EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED Trinity
Acts 28:30,31 22.11.20
Two weeks in hotel Covid quarantine, stuck in one room, is no one’s idea of a good holiday. All the more when it costs $2,000. What if it were two years? It’s beyond imagining.
Paul is in the eternal city, Rome but it’s for two years of house arrest, and it wasn’t in the Rome Hilton!
Five chapters and three years ago, God told Paul “As you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” (23:11), and he’s been trying to get there ever since. Do you think he’d have tried so hard had he known it wasn’t going to be the Rome Hilton?
To get there he has to survive assassination attempts and get through several court rooms and prison cells. He has been weeks in a stomach churning storm before being shipwrecked on a reef. When he got to a beach on a plank of lumber, a killer snake bit him.
Why bother with this Rome idea? He has already done more than most men ever do with a life – he has preached Jesus in Israel, Cyprus, Syria, Turkey, Macedonia and Greece. Why not retire gracefully?
Why is getting to Rome such a big deal?
One reason might be that it’s good strategy. “All roads lead to Rome” and from Rome. Tell the gospel there and you’ll be telling it to people who’ll take it everywhere – out to Britain, Spain, Northern Europe, India and Africa. Rome was strategic thinking for the mission.
I think the main reason for being there is all to do with the message in this mission.
The Book of Acts began with the disciples locked up in Jerusalem asking Jesus when the kingdom of God was going to be restored to Israel. The Book ends with Paul preaching the kingdom of God in Rome, thousands of kilometres from Jerusalem.
Think ‘Rome’, or think ‘Washington DC’, and you think palaces and importance and power and authority. Isn’t Jesus important, and powerful and with all authority? More so than anyone in Rome? Indeed, isn’t power there under his power?
Then he should be proclaimed there. If he is left in the backblocks (remote and sparsely inhabited), you might think that his authority is only small.
No. It is time that Jesus, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth should be proclaimed there. It is time for Jesus to stand on Caesar’s turf and be shown to be the real king. So …
“He (Paul) lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ”. (vv30,31a)
Who is at the heart of the kingdom of God? Not Israel but the LORD, Jesus Christ, “Jesus Christ as Lord”.
This is bold, really bold because Caesar is huge – his shadow fell over the whole known world. From Julius Caesar whose armies went to Britain, before Jesus was born. Through to Caesar Augustus who had ordered a worldwide census sent Mary and Joseph off to Bethlehem. Caesar Tiberius whose soldiers had crucified Jesus. Then on to Caligula, then Claudius and now, Nero, emperor from 54 to 68AD. Paul is now living on Nero’s home turf.
Nero believed he was the biggest of them all, and that he had brought in a new world order. He claimed to be the sun god who gave life to everyone. Everyone lived, he said, because he lived.
The reality is anything but. Nero killed his own mother. He kicked his pregnant wife to death. Dressed as a woman he married a man.
In the summer of the year 64 he threw a street party to celebrate his new order. A lake was created in the middle of Rome and filled with sea monsters. Around the edge, brothels were set up where no one was to be refused. One Roman historian writes “Now a minion would take his mistress in the presence of his master; now a gladiator would take a girl of a noble family before the gaze of her father” (Dio Cassius).
A few weeks after the street party, a fire broke out which raged for days, levelling one-third of the city, while Nero played his violin. Does he take responsibility? He uses the Christians as scapegoats and blames the fire on them. Some of them were dressed in animal skins and torn apart by dogs. Others were covered in tar, put on crosses and burnt alive, to form lanterns in his garden.
It’s into this foul, unprincipled, narcissistic world of Nero that Paul comes “testifying to the kingdom of God” (v23), “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord, Jesus Christ” (v31). He comes saying there is a King who is God’s King. He is worlds apart from any Caesar in Rome. Paul is taking the gospel right up to the greatest world power there is. For that is where it belongs.
The message of Jesus as the King has been the message all through as Ross (another teaching elder) showed us last Sunday.
In the first sermon recorded in this book, Peter tells the Jews “this Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ”.
When Paul first came into Greece, people complained that he was “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus.” (17:7). Which decrees of Caesar was Paul defying? That people should worship Nero as God. How can you do that when Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
Just to be clear Paul never told anyone to ignore Cesar. On the contrary, he told believers to honour the emperor and observe good laws and pay taxes, because while Caesar was not the King, he had nonetheless been appointed by the King.
There is a kingdom that is bigger and so much better than any empire Caesar ran.
Get close to Nero and he’s likely to kill you. Get close to Jesus and mercy pours out of his very heart all over you.
Get involved with Nero and your friends will become your enemies. Get involved with Jesus and you’ll be so changed that you’ll care for enemies as friends.
Nero is fickle and superficial - parties, games and music, but nothing that heals sad hearts and troubled consciences. Jesus speaks to eternity that he has set in our hearts.
Nero keeps his subjects loyal to him by threats and cruelty. Jesus holds his subjects loyal by sweetly changing them from the inside out so that they love living for him.
Nero sees people as objects, and life as cheap. To Jesus, people matter … from 276 soldiers, sailors and criminals who are saved from a sinking ship to people with whom Paul reasons about Jesus, treating them as rational and volitional (relating to the use of one’s will) creatures.
Nero will die, to perish eternally. Jesus is alive and king in a kingdom that will endure forever and ever, and only ever shine increasingly brighter.
Some nations still have totally unprincipled leaders like Nero. We don’t, for the most part, but in our culture we still have pretend gods who want our hearts and allegiance:
Political parties who tell us that can fix everything if we will only give them enough votes and enough power.
Pressure groups who insist that we endorse their view of race or gender or sexuality, and who will burn us if we do not and accept us and approve of us only if we do.
University teachers with a view of life and behaviour that was invented last week but which is now the only real view.
Family members and friends who want what they believe and what they expect of us to govern what we think and do.
Do we show respect as and where it is due? Of course – exactly as Paul showed respect to Nero and to good Roman law and order, but people out there are not God. Jesus alone is the king.
Many of the gods who seek our hearts are much more civilised and worthy of respect than Nero. Even so, they still make claims they can’t deliver. They still want our hearts.
They cannot have them, can they, because in the kingdom of God there is only one true king. Jesus Christ the Lord?
Why would we want to give them our hearts? Is any of them as full of truth as Jesus, or marked by such humility and so caring of people or so abounding in mercy and kindness?
Friends it’s a no-brainer for Paul in the culture in which he lived just as it’s a no-brainer for us in ours.
What doesn’t make sense is why we would ever be prepared to leave people with their little god, their weak gods, their cruel and enslaving gods who cannot deliver. What doesn’t make sense is why if we had the opportunity to speak about Jesus that we wouldn’t do it, like Paul, “with all boldness” (v31).
John Stott says that word “boldness” means speaking candidly, without concealing the truth in any way … speaking clearly in words that people understand … and speaking confidently, without fear of the consequences.
I have mentioned before that when Sue and I were driving through central France we came to the city of Bourges, a town about the size of Tamworth. On a small rise in the middle of the town is a cathedral, about 100 metres long, 40 metres wide and 40 metres to the ceiling on the inside and 70 metres to the top outside. It’s really big and in some ways quite intimidating.
As we walked around the cathedral, down a side street, we found a small restored room, maybe 10 metres by 10 metres, with a plaque on the front which said that this is where John Calvin studied law. It was where, at the same time, he came into contact with the gospel which Martin Luther preached, and he accepted.
How did he hold to that, in the shadow of this cathedral which was so imposing, so big, so dominant? How did he stand before big and important people and promote the gospel of Jesus for all he was worth? It was because he knew Jesus is Lord.
What difference does Paul really think he can make on Nero’s home turf? He doesn’t have an army or a new political party. No big financial backers. He’s in Rome as a prisoner. He is a pipsqueak (insignificant person) whom Nero could tread on as soon as tread on a cockroach.
How can he speak so boldly, so candidly, so clearly, so confidently? It is because he is persuaded that Jesus is Lord and not Nero, or any of his look-alikes or sound-alikes. This Lord Jesus is so big, so wonderful, so full of mercy, so wise and good, so life-giving, so majestic, who wouldn’t boldly speak about him?
We’re still in Rome – pagan Rome which says in so many different ways that it is king, and Jesus and his church are nothing. Pagan Rome that wants our conformity, and our endorsement, and our hearts. It wants to silence any dissenting voices. Shall we retreat to a cave (back to Jerusalem), or simply cave in?
Is there a place for the gospel in our culture? Where we work and study? In our street? In our family?
Yes, because Jesus, not Nero, is Lord of all.
The message of Jesus as King belongs as clearly at the centre of this world as it does at the fringes. It’s meant to be there, challenging all the rivals to Jesus wherever they stick up their heads and try to claim people’s allegiance. Whether they are in Washington or Canberra, in the media or at your work, or in your family. We live for Jesus the Lord, and there is no other.
Is there anything about Jesus that isn’t good for people to hear? Are they better off sticking with Nero? Is there anything we would ultimately lose if we took our hearts in hand, and spoke about the true king to the people we love who are serving a false king?
Nero came and he went as did the whole Roman empire. Like the Greek, Persian and Egyptian empires before it. So too the Mongol and the Russian and the British after it. As will the American empire or the Chinese empire.
There is only one kingdom that endures, and is profoundly real here and now … and in which there are the real answers, the most awesome privileges and the deepest joys because there is only one real King in God’s world.
The race is run for Paul. The world has been turned upside down because of the gospel of the kingdom which he has preached.
Lord Jesus, do it again in our day we pray. Through pipsqeaks (insignificant people) like us.
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