godly goal he had set.

Do we do this? Do we use the excuse of “waiting on God” to do nothing or do we use whatever is at our disposal to attempt things for God while asking for his blessing and protection? What kind of godly goals have you set for this year? How are you using the tools at your disposal to move toward those goals?

Acts 22

Read Acts 22.

On Friday we read about Paul’s return to Jerusalem, his attempt to mollify the Jewish people by submitting to a Jewish purification rite, and his arrest which had been foretold repeatedly by the Holy Spirit. At the end of Acts 21, Paul asked his arrestors for a chance to speak to the crowd that had rioted.

Today’s chapter, Acts 22, recorded that speech.

Given this opportunity to speak to such a large number of his fellow Jews, what did Paul say?

He gave his personal testimony.

He began with his background as a carefully observant Jew from the Pharisaic tradition (vv. 1-3). He moved to his persecution of Christians for their divergent beliefs (vv. 4-5). He described his conversion experience on the road to Damascus (vv. 6-13) and his commission to reach the Gentiles with the good news about Jesus (vv. 14-21).

People can reject arguments and counter them with other arguments but it is extremely difficult to argue with someone’s personal experience. The personal experience of another person is also very persuasive, one of the most persuasive forms of communication. Paul’s testimony here did not get him released, but it did give him an opportunity to witness for Christ.

A straight up sermon about Jesus would have been interrupted a lot sooner, probably, than Paul’s testimony was here so this was a wise way to use the opportunity.

Do you realize how powerful your personal testimony can be when you speak to others about Christ?

You don’t have to have a dramatic Damascus road-type conversion story. In fact, if you were saved as a child, your testimony might focus more on what being a Christian has meant to your life than about how much you changed from when you were an 8 year old contract killer or whatever.

Let Paul’s example here encourage you to think about your testimony and write it out even to help you be prepared to share Christ when the door to speak for Jesus opens.

Acts 21

Today we return to the book of Acts. So, read Acts 21.

It has been a while since we read Acts 20, so when Acts 21:1 said, “After we had torn ourselves away from them…” we need to be reminded that Paul had been speaking to the elders from the church in Ephesus at the end of Acts 20. He was completing his third missionary journey and was on his way to Jerusalem with money collected from the Gentile churches for the Jewish believers struggling in poverty in Jerusalem. Here in Acts 21, we read repeated warnings for Paul not to go to Jerusalem:

  • Verse 4 said that the disciples in Tyre told him not to go: “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.”
  • Verses 10-11 told us that in Caesarea a prophet named Agabus “took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, ‘The Holy Spirit says, “In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.”’”
  • Verse 12 recounted how Luke, the other traveling companions of Paul, and the Caesarean believers begged Paul to change his mind. The verse said, “we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.”

This is a tough situation to interpret. All of these people were speaking to Paul “through the Spirit” (v. 4), so it would seem that Paul went to Jerusalem in spite of God’s revealed moral will.

Yet back in chapter 20, when speaking to the Ephesian elders, Paul said, “…compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem” (20:22a). He also knew that the result of his going would be personally painful: “not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me” (20:22b-23).

So what caused him to keep going?

Acts 20:24: “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” And here in Acts 21: “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” His motives for going were pure and righteous and to the glory of God. The warnings about suffering, then, must have been to prepare him and the churches so that they would not lose faith in God when Paul was arrested.

And, sure enough, he was arrested (v. 33). We’ll see in the chapters to come what the results of that arrest were.

For now, though, we should reflect on the warnings in Scripture. The Bible tells us that the way of following Christ is a narrow way. It tells us that there are few who go that way, so we will be in an uncomfortable minority throughout life if we follow Christ.

Other passages tell us that following Christ means dying to ourselves and that it will cost some disciples their families, their homes, their inheritance on earth, and even their lives. These warnings were not given to tell us not to follow Jesus; they were written to prepare us in advance for the costs of following him. So, don’t be surprised or unhappy with God when being a Christian costs you something. Instead, understand that you are on the right path because what is happening to you is exactly what God said would happen to his children. So trust him to do his will (v. 14b) in and with your life.

Romans 16

Read Romans 16.

This closing chapter of the book of Romans was quite personal.

It began with Paul’s personal recommendation of Phoebe (vv. 1-2), then a long list of personal greetings (vv. 3-16). Just before his closing remarks, Paul warned the believers about “those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way” (v. 17b). Those “divisions and obstacles” were “contrary to the teaching you have learned,” also according to verse 178.

Paul was concerned about false doctrine because that divides the body of Christ. Verse 18 told us that these false teachers would divide the church because of “their own appetites.” In other words, their doctrine was deliberately chosen and differentiated from the truth in order “to deceive the minds of naive people” (v. 18) for the personal profit of the false teachers.

Think about that long list of personal greetings in verses 3-16 and this warning in verses 17-19. Paul had seen many churches where there was once warm fellowship and strong friendships torn apart by false teachers. This entire letter was written to establish a doctrinal base, to teach the gospel Christ gave him to this church that had formed apart from Paul’s direct ministry. Paul wanted each person mentioned in this letter to fully understand the gospel, to believe it themselves and to welcome all–Jews and Gentiles alike–who believe it.

It would be a bad, sad thing, therefore, if “Ampliatus” (v. 8) pulled away from and stopped talking to “Rufus” (v. 13) because Ampliatus had departed from the gospel or because he had stopped accepting Jewish beliers as genuine Christians or because he had broken fellowship over which day was the Sabbath and how that Sabbath was to be observed.

A proper understanding and acceptance of the gospel, a commitment to serve rather than be served, and an understanding that Christ has accepted many who don’t hold all the same convictions about everything should unify believers, not divide us.

For us, we should recognize that truth is something to be explored and that exploration involves questions and sometimes debate. But when God’s people know what they believe and why, it should unify us rather than divide us. When others come in with different teaching, we should examine their teaching carefully but also be suspicious about their motives.

Too many believers uncritically accept different teachings from some bestselling Christian author or TV personality or webpage they read. False teachers can be very persuasive; hold on to the gospel and reject everything that departs from it. The unity of Christ’s body is at stake.

Romans 15

Read Romans 15.

This chapter began by wrapping up the teaching we read yesterday on Christian liberty. The Bible does not address every choice that believers make in life so we have to apply biblical principles, godly wisdom, and personal preferences when making those choices. If your choice does not lead another person to sin, does not violate your own conscience, and you are comfortable about this choice when facing the Lord at the judgement seat of Christ, you have the freedom to choose.

I mentioned in the previous paragraph that we have to apply “biblical principles” in these situations. The opening paragraph of today’s reading emphasized that principle which is, “not to please ourselves… [rather] each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up” (vv. 1b-2a). When we read 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul mentioned more than once that this was his guiding principle for how he ate and for not taking money from the people of a city when he was starting a new church there. Here in Romans 15, Paul points us to the example of Christ in verses 3-13. Because Christ did not put himself first, the insults of sinners fell on him (v. 3) so that the Jews might receive God’s promises to them (v. 8) and the Gentiles might glorify God as well (vv. 9-13). This reminds us of the importance of considering others when we make choices that we don’t believe to be sinful but others might. We should accept other believers without casting doubt on the sincerity of their faith (v. 8) and we should make choices that won’t cause division in the body of Christ.

In verses 14-32 Paul expressed his confidence in the believers at Rome and described his plans to come visit them in the future. He asked them to “join me in my struggle by praying to God for me” (v. 30) because he was confident about their faith and maturity in Christ (v. 14). Despite his confidence in them spiritually, he conceded that he had “written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again.” This reminds us that strong Christians need to hear direct, even confrontational application of God’s word to our lives. No matter how much we grow in grace, we will still have points of ignorance, personal blindspots, and areas where obedience is a struggle. Our faith in Christ should give us the humility to receive correction in these areas and to use them to help us grow stronger for the glory of God.

Have you received some uncomfortably direct teaching recently, maybe in the form of a message or in a personal conversation from another believer? Our tendency in those moments is self-defense and maybe that was your initial reaction. On further reflection, however, if you see the wisdom and truth of the words that were spoken to you, have the humility to receive them and put them into practice in your life.

Romans 14

Read Romans chapter 14.

Earlier in these devotionals on Romans, I mentioned that scholars have speculated that there might have been two churches in Rome–one Jewish and one Gentile. If that’s the case–and it is just speculation–then Paul did not see them as two churches but as one church divided about some important issues. The chapters on law and grace were designed to set a foundation for healing that division; this chapter, Romans 14, addresses that division as well.

The command that opens this chapter is, “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters” (v. 1). Verses 2-3, 5-6 raise two examples of these “disputable matters.” One has to do with diet (vv. 2-3) and the other has to do with the Sabbath (vv. 5-6). The person “whose faith is weak” is the person who wants to stay kosher (v. 2b: “another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables”) and the person who wants to observe the Sabbath–whether on Saturday or Sunday (v. 6).

Jewish believers and some Gentiles who were steeped in the Old Testament would probably have a hard time being known as the “weaker brother or sister.” because their position is based on scripture. However, they are the weaker believers because they cannot accept the later revelation that declared all foods to be clean and that Christ is the end of the law for those who believe. It would seem that Paul could have justifiably rebuked those who wanted to live a stricter life in these areas because they were not believing and applying God’s word as delivered to the Apostles. Paul did not, however, condemn them; in fact, he commanded believers on all sides not to condemn each other (v. 10). Instead of judging and quarreling, he commanded us to accept each other and believe the best about the other–that he or she is acting that way for the Lord (vv. 3c-8).

Instead of judging each other, God’s word encourages us to work out our own convictions for ourselves (v. 5b) and, if we have a more tolerant position than some Christians, to keep that to ourselves (v. 22) because we love other believers and want them to stand not stumble (vv. 13-21).

Our own choices should be measured not by other people but by two things:

  1. Knowledge that we will answer to God for how we’ve lived this life (vv. 10-12)
  2. Our own conscience (v. 23).

Is there anything you do as a Christian that other Christians might think is wrong? Do you refuse to do something as a Christian that other Christians think is acceptable? Both of those things are OK, provided they are not directly contradictory to scripture, that you do them in faith and that you are prepared to answer to God for them. In the meantime, though, act in love toward those who disagree with you. This will unify us in Christ on many issues that divide the church which will strengthen our witness to the world and help us all glorify God together.

Romans 13

Read Romans 13.

This chapter continued applying the theology of Romans 1-11 to the everyday lives of us Christians.

The passage started by telling us that government exists by God’s appointment (v. 1b), so we must obey whatever ruling authorities exist over us (v. 1a). After explaining the consequences of disobeying the government (v. 2b-5), the Bible also commanded us to pay taxes and give respect to the government officials over us (vv. 6-7).

Verses 8-10 reminded us of the importance of loving each other, even reminding us that this is a debt (v. 8a) that we must continually pay. Finally, verses 11-14 urge us to wake up (v. 11b) and live “decently” (v. 13a) because this age is quickly closing (vv. 11b-12). Specifically, we should stop living for immoral pleasures and instead “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I once heard a message in college on that phrase, “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ,” except that the message was from the King James Version which says, “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.” The preacher of that message made a compelling case for the kind of powerful living that came from “put[ting] ye on the Lord Jesus Christ,” but I found myself wondering throughout the message, “What does this mean? How do you put on Christ?”

At the very end of his message, he finally raised that question. “How do you put on the Lord Jesus Christ?” he asked. “I don’t really know,” he said, much to my great frustration.

Now that I am a much more experienced preacher, I am glad he at least asked the question. I’m sure many of my messages have ignored essential questions, though I try not to do that.

Anyway, the preacher added, “But I just try to pray every morning and ask the Lord to help me put on Christ.”

If he meant that like a magic incantation, then his approach is off the mark. But I don’t think that’s what he meant; in fact, I think what he meant was somewhat in concert with what Paul meant in this passage.

Putting on Christ, clothing yourself in him, is not a technique or a formula for spirituality. It is a metaphor for the entire Christian life. “Putting on Christ” means learning to live for Jesus Christ. It means learning to think of your life through God’s eyes and doing what Christ would do in any situation.

“What would Jesus do” is not just a helpful question for difficult decision points. It is what the Christian life is about; it’s about restructuring your life as God-in-the-flesh would live it if he had your family, your job, your bank account, your free time, and so on. This is what God is doing in all believers through the Holy Spirit, the word of God, and the challenging affects of other Christians in our lives.

Whether you are aware of it or not, God is moving your life toward holiness through these influences, if you are a Christian.* But if we can learn to consciously think about living each day for Christ, as if we were him, that will help us to do what is right in God’s sight more often and it will help us “not [to] think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (v. 14b).

So, the preacher’s statement that he just prayed and asked the Lord to help him put on Christ was not a bad way to apply the passage. May the Lord help us apply it similarly and live for him today.

*By the way: the times in our lives when we are aware of our sins and weaknesses are part of that process, too. They are how God shows us our need of Christ and his grace for forgiveness and future growth.

Romans 12

Today’s reading is Romans 12.

Romans 11 ended with a praise poem to God’s mercy. Today, Romans 12:1 began by calling us to act differently “in view of God’s mercy.”

Because God has called us and given us new life and the gift of faith, God’s word urges believers “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” That means serving God with your life by making moral choices that please him (v. 1b-2: “holy and pleasing to God…”) and living a life of service to others based on the gift God gave you (vv. 3-8). It means loving God’s people in real ways (vv. 9-13) and being kind and loving to our enemies (vv. 14-21).

I want to focus on that phrase, “living sacrifices” in verse 1. Up to and including Jesus, sacrifices were dead; they were living things killed to be offered to God on behalf of someone else. Christ gave himself as the ultimate (and only truly meaningful) sacrifice. He was the final dead sacrifice that God wanted as his death made atonement for us. Then, raised to life, he gives life to all who come to him in faith.

Now, God does not want your dead body or for us to bring him dead bodies in worship. Instead, he wants believers to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” To do that, we continue to live in this world, but the things we do with our lives, our human bodies, we do in worship to him. The ways that we spend our time, the things we say and do, our service to each other and our kindness to those who are unkind to us all grow out of the fact that we are God’s and want to worship him with our lives.

Imagine that each morning when you rise from your bed, you thought about this verse and made a decision to worship God with your body, your life, that day. What would change about your daily schedule, your thinking towards other people, what is important to you, how you use your money? Would it change the way you eat or how you spend your free time? Would you find greater joy in life because you’ve surrendered control and quit worrying about things?

Try it today; maybe even write “Rom 12:1” or “living sacrifice” on your right hand to remind you.