Gospel Courage When We’re Discouraged – Acts 22:22-23:35
As we wind down the last few chapters of Acts, we see Paul the prisoner. He is a prisoner in Jerusalem and he will end up as a prisoner in Rome. However he doesn’t know that for sure yet. In Acts 21, he was beaten. In Acts 22, he shows remarkable courage and decides to share his testimony, which we looked at last week. Sometimes with these Bible characters, we think they are superhuman. You get beaten up and all you can think of is to share your testimony to the very people who beat you up? Who’s like that? Stand up for Christ? I can barely get up to read the Word! Sometimes we assume these Bible heroes were witnessing for Christ every hour of the day, their quiet times are always amazing and they never had a bad day because they slept the wrong way the night before.
But I am encouraged in reading Acts 23:11: “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.” For Jesus to “stand by him” a picture of intimate comfort and to say, “Take courage,” tells me Paul was afraid and discouraged! How is Paul going to keep going?
We need courage to be a Christian. I’m not even talking about walking to someone and sharing your faith or writing a letter to the government about your position on something. I mean power to persevere when circumstances go wrong. It is interesting to me that Paul prays for the Colossians in Colossians 1 for power. You would think power to witness, or power to preach or power to do miracles, right? but he says, “I pray that you may have ALL power, according to His glorious might, FOR ALL ENDURANCE AND PATIENCE WITH JOY” (emphasis mine, Col. 1:11).
I recently sad down with a guy who said, “I think God hates me. Everyone else seems to be moving on with life and I’m stuck.” He was stuck and discouraged. He knows God is good, but is God good to me? How can get the courage to keep going when he feels God’s mad at him? Some of us are in trials that never seem to end whether financially or our marital status. Some of us live in a constant drizzle of anxiety, worried about your future. It takes courage to trust God not with THE future, but with MY future. It takes courage to believe that God is good not to everybody, but…TO ME. How can you keep yourself from despair and hopelessness?
The world says, “Visualize success and you’ll be fine.” Or the world says, “Deny it. It’s not real.” Look at this movie poster: Danger is real. Fear is a choice. Sounds nice, but not realistic. We need Gospel Courage when we’re discouraged! Let’s explore this today and start with this:
- I. Gospel Courage is born in the presence of adversity (22:22-29)
Paul has this amazing opportunity to share his testimony. People are captivated and hearing every word. Then he said the “G” word. Look at Acts 22:21: “Go (not the G word), for I will send you far away to the GENTILES.” Paul touched their idol and anger erupted. Their identity was based on their superiority as Jews over everyone else and now Paul was saying how God loves Gentiles too and they can be saved without being Jews first? No way. That would mean Gentiles and Jews were spiritually equal to us! Blasphemy!
But the Jews were threatened here. Look at v.22. They want him dead. When someone doesn’t notice me, I feel rejected. I can’t imagine how it would feel for people to hate you and want you dead. There was chaos as they are grabbing everything around them, including dirt and mud and throwing them (22:23). The tribune or commander, who has no idea what’s going on since Paul is talking in Aramaic, takes Paul aside and figures a good whopping would get Paul to tell the truth of the situation (22:24)
This wasn’t like your dad’s belt when you were little, though that was very painful. One scholar says, “While it sometimes consisted of a handle on which were fixed leather straps, it was often an instrument of brutal innovation. The lashes could be knotted cords or wire having bristled ends or be strung with knucklebones and lead pellets.” If a man did not actually die under the scourge, he might well be crippled for life. He was already beaten with rods three times and five times he got lashed by the Jews (39x each time; 2 Cor. 11:24-25), but that was nothing compared to the Roman’s torture method here. It was the same torture method used on Jesus.
No wonder as they stretch him out and get ready to whip him, Paul says to one of the guards, “Is it right to flog a Roman citizen without a fair trial?” (v.25). The answer is no. Paul’s used this argument before with Silas in Philippi (Acts 16:35-39). Apparently, you are not allowed to flog a Roman citizen before a trial. Paul being a Roman citizen, would mean he carried a document of some sort to prove it. It would also mean that his dad and/or grandfather was a citizen as well. We don’t know how he got that privilege. Some scholars think his father or grandfather helped the Romans out in such a great way that they granted them that privilege as a reward. We are not sure.
Anyway, the guy can lose his job for doing this, so he runs to the tribune. The tribune is amazed when Paul says it again (vv.26-27). The tribune is very confused here. Paul is not an Egyptian revolutionary as he first thought (Acts 21:38), but a Jew from Tarsus who speaks polished Greek (Acts 21:39). Now you are a Roman citizen from birth? (Acts 22:28). Paul didn’t look like a Roman citizen. The tribune then shares some shady stuff about him. Apparently, he bribed some people to get his citizenship for a large sum of money to get his citizenship. Regardless, he does not flog him (Acts 22:29).
Peter preached in Acts 2 to a bunch of Jews and they get saved. Paul does it here and they cause a riot. Here you are pouring out your heart, battered and bruised, vulnerable about your past and instead of repentance, you have a riot. You are hated. Not only that, now you are about to get the worst beating of your life that could potentially kill or cripple you. I wonder when Paul said, “I am willing to die in Jerusalem for the name of Jesus!” (Acts 21:13) that he thought it would be this hard.
Paul is alone here. At least Peter got an angel that set him free in prison (Acts 12). And Peter had other issues God had to deal with him on. Paul’s life seems to be going from bad to worse here. God doesn’t take him out of the situation. He doesn’t take him out and zap him with courage. Sometimes God calms the storm, but most of the time, God lets the storm rage and He calms His child.
A few years ago, the gym I used to frequent offered free training for 3 weeks or something like that. I signed up. I was excited. I pictured myself as Rocky Balboa. I was going to go from a one pack to at least 3 or 4 pack…from flab to ab in three weeks. My trainer was this old guy named Bruce. He looked at my stats and health history and then we started training. I used to run on the treadmill like at a 3 and if I was really ambitious, 3.5. He put it to 6 and raised the incline. He made me do all kinds of stuff with weights, running, stretching, etc. My muscles refused to do the things the trainer wanted my muscles to do.
After the first day, I thought I was going to die. I was in pain and lay in bed for the whole day. I wanted the results, but I didn’t realize pain comes with it. To have a good workout means to go beyond your comfort level. Moving beyond your comfort level means you’re going to hurt. You are going to sweat and your heart is going to pound. This is the only way to grow. Our body will naturally deteriorate if we don’t put pressure against it. Tim Keller says, “Just like your body doesn’t grow, your faith doesn’t grow unless it’s taxed. Your patience doesn’t grow unless it’s tested. Your compassion, your courage, your commitment doesn’t grow unless it’s challenged, unless it’s threatened, just like your limbs don’t strengthen unless they’re pressed, unless they’re resisted against.”
Courage is born in the presence of adversity, not in the absence of it. We are not born with courage. It is a muscle that needs to be developed over time. I’m afraid our country is growing wimpier by the minute. I was reading an article this week that said, “One New Hampshire elementary school has banned the game of tag during recess, because the contact is potentially harmful. ‘We want them running, we want them jumping and releasing the energy, but just in a safe way,’ said principal Patricia Beaulieu. A middle school in Port Washington, New York recently banned footballs, soccer balls, baseballs and lacrosse balls on its playgrounds, because those “hard” balls are potentially injurious.”
I understand safety, but when are we going too far? This is all because the God of America is the pursuit of happiness. Everything exists to make me happy and so when adversity comes along, people are shocked and devastated. But this is the arena where God bears courage in His people. Perhaps this thanksgiving, whatever your adversity is, maybe you can thank God for it because though you don’t understand it all, thank God for being a wise trainer and Father whose wisdom supersedes ours.
II. Gospel Courage grows even in our failures (22:30-23:10)
The tribune, whose name is Claudius Lysias, is determined to find out who Paul is and what all this ruckus is about. So he decides to put Paul before the religious leaders. We are not sure if it’s a formal or informal meeting. Paul gets up and says, “I don’t know why I am up here. I haven’t done anything wrong and I am faithfully living before God” (23:1). This automatically implies that the people who are making the judgment here must be wrong.
So the high priest Ananias orders the guard nearby to punch Paul in the mouth for saying that (23:2). By the way, Ananias was known to be very corrupt bribing people, stealing tithes and extremely cruel. Then my favorite part in 23:3, Paul reacts and says, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall!” I only read a couple of commentators who supported Paul in his reaction saying it was a prophecy and he was like Christ to the Pharisees, but most agree that Paul lost his temper. I love the fact that God’s Word does not touch up its pictures of the lives of the saints. When an apostle or patriarch falls—David’s adultery and murder, Jonah’s pouting, Peter’s violence —his failure is honestly recorded.
Paul calls him a hypocrite, just like a white casket with a dead body inside…looks good externally, but death on the inside. The Jewish law said to be careful about striking someone as it is like striking God. So Paul says you are judging me by the same law, which you are disobeying right now in hitting me? No one is shocked by Ananias’ cruelty, but by Paul’s outburst. He had struck the high priest (23:3-4). Look at Paul’s godly response (23:5). As Macarthur says, “Paul’s reaction was that of a mature Christian. He saw his sin in relation to how holy God was, not how bad the high priest was. And when he realized his sin, he immediately confessed it and submitted to the authority of Scripture”It was courageous of him to confess! Courage isn’t strength. It’s the willingness to be weak. It’s the willingness to be vulnerable. Some are surprised he didn’t know who the high priest was. Perhaps because he away from Jerusalem for a while or because it was an informal meeting or maybe he wasn’t thinking, he blurted that out so quickly.
Anyway, in 23:6-10, Paul comes up with a brilliant idea. We don’t know his motives, but it seems like he gets his two enemies who are friends now because they both hate Paul to look at their differences instead of focusing on Paul. The main difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was that the Pharisees did believe in the supernatural and resurrection and the Sadducees didn’t. Paul brings up the “R” word: resurrection. True, the whole basis of everything that Paul believed in was the Resurrection of Christ, but in mentioning that word, he stirred up a whole new fight. As they shout and scream and wrestle with each other and I picture Paul walking away slowly.
They get violent. It’s like a bad Indian church general body meeting. And the tribune, Claudius Lysias, gets his soldiers to grab Paul before he’s killed and is like, “Who are you dude? Everywhere you go there’s a riot!”
I do not know Paul’s motives here, but I can see why he can be discouraged though. One author notes, “This was one of the darkest nights of Paul’s life. For years he had hoped to give fruitful witness in Jerusalem. But when he arrived, he…[was] suspect because of his contact with Gentiles. Now his hopes of convincing the leadership of his people had gone up in smoke as well. His dreams of effective testimony to the Jews lay in ashes at his feet, and his vision for successful witness in Rome began to fade too. Paul’s heart ached. He was physically, emotionally, and spiritually tired. His sharing of his testimony was a flop. Then he has a moment where he loses his temper and is embarrassed. Sometimes our failures can become our identity. I heard somewhere that failure is not a person, but an event. Our failures can keep us from moving forward and make us want to give up. But God uses even that to grow us. Lastly:
III. Gospel Courage is sustained by His presence and providence (23:11-35).
Look at what happens the following night in 23:11. The Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage or do not be afraid.” This God is not just a trainer, but a loving Father as well.
The Lord knew where he was. Regardless of how far you drift from the Lord or how bad your failure is, you will always find Him after you. Notice He doesn’t mention his outburst. It’s never how bad you fail, but how quickly you repent and see the Lord is always standing right by you. You don’t need to pray to ask God to be with you. He always is. We need to pray that our eyes be opened to see Him. Then the Lord says, “I also know how you served me…as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem.” Those who serve here faithfully in any shape or form, hear this. He sees your labor of love. People may not, but he does. If I was Paul I would have said, “I didn’t testify about you. I failed.” It’s not that you succeeded, but that you were faithful.
Not only that Paul. God’s people are immortal until our work is done: “so you must testify also in Rome.” In the presence of adversity, in the light of his failures, Paul is still called to go to Rome. If the Lord knows where I am, sees me through and through and if the Gospel tells me that I am deeply flawed and deeply loved, I can humbly go and continue to serve Him. Notice God doesn’t say if he will be free or not. Will Christ’s presence be enough?
In the interest of time, I will summarize Acts 23:12-35. Forty Jews made a vow. They were not going to eat or drink until Paul is dead. They plot with the religious leaders to call a meeting for Paul and while he comes down, we’ll take him out.
What are the chances that Paul’s nephew (we didn’t even know he had a sister, let alone a nephew) just so happened to hear this? This is called the Providence of God. The Providence of God is the way God cares for, cooperates with and directs all things to accomplish God’s purposes.
Pastor Tony Evans says, “Providence is the hand of God in the glove of history…it is God sitting behind the steering wheel of time. Providence refers to God’s governance of all events so as to direct them toward an end. It is God taking what you and I would call luck, chance, mistakes, happenstance and stitching them into achieving His program.” History is just His Story. There is a hand behind every headline. God works in the world with either miracle or providence. A miracle can happen where God enters and changes the natural order of things. But providence is how He typically works. As Pastor Kent Hughes says, “The God of Scripture is not simply a God of miracles who occasionally injects his power into life. He is far greater because he arranges all of life to suit and affect his providence. This makes all of life a miracle.”
So the nephew comes and tells Paul. Paul tells him to tell Claudius. Claudius hears about the plot from Paul’s nephew. Claudius realizes that he’s got to get Paul out of there before the Jews finally kill him. He orders 470 men to protect Paul and to send him to the higher up authorities, namely Felix the governor. Paul gets treated more like a King than a criminal! Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, his assassins are getting pretty hungry. Finally, Claudius sends Felix a letter and Luke writes it down word for word as evidence (23:26-35). Paul gets to Caesarea and is kept safe in the palace! That is the hand behind the headlines!
God uses an unidentified nephew who happens to be at the right place at the right time who gets the right favor from the Romans to bring about God’s plans. The Romans have no idea that they are being used by God to bring about His plan. Paul had two weapons to keep him going: the Lord’s presence, His commendation and His promise. What else do we need!
The Gospel says because Christ courageously stood on our behalf on the cross and got silence in the presence of that ultimate adversity, so we know He will always stand by us in the presence of our smaller adversities in love and encouragement. He bowed His head for us cowards and lost His Father’s hand, so He can lift our head and give us His hand. Now as Augustine said, “We can trust the past to the mercy of God, the present to His love, and the future to His providence.”
And one day, like at the end of the Lord of the Rings, the King will return. Remember the ending? In the book, the returning king steps off of his throne, and he grabs the two little hobbits, Frodo and Sam Gamgee, and puts them on the throne. Of course they both fit. He turns and says to the host, “Praise them with great praise.” And they do. That’ll be our future. All our stories will providentially end up there where He gets the glory and we share in it.
Kent Hughes shares this story (which is not true I found out—but based on a poster):
Paderewski, the famous composer-pianist, was scheduled to perform at a great concert hall in America. It was an evening to remember—a blacktux-long-evening-dress, high-society extravaganza. In the audience that evening sat a mother with her fidgety nine-year-old son. Weary of waiting for the concert to begin, the lad squirmed constantly in his seat.
Finally, he slipped away from her side, strangely drawn to the ebony concert grand Steinway and its leather-tufted stool on the huge stage flooded with brilliant lights. Largely ignored by the sophisticated audience, the boy sat down at the stool, staring wide-eyed at the black and white keys. He placed his small, trembling fingers in the right location and began to play “Chopsticks.” The roar of the crowd quickly ceased as hundreds of frowning faces turned in his direction. Irritated and embarrassed, they began to shout at the bold youngster.
Backstage the master, overhearing the sounds, hurriedly grabbed his coat and rushed toward the stage, where he stood behind the boy and began to improvise a countermelody to harmonize with and enhance “Chopsticks.” As the two of them played together, Paderewski kept whispering in the boy’s ears, “Keep going. Do not quit, son. Keep on playing. Do not stop. Do not quit.” What a gracious genius!
We have been called to play a spiritual tune for Christ. Though we have generally wanted to do our best, we have occasionally said the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. Perhaps we have not lived up to our own expectations, not to mention his standards of service. Perhaps our best service is sometimes more like “Chopsticks” than Swan Lake. Maybe some in the galleries are trying to yell us off the stage. We know we have a heavenly calling, and we want to keep playing for God, but we desperately need encouragement. At such times Christ stands beside us, his presence vivid and sustaining. He tells us, “Have courage, my dear servant. I have more work for you to do. Keep playing… Keep going… Do not stop… Do not quit.” He adds his amazing and superior countermelody to ours, making the result something that honors him and is beautiful.
I was blessed by this prayer of Scotty Smith:
A Prayer of Heart Renewing Hope
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Cor. 4:16-18
Dear Heavenly Father, this portion of your Word arrives today like a geyser of grace, a waterfall of wonder, an ocean of affection. So great is your love, attention and care for us—your sons and daughters! Following Paul’s lead in this Scripture, I praise you that the gospel calls us to live by hope, not by hype; by honest confession, not by spiritualized denial; by pouring our hearts out to you, not by giving a pep talk to ourselves; by seeing with the eyes of faith, not by medicating our multiplied pains.
Indeed, Lord, some of us have plenty of reasons for losing heart, and we don’t have to pretend otherwise: Relational distress and financial stress; broken health and aching hearts; fresh loneliness and out-of-control busyness; the pain of regret and the power of shame; an uncertain future and a not-so-happy present.
So, Father, help us today use the same set of scales that Paul used—gospel scales. May the combined weight of your great love lavished on us, the glory you’ve prepared for us, and the promise of your presence with us, far outweigh all the other stuff that is weighing down hearts down right now. May the gospel tip the scales WAY over in the direction of perspective and peace, encouragement and hope.
Father, let us see the real Jesus more clearly than we see our real pains; for by seeing Jesus we will see everything else in right proportion. Help us to fix our gaze on our great and grace-full Bridegroom—the author and perfecter of our faith; the writer and resolver of our stories; the bottler and wiper of our tears.
In light of the Day when we will shout, “It all makes now makes sense!” May our cry, today, be, “Your grace is enough.” May eternal things dazzle us much more than temporal things disappoint us. So very Amen we pray, in Jesus’ merciful and mighty name.
Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: John, Acts. (Vol.
2, p. 441). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Book of the Acts (p. 420). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
3Arnold, C. E. (2002). Ibid.
Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
Tapson, M. “We are raising a generation of wimps,” http://acculturated.com/2013/10/24/we-are-raising-a-generation-of-wimps/ accessed 22 November 2013.
Polhill, J. B. (1995). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 468). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Hughes, R. K. (1996). Acts: the church afire (p. 303). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (p. 326). Chicago: Moody Press.
Hughes, R. K. (304).
Evans, T. (2009). Tony Evans’ book of illustrations: Stories, quotes, and anecdotes from more than 30 years of preaching and public speaking (240). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and blessing. Preaching the Word (316–317). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 496). Wheaton, IL:
Hughes, R. K. (309).
http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/scottysmith/2013/11/23/a-prayer-of-heart-renewing-hope/ accessed 23 November 2013.