Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
The Dilemma of Distracted Ears
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who is completely distracted from the main point of the conversation? Moms and Dads (or grandmas and grandpas)— perhaps you have to run some errands, and the main purpose of the trip is to pick up some groceries. Yet somewhere along the way, you accidentally let out the secret. “If you behave and really try to listen to grandma in the store, then I’ll take you out for some ice cream.” What might happen at that point? For good or for ill (depending on the child, I suppose), the kids have nothing but ice cream on their mind. Any meaningful conversation, lesson, or instruction in the store is instantly passed through the ears as children get raptured up into worldly thoughts and pleasures of an Oreo and fudge ice cream treat.
It’s hard talking with someone who is relentlessly distracted by something they think is more important. Adults do this sort of thing with our own self-interests—and often, to much greater harm to ourselves and others. Imagine how many people are hurt by not listening to truth because they’re too focused on their own agendas.
We’re plagued with distracted hearts, as humans. It’s a chronic problem, and it ever keeps us from seeing the heart of any given matter—especially the most important matters of life. Perhaps someone is trying to point out an area of sin or weakness in your life. It’s easy to brush those conversations off, isn’t it? It’s hard to look deeply into yourself, or your spouse, and really see the heart of any matter. Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick”. So, what do we do? We distract ourselves. We look at the externals in order to “save face”—to save our reputation, and keep to ourselves any sense of peace and tranquility. “Don’t look to deep!”, some might say. Needless to say—this condition of all humanity makes life and relationships most difficult.
More than this, it makes evangelism and discipleship seem like an impossible feat. Christian evangelism and discipleship literally is designed to bring people to the very heart of the matter—to say “the Lord of heaven and earth is risen from the dead, he has every intent to bless his people of faith with everlasting life and joy, and to smite his enemies in his incomprehensible wrath—and you’ve sinned against him”. That’s getting to the heart of the matter, isn’t it? Only, it’s not something we naturally like to see or hear. This sinful instinct to keep ourselves distracted by the surface-level externals makes evangelism seem impossible.
How Jesus Dealt with the Distracted
How does Jesus handle this? I suppose you could say he plays a most interesting game of show and tell. In his ministry, he first shows us his power and his kingdom. He performs miracles, and he proclaims his kingdom in mysterious word-pictures. “The kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed…”. With such parables, miracles, and many other teachings, Jesus shows his power. This is a way of unsettling the distracted human heart. All of Israel was fixated on their externals—their temple, their law, their sacrifices, their nation, their customs and religion. Then, Jesus comes in with clear and demonstrable power over these things. He cleanses the sick with a word. He heals the lame. He cleanses the temple with zeal and authority, and claims “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again”.
What’s that going to do to a person who is distracted with self-serving external religion and customs? I can only imagine it’ll get their attention. It’s like that moment when a well-respected football coach is being ignored because the team got a little rowdy and distracted. The coach turns red, you can see his veins bulging out of his forehead, and he speaks up with one, loud, stern word: “Listen”. Snap back to reality.
Jesus begins his testimony to a most distracted and prideful people by jolting them with a reality and a power that must be reckoned with. He draws them away from themselves, to peer into the heart of the matter and finally ask, “who is this Jesus of Nazareth?”.
Then—and only then—does he begin to speak plainly (and only to his disciples). He literally says in John 16:25, “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.” Then three verses later, “His disciples said, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech.” They basically say in relief, “You’re not showing us your kingdom, and leaving it up to us to interpret what it all means. You’re finally speaking the truth clearly, so we can understand”.
The problem, of course, is that they remained distracted by their sin. Even when Jesus spoke plainly, they would remain distracted by their sinful and worldly desires until his Spirit came upon them. We’re a mercilessly distracted people, unwilling to consider real the heart of the matter. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
Now, go and evangelize, Covenant Presbyterian Church. Go tell all the distracted people of Amsterdam about Jesus. That’s our marching orders, is it not? When you put it in these terms, witnessing and testifying about Jesus seems like a most impossible feat. There’s a reason why evangelism is a scarry thing, folks. People want to be distracted from the heart of the matter. They want to be distracted from truth. They love their distractions—it means they don’t need to acknowledge that they themselves are sinners, and they don’t need to wrestle with the most unsettling fact that Jesus really might be alive, and ruling from his sovereign throne in heaven right now.
What are we to do in this situation? How are we to provide an effective witness to the heart of the matter—that Jesus is alive, offering life and salvation to all who repent and believe upon him?
Learning to Witness from Paul’s Two Hearings
This morning, we’re looking at a passage which is often presented as a prime example for what’s involved with telling our neighbors about Jesus. As we heard the story, we saw Paul on trial before the Jews.
The Jews had charged Paul with three charges—being against (1) the Jewish people, (2) the Jewish law, and (3) the Jewish temple. Those are the three biggest things the Jews loved to distract themselves with: their nation, their law, and their temple. Yet here in our passage, while he’s on trial for these things, does he provide a systematic defense to these specific matters? Does he say, “well, here are all the reasons why I’m not against the Jewish people, their law, or their temple”? He doesn’t do this at all! Those are all distractions from what Paul believes to be the central issue—namely, that Jesus is alive! So, what does Paul do? On two occasions—and, in two different ways, Paul presses the Jews with the central issue. He presses them with Jesus’s life and resurrection. He does it with the sort of tact and wisdom that we’d do well to learn from him.
So, that’s what we’re going to do this morning. We’re going to learn from the two occasions when Paul, on trial, presses his accusers to consider the heart of the matter: Is Jesus alive? The first occasion we see this is in chapter 22, when he gives his conversion story. The second occasion is in chapter 23 when the Roman Tribune brings him before the Jerusalem council. In both occasions, Paul presses the same unsettling question upon his hearers—only, in two different ways.
Learning from Paul’s First Testimony: His Story
Look again with me at the opening verses of our passage, in chapter 22 verses 1–2. There, we read this—
1 “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” 2 And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet.
So Paul, here, is unlawfully on trial. He had just unlawfully been beaten and almost killed, had the tribune of the Roman cohort not stepped in to intervene. What does Paul do? In Paul’s own words in 1 Corinthians 4:12, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we encourage”. That’s the way of the Christian. So Paul, here, calls his persecutors “brothers and fathers”. He respects them, and addresses them with the sort of warmth and love you’d expect in a family. Then, he addresses them in their language. Paul is going out of his way, here, to bless and honor his enemies who had just attempted to murder him on false accusations.
An Initial Observation: Paul’s Kindness
Why would anyone do such a thing? Why is this to be a mark of the Christian? This, in and of itself, is a testimony to the resurrected Christ. When Jesus himself talks of this principle, he literally says this: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” (Matt5:11–12). Rejoice and be kind to your enemy who tears down your worldly comforts—for you have eternal rewards and comforts in heaven. Jesus rose from the dead, that you might do likewise.
Paul is living and loving with reference to the resurrected Christ, here, even in the way he addresses his enemies.
Paul’s Background: A Set Up
Now, what Paul says in his defense might seem at the surface like a simple story about his conversion and call to ministry. Although, as we might expect, it’s far more than that—and, it does well to make us consider our own testimonies. What does it mean to tell your “personal testimony”, as we often discuss in conversations about evangelism? Keep reading. Paul begins in verse 3—
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.
What’s Paul doing, here? We could say he’s identifying with the Jews, so that he might not sound like a self-righteous Christian on a pedestal. He can identify with them—he was once one of them, and that often disarms situations like this. People are often more inclined to listen when they know you understand their position and passions.
Although, there is something more to Paul’s words than merely connecting with them. He was setting them up for something much bigger.
Paul’s Conversion: The Heart of the Matter
Keep reading. Verse 6—
6 “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’
Stop there. Here, we see Paul not simply telling his story. He’s telling a story that is so jarring that it must be reckoned with. This is where we see why Paul told us all about his background. Paul the persecutor, in one moment—even in a split second—becomes Paul the Christian. It’s not as though Paul received some mysterious revelation that he wrestled with for days, and finally came to concluded through his own reason and learning that Jesus must have been who he said he was. That’s not what happened.
Jesus showed up to Paul, and told Paul how it’s going to be. It was unmistakable to Paul that he was speaking to God—he was speaking to the Lord of heaven and earth. Even before Jesus named himself, Paul said with blinding light surrounding him, “who are you, Lord?” Paul wasn’t questioning the divinity or the sovereignty of this messenger. He needed to know exactly who this messenger is, that Paul might worship and serve him. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.” Paul responds, “what shall I do, Lord?”
Exhibit A: Paul, a famous student of the most esteemed Gamaliel, “according to the strict manner of the law, being zealous for God as you are this day”, Paul says to his persecutors. That’s exhibit A. Paul is saying, “you know all that passion and zeal that you have for Judaism right now? I had that too, and even more, as you yourselves know. I was there when the first Christian was martyred, and I had the high honor of receiving Stephens clothes laid at my feet, to make me happy at the certainty of his death. I know your zeal, Jerusalem.”
Exhibit B: Over the course of a few split seconds, “what shall I do, Lord?”.
Exhibits A and B are very different—yet, they’re the same person! What’s Paul doing, here? He’s pressing them with the most central question of all. What must be true for this sort of thing to happen to a man like Paul? He’s looking his accusers in the eye and saying, “You know your zeal. You know your hatred for Christianity. Now, multiply that zeal to match the sort of zeal I had for Judaism—and, ask yourself, what would it take for you to let go of Judaism as I did, and call Jesus “Lord” as I did?”. A theological argument won’t do it—not with that sort of Jewish zeal. Nothing, save a personal and unmistakable revelation from the resurrected Lord himself will do it. Perhaps you could think of doubting Thomas—“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” We are plagued with doubting, distracted souls.
Yet this is the grace and mercy of our Lord, folks. He does show up and change lives. He does it every day—and, there are countless men and women (past and present) whose lives testify to the living Christ. Their stories need to be reckoned with. Is Christianity—much less, a Christian—possible if Jesus isn’t alive, ruling, and personally changing hearts through his Spirit? Is he alive, or is he dead? The Bible—the grace and mercy of God—says “absolutely”. We’re most of all to be pitied, if it weren’t so.
Just as the icing on the cake, by the way—Paul keeps his testimony and defense moving forward with reference to his new life. In a split second, Paul the persecutor of Christ became Paul the professor of Christ, professing Jesus as “Lord”. Yet, that wasn’t the only change in Paul that must be reconciled with Jesus’s resurrection. From that moment on, Paul’s life became entirely obedient to his new Lord. He talks of how he was led into Demascus, where the Lord used Ananias to give Paul his sight back. Paul tells us how he was baptized into Christ’s salvation. He then returned to Jerusalem, and entered the temple to pray, when he “fell into trance”. The word there, is ekstasis—it’s the word we get ecstasy from. He had some highly spiritual, out-of-body experience wherein the Lord himself commissioned him to be his apostle to the gentiles.”
What makes a highly devout Jew call Jesus “Lord”? An unmistakable revelation from the Lord.
What makes a highly devout Jew—devoted to the Jewish people—commit his life to a service to the gentiles? An unmistakable revelation from the living Lord.
This is the sort of testimony that, in the end, takes all eyes off Paul. It even takes all eyes off any distraction that we consume ourselves with. The only thing you can do with this sort of testimony is (1) ignore it, or (2) resolve it with the only answer that makes sense. Here’s the man, Paul. What are you going to do about it?
Considering Our Own Testimonies
When we provide a testimony of Christ to our neighbors, Paul is showing us in this example that we must do it in a way that creates a dilemma that must be explained. Dilemmas like this have a powerful effect on people, folks. God created us with inquisitive minds that struggle with unresolved tension and conflict. It’s part of being made in God’s image. Unresolved conflict and justice is chaotic, and needs order. It needs truth and justice—and, God created us in his image, with a desire for truth and justice. So, appeal to that most humane instinct, and show the world to your neighbors as the world really is. It’s a world that makes no sense if Christ is not risen.
When I worked with drug addicts in recovery, they’d often ask me my story. I don’t have a drug story—I was raised in a Christian home, and never rebelled. But, there’s a testimony, there.
Raised in a Christian home, I never really felt a strong desire to rebel. As far back as my memory goes, I always desired and pursued godliness. I’d give my rehab clients the juicy details—“I’ve never done this, that, or the other thing”—and literally, my life is an enigma to folks in that program. I literally had one client say, “I didn’t know someone like that even existed still”. So, how did that happen?
It goes back a few generations on both sides. My Dad’s grandfather was an abusive alcoholic. He’d go into the speakeasies of Chicago during the prohibition, get drunk, and come back home to abuse his family. I’m told that one evening, he threw his son (my grandpa) through a wall. It was ugly. To add misery to misery—he was drinking in mafia-run speakeasies, and he knew more than he should.
Then one day, the Lord changed him. I don’t know the circumstances. I just know the Lord personally met him, and changed him. He stopped drinking entirely. The problem was that he was too deep in the mafia—he knew too much. The mafia had to release him from their grip, otherwise they’d come after him and his family. So, he kissed his wife and kids, went back to the bar to tell them that he’s a changed man, and promises to keep his mouth shut if they leave him alone. They could have killed him in that moment—and, he knew it. But Christ was his new Lord, and he needed to keep his family safe. They ended up shooting him in the leg as a warning, and they let him go. My dad remembers seeing the scar.
What was the fruit of all this? My great-grandpa’s salvation. He was a changed man—and more than this, his entire family was changed. His children grew up loving the Lord. Their children grew up loving the Lord. That trickles down to myself and my brothers, where we were raised in a loving, joyful, godly home that confessed sin and worshipped Jesus. It brought life, not death. And by the way, there’s a similar story on my mother’s side.
Can you make sense of three happy and godly generations, blessed by worshipping God—if the Lord is not risen and alive, saving people and families to himself?
Evangelism isn’t simply telling people the doctrines of salvation which we believe. Through Paul’s and Jesus’s examples, evangelism is showing people what we believe through our lives. It’s presenting people with such troubling realities that it stirs them away from all the distractions to consider the heart of the matter. This is how Jesus started his ministry—in his miracles. It’s what Paul does, here.
So, Paul’s defense in this situation is his personal story which necessarily raises the question of Jesus’s resurrection.
When Distractions Prevail
Did Paul’s testimony work? Again, Jeremiah 17:9—“the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick”. Our natural instinct is to ignore the truth—and to keep ourselves distracted by the external, surface-level matters.
You see that in the way the Jews responded to Paul. As soon as he mentioned Jesus’s mission to gentiles, the Jews lost it. Verse 22, they said—"Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” They started flinging dirt into the air as a show of disapproval and judgment upon Paul. It’s as if they weren’t even listening. They totally missed the point of Paul’s story. They were waiting for the buzz-word “gentile”, and off they went. It’s like the child in the grocery store who wouldn’t listen grandma until she said the word “ice cream”. Distractions and ungodly passions keep us from the heart of the matter.
Now in the madness that ensued, the Roman tribune ordered Paul to the barracks to be “examined by flogging”. This is the classic “torture him until he speaks” tactic—and, it was cruel. This sort of flogging would leave men injured for life. Knowing this, Paul finally speaks up and appeals to his Roman citizenship. His citizenship protected him from this sort of treatment, and guaranteed him a fair trial.
If your wondering—it was a great and expensive privilege to have an actual Roman citizenship. Paul inherited his from his father, which is one reason why most think Paul came from a wealthy background. Either way, this whole thing sets us up for Paul’s second testimony before the Jews. Given that the proconsul couldn’t beat the truth out of him, he had to pursue justice and peace through court hearings. So, he started with the court system in Jerusalem. He brought Paul before the Jewish council who was accusing him. Hopefully a formal meeting between Paul and the Jews could bring some clarity and peace.
Paul’s Second Testimony: Removing All Distractions
So, this leads us to Paul’s second defense, or testimony. It starts in chapter 23, verse 1—
Looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.”
That’s how he opens up his bit, during this hearing. He appeals to his clear conscience. In other words he’s saying to them—“you all know my life’s story, I just told it to you. In all of that, I have lived in good conscience before God without lying. When I was a Jew, I served God to the best of my ability. When Christ revealed himself to me, I served him because my conscience demanded it”. This was a bold statement—that a man serving Jesus among the gentiles is doing so in good conscience. What must be the case for this to be so? (1) his conscience is broken, or (2) Jesus really is alive.
Of course, this first statement was testimony enough. The high priest ordered that Paul be slapped on the mouth. This is when a very odd thing happens. Verse 2—
3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
This is an odd exchange which different pastors handle differently. How did Paul not know who the high priest was? Was Paul lying—or speaking sarcastically—when he said “I did not know that he was the high priest”? All matters aside, I think it’s best not to read too much into the text. The greater point in Acts, here, is to demonstrate Paul’s innocence. I almost wonder if there were rumors of Paul’s misdemeanor before the high priest—rumors which Luke wanted to put to rest in this story. Either way, Paul acknowledged he shouldn’t have done it, and that he sinned out of ignorance. He sought to show respect, as any of us should in our witness to unbelievers. He even addressed them warmly saying, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest”. I think that’s the sound of a humbled Paul rather than a sarcastic Paul.
Cutting to the Heart of the Matter
Now, it’s the next verse that I’m really interested in. In verse 6, Paul brings his accusers to the heart of the matter with the most wise and cunning word.
6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.”
This is Paul’s piercing wisdom on full display, here. He’s on trial—and, everyone is asking “why?”. That’s literally why this hearing was organized by the Roman proconsul. You see that in chapter 22 verse 30, “desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews”, the proconsul organized this hearing. So, they’re discussing the charges.
What charges do you think were on the table? The same ones we’ve been hearing for years—the same charges that were brought against Jesus, then Stephen, and now Paul. “He hates the Jews! He broke our laws and customs! He defiled the temple!” Then, nobody can give concrete evidence. It’s a kangaroo court. It’s the sort of thing you’ll hear in evangelistic conversations, by the way. “What about this challenge to Christianity? What about that challenge? Can’t I just live my own life and still love Jesus?” Distractions prevail.
So, Paul brings them to the heart of the matter. “It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial”. Period. You can’t say it more clearly than that. Remove all distractions. Remove the temple matter. Remove the charges concerning Paul’s anti-Judaism. Get to the heart of the matter—the very pressing question which Paul’s testimony presented them with earlier. Is Jesus alive or not?
Paul is done trying to show them the heart of the matter through the story of his conversion. That didn’t sink in. It’s time to just tell them plainly. It’s time to get them talking about what they in particular don’t like to talk about: the resurrection. This is something this group of Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed on in the first place. Is there even such a thing? In Paul’s view, it’s a discussion that has to happen—and, it must be the discussion, given the proofs that Jesus has brought to the table.
By the way—I can’t help thinking of our Lord in all this. As I mentioned earlier, Jesus first showed his kingdom and power through unmistakable proofs, and then he spoke of it plainly. That’s how this story has unravelled. Paul first showed compelling evidence of Jesus’s resurrection, and now he’s speaking of the resurrection plainly. He’s saying “in case you missed it, my testimony and my trial is entirely a matter of whether there is a resurrected Lord”.
There comes a point in our witness where we just have to tell people the truth, plainly and succinctly, because they’re simply too distracted by their sin and worldliness to see it plainly.
Now, the danger in simply telling people the truth plainly is that—unless Jesus intervenes—it will cause division and strife. Paul’s statement divided his accusers against one another—something that may or may not have worked to his favor. I don’t think that was Paul’s intent, one way or the other. At the very least, it got them talking and dividing over the issue that mattered—Jesus’s life and Lordship over everything.
A Summary and An Encouragement
As we close, let me summarize some of what we’ve seen, with a final point of encouragement.
First, be kind and honorable. Bless those who persecute you, as Paul did in the way he addressed his accusers.
Second, show your neighbor compelling evidence that Jesus is, indeed, alive. Tell your story—your testimony—in a way that puts people into a dilemma that must be solved, and can only be solved if Christ truly is alive. And by the way—don’t do this without appealing to God’s word. That’s something we didn’t talk about, but it shouldn’t go unsaid. Your testimony might unsettle someone and raise questions in their mind. It’s God’s Word and Spirit which powerfully answers the questions.
Third, remember that there comes a point when it’s time to cut through all the distractions of sin, and plainly present the matter of Jesus’s resurrection and life. We are distracted by sin, and we can twist any story away from Jesus if we so desire to. Like Paul—and Jesus before him—it’s becoming of us to say the truth openly, with crystal-clarity. “Jesus is alive, and he is offering forgiveness of sins and new life if you repent from your sins, and receive him for salvation”. We should press ourselves with this often, to keep ourselves in check. We should press wayward Christians with this—and of course, our unbelieving neighbors.
And finally, a point of encouragement. Nobody received Paul’s testimony—yet, Paul wasn’t serving them, ultimately. He was serving his living Lord. So, there’s always encouragement to the faithful. Verse 11 closes all of this with a reminder to the oppressed, “11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” Of what else could be said, it’s clear the Lord stood by him, approved of his witness, and was glorified through it.