Friday, December 12, 2014

"Called to testify before kings and rulers … "

Day #350:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - December 13th

Scripture Reading:  Acts 23 - 24 …

He stood there, accused by the Jews of teaching things contrary to their law … the very law that he had been trained to teach and which he had been defending by persecuting those who believed in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.  This is the same man who in Acts 9 "went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:1-2).  This was the same Paul who had watched as Stephen was stoned in Acts 7, "giving approval to his death" (8:1).  Something had obviously changed and the rest of Acts 9 reveals that Paul (then Saul) had come face-to-face with Jesus.

Such is the transformation that takes place in every person born again by the Spirit of God.  It has been said, and it bears repeating, that if you are not willing to die for Jesus, you will never live for Him.  You see the truth is that you MUST die to self if you are ever to live with and for Jesus.  There can be only one Lord in your life and Jesus will not share the throne of your heart with your old nature of sin.  We know Paul as a bold witness for Jesus Christ, yet he would declare himself to be no different than you or I … he was a sinner, saved by grace!  So he stood now before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, made up of Pharisees and Sadducees, two different "branches" of Judaism in that day.  They were caught up with religion, determined to be obedient to the law, trying to earn the favor of the God of their fathers, failing to understand that the very Law they were teaching was intended by God to show them their sin and to point them to the One they had rejected:  Jesus, the Christ.

Now God was about to use Paul to seal their fate.  We sometimes forget that when God says His Word does not return empty, but accomplishes the purpose for which it is sent, part of that purpose is to confirm God's judgment as just.  When anyone hears the Gospel of Jesus Christ and refuses to believe, God's judgment is confirmed.  Paul had written to the Corinthians, "We are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved AND those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.  And who is equal to such a task/" (II Corinthians 2:15-16).  These men would never be able to say that they did not hear the Gospel.

Unafraid, Paul stares straight at them and says, "I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day" (23:1).  Could THEY say the same thing?  You and I exist FOR God - for no other purpose.  As Paul testifies, he realizes that from a human point-of-view his fate lies in the hands of these men, so he pits them against each other.  The Pharisees believed in a resurrection of the dead, but the Sadducees didn't, so Paul shouted out, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee.  I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead" (23:6).  Such a violent dispute broke out that the Roman commander in charge of Paul took him away.  That night the Lord testified to Paul, "Take courage.  As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome" (23:11).  God had more for Paul to do!

Yet here were the Jews in Jerusalem, some of the same men, perhaps, who had plotted against Jesus, who were now earnestly bent on trying to kill Paul, His witness.  Like Jesus, they made false accusations against him, and like Jesus he was declared innocent!  The commander in charge of Paul ordered two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to protect Paul on his journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea.  And he wrote a letter to Felix, the Governor there, saying, "I found the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment" (23:29).  So Paul was taken to Herod's palace and kept under guard until being brought before Felix.

The Jews came and accused Paul of being a "troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world.  He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect …" (24:5-6).  Incredibly, the Jews and their lawyer offered only false accusations against Paul, whose only "crime" was preaching the truth.  It was but a few years ago when I, along with the leaders of the congregation I serve, were called before a "court" of fellow pastors and elders - and their lawyer - and accused of breaking the vows we had made to "uphold the unity, purity and peace of the church."  This happened because we declared the truth that the Word of God is our only authority and that the "church," the denomination of which we were a part, was not upholding the authority of Scripture in all things.  Such assemblies seldom seek truth, but desire instead to defend their traditions and their allegiance to man-made institutions ...

In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus boldly declared, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).  Testifying to the truth of who Jesus is and what He did will always bring opposition in one form or another.  Paul would later write to Timothy, "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived" (II Timothy 3:12-13).  Such will be the destiny of true believers until the trumpet sounds and we meet Jesus in the air!!

As he made his defense, Paul explained, "They cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me.  However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect (and which Paul had called a sect before he met Jesus!).  I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked" (24:13-15).  Paul had come to understand, as the Spirit worked in him and gave him wisdom, that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament … that the Law and the Prophets pointed to HIM!

Jesus had spoken to the Jews, perhaps even to some of these same men, and had said to them, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39).  How many do the same today?  After His resurrection, Jesus met with His disciples and explained to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you:  Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44).  And before that He had spoken with the two men whom He met on the road to Emmaus, "'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?' … And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself" (Luke 24:25-27).

It is not that God's Word is not clear, it is that the sinful mind is blind to the truth!!  As Paul testified, Felix and others listened … but they did not hear.   When Isaiah had said, "Here am I.  Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8), God had said, "Go and tell this people:  'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving'" (Isaiah 6:9).  Have you ever wondered why some people can hear the Gospel of Jesus over and over and over again and never respond?  They have not been given ears to hear!  We must continually pray that God would open the blind eyes and unlock the deaf ears.  Several days later, Felix sent for Paul and "listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.  As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, 'That's enough for now.  You may leave.  When I find it convenient, I will send for you'" (24:24-25).

Oh, how many today respond in similar ways.  They try to make us be quiet because the truth makes them afraid and uncomfortable.  They want to be "religious," but not to the "extreme."  They want to believe that God loves everybody, that He will forgive everybody, that faith in Jesus isn't necessary to be saved, that maybe there isn't even anything to be saved FROM!  But then, what about the cross?  What really happened there?  Paul knew what happened there!  "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (II Corinthians 5:21).  What we could not do, because we are sinful by nature, Jesus did for us.  He took our place, He paid our debt, He died for us that we who believe might live for Him.

The tragedy of the human race goes beyond the consequences of sin that we see all around us … the sickness, disease and death that plague mankind … the endless conflict and wars that exist in our homes in our nations and in the world.  Greater than the horror of all these things is the spiritual blindness that causes people to reject God's offer of grace and forgiveness through faith in Jesus.  What about those who have never heard?  The Gospel began in Jerusalem and has gone out through all the world.  Some have cursed their children, grandchildren and all their descendants for a thousand generations because of their unbelief.  They are, as Paul wrote in Romans 1:20, "without excuse." 

If you are reading this, I pray that you know the truth and that through faith in Jesus Christ you HAVE eternal life, that His Spirit lives within you and your heart warms out of love for God, for you know that Jesus is your Savior and your Lord.  And if not … if you have heard the message, but have foolishly resisted God's call to die to self in order to truly LIVE in Christ, I pray that His Spirit may even now prick your heart and produce the transformation in you that He did in Paul as he came face-to-face with Jesus, who is the Way and the Truth and the Life!

All of us who know Jesus are called to testify … whether to kings and rulers … or to our family and friends, or our neighbor or classmate or co-worker.  God has not left Himself without a witness and today, at this moment, the task has fallen to us.  This is our time!  May you and I use our time wisely as the days grow shorter and darker.  His glorious light will soon shine in all its brilliance and until then, "You are the light of the world!"

"Father in heaven, You have enlightened my heart and mind through Your Word and Spirit and have drawn me to Yourself through faith in Jesus.  My life is Yours!!  Give me a holy boldness to stand before men and to testify of Jesus Christ.  Give me wisdom to know the truth as I study Your Word and to desire above all else to be Your witness as I live in this world for Your glory.  When I am weak, make me strong, for You are my Rock and my Redeemer!  In Jesus' name, Amen"

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