top of page

Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves

July 31, 2022


Pastor Peder Kling


Sermon Passage: Acts 21:17–26

The sermon begins at minute 46:06. Unmute and volume up to listen. 

Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)

The Offense–Defense Thrill

The struggle between offense and defense in any conflict can be exhilarating—especially when the disadvantaged defensive party comes out on top. You could think of someone painfully losing a sporting match. They put themselves in the disadvantage. Then, to everyone’s surprise, they come back with a win. Those are the best stories—and, they’re all over the place. You could think of the court system. It may seem that a person has all the evidence against him, and the jury is unanimous on the case. Then, in the last second of the hearing, one new piece of evidence turns the tables for a swift “not guilty” verdict. 


There’s always a struggle between offense and defense—and, you can’t always assume the person on defense (with the disadvantage) is going to lose. When we apply this matter to the Christian church, it often appears that the church is more often on the defense rather than the offense. When persecution breaks out, and there’s a cultural resistance or hatred toward Christians, then it might appear and feel that we are on the defense. That’s increasingly becoming our position today as Christians in America. While Christianity used to be celebrated in America, giving it an offensive edge—that’s changed dramatically in the last 100 years. Many of us get filled with fears and anxieties and discouragement when we think about it.


Paul’s Turn to Play Defense

In our story today, we see a shift in Paul’s ministry from offense to the defense. Up to this point, we’ve seen Paul approach ministry with an offensive assault. Three time, he leaves his home church in Antioch in order to go win the Gentiles’ loyalties to the new King Jesus. He heads out on three missionary journeys to proclaim the gospel, and to turn the heads of thousands from Caesar to Jesus; or from Athena and Artemis to Jesus. He leaned into this ministry with a confidence in Christ’s power and ministry. As Jesus himself told Paul in Corinth, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:26). It’s a beautiful thing. God truly empowered Paul with an offensive assault throughout Rome, as thousands were coming to the faith through his ministry. His ministry made apparent to everyone that Jesus is alive, reigning, and saving his people through his Holy Spirit.


Yet, it might appear that the game changed for Paul in our passage. It may appear that at this moment in Acts 21, he begins what will become a long battle on defense. John Stott, pointed this out to me in his commentary. He said—


So far [Acts] has portrayed [the] hero on the offensive, taking bold initiatives under the leading of the Holy Spirit to evangelize most of Asia Minor and Greece. But when Paul arrived in Jerusalem, his whole career abruptly changed. He was assaulted, arrested, bound and brought to trial. He found himself on the defensive.


Really, Stott’s last words there could be a bit misleading. “He found himself on the defensive”—as if to say it were an unpleasant surprise. I think it’d be better to say that Paul “took the defensive”. He took it, voluntarily. He put himself into a vulnerable, disadvantaged situation before his enemies on purpose. We’ve talked about this quite a bit in the last few weeks, as Paul finished up this third and final missionary journey with his resolve to go to Jerusalem. Everyone except the Spirit of God himself was telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem—it’d mean certain imprisonment or death. Doesn’t that sound a bit foolish, to take perhaps the most valuable leader and asset to this early Christian church and place him into the enemy’s hands? Yet, Paul did it. He went, knowing it’d dramatically change the course of his ministry. Throughout the rest of Acts, Paul is on the defensive as he’s going through the Roman judicial system. 


As we find ourselves in a similar defensive situation, today, the rest of Acts is going to be really insightful and encouraging for us. What does it mean to play defense in a situation like this? How can we find encouragement and strength and strategic wit in a situation like this? As we press into today’s story, we’re going to learn two lessons about being on the defensive as Christians. How should we respond in a culture that despises and falsely accuses us? Those two lessons, as we see them in Paul’s example, are—


  1. The Willingness to be on the Defensive

  2. The Wit (or wisdom) to be on the Defensive


Really, brothers and sisters—this is a sermon on a Christian’s courage and faithful witness. Standing up for Christ—and joyfully obeying him—in a culture that hates Christ takes courage. It takes a certain willingness and a certain wit to do this in a way that honors Christ. So, let’s dig in.


1. The Willingness to Play Defense

Let’s just think about Paul’s willingness to take up a defensive ministry, like this, as he went to Jerusalem. Why was Paul so willing to go to Jerusalem when he knew it’d mean giving his advantage, and making himself vulnerable to the Jews?  


Willing to Obey God on Defense

This whole journey to Jerusalem began with Paul’s willingness to obey God. That’s where this all started, for Paul, with a willingness to obey God’s leading. We’ve seen this a few times in the last few weeks. Most clearly—we saw it when Paul addressed the Ephesian elders on his journey to Jerusalem, he told them plainly that “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” (Acts 20:22–23) 


Paul was “constrained” by the Spirit—compelled by divine directive—to go to Jerusalem, and he knew it’d mean a defensive ministry of hardship behind enemy lines. As Paul went from city to city on his way to Jerusalem, the Christians in each city continually encouraged him to not go to Jerusalem. I imagine there was a small voice in Paul saying “don’t do it”—yet, he was constrained by the Spirit. He was willing to obey what the Spirit called him to do.


Now, just so we remember—what exactly did the Spirit call him to do in Jerusalem? 


You get a hint, if you look at verse 17. There, you’ll read that “when we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly.” So, Paul was accompanied by Luke (who wrote Acts) and a host of other brothers. This wasn’t a solo mission. Paul had companions. If you remember from previous weeks, we’ve seen that Paul’s companions were representatives from the various churches which Paul had planted throughout Rome. The mission to Jerusalem, which the Spirit had directed Paul to fulfill, was a mission of encouragement to the particularly hurting and marginalized church in Jerusalem. They were economically hurting because the Jews had cut the Christians off from society, and it’s reasonable to believe they needed some spiritual encouragement as well. So, Paul shows up with Christians from the churches he had planted throughout all of Rome—and, those churches had even pooled together a financial offering in order to assist the Jerusalem church in their economic struggle. Paul showed up with a big statement—“Jesus is still ruling, still conquering hearts, and still providing for his people throughout all of Rome. You’re not alone.” That’d be a huge encouragement to this Jerusalem church who was struggling in her ministry and witness. 


So from what Paul could tell, this was his mission to Jerusalem—spiritual and economic encouragement to the Jerusalem Christians. Although—as we’ll see in a moment, I think the Spirit had a much greater plan in mind than simply this. The Spirit didn’t simply want Paul to encourage this church. He wanted Paul on defense (again, as we’ll soon see) for the honor and integrity of the gospel.


So, Paul was willing to obey the Holy Spirit’s call to go help the church in Jerusalem, and suffer. Now, the question we must follow up with is why? Why was Paul willing to obey such a difficult calling? The calling to encourage the saints in Jerusalem in and of itself is fairly straight-forward and easy to obey. But, you have to wonder if Paul thought, “Is this really worth the risk? Couldn’t I simply send someone else to do this—someone who the Jews aren’t actively trying to seek and kill?” It’s the fact that this directive of the Spirit was so dangerous to Paul that makes this seem odd and almost foolish. Why was he willing to obey the Spirit and play the defensive game like this, and place himself into a position of significant disadvantage in Jerusalem? 


Willing to Prayerfully Trust God

Paul was willing to obey the Spirit because he was willing to trust the Spirit. So much as Paul was concerned—the Spirit told him to go to Jerusalem, so the Spirit must have a good design for Paul in Jerusalem. It’s really that simple, folks. Obeying God always comes down to trusting God. “Trust”—think, “faith”. Paul’s journey to Jerusalem was littered with allusions to his trust—his faith—in God’s ways. To the Ephesians elders, he said—


[Yes,] imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.


Or, to the folks in Caesarea who urged him not to go to Jerusalem, he said — 


“What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 21:13)


Do you hear what Paul is saying? His life meant nothing to him. What meant everything to him was (1) finishing the course and ministry he received from God, and (2) proclaiming the grace and salvation of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul was after, and as he proclaimed it, he believed it. “To live is Christ and to die is gain”.


Notice in 21:13 that he doesn’t simply say “I am willing” to obey and suffer, he says “I am ready… to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus”. Willingness and readiness are two different things, aren’t they? A recruiter for the military is usually not going to ask, “are you ready to serve your country in combat?”. That’s a bit too much for a high schooler who has never been through boot-camp. He’s not ready, although he may be willing. The recruiting officer will say, “are you willing to serve your country?”. Readiness involves a certain preparedness, and confidence.


Are you ready to die in your obedience to Jesus, in every area of your life? Are you ready to go on the defensive for your Lord—to stand up for him and his truth, and serve him? Are you ready to obey something he clearly commands in scripture—something that seems odd or foolish to you? Perhaps you’re willing, and you want to, but you’re not sure if you’re ready. How can we be ready for that sort of thing, as Paul was?


I’m reminded what Paul said in Philippians, which he would write a little bit later in his life. Paul tells the Philippians “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Paul had to learn contentment—Jesus had to teach him. He had to learn confidence and peace in Christ, so that his soul would be ready to trust his Lord in every situation. He learned this confidence and contentment as he walked with the Lord every day—as he repented and confessed sin every day, only to learn that the Lord’s peace and forgiveness is always available to bring peace to the soul. Paul had to learn that as he would go on offensive or defensive ministry, the Lord would always meet him with strength and blessing through the Spirit. Paul had to learn this sort of contentment and confidence in his Lord—and, it produced within him a peculiar willingness and readiness to obey his Lord (even if his instructions seemed peculiar).


I’m always incredibly encouraged to talk to older saints who have faithfully walked with the Lord for seventy or eighty years. There’s often an unusual peace about them—“if that’s what the Lord commands, of course I’ll do it”. They’ve seen the Lord prove himself to them for a lifetime, as the Spirit has worked an unwavering faith and obedience into them. That’s the sort of faith that will render joyful and peaceful obedience to the grave. He was willing to obey Jesus, because he was ready and eager to trust Jesus with the measure of faith the Spirit had given him.


You also see reference to Paul’s willingness to trust Jesus in this journey to Jerusalem when you turn to Romans. This is the other passage where you see Paul’s faith behind this journey. Paul wrote Romans en route to Jerusalem, and he said to the Romans—


5:30   I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints


As Paul wrote Romans en route to Jerusalem, he couldn’t get through the letter without asking for prayer. He needed the Romans to be praying that the unbelieving Jews wouldn’t kill him, and that the believing Jews would receive him (given some troubling matters we’ll see in a moment). This trip could go south really fast, folks. Yet Paul obeyed, and he obeyed because he trusted, with a reliance upon prayer. There in Romans 15:30, we see that Paul was willing to go to Jerusalem so long as his fellow Christians were lifting him up to Jesus’s protection and provision.


So, Paul was willing to obey because he was willing to trust Jesus—even in what may have seemed like a foolish journey to Jerusalem. Whenever you’re struggling with a clear matter of obedience, a simple way to simplify the matter is to simply ask, “am I willing to trust God in this matter?”. It’s a very disarming question, and it reveals so much. If you’re answer is “no”, then there could be a sin you need to deal with. Perhaps there’s a part of your life you aren’t willing to give over to God’s care. Perhaps there’s something you’re afraid of, and you struggle to hand those fears over to God. Confessing a lie might be a good example. It’s clear that you lied about something, and you need to confess—only, you don’t trust God with what the confession and repentance might mean. So, you don’t obey. 


Willing to Serve and Build Up God’s People

That said, there’s one more reason Paul was willing to transition to a defensive ministry in Jerusalem. Yes, he was willing to obey the Spirit’s directive to encourage the saints in Jerusalem—and yes, he was willing to obey because he was willing to trust God. Yet beyond even this, he was willing to serve and build up God’s people, even if it meant his death. When the Spirit said, “go encourage the church in Jerusalem”, Paul gave a hearty “yes—I’m willing to do that, even if it means I could be killed by the Jews in Jerusalem”. He’s willing to die in the cause of encouraging his brothers and sisters in the Lord. 


In this, Paul was like his Lord and savior. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus died for the church—the greatest act of love. Here, we see Paul likewise willing to die for the church. It’s really something else, here. Paul didn’t go to Jerusalem on an evangelistic crusade, saying, “I’m going to plant a church in that godless city if it means my death!”. He said, “I’m going to go to that city and encourage the church, if it means my death”. It sounds oddly less glorious, doesn’t it? We have a strange tendency to make evangelism more glorious and worthy of a cause than encouraging and building up the saints. 


Here, Paul reminds us that the church’s encouragement is worth dying for. Look at verses 18–20 again, and tell me this isn’t worth dying for—


18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God.


Don’t you love that? “He related one by one the things that God had done”. Can you imagine the thrill and the encouragement seeping out of these stories? When Paul arrived and related these things, the church in Jerusalem that had been marginalized and oppressed for so long was finally greeted by the fruit of their labor. The church was birthed in Jerusalem, and it grew out from Jerusalem in glorious ways. This is like a father or mother who sends his children out into the world to do great things, and the children come back 30 years later with an outstanding report of how they transformed the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s beautiful. It glorifies God.


So, this is all to simply illustrate Paul’s willingness to put himself into a vulnerable position—to put himself on the defensive. He did it because he was ultimately willing to trust and obey his Lord, and to serve the church if it meant his death. In the end, Paul knew he was serving a Lord who rose from the dead. He knew that like his Lord, he’d come out on top. In the end, he’d be with his Lord, and the church of Jesus Christ will win. He knows the story, because he knows his Lord rose from the dead. So in Christ, by faith, let the enemies attack and go on the defensive. We know who will ultimately win.


So we’ve seen Paul’s willingness to go on the defensive. Consider now Paul’s wit—or wisdom—to go on the defensive. 


2. The Wit to Play Defense

Whenever you’re in a difficult situation, on the defensive, you need wit. You need wisdom and tact. Jesus literally tells us in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”


Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves. Be wise—mischievous, cunning, crafty. Yet, unlike the wicked serpent, be innocent. That’s literally the advice Jesus gives his disciples when he’s warning them about situations like what Paul is about to face. In the next verse, he says—" Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” Sound familiar? That’s what Paul will be concerned about throughout the rest of Acts as he’s going to be on trial before his many accusers. So, Jesus says “be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves”. 


Now, I mentioned earlier that the Spirit had another reason for Paul to go to Jerusalem—a reason other than to encourage and help the church with spiritual and financial assistance. Generally, the Spirit wanted Paul on the defensive—before the unbelieving Jews (which we’ll see next week), and the believing Jews (the church)! When you read verses 20 and following in our passage, you’ll see that the Spirit had a real problem for Paul to tend to in the Jerusalem church.


Look at verse 20, starting a few words in—


And they said to him [explaining the problem they’re seeing], “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.


So, that’s the problem. In Jerusalem, thousands have received Jesus as their savior and Lord. That sounds great, doesn’t it? Christianity is exploding in Jerusalem—only, there’s a struggle. The church wasn’t just poor and marginalized by the non-Christian Jews, externally. It was also experiencing internal struggles. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem wanted to keep their Jewish identity. They wanted to hold onto Moses and to circumcision—and Paul was saying that these things were no longer necessary for “the Jews who are among the Gentiles”, as verse 21 puts it. 


This was a question about how Jews should practice their Christianity. The church already declared that the gentiles are free from the Mosaic law—that was cleared up in Acts 15. Although, what about the Jewish Christians? Can they retain the law, and their Jewish identity? Needless to say, many in the Jerusalem church struggled with Paul telling Jewish Christian that they no longer needed to obey Moses and circumcision. So, they passionately charged Paul with lawlessness and treason against Israel.


Really, this whole thing reveals all sorts of problems that would need to be addressed in any given church. 


There was the problem of immature Christians in Jerusalem. They didn’t understand that Paul was right to teach that Jews shouldn’t subject themselves to circumcision. He literally says in Galatians 5:4, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law [and circumcision]; you have fallen away from grace.” Circumcision and works of the law don’t save you. Those aren’t necessary. Grace saves you! Jesus fulfilled the law that you couldn’t! That’s good news! That needed to be taught to these Jewish Christians. 


Then, there was the matter of division and gossip in the church which was aggravating this problem. Again, verse 21, “they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses”. Strictly speaking, Paul wasn’t teaching anyone to forsake Moses. Paul was telling people to believe in the fulfillment of Moses. There’s a big difference, Biblically. If they’d listen, they’d know and rejoice in it. Instead, their ignorance brought gossip, which brought division and malice in the church.

So, the question in verse 22, “what then is to be done?”. If you asked me in this situation, I would have suggested that James and Paul hold a conference—or a panel. They talk about the charges, and Paul gets an opportunity to preach the gospel as it specifically applies to Jews. Wouldn’t that make sense? It’d resolve the problem of Christian immaturity and confusion, and it’d clear up any gossip that was circulating. 


James and the leaders had a different approach—and, quite honestly, I find that their solution raises a few more questions. Commentators are divided on whether this was wise decision. What we know is this is what was proposed, and Paul went with it.


Starting in verse 23—


23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.”


That was their word to Paul. Paul was to take four of the Christian men and go to the temple, and be purified in the temple with those four men. This was the sort of ceremony you’d go through as a Jew if you needed a certain cleansing—perhaps Paul needed to be cleansed after being around gentiles for so long. Either way, Paul would have publicly paid the expenses to have an animal slaughtered for ceremonial cleansing, and he would have gone through the rituals of a Nazarite vow.


If you’re like me, you may have read this and said “well hold up, Paul! Doesn’t this communicate the opposite thing you’ve been preaching this whole time?!”. Is it possible that Paul is caving to the man, here, as he’s on the defensive? How can we characterize Paul’s wit to play defense, here, as he agrees to this nazarite vow?


In a word, we see in Paul the wit to love, and the wit to acquit. That sums up what it looks like for Christians to play the defense—the wit to love, and the wit to acquit—all for the purpose of honest and effective gospel ministry.


The Wit to Love

Think about the wit to love, here. The reason Paul agreed to this nazarite vow was nothing other thana gesture of love and patience. We really are to adorn the gospel with love and patience, folks. As God loved us, and is patient with us, so also we with our accusers. This is so clear in what Paul says in First Corinthians 9. Right after saying “woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16), he says in verse 19—


1 Cor 9:19   For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.


That’s Paul, in our passage. He was a servant to all, to win them all. Notice that he never identifies with any of these groups. He says “I became a Jew”, and “I became a gentile”. Isn’t Paul a Jew? Isn’t that an odd thing to say? You see, Paul viewed himself wholly in Christ, as a Christian—and therein he found the freedom to serve the many in any way that was not sinful. The gospel had freed him to love all, to win all.


For Paul in our passage, taking a Nazarite vow and being ceremonially cleansed in the temple wasn’t a sin. He was free to do that. It was at the very least, an empty ceremonial rite that Jesus had fulfilled. At most, it was a gesture of love toward these Jewish Christians. It was an attempt to gain their attention, and disarm their hostility toward them. When Paul was on the defensive, he appealed to the wisdom—the wit—of love. Imagine he had charged into this matter and said, “yes! that’s what I teach and you are all wrong and foolish in your observance to Moses!”. That would have caused deep division and schism in the church at Paul’s own, reckless hand. So, Paul appealed to the wit of love. Perhaps you’d call it patience, as he understood the sensitivity of the matter.


The Wit to Equit

Then, there was the wit to acquit—to show himself innocent of their charges. The charge was that Paul was teaching folks to “forsake” Moses. The word is apostosia—to apostate—there in verse 21. Is that was Paul was teaching? If it was, I’d hardly believe Paul would have had a category for undergoing this Nazarite vow and cleansing which James proposed. This gesture wasn’t simply a gesture of love. It was a gesture that might have cause some people to pause and say, “interesting—I thought Paul had completely forsaken Moses. Yet here, he’s still willing to undergo this ceremony. What exactly is he saying, then?”. You see, Paul is winsomely showing his innocence from the charge that he has totally apostatized from Moses. Jesus came to fulfill Moses—Paul preached what Moses’s ceremonial laws ultimately pointed forward to. The Messiah, who ultimately purifies us of all our sins, has come with a kingdom and a salvation far better than that of Moses and circumcision. 


When we’re on the defensive in any given culture or situation, seek to be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves. Have the wisdom—the wit—to love patiently to acquit yourself when you are falsely accused. In a small gesture, here, we see Paul apply this principle to accusations against him in the church. Sadly, this whole ordeal led to Paul’s arrest, in which he’d begin to apply the same principles on the big stage of the Roman judicial system.


Our Defense is Ultimately in Christ

So we look ahead to the next several weeks, we quickly see that Paul’s Nazarite vow and cleansing didn’t work. It didn’t appease the anger of the Jews. That’s how the enemies of God work, folks—and, the great lesson in all this is that we need not be discouraged. The world will falsely accuse us, malign us, and persecute us. It’s to be expected. Yet as we’ll see in the coming weeks through Paul’s example, the good news is that God defends and protects us. We don’t do that ourselves, through our own wisdom and wit. Our willingness and our wit can only go so far, but God’s defense is certain. As he looks at us, he sees not our own righteousness. He doesn’t measure us up according to our wisdom and personal acquittal. He sees Christ’s righteousness—and therein, he pledges to defend us and protect us all the way to glory. So, be willing to suffer. Be willing to defend the name and honor of Christ. Do it with a certain wit. Yet, do it because you’re defense is sure in Christ.

bottom of page