Posted on February 24th, by Doug Ponder in Sermons. No Comments

This article is a recap of the sermon from Feb. 24, 2013. The Scripture passage for the sermon is Acts 21:15 – 22:29.

Into the Lion’s Den

Paul had to have seen it coming. All the signs were pointing in the same direction, confirming what was revealed by the Spirit through Agabus the prophet. Paul was headed for certain capture, imprisonment, and probably death.

But he went anyway. Never mind that the Jews had received false reports about him. Never mind that the messengers who brought those false reports had completely misunderstood Paul’s message. All that mattered, to the crowds anyway, was that the man who had “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) was standing right in front of them, in the Temple of all places.

“What nerve he’s got,” they must have thought. “Coming into the same holy Temple that he was blaspheming. And bringing Gentiles, too!”

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Of course, they hadn’t gotten Paul’s message quite right. Saying that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and the Temple wasn’t blaspheming either of them. Plus, they were dead wrong about Paul bringing Gentiles with him into the Temple (that was somebody else, not Paul). But it didn’t matter. To them, Paul was the ultimate traitor. He had “switched sides.” He was coaching a rival sports team. He was aiding the enemy. And they hated him for it. All because Paul dared to teach that Israel’s Messiah, Jesus, was going to rescue Gentiles too. “Rid the earth of such a fellow! He should not be allowed to live!” they jeered in unison (Acts 22:22).

They would have killed him, too, if it weren’t for the intervention of the Romans. Of course, the Romans weren’t interested in rescuing Paul from the hands of the mob. They just wanted to find a way to end the commotion. So they nabbed the apparent troublemaker and prepared to quiet him down the Roman way (which is a polite way of saying they prepared to torture him and beat him like professionals).

Good News for Everyone… Or Is It?

Once again we find ourselves wondering why Paul might have dared to say such a thing, especially if he suspected that it would lead to all this. Couldn’t he have contented himself to say that Jesus came to rescue Israel, without even mentioning the Gentiles?

Yes, well, he could have done so if his mission had been to save his own skin. But as it was, Jesus himself had handpicked Paul to tell the Gentiles, along with all the Jews who would listen, the good news that Israel’s Messiah had come to rescue everyone everywhere who looked to him in faith and called on him as Lord.

What could possibly be offensive about that? Why would anyone be bothered at the thought that the same Jesus who came to rescue them will rescue others, too? As it turns out, that same message is still offending people today.

The Real Problem at Hand

The message of the gospel is not the problem, of course; we are.

Some people are arrogant enough to think that they don’t need help, that they don’t need rescuing. “Thanks, but no thanks, God. I run the show here, and I do just fine without your input.” They might not say it in so many words, but that’s the basic refrain of many people’s lives. The tragedy is that God gives them over to what they long for: the total absence of his involvement in their life. At death, such people have no hope for life in the resurrection, since they have neither wanted nor asked for Jesus’ mercy. So God will leave them to themselves in an undying death, which the Scriptures call “hell.”

Others are more like the Jews in this passage. They’re convinced that Jesus only came to die for people like them. If we’re honest with ourselves, this is probably where many of us find our wayward hearts more often than we’d like. We tend to think that we are “in” and those kinds of people are “out,” because of something we have or something we’ve done. For the Jews in Paul’s day it was their adherence to the law, their practice of circumcision, and their reverence for the Temple. They believed that Jesus came to rescue them—and them only—because they were the ones who did what God wanted, earned his favor, and so on.

Worshiping a Jesus for All People

Of course, among Christians there is no major modern controversy over whether or not those who adhere to the law and worship at the Temple are the “in” crowd. Instead we tend to draw the lines in different ways.

Perhaps you think those who are “in,” those who are accepted by God and rescued by Jesus, are those who vote a certain way. All those who adhere to political affiliations that differ from yours will be cast into utter darkness! But  not you. You will be spared for your righteous voting record.

Or maybe you act as if Jesus only came to rescue certain races or ethnicities. You’d never say that, not publicly. But your life shows that you give preferential treatment to people who come from the same racial background as yourself, while you disregard, overlook, or mistreat people who are different than you. You think that you’re “in” and they’re “out.”

Or maybe you think you’re more righteous than others because of where you live, what kind of music you listen to, how you dress, what you eat, what you don’t eat, and so forth. It doesn’t matter what it is, people are always looking to draw new lines to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

But God has already drawn a line, and that line is Jesus. You’re “in” if you follow Jesus in faith and listen to what he says. You’re “out” if you refuse to acknowledge your need for the mercy and grace of Jesus.

Once you’re “in”, of course, your need for Jesus doesn’t diminish. It’s not like Jesus is just some get-out-of-hell-free card. He’s the risen Lord. He’s the Righteous One. He’s the forgiver of sins. He’s the rescuer of all. This means the church—those who are “in” because of Jesus—should look like and live like people who know their need for Jesus most of all. This replaces pride with humility, greed with generosity, and selfishness with love.

Finally, the church should know that if Jesus is for all people, then we must be for all people. This means putting aside our differences, our preferences, and sometimes, our rights, for the sake of others and in the name of Jesus. We must be people whose passion is not to extend the glory of our own names or organizations, but extend the glory of Jesus and all that he is doing in the world.

For Your Consideration

1. We have said that the message of Jesus is “offensive” to us on some level. What parts of this gospel message do you think are offensive? Do you think it’s good to be offended in some ways?

2. What kinds of “lines” are you tempted draw in your own life that include you in God’s favor and/or exclude others? What is Jesus saying to you today about these “lines” that you have drawn?

3. Do you realize your need for God’s grace and mercy? How does recognizing your need drive you back to Jesus?

Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.

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