Prayer and Jealousy; or Getting What You Ask For

This morning I began reading A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller (I picked the book up a couple of weeks ago when, after an initial blast of great recommendations from guys like Tim Keller and David Powlison, it ended up on most of the top-ten book lists from 2009). Toward the end of chapter two, Miller tells the following story:
I was walking to the train station after work, and without realizing it, I began comparing the mission I worked for with another mission. It dawned on me that I was jealous, trying to make a name for myself at the expense of someone else. My jealousy surprised me. It was not the first time I’d been jealous about this, just the first time I’d named it.

As I continued to walk, I thought, This is ridiculous, being jealous, competing in my heart with other Christians when we are all involved in the same task. So before I got to the train I prayed, quietly giving my work to Jesus. I remember thinking he might actually take it.
A few pages later, I finished chapter two and began praying. One of my requests was that God would begin exposing in my own heart how pride—the desire to make a name for myself—was driving my desire for ministry and to replace that wrong, self-centered motivation with real, gospel-motivation.

I hadn’t finished praying when my phone rang. It was my wife, so rather than let it go to voicemail I answered. She shared briefly about a difficult situation she’d walked into that morning at work and then brought up a new church she’d just heard about in Charlotte, NC.

Someone had posted a quote on her work’s online message-board, something about how real joy isn’t dependent on what happens to you but what Christ is doing through you for others. She liked the quote so much that she tracked down its author online. His name was Steve Furtick.

The story of Furtick’s church——is an amazing one. Their web-site describes it like this:
Elevation was founded on the faith of 8 families who risked everything - sold houses, quit jobs and moved to Charlotte believing that God would turn this city upside down for his glory through the local church. That risk has resulted in a remarkable return.

At the three-year mark, we've grown to more than 5,000 in weekly attendance among our three locations. Since our launch we've seen more than 6,200 people receive Christ. For the past three years, our church was named one of the “10 fastest growing churches in America” by Outreach Magazine.
My wife’s thinking went something like this: Furtick’s under 30. I’m under 30. Furtick recently launched an exciting new ministry aimed at young adults and families. I’m involved in launching a new ministry—re:Generātion—aimed at reaching young adults and families. Furtick’s project was wildly successful for the kingdom. I should be encouraged to expect wildly successful things for the kingdom as well.

My thinking, on the other hand, went more like this: Furtick’s under 30. I’m under 30. Furtick recently launched an exciting new ministry aimed at young adults and families. I’m involved in launching a new ministry—re:Generātion—aimed at reaching young adults and families. Furtick’s project was wildly successful for the kingdom. My project will not be wildly successful because I’m not Furtick. Far from being encouraged, I was intimidated. I was jealous. I felt inadequate, unprepared, ill-equipped. I feared failure.

I knew my wife meant well, so I tried my best to hide how I really felt. A minute after I hung up the phone the irony of it hit me—by “irony,” of course, I mean the kind, exposing, humbling providence of a wise, loving, sovereign God. Here I was praying that God would expose my heart for what it is and that’s exactly, not a moment later, what he does. Prayer is a dangerous, uncomfortable and sometimes an embarrassing thing. As Eugene Peterson warns:
Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back.

Mercy Sweetens

Dave Harvey, When Sinners Say “I Do”
Mercy is a unique, marvelous, exceptional word. God’s mercy means his kindness, patience, and forgiveness toward us. It is his compassionate willingness to suffer for and with sinners for their ultimate good (79).

Do you know God as a God of mercy? Do you see your spouse as God sees him or her—through the eyes of mercy?

If your answer to either question is no, it is unlikely that your marriage is sweet. Mercy sweetens marriage. Where it is absent, two people flog one another over everything from failure to fix the faucet to phone bills. But where it is present, marriage grows sweeter and more delightful, even in the face of challenges, setbacks, and the persistent effects of our remaining sin (80).
Aaron Orendorff
Father, as you are merciful, so I pray that I too would be merciful.
Give me, I ask, a profound and heartfelt sense of your own tender, redeeming mercy that by experiencing mercy I may become merciful.
Sweeten my marriage with mercy, make me merciful toward my wife: soft, forgiving, patient, willing to “bear with” whatever petty grievances and personal offenses I might face (to bear with them in silence without bitterness or record-keeping) for her good and ultimately for her beauty.

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“. . . in his end is our beginning.”

Acts 28:23, 30-31
When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. . . . He 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 with all boldness and without hindrance.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[T]he real hero of the whole book is of course the Jesus who was enthroned as the world’s Lord at the beginning, and is now proclaimed, at the end, “openly and unhindered,” that is with all “boldness” . . . and with nobody stopping him. And here, for once, Luke gives a full “Pauline” title to Jesus: “the Lord Jesus, the Messiah.” King of the Jews; Lord of the World: Jesus of Nazareth, continuing to do and to teach, continuing to announce the kingdom of God which has been decisively inaugurated on earth as it is in heaven. . . . [T]his is a drama in which we ourselves have been called to belong to the cast. The journey is ours, the trials and vindications are ours, the sovereign presence of Jesus is ours, the story is ours to pick up and carry on. Luke’s writing, like Paul’s journey, has reached its end, but in his end is our beginning (248-249).

Meeting Outside of Rome

Acts 28:14-15
There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.
Aaron Orendorff
The book of Acts, as chapter 1 tells us, is about all the things that Jesus—resurrected and ascended—continued to do and teach. For Luke, how Jesus continues his work, now that (physically speaking) he’s off the scene, is through two players: the Spirit and the church. Much of Acts, therefore, is comprised of “meeting scenes”—scenes of greeting, fellowship and farewell.

Finally at his destination (one to which Luke has been building for several chapters now), Paul is enveloped into just such a scene. The church at Rome—to the surprise Paul’s captors—“hear of Paul’s arrival and come to see him, doing with him what citizens of a great city would do for a visiting emperor or a returning [king]: they come out some distance to meet him, to escort him with them into their city” (Wright, 239).

With this something striking happens: for all his visions and special revelations, for all the works of the Spirit done through, for and around him—the healings, the tongues, the miraculous escapes and amazing preservations of life—for all the certainty of knowing (from the lips of Jesus himself) “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11), for all of this and more, what finally grips Paul’s heart and erupts in praise and courage is the plain and ordinary sight of other weary Christians—God’s unimpressive though much-loved family—coming out to meet him on the road and walk the last few miles together.

No “Sidelines”

Acts 28:3-6
When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Luke simply cannot help, now, allowing the pattern of accusation-and-vindication to run through story after story. “This man could have been set free,” declares Agrippa. The storm does its worst but Paul and his companions are “saved.” The snake and “Justice” do their worst and Paul is hailed as a god (236).

The whole scene, of course, provides yet another example, before Italy itself is finally reached, of an official finding that Paul was a man to be trusted and valued, on top of the islanders finding that, despite an apparent accusation (via the snake) he was in fact innocent. This sets the narrative up for the final voyage and the theology for its full meaning. The sea and the snake have done their worst and are overcome. New creation is happening, and the powers of evil cannot stop it. Paul may arrive in Rome a more bedraggled figure than he would have liked, but the gospel which he brings is flourishing, and nobody can stop it (237).
Aaron Orendorff
However we may feel at times and whatever our particular situation my look like, the final chapters of Acts (among there other aims) serve to illustrate that in reality (that is, under the kind and sovereign providence of God) there are no “sidelines” in gospel-service: no “back-alleys,” no “wrong-ways,” no “holding-patterns,” no “missteps.” Reading from Acts 24 to Acts 28 only takes a few minutes, so it’s easy to forget that for Paul more than two years have passed since he was told by the Lord, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). Two years spent waiting in jail on account of petty, political posturing. Then, as if that weren’t discouraging enough, a sea-voyage that goes from bad, to worse, to catastrophic until finally, water-logged and half-drown, he arrives on a foreign shore only to be bit by a viper while trying to warm himself by the fire.

And yet, all of this is for a purpose. The venom doesn’t kill Paul and he is vindicated before the island’s natives. The father of the “chief man of the island, named Publius” (a Roman) is nearly dead and Paul heals him. News of this healing spreads and before you know it “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” Finally, as v. 10 concludes, “They [the people of the island] also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.”

However we may feel at times and whatever our particular situation my look like, there are no “sidelines” in gospel-service.

Through Waters to Salvation

Acts 27:42-44
The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely [literally, “thoroughly saved”] to land.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
All hope of being “saved” had been lost (verse 20). If the sailors had carried out their secret plan to slip away in the ship’s boat, they could none of them be “saved” (verse 31). Taking some food—involving the breaking of bread!—will be “for your salvation” (verse 34). The centurion wished to “save” Paul (verse 43). And the end result is that they all were “utterly saved” in coming to land (verse 44). Luke could hardly make it clearer. As in Philippi, yet again, the meaning “rescued” is clear, and the meaning “saved in a far, far deeper sense corresponds to Luke’s larger intention throughout this chapter. Through the waters to safety: that’s the Noah story, the Exodus story, the John-the-Baptist story, the Jesus story. The Paul story. Our story. . . . Through the cross, through the waters, to salvation. This is at the heart of Paul’s own understanding of Jesus’ death, and, I suggest, Luke’s as well (233-234).

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The Storm at Sea

Acts 27:18-26
Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo. And on the third day they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.

Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island.”
Aaron Orendorff
Being an apostle is hard, exhausting, draining work. When God decides to send a person somewhere—i.e., Paul to Rome—what we normally expect is for Him to send them first-class, or, at the very least, with speed and safety. But that simply isn’t the case.

Fourteen days at sea. “All hope” abandoned. No food. Jettisoned cargo. The tackle thrown overboard. Even the lifeboat cut loose. What is God’s point?

God’s point is this: There’s work to be done. Looking ahead to chapter 28, Paul is to be used mightily on the island of Malta as a witness to God’s preserving power before taking his stand in the presence of Caesar. In other words, the storm, with all its
fearful fury, is not ultimately opposed to God’s plan; it is his plan. Though it is impossible to see from within, the storm is God’s agent, accomplishing his will, testing his servant and driving forward his mission.

Three Arguments

Acts 26:24-27
And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice [shouted at the top of his voice], “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”

But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”
Aaron Orendorff
While Luke’s record of Paul’s defense against Festus’ accusation is certainly a condensed summary of the apostle’s actual speech and not an exact replication, three substantial arguments may be identified. First, Paul’s message is intellectual coherent: “I am speaking true and rational words.” Literally: “words of truth and reasonableness (i.e., mental soundness).” Second, Paul’s message is historically reliable: “none of these things has escaped his [King Agrippa’s] notice, for this has not been done in a corner.” The events of the gospel are not private, spiritual events; they are public, historical events that can be verified in space and time. Third, Paul’s message is religiously consistent: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” Paul appeals, as his does throughout Acts, to the Jewish Scriptures to validate (for lack of a better word) the “religious” authenticity (i.e., the thoroughly Jewish pedigree) of the gospel.

Paul: A Light to the Gentiles

Acts 26:15-18
“And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’

“And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”
Aaron Orendorff
Paraphrasing Paul’s call, Jesus tells him: I have made you a “servant and witness” both to what you have just seen—that is, my post-resurrection glory, that I am who my followers say I am—and to what you will see in the future—which, again, is not going to be some abstract vision of God or revelatory lessons in theology, ethics or philosophy, but rather, revelations of Me.

Jesus, in other words—crucified and risen—is the person to whom Paul has become a servant and a witness. This commission by Christ is a call, therefore, to mission: “I am sending you.” The purpose of Paul’s mission is described in four parts: (1) to open their (the “Gentiles’”) eyes, so that (2) they may turn (that is, repent) from (2a) darkness to light and (2b) from the power of Satan to God, (3) in this way they will receive “forgiveness and sin,” and (4) a place in God’s family, described here as “those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

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Resurrection, Paul’s “Conversion” and the Promises Made to Abraham

Acts 26:6-8
Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense: . . . “And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[T]his passage is saying, at its heart, that though there was an obvious break between Sal of Tarsus prior to his conversion and Paul the apostle afterwards, there was a strong line of continuity making a bridge between the two. This is, in fact, where the language of “conversion” may be misleading because, as Paul himself would have put it, and indeed did put it frequently to anyone who would listen, at no point did he waver in his belief that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was and is the true God, the one and only creator God. He didn’t change Gods. From his point of view, he didn’t even, really, change religions. Rather, he followed (so he would have said) the one God, the creator, Abraham’s God, down the line he had always promised to lead his people, the line that would lead to resurrection (206).

His message about resurrection—(a) that it is what we were all waiting for, and (b) that is has happened, to our enormous surprise, in Jesus—is at the heart of his claim that this changes everything at the same moment as fulfilling everything. It is the changes, of course, which are the controversial bits, but Paul’s point would be that they are not changes for change’s sake, nor changes because there was something wrong with the old ways, but changes because God’s new world had arrived, fulfilling the promises to bless all nations through Abraham, and that in this new world it appeared that some things which Jews, himself included, had thought were fixed for ever had turned out to be, quite deliberately from God’s point of view, only temporary (207-208).

Points of Contention

Acts 25:19
And Festus said, . . . “Rather they [Paul’s accusers] had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
This is how the Christian faith appeared to one outsider, at least. Paul was not charged with the sort of crimes one might have imagined. Instead, it was a matter of disputes about the Jewish religion, “and about some dead man called Jesus whom Paul asserted was alive.”

There we have it: resurrection from the pagan viewpoint. At least it shows Festus had been listening; and it shows, too, how “resurrection” appeared. It wasn’t “about some dead man called Jesus who had gone to heaven and whom one might have a relationship.” It was about a dead man—no question in Festus’ mind—and about the fact that Paul said he was alive—no question of that either. And “alive” meant “alive,” bodily of course (202-203).
Aaron Orendorff
Throughout the book of Acts, Luke presents the contention between Judaism and the early followers of Jesus as regarding two interlocking points: first, the continuing validity of the Mosaic Law (and with it the role of both circumcision and the temple) and second the person of Jesus Christ (namely, did he or didn’t he rise from the dead?). In Paul we see a picture of how a positive answer to the second point—“Yes, in fact, Jesus did rise from the dead and is now reigning with power over the nations.”—deeply affects one’s answer to the first—“The role of the Mosaic Code is therefore fundamentally fulfilled.”

Providence and Initiative

Acts 25:10-12
But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar's tribunal, where I ought to be tried. 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. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Paul has been promised by God through his sense of vocation (19.21), and has been promised by Jesus through a special vision (23.11), that he would get to Rome. What Luke has now told us is that Paul himself has had to take responsibility, at one level, for making this happen.

This is an important point about the interaction between God’s purposes and our praying. Sometimes, when we pray and wait for God to act, part of the answer is that God is indeed going to act, but that he will do so through our taking proper human responsibility in the matter. It’s hard to tell in advance what the answer will be. There are times when it is “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (Exodus 14.14), and other times when it is “Be strong and very courageous, for you shall put this people in possession of the land I swore to give them” (Joshua 1.6). Discerning and discovering which applies in which case . . . is a major element in the discernment to which all Christians, and especially all Christian leaders, are called (199).

Paul and Felix

Acts 24:24-25
After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Paul seems to have exercised . . . a kind of fearful fascination: the twisted, crooked ruler found the straight talking extraordinary and even appealing but of course frightening as the same time. If what Paul was saying was true, his own life was a tangled mess indeed. Faith in the Messiah, Jesus, would mean coming to terms with justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, and on each of those scores Felix must have realized that he was, to say the least, doing rather badly. . . .

We must never forget that Acts is the book in which Luke descries all that Jesus continued to do and to teach (1.1). This is what that continuing ministry looks like, as the living Jesus once more confronts a Roman governor and puts him straight on matters of truth, justice and the kingdom of God (John 18.33—19.12) (193).

The Way, the Law and the Prophets

Acts 24:14-16
“But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
In other words, Paul is claiming the moral, theological and biblical high ground. For him, following Jesus is not an odd hobby that might lead him away from scripture and tradition, but it is the way, indeed the Way, by which the one true God has fulfilled all that the scriptures had said. Paul in other words, is claiming to be a loyal and faithful Jew. That was his boast throughout, that Jesus had not made him stop being true to his ancestral faith, but that Jesus had revealed who the God of Abraham had been all along and what he had been up to. . . . For Paul, the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah meant not that he was abandoning the faith of his ancestors but that he was penetrating to its very heart (187).

Where do you go for justice?

Acts 24:4-5
Tertullus [the spokesman] began to accuse him, saying . . . “We have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Only when we allow the weight of these charges, and their prima facie plausibility, do we face the real theological problem that has been looming up behind the rather stylized account of a typical first-century barrister [lawyer] making a sly speech to a typical first-century provincial governor. If this is how the authorities get at “truth,” so that they can do “justice,” is the world threatening to collapse into chaos after all? Would not Paul be better doing what many revolutionaries have done in many places and at many times—and what many people today assume will result from any attempt to “combine religions and politics”—namely, to deny the validity of the court and declare that he wouldn’t have anything to do with it, since obviously it wasn’t capable of bringing about God’s justice? . . . Or are more important principles [than mere pragmatism] at stake, principles such as we find in the thirteenth chapter of his own letter to Rome? And do those principles not flow directly from the deeply Jewish belief that the God with whom we have to do is the God of both creation and providence? (184)

Innocent . . .

Acts 23:25-29
And he [the Roman tribune] wrote a letter to this effect: “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
The heart of the letter . . . is the point which yet again Luke wants to emphasize. Paul was accused of things to with the Jewish law, but my judgment as a Roman official is that he deserves neither death nor imprisonment. Where have we heard that before? Oh, in Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, a variant of it in Ephesus. And we shall hear it again, more than once, before the story is out. Who is Luke really writing for? What is he trying to tell them? (178)
Aaron Orendorff
There is—as has already been pointed out in previous posts—great irony in the method of Paul’s escape from the plot in Jerusalem to kill him. Those whom he has for all intents and purposes avoided in his previous missionary journeys, except for the occasional (and always uncomfortable) brush—i.e., the Romans—now serve as his rescuers. Moreover, the Roman tribune even vindicates Paul from his Jewish accusers: “I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.” Luke’s inclusion of this brief letter, as Wright points out, is meant not only to provide the political rationale for Paul’s narrow escape but to also stress his innocence (at least from the Roman perspective) in the matter at hand. It is evidence, in other words, not only in the trial Paul has just entered but in the larger question Luke’s narrative is after: Is Paul a blasphemer of the law or is he truly a messenger sent from Jesus, Israel’s resurrected Messiah?

“scuppered by a little boy”

Acts 23:16, 19-21
Now the son of Paul's sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. . . . The tribune took [Paul’s nephew] by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[G]ranted that throughout history people have made plots against other people, and have often carried them out all too successfully, isn’t it interesting that on this occasion the plot which might so easily have done away with Paul once and for all was scuppered by a little boy? (172)

What we all want to know at this point is, of course, what did they all do next, once the plan was thwarted? . . . I imagine that few of them, if any starved. I imagine the high priest found a legal loophole to absolve them from their silly vow. Or maybe, since they were legal experts, they invented one themselves. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time. And—since part of the point of all this is that they were the ultra-orthodox legal experts, concerned above all for the honor of God and his law—there would be a nice irony in imagining them cautiously explaining to their own consciences how even that most solemn oath hadn’t quite meant what it said (173).

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The Road to Rome

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.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Once again, the moment of crisis becomes the moment of vision. . . . And the word this time is encouraging indeed, and provides a key turning-point in Luke’s plot. Paul is not, after all, to die in Jerusalem. His sense of vocation, to go to Rome, was genuine. He isn’t promised a comfortable ride. But he will get there, and must do there what he has done here: bear witness (170).
Aaron Orendorff
We can trace what Wright calls Paul’s “sense of vocation, to go to Rome” back to the apostle’s two-year stay in Ephesus during his third and final missionary journey. Acts 19:21 reports, “Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’” This same desire is expressed in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, most likely written from Corith just after he left Ephesus (Acts 20:2-3): “I always ask that somehow by God’s will I may at last succeed in coming to you” (Rom. 1:10).

There is a great, almost comical (were it not so painful), irony to way in which God provided for this desire. Bound by the tribune in Jerusalem, with his life in profound and increasing danger, God sets into motion a series of “lucky” events that will eventually end (as all roads do) in the great city. The encouragement in Acts 23:11 is aimed at fortifying Paul for the coming storms (both literally and figuratively) and to assure him that the resurrected Christ is also the reigning Christ whose will (in this case, Paul arriving in Rome alive and ready to preach) cannot be thwarted by opposition, whatever its shape or form, but will actually be propelled by it.

Playing the Rome Card

Acts 22:25-29
But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Aaron Orendorff
We have seen this sort of interaction once before: at the end of Acts 16, after Paul and Silas’ wrongful imprisonment in the Philippian jail. There Paul uses his Roman citizenship to extend his stay in Philippi by putting the city’s magistrates in an extremely uncomfortable position of their own political making. Here in Jerusalem he uses it in a way that, at first glance, seems to be about little more than saving his own skin . . . literally. Tracking the story out, however, we see that Paul’s protests set him on a course of speaking the truth to power that eventually ends in Roman itself.

Whether we attribute to Paul’s choice the big picture that eventually develops is beside the point. Paraphrasing Philippians 1:18, the lesson seems to be this: “. . . that in every way, even with political pretense, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”

“He should not be allowed to live.”

Acts 22:14-16
“And [Ananias] said [to me], ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’”
Acts 22:21-22
“And [Jesus] said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
If Paul thought this was a “defense,” he had another thing coming. They [the Jewish crowd] were going to show him otherwise. He was guilty, guilty as the Gentiles whose friend he had become, guilty as sin itself (159).

[T]hey will not see . . . that God is offering them all of that [righteousness, zeal and knowledge] and more: fulfillment of the covenant, the real and final “return from exile” promised in Deuteronomy 30, the gift of the law not just as a book to be studies but as the very beating of their own hearts, and, above all, the Messiah. The Messiah is the goal, the completion, the crown of it all, bringing to its destination the long, sad story of God’s people, taking upon himself all the anger, all the fear, all the bitterness of the centuries, and making an end of it for all except those who are now so identified with and by that anger that they dare not let it go for fear that they won’t know who they are anymore (160).

Loyal to Whom?

Acts 21:27-28, 32-34
When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” . . . [The Roman tribune] at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
The one note of clarity in the whole scene is the point Luke is making yet again. The mob is trying to kill Paul because of false charges to do with his disloyalty to the Jewish law and customs. And the Roman solder rescues him. Luke is not, as some have supposed, trying to suck up to Rome, saying that Romans always do the right thing while Jews always do the wrong thing. . . . No: Luke is trying to establish a pattern . . . . Give this man a chance and he will show you his innocence. Let cool-headed justice prevail over hot-tempered mobs, and Paul will be vindicated.

Luke is not just trying to make a general point, for a general readership, about Christians in general. He is making a specific point about Paul. Yes, wherever he goes there is a riot. But that is because he is being loyal to the true, if extraordinary and dangerous, purposes of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator God who will one day call the whole world to account. Every vindication of Paul is another advance signal of that eventual day (151).

re:Generātion/5(hundred) Hours

In January, New Life Church is planning to launch a new young adults ministry Sunday nights entitled re:Generātion. I’m incredibly excited to be a part of the leadership team in preparation. Here’s a copy of the promotional video Grant Blomdahl, Taylor Reavely and myself put together to preview the ministry along with a pre-launch project called 5(hundred) Hours: A Call to Prayer.

re:Generation/5(hundred) Hours Promotional Video from New Life Church on Vimeo.

A Complicated Situation

Acts 21:15, 18-22
After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. . . . On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God.

And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 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. What then is to be done?”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Speaking for a moment as a church leader, I take great comfort in Paul’s uncomfortable position. It’s where we often find ourselves. Zealots to the lefts of us, zealots to the right of us, zealots in front of us, volley and thunder their absolute and undoubted truths, while those of us who have to find a way through with real people who are struggling to live real lives in loyalty to the real Jesus know, but realize we simply cannot explain to such people, that things are more complicated than that. Not because we have made them complicated, or because the gospel itself isn’t clear, or because we are fatally compromised, but because real life in God’s world is complicated and the gospel must not only address that real life from a distance but must get down on its hands and knees alongside it and embrace it right there with the love of God (146-147).