Tuesday, September 23, 2008

acts 22

What's striking about the uproar in Acts 22 is what it's not about.

A quick bit of background. In Acts 21, the Apostle Paul had shown up in Jerusalem with some Gentile Christians and had gone to the Temple. A group from a rival sect of Christianity that was decidedly less liberal than Paul on matters of Torah, told people that Paul had defiled the Temple by taking Gentiles there and that he had been preaching anti-Semitism wherever he went. The ensuing riot was bad that the Roman commander had to bring his army into the city and arrest Paul to save his life.

So, in Acts 22 Paul addresses the crowd from the relative safety of the soldiers' barracks. He starts speaking in Aramaic, the popular language of Judea at this time, and the crowd calms down immediately. "Didn't someone say this guy has been spreading hatred against the Holy City?" someone says. "That can't be true, listen to him talk. He speaks our language with a native accent. He's one of us."

Paul begins talking about his credentials, and they're impressive. He was taught by Gamaliel, a well-known and respected member of the Sanhedrin. Probably by this point people are starting to feel a little uncomfortable about how  they've been acting. Paul shares his story. He mentions that he persecuted followers of the Way, even going all the way to Damascus to have them thrown into prison.

Back when The Point was first launching its North Brunswick congregation, I remember Tim the pastor guy asking why we thought non-Christians were so hostile toward Christianity and the gospel. There were the expected answers about pushy Christians engaging in drive-by evangelism, like the annoying fellow who tries to strike up a conversation so he can give you a tract.

There were all sorts of other reasons too. Somebody mentioned some of the scandals that rocked Christianity in the 1980s, like the Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggart, or the more recent scandal of child molestation in the Catholic church. Someone else mentioned the sometimes pugnacious behavior of prominent evangelical leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell.

And of course someone probably mentioned that the gospel runs counter to all the values of the world.

If that's the case, if people are supposed to greet the gospel with hostility, I'd expect the crowd to lose it somewhere between verses 6 and 16. That's where Paul talks about his surprising conversion to the Way, his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, his miraculous healing, and his decision to be baptized. These are all things that mark Paul's conversion experience.

It's not like people are going to miss that. The Way began in their city some 20 or 30 years earlier. The book of Acts notes that when Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost about 3,000 people became believers. The Jews who were not followers of the Way still knew them. They were related to them, bought and sold with them, and worshiped with them at the Temple or (in the suburbs) at the synagogue. If anyone in the world at this point in history knows the story of Christianity, it's the people of Jerusalem.

Truth is, no one seems to care. If Paul had stopped here, it seems like they would have said, "Eh, it's OK. Sorry about the misunderstanding."

But of course, Paul never did know when to stop. Look at what gets everyone's outrage. It's in verse 21, when he says that God told him to go and preach to the Gentiles. And that's when people start clamoring for his blood. It's not the gospel that drove them to a fury: It was racism, plain and simple.

Even the Sanhedrin, in Acts 23 didn't really care that Paul was a follower of Christ. The Pharisees, who got short shrift in the gospels, are completely willing in verse 9 to let Paul go, since — as far as they're concerned — their only difference with him pertains to his interpretation of the doctrine of the Resurrection. (That Jewish-Christian relations are not as close today as they once were owes a lot to the last 1,700 years.)

So I think about that question that Tim asked, maybe three years ago. The answer I gave is "the chip on our shoulder." I've talked with many people, including Jews, about Jesus and what I've found in him. Over the years I've noticed that people don't mind an honest discussion about religion and spirituality. Many even find it interesting.

What they don't like, of course, is being lectured, and pressured, and being beaten with the hell stick. And of course no one likes getting into a discussion with someone who expects there to be a fight and so is ready with the biggest stick, best stock answers, and nicest boxing gloves so they can be guaranteed a win.

Paul's audience reacted badly to his message because of their issues. Christians' audiences today react badly because of ours.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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