Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
When Everything Isn’t Enough
There are times in life when nothing you do ever seems to be good enough. Perhaps you’re really good at your job. Your flawless—but, you have an ungrateful boss who is impossible to please. You’re record is pristine, and you know that the company would crumble without you—only, you never receive a “thank you”. You don’t even get a raise. There’s only criticism.
What happens to you in that situation? Perhaps there’s some anxiety. Although I think what often happens in this situation is a sense of hopelessness and emptiness in your work. The fulfillment that coincides with having a purpose at work is truncated. You put all your blood, sweat, and tears into your labors, and you only get criticism. Nothing is ever good enough. “What’s the point?”, you might say. Then things get worse. As people start to subtly envy and despise you for your success, you begin to find false accusations thrown against you. This is a particularly horrible environment that is altogether unfulfilling, even if your bringing in a sizable portion of the company’s profit.
So at times, what you do simply isn’t good enough. It’s often the struggle of a child, referring to their mom or dad. Children are easily exasperated by their parents who keep a high standard lifted above them, and no grace underneath them to support them. “I can’t stand working for my dad—nothing I do is ever good enough”. So, anxieties and miseries prevail. The child is isolated from his dad, as their fellowship is exasperated. Suffering prevails with little to no ray of hope in the future. “That’s just the way dad is”.
I say this to simply illustrate the point that that sin, alienation, and suffering all go hand-in-hand. You could say that sin alienates people from God and one another, and that isolation brings forth a its own breed of painful suffering. Often times, when we’re alienated in this sort of way with little to no restoration in sight, we fall into despondency or hopelessness. It can happen in almost any kind of relationship you can think of. “What’s the point? I’m sick of being burned by—and suffering at the hand of—this stubborn person.”
Paul's Composure through Failure and Rejection
As we turn to our story this morning, we see Paul jump into the hands of his own people who will not receive Paul, no matter how much goodness and truth he presents to them. Nothing short of him worshipping them and their purposes will do. Paul, here, maintains his position, all the while maintaining his innocence, integrity, and composure. So, what happens? They alienate him. The reject him, persecute him, set him up with false allegations, and try to kill him. It’s suffering, folks—being rejected by men, even as an innocent person before God.
This is what defined Jesus’s suffering as well—especially in his final hours. As you follow Jesus through his last few hours, you can measure the intensity of his suffering by the intensity of his abandonment and rejection. It was painful for Judas to betray him. Then, the Jewish crowds. Then, his own disciples. Then, the Father himself as Jesus absorbed in his person the Father’s infinite wrath against our sins.
Who is sufficient for these things—to endure such alienation and suffering? Who has the integrity to maintain innocence, and purpose, and resolve, and contentment in a situation where everyone is against you? In the worldly example that we gave, a businessman treated like this will say “Forget it, these people don’t accept me. They don’t appreciate me. There’s no purpose, here, just misery. I’m out”.
What’s different about the Christian’s resolve? What’s different about Paul, or Jesus—who willingly put themselves into extremely hostile situations where they’d be completely alienated by their own Jewish people? The last time we looked at this passage, we talked about this being the point in Acts where Paul’s ministry moves from the offensive to the defensive. Up to this point in Paul’s ministry, he had a certain offensive edge in his ministry as he traveled throughout the Roman world with Jesus’s victorious word and Spirit. Thousands of lives were turned from Caesar and from Artemis and other gods to the true king and Lord, Jesus Christ. Churches in every city were planted. Yet as we’ve seen, Paul follows his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in willingly giving up this offensive edge as he went to Jerusalem where certain imprisonment and possible death awaited him. He’s on the defensive, now, being alienated and falsely charged and beaten—with no end in sight. What’s the point?
As our culture and nation—our individual workplaces—become increasingly hostile to what we believe, I trust that many of us are feeling increasingly alienated from the unbelieving neighbors we are called to love. Some often look at the trajectory and think, “There’s no end in sight. What’s the point?”. Our passage—and in many ways, the rest of Acts, directs us in the right direction. There’s an incredible tension in our passage that we often miss, but we shouldn’t. Almost nothing in this passage, by worldly standards, goes well for Paul. He goes from one misery to the next, and all his attempts to mend the harm prove unsuccessful. What’s the tension? The man’s demeanor. He’s calm, collected, confident, peaceful. Even though his isolated and alienated from the world, he’s at peace. He doesn’t appear to be suffering in his soul. It’s his enemies, who have the offensive edge, that are anxious and angry. He’s peaceful. You’d expect opposite. What’s going on, here? We’ll soon see.
As we press into the actual details of this story, we’re going to see how a long series of unsuccessful endeavors (on Paul’s part) and unfair treatments (against Paul) contribute to Paul’s alienation and suffering—and yet, in the end, we’ll see why Paul remains steadfast and confident in his suffering.
The Unsuccessful Mission
First—by way of reminder, we’d do well to recognize that the reason for Paul’s journey to Jerusalem goes south. If we’re going to be really pessimistic (which, we’re not), you could say his journey to Jerusalem proved unsuccessful in the first place.
As we’ve been seeing over the last month, Paul went to Jerusalem to encourage the Jerusalem Christians with word of his ministry throughout Rome, and with a financial offering that the gentile churches collected to assist the Jewish church. As the Jews marginalized the Christians in Jerusalem, the church there needed the spiritual and financial help. So, Paul’s mission is to meet those needs.
Yet Paul went with serious concerns. I’ll remind you of the prayer request that he wrote to the Romans on his way to Jerusalem. Romans 15:30, “strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea” (that makes sense, as the Jewish unbelievers hated Paul, but also:) “and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints”.
Isn’t that odd? Paul is concerned that his service and financial assistance would be received with reservation by the Jewish Christians. He’s concerned that even they might reject him!
This was a time in the early church when the Jewish Christians particularly were wrestling with the idea that God had made them equal with the gentiles. It wasn’t an easy thing to stomach, especially when you are living in and enculturated with Jewish culture all around in Jerusalem. So, the Jerusalem Christians uniquely had reason to stumble over Paul’s ministry to the gentiles.
And, stumble they did. In the previous passage we read two weeks ago, it was the believing Jews that Paul needed to pacify. Starting in 21:17, Paul was initially greeted warmly and eagerly by the leaders of the Jerusalem church—leaders who appreciated and agreed with Paul. Yet, the leaders knew their flock. They knew that not everyone in the church felt the same way. They thought that Paul’s view on circumcision was unbiblical, and desecrated the Jewish faith and the Jewish people.
With this concern, James and the Jerusalem leaders had Paul show his appreciation and positive regard for the law and certain Jewish customs by having Paul be ceremonially cleansed at the temple. He had been around unclean gentiles for years—so, to be among God’s people and in the temple, he needed to be cleansed. So, to show the Jews that he still respected the law, that’s what he did. Paul exposed himself publicly, and made himself all the more vulnerable, in order to pacify these Jewish Christians who wouldn’t receive him otherwise. This alienation and suffering—lo and behold—brought about more suffering.
So was Paul’s mission to encourage and assist the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem successful? In some ways, yes. He did encourage them. We’d do well to remember that. Chapter 21 verse 20 says that when the Jerusalem leaders heard of Paul’s ministry throughout Rome (and when they received their offering), “they glorified God.” Yet if we’re going to be pessimists (which we need not be, as we’ll see later), we could get mopey and say this whole thing resulted in more suffering and harm than good. The apostle needed to be cleansed, lest certain parts of the church reject him. And in that public cleansing act, the apostle exposed him to the masses who eventually identified him, to reject him and kill him. Paul’s desire to see the Jerusalem church encouraged and united was in part unsuccessful.
So, there’s the first unsuccessful endeavor—Paul’s endeavor to the Jerusalem church. In the end, not everyone eagerly accepted him, and that brought about more trouble. Isn’t this exactly what Paul asked the Romans to pray against? Does God not hear our prayers? Has even God deserted Paul? What’s the point? Then again, Paul stays calm and collected, as we’ll see.
So, the first unsuccessful endeavor, you might say, is Paul’s desire to encourage and be accepted by the church. This now leads us to the first unfair treatment against Paul.
The Unfair Charge
Our story picks up in verse 27, telling us that “when the seven days [of Paul’s purification] were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him.”
So, it was in pursuit of being accepted by the Jewish church that Paul is now identified and rejected by the Jewish people. This is getting ugly. Paul was walking about in the temple to fulfill his cleansing duties, and we’re told that some Jews from Asia recognized Paul. Remember—this is before TV and computer screens. Most didn’t know what Paul looked like from the big screen. People from Asia might—Paul spent a lot of time in Asia. So, Jews from Asia recognized Paul, and the rest is history. Chaos ensues.
Mob Justice Versus Divine Justice
I love verse 28, and how telling it is. They cry out, “Men of Israel, help!”. Isn’t that telling? It almost sounds pathetic. We’re talking about getting one guy, here—yet, they need help from all the men of Israel. This is a classic cry for mob justice. It’s a cry for mob rule—“I don’t need help getting this one guy to the barracks, I need help stirring up the crowds in order to get this guy quickly accused and murdered.” That’s what happened. Verse 30, “all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together.” Chaos ensued, as these Jews cried to Israel for help.
You have wonder if they even thought to pray to God for help. Had this been a just cause, perhaps they would have. Yet I’d hardly think so, given the way justice was pursued, here. God demands order and organized justice. When you truly worship and desire God and his ways, that’s what you’ll pursue. Instead, these people were idolaters. They worshipped the temple, the nation of Israel, and manmade customs. I’m reminded of the famous words of Jeremiah 7:4, where God warns Israel, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD”. The temple won’t save you. The temple rituals won’t save you. The people who work the temple won’t save you. The nation where the temple resides won’t save you. And for our immediate purposes, here—they won’t even be able to bring about justice in the land. Looking to these things perverts justice. Idolatry in all forms produces chaos, and will always end in some form of mob rule. When what you worship and build your life upon is challenged and dismantled, then there’s nothing keeping you from sinking into this form of chaos and injustice. Many parents rule their homes this unpredictable way, as they take their eyes off the unshakable forgiveness and goodness and truth of Jesus Christ.
Justice is ultimately a divine matter, is it not? God says he provides justice for his people. He is the supreme judge who never shifts or changes his mind. He’s steadfast and impartial in all his judgments, for he himself never changes his mind. Imagine having virtues that never change. “I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:24) Justice is ultimately in God’s hands, not man’s—and, that ought to humble everyone and anyone who strives after justice on earth. “What is right and just?” Well, you have to look to God to discern that—not to the temple, not to the priest, the philosophers, or the constitution of America, or even the most learned scholars and theologians of any day. You look to God, to what he’s revealed in his word. Read his word, pray to him, and ask him for justice—for “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
Do you know what that does, when you go to God for such a thing? It humbles you as a friend, a parent, a churchman, a coworker. It convicts you, before the other guy, does it not? Didn’t Jesus say, “how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:4–5). In all this, you see, true justice drives us to Jesus. He’s the only one who can meet the demands, and free us to pursue righteousness.
It’s a messy thing, when man pursues justice on his own terms. Without godly and humble justice that looks up first, then in at ourselves, and then out to the other guy—we have a tendency to alienate the righteous, and protect the wicked. We look in first, declare ourselves righteous, and then look out to declare the other guy unrighteous. That’s our natural instinct. Thankfully, God has given us his common grace, and his common law within our hearts so that wickedness and injustice doesn’t completely destroy us. Yet, every society has been plagued with injustice within their own justice system—the godly get alienated and marginalized, and he wicked are protected. Psalm 73 has a lot to say about this, if your interested in a good reading for this afternoon.
Now, I say all of this from the simple observation that the Jews who got this whole thing going were clearly not submitting themselves to God’s justice, and God’s ways. They didn’t say “help establish Justice, Lord!”. They said “Help Israel! Stir up the crowds and condemn this man! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord!”.
The Mob’s Charges Against Paul
But just so we’re clear—what charges were made against Paul? In the midst of the rioting and madness, we read in verse 28, “This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere” (1) “against the people and” (2) “against the law and (3) [against] this place.” By “this place”, he means the temple.
So, that’s an appeal to Paul’s teaching and personal convictions. This is first-century hate crime, if you will. One minister points out that the Paul is charged here as being anti-Semitic (“against the people”), anti-nomian (against the law), and anti-temple. These are three things that ought to be praised, they say—not hated. As it so happens, these are the three things these Jews worshipped most—themselves (as Jews), the law, and their temple. They became so protective of the temple’s purity at this point that they presumed Paul must have brought the gentile Trophimus into the temple, and so desecrated the temple. Do you get irony, there? They literally spotted Paul cleansing himself from gentile contact when they accused him of desecrating the temple with gentiles. Paul was doing the opposite of what they charged him with, there. Yet, again, that’s what idolatry does to you. It makes you paranoid, unstable, and blind to what’s immediately before you. If they’d listen, they’d quickly learn that Paul was anything but hateful against the Jewish people, law, and temple.
This is who Paul is dealing with. They killed Jesus on virtually the same allegations. They killed Stephen with the same allegations. Now, here’s Paul, in the same position. In fact, the crowd repeats the same words they said to the Lord Jesus Christ—condemning words. “Away with him!”, verse 36. Those were the final words that brought Pilate to deliver Jesus over for crucifixion.
What’s Paul to do? Is there any point in Paul trying to show himself innocent, and speaking up for what’s right? Shall we despair or just keep silent in situations like this? Have you ever found yourself in a seemingly hopeless situation of justice like this? In some ways, you see it every time you face someone stuck in idolatry. Strip their gods and idols from underneath them, and it’s quite possible you’ll see allegations and chaos ensue. The good news, of course, is that God loves to take chaos and order it according to his grace in Jesus. That’s the hope and resolve that keeps us steady.
But again, let’s not go too far ahead. Before we provide any resolution to any of this—let’s just observe that only gets worse for Paul. We’ve seen one example of Paul’s unsuccessful endeavor (his desire to see unity and acceptance in the Jerusalem church wasn’t a complete success). And, we’ve now seen one example of Paul’s unfair treatment (the Jews falsely accusing him). There’s another unfair treatment coming up.
The Unfair Arrest
As the story continues in verse 30, you see that the crowd dragged Paul out of the temple and “at once” the gates were shut. Like our Lord Jesus, the gates are shut behind him in order to illustrate his condemnation. For those who trust in the temple of the Lord, this means that Paul is alienated from God’s blessings and presence in the temple. Then, verse 31 tells us that—
31 ... as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!”
So here, Paul is arrested. In some ways, it was a great mercy. It means the beating stopped, and Paul lived. Without this intervention, Paul’s life ends here. You even see in verse 35, there, that he had to be carried by the soldiers up the steps of the barracks because he had been beaten so badly. In another sense, it meant Paul would be protected from the Jewish council that would certainly try him and judge him guilty. One commentator says it this way—
It is important to stress that at the beginning of this legal process Paul was arrested by the Romans, not by the temple police. Had [he been arrested by the temple police], he would have been tried and sentenced by the Sanhedrin.
The Jewish Sanhedrin, no doubt, would have had him killed on the spot. So Paul’s arrest was a mercy—no doubt, God’s means to protect Paul and keep him alive for several more years of ministry.
But was his arrest just? Strictly speaking, no. Again—he had done nothing wrong, and it will take a long process in the Roman courts for this to be discovered. Yet in this moment, the tribune falsely assumed three things about Paul: (1) the crowd’s anger against Paul was justified. Paul was arrested and bound in chains on the simple fact that the crowd was upset with him. That’s not justice. It’s appeasing the mob rule. But then, (2) the tribune assumed Paul was an Egyptian prophet who, years earlier, stirred up a Jewish revolt against Rome in order to regain Jewish independence. Thousands died in the revolt, although the Egyptian leader escaped. So, the tribune assumed he’d returned, needed to be arrested. This is why the tribune was surprised to hear Paul speak to him in Greek, in verse 37. “Do you speak greek? Are you not the Egyptian, then?”. It was a surprise to this tribune. He’d arrested the wrong guy! So, when Paul asked to speak to the crowd, the tribune had no objection.
So Paul was arrested and bound based on the false premises of mob rule and that he was an Egyptian trouble maker. Yet, there was also a third false premise of his arrest. The tribune assumed he wasn’t a citizen of Rome. If a citizen of Rome is arrested and bound without a trial first, it could mean serious consequences. We’ll see that come up at the end of chapter 22, when Paul almost flippantly brings up this fact at a most opportune time.
So, Paul has every carnal reason to be discouraged and beaten down, at this point. He’s seen unsuccessful endeavors, and unfair treatments. His mission to encourage and unite the church in Jerusalem was in part unsuccessful (despite his willingness to be cleansed in the temple). He’s been unfairly accused by the Jews. He’s been unfairly arrested and bound by the Romans. He’s been rejected and misrepresented, beaten, and denied at every turn. He’s alone in the barracks—and as it might seem, nothing he can do will be good enough to turn the tides in his favor.
So, what does he do? He’s certainly not paralyzed by the matter. He doesn’t throw up his hands and say “what’s the point?”. It’s really shocking, if you think about it. He knows the Jews won’t listen to him, no matter what he says. There’s evidence in much of his writings—“a partial hardening has come upon the Jews”, he told the Romans only a few months prior in his letter (Romans 11:25). He was very well aware of God’s design for them to have hard hearts at this point in history. Why would Paul even try to defend himself and prove himself innocent? Nothing he does will be good enough.
Paul’s Unwavering Resolve
As we’ll see in the closing verses of our story, Paul does defend himself. He asks the tribune if he can address the people, and so he does. He gives a glorious defense, and he maintains that unexpected calm and collected demeanor through all of this. It’s almost humorous. After everything that happened, Paul finally speaks up to the tribune with a question—“excuse me, may I say something to you?” It’s like he has a secret, or something. Imagine if that was you, in Paul’s position. I’d be livid mad! “This is all wrong! I’m being unfairly accused! I’ve done nothing wrong!” Yet, Paul does none of that. Then later on, as he’s going with the flow of things, he decides to bring up his roman citizenship only moments before he’s about to get a whipping. Again, he’s so polite. Chapter 22 verse 25, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” Paul, no doubt, is calm and collected. Yet he’s also confident in a situation that seems almost hopeless for him. Where does he get that demeanor and confidence from?
I wish the answer was complicated and sophisticated so I could sound smart—but it’s really not that complicated. Paul gets it from Jesus. In Jesus, by faith, Paul regards himself as already dead in Christ. He regards all his guilt and sins atoned for in Christ—and, he regards himself to be raised with Christ in the heavenly places. He’s accepted by God himself, the supreme judge and ruler over heaven and earth. No amount of worldly rejection or alienation can move Paul. All the idols in the world could be torn down, and Paul would not budge, for his hope is in the living Lord. So, his mind is set on finishing the course that the Lord gave him. His mind is set on proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom of salvation to even the hard-hearted Jewswho he knows will reject every word he says.
Does that bother Paul? He’s sad about it, but he’s not wrecked by it. It’s all in the Lord’s hands. So, he need not fear or act thoughtlessly with anxiety. He trusts in the Lord, and wisely uses any advantage he can (like his Roman citizenship) to show Christ and his kingdom as blameless, true, and powerful.
Where’s the Release Valve?
In our suffering, we often look for the release valve. We look ahead and see no end in sight. Perhaps you’ve been unjustly alienated for a long time. Perhaps you haven’t been appreciated as you think you should be. Perhaps you’ve been falsely accused one time after another. Perhaps it’s because you’re a Christian, perhaps not. Perhaps your suffering isn’t relational, but physical (a constantly hurting body). Either way, all of this is misery. So, we look for the release valve to let some pressure out, and ease the suffering. Or, we look for the scape goat who will take all the pain and misery away in some foreseeable future. As in Paul’s case (as we see in the rest of Acts), that release valve may never come. It’s very possible that the rest of your life could be marked with certain kinds of suffering that alienate you from the people you love, or from the life you want. You do everything you can to do what’s right and to love the Lord—to trust in him. Yet, you despair because you can’t find that release valve.
Paul, here, reminds us that Jesus Christ is the pressure valve that releases the stress of suffering over us. He is the scape goat—always taking our sin away, so that we might never be alienated from the author and giver of life. The suffering in and of itself may never go away. The conflict and cold, quiet moments with your spouse may never fully disappear. But, Jesus is there to remind you that your guilt has been atoned for. You’ve been accepted. You’ve been raised by faith and seated in the heavenly places. So, confess your sin to him and to one another, and walk in his forgiveness to the best of your ability. Proclaim him even to people who you suspect may never accept him. Serve him in a world that despises him, knowing that as they put the heat on, the Lord takes the pressure. At the cross, he emptied the world’s threats and false allegations. He filled you with the hope of eternity. Be falsely accused, and let your back ache in your service to him. As Paul joyfully said,
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Believe that, and let it instill a peculiar confidence and calmness and purpose and joy within you, even though you may be called to a life of alienation and suffering in this sinful world.
 Rev. Brian De Jong, in his March 20, 2022 sermon “Lambs to the Slaughter”, found here: https://www.sermonaudio.com/saplayer/playpopup.asp?SID=321220154964