What it Means to be Blameless
40 years ago, Christians used to be like the home sports team, playing on the field with majority of the crowd cheering them on.
Now the Christians are the away team, with the majority of the crowd being hostile toward them. Instead of cheering, they boo and call names and don’t even want us to be on the field.
Or, as John Woodhouse put it, “a generation or two ago Christians were seen simply to have an intellectual problem – you don’t still believe in all that stuff do you? You were just seen as stupid.”
Now Christians are seen as not dumb but dangerous – far right-winged fundamental extremists or something.
Whilst we don’t live in nearly as intense situations as Christians in other countries, the trend is increasing hostility and it will probably get harder before it gets easier.
For some of us here now, it’s already hard.
For the wife who’s married to an unbelieving husband who mocks her every day. For the Christian who continues to get passed over for a promotion at work because of the stance they take. For the students who get ridiculed in class by teachers or lecturers who just want to have a go at Christians.
It can be tough, and it seems to be only increasingly so in Australia.
Post something online about the exclusivity of Jesus and see what happens.
Post something online about God’s design of male and female, or marriage and see what happens.
Post something online saying that you should only bow the knee to Jesus and see what happens.
We’re in a pandemic, as one article said last week, a public-shaming pandemic. The instant and unforgiving social media stacks on if you don’t conform to the increasingly anti-Christian, progressive, P.C. (politically correct) thought police.
The only thing that will stop the public online shaming and outrage is if you’re censored and your account gets blocked.
Before we all crumple into a heap and declare “woe is me”, let’s remember this is hardly a new thing.
2000 years ago the Apostle Paul found himself bullied, harassed, harangued, falsely accused, death threats that were not empty, left hung out to dry.
Yet in the middle of it all, what have we seen. He’s been focussed, resolved, uncompromising, conducted himself with integrity, not stooped to their level. Passionate and compassionate.
How could he do it? How can he be like that in the midst of all this?
Well, if we can answer those questions, we might just find there are some lessons for us today.
What’s Paul up against?
1. The wickedness of the Jews
Paul was up against the obsessive, unrelenting, manipulative, murderous hatred of the Jews.
A new governor has arrived. He’s gone into his office. He’s opened his drawer. Got his pencils out. Closed his drawer. Put up photos of his wife and his children and so on.
Then he says to his assistant, “Now, if you’d just hold my calls, I’m going up to Jerusalem to make a courtesy visit because the Jewish population are fairly demanding and in need of my attention.”
What we’re told is within three days of arriving in the province, Festus heads from Caesarea to Jerusalem. When he gets there, guess what?
Well, no surprises really for those who have been following the story. The Jewish leaders appear before him, and what do they do? They jump at the opportunity to present their case against Paul.
This is like Groundhog Day isn’t it? Every time you turn around, oops there they are again. The alarm clock goes off, the man wakes up, and the same things happen.
New day, new governor, same old charges.
Why can’t they just drop it?
He’s been in prison now for two years. Surely that’s enough. Surely just leave him there, but they can’t because of their hatred against Paul – which is ultimately a hatred against Jesus.
As v19 points out, as Festus himself discovered, in the end it’s about who is Jesus. Paul keeps banging on about how Jesus is alive – and they hate it! They hate Paul because they hate Jesus.
Calvin, “The more brightly the light of doctrine shines, so as to press more closely on wicked men, the more they are driven to a greater pitch of madness.”
It’s utter obsessive madness.
In v3, they ask Festus for a favour. They’re always asking for favours aren’t they?
“We’d like to ask a favour. Could you please bring Paul up to Jerusalem?”
Why? For a fair trial, this time? Hardly. They were planning an ambush so that they could kill him on the way.
They’re not very inventive are they? They tried this already in ch23 and failed. You’d think after two years they’d be able to come up with some new material wouldn’t you, but no. It’s the same old story. What we’re talking about is cold blooded murder.
Again, the plan fails.
Festus shows a bit of back bone in v4-5, denies their request, and says, “If you care so much, you could always come to Caesarea.”
Off they go, v6, and when they’re in Caesarea, Festus orders Paul to be brought before them.
In v7, when Paul had arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him
There’s sort of a menacing note to the phrase “stood around him”. The idea that they were closing in on him. That they were aggressively postured towards him.
They brought their many and serious charges against him (and notice the final phrase of the sentence) that they could not prove.
Why would today be any different? They couldn’t prove it before and unless they’d come up with some new twist or witnesses, then they weren’t going to be able to prove it today.
Obsessive hatred, murderous scheming, flat out lies in a court of law – that’s what Paul is up against.
It looks as if it’s never going to quit.
Seriously Paul, just give up.
Not only that, what Paul is up against is also…
2. The whim of the politicians
Just when we thought there was something decisive about Festus, v4-5, look now at v9, But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favour, said to Paul, “Would you like to be tried in Jerusalem?”
What’s going on? He wasn’t doing them a favour. Now he wants to do them a favour.
What’s happened here?
It’s called “political expediency”. One hand washed the other.
It’s what Felix had done (24:27), leaving Paul to rot in jail for two years because he wanted to do the Jews a favour. Now this new Roman magistrate was the same.
He knew that under the law Paul was innocent (he admits as much in v25), but in order to appease the Jews, who were screaming for the blood of the Apostle Paul, and to seek some measure of peace among the people, he judged not by principle but by popularity.
After saying publicly, “I find no fault in this man,” Pontius Pilate washed his hands, but he couldn’t remove the blood of Christ from them because he had compromised for political reasons to mollify the crowd.
It’s the same thing that can happen to anyone of us. Whether it’s in business or in our families or in the church, conviction on a Tuesday can easily erode and become compromise on a Thursday or Friday if circumstances change.
What possible value could there be in trying this case again? None!
Festus gets himself into a great mess trying to have a bet each way.
He confesses to Agrippa in v20, he was at a loss. Why?
It’s not particularly complicated. Here are the charges:
“State your charges.”
“Well, he’s been doing some bad things about the people, bad things about the temple, and bad things about the governor, and just some bad things.”
“Ok, thank you. Is that it? Do you have witnesses?”
“Any witnesses. You know, people who can back up what you’re accusing?”
“Right. Hey fellas, we got any witness back there? Ah, no witnesses today your honour.”
“Ok. So you’ve brought no one here to substantiate the charges you’re making?”
“So you rest your case?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Ok, let’s just ask the prisoner. Who’s representing you?”
“I’m representing myself.”
“Ok then. Could you just give us your defence statement?”
“Yes I can.”
“Ok, go ahead.”
“I have done nothing wrong.”
“Is that it?”
“Yes that’s it. I’ve done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.”
Case should be dismissed, for want of evidence, for the clarity with which the defendant spoke, and so on.
We’ve heard the case four times now. We’re now getting to the point where this is ridiculous.
Pauls says, “Well if you’re going to be like that, I’m appealing to Caesar then.”
Festus is more governed by expediency than what is right he’s really in a mess now.
V26, “I have nothing definite to write to Caesar about him.”
Don’t you feel a little sorry for the poor guy here?
He’s got the official form, “Report to Caesar”, the big scroll. He pulls it out and says to his wife, “Ok, I’ve got to fill out a report for Nero.”
Charges: what am I going to write?
V26b, Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write.
You wonder how he said this.
Is he very bombastic: King Agrippa and all who are present with us, you see this man.
Is that it? Or is he like: Ahh umm, King Agrippa, there’s this man who was up there and then down here, and … I don’t have anything to write. What am I supposed to write?
His wife says, “Get a hold of yourself!” “But I can’t, I‘ve got nothing to write.”
This was the fellow with the power over Paul’s life.
Seriously Paul, just give up.
3. The wow-factor of the elites
V23, “the most dramatic scene in the whole NT”
We are told that Agrippa and Bernice arrived in the city with great pomp. Which means they came with their flags waving, their swords gleaming, their horses prancing, with golden crowns, and purple attire.
When all of that grandeur and all of that pageantry is established, Luke tells us:
Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in.
Quite a daunting thought for Paul. Small Paul it would have seemed, against all of this pomp.
No gold chains for Paul, just the chains of his captivity. No dramatic robe but insignificant tunic.
Seriously Paul, just give up.
There’s the picture. Grandeur, might, majesty, pageantry, power, apparent influence, the jurisdiction of Rome.
Here is this rather contemptuous figure who is brought before it all.
Yet who is it who is marked by grace, commands respect, speaks with boldness, is not over-awed by the majesty that confronts him? It’s Paul. Why?
How can Paul do it?
Four things true of Paul…
1. Clear conscience
Paul has the clarity and joy of a clear conscience.
It’s a big deal today. Unless you’re bowing the knee to the progressive agenda of the cultural elitists, you’re not allowed to have a clear conscience.
Especially if you’re a white, middle class, male – you need to be feeling guilty for the rest of your days.
Well that’s the pressure Paul’s under, x1000. “Don’t you know Paul you’re being so offensive and hurtful and harmful, speaking against our laws and customs and people and temple.”
Well, he’s not falling for it.
My conscience is clear (Acts 23:1, 24:16). Not sinlessness.
V10-11, To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them.
How can he speak so boldly?
Milne: “Here is a man who lives first of all coram Deo, before the eye of God, and accordingly is repeatedly able to survive the scrutiny of man.”
He’s playing to an audience of one.
“I care much more about God’s tribunal than I do yours. In God’s tribunal, I’ve already been pardoned.”
So he’s not worried about what Felix thinks. He’s not worried about what Festus thinks. He’s not worried about what Agrippa thinks.
He cares and is motivated by only what God thinks.
He can say, “If God is for you, why would you ever fear who could be against you (Rom 8:31)?”
What about you? Who do you fear? Who’s in your audience that you’re performing before?
It’s really difficult to make the right decisions when you’re constantly worried about what your kids will think of you, what your class mates will think of you, what the culture will think of you.
You’ll just end up being as confused and compromised as old Festus here – “I don’t know what to write!”
Then you’ll be of little use to Jesus.
If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:10).
2. Blessed through suffering
In Australia we’ve decided that if there’s to be blessing then there’ll be no suffering, no pain. Blessing means you don’t miss out on anything and there’s nobody trying to get at you. Blessing means having a rich, happy, healthy life.
That’s the theme of our culture, but it’s not the theme of God’s counterculture.
God often speaks like this: blessed are you when you suffer.
Now, no one in Australia would think that could possibly be true. Yet God tells us time and time again that blessing is often tied to suffering.
Now how does that work? Well in 100 ways, but for today I want to mention one.
There’s the blessing of being like Jesus.
As we’ve worked through these chapters haven’t you felt the sense of déjà vu (a feeling of having already experienced the present situation.)?
Mock trials and false charges. Declaration of innocence yet treated as though guilty.
Luke is saying that Paul is being like Jesus.
That’s Paul’s own take on it and so he writes in Philippians 3: For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish. How can he say that? He knows the result is that I may … share his sufferings, becoming like him.
If you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are like Jesus, in that respect.
Now, Jesus’ suffering produced different results of course. Your suffering can never atone for sins but the fact of the suffering is the same.
We spend all our time wanting to be like Roger Federer, or one of the Beatles, or a parent, or a friend, or that other kid in the class with all the cool stuff. “I want to be like them.”
Well, this is much better than any of that.
If you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you’re like Jesus. Just like Jesus. You stand where he stood.
Now Jesus did a thousand things we’ll never be able to do, or should try but here’s one.
To be counted worthy to be like Jesus. Do you think that’s a blessing?
Depends on how big you think Jesus is…
3. Under the command of Jesus
After Paul had had a bad day, and not a particularly good evening,
Acts 23:11, 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.”
How was Paul going to get to Rome?
Don’t say, “by boat”. I mean, under what circumstances would Paul get to Rome?
The remarkable thing we discover, and what Luke wants to make clear, is that God is infinitely resourceful in displaying his glory and grace, in achieving his purpose even through the self-serving decisions of sinful people.
Let me repeat.
If you understand this, it will help you when you are called to suffer (due to self-serving sinners).
God, in the mystery of his purposes, uses those self-serving responses, in order to fulfil the great and glorious picture and plan that he has for his Son and his Son’s kingdom, of which you’re a part, if you belong to Jesus.
I’m not sure Paul is conscious of this all the time, but at least when he put his head on the pillow at night and he tried to factor in everything that was happening to and around him, he could see the big picture.
“The reason I am here in captivity before these Gentile and Jewish kings is not because I am spinning hopelessly and helplessly in a world that is out of control. The reason I am here is because these pagan kings and governors and rulers, who seem to be the ones doing the commanding (see v6, 23), are in fact God-chosen means to achieve God’s chosen end.”
They don’t know that of course, but that’s the reality.
There’s a bigger picture here. You need to draw a picture of God over and under and beyond and in everything.
So Paul says, “I appeal to Caesar.”
Festus says, “To Caesar you shall go.”
Jesus says, “Bet you didn’t guess that one.”
The angels say, “Hallelujah. Praise the Lord.”
We say, what? “Is Jesus really big enough to be the only one in my audience? Perhaps a bit of compromise here and doing what’s popular there would help.”
Luke says, “Haven’t you read what I’ve written?!”
Joy of a clear conscience, blessing of being like Jesus who controls all things…
4. Overawed by a better majesty
Paul surrounded by so-called pomp and power and peril is marked by grace, commands respect, speaks with boldness, is not over-awed by the majesty that confronts him.
Why? It is because he had been overawed by the ultimate majesty.
Pomp = fantasy.
Festus might have the power. Agrippa might have the pomp, but Christ is King, and he tells us all about it … in the next chapter.