Born a Citizen

Acts 22:22 - 23:11

Surely Paul must have played the conversation over and over in his mind – that day when Ananias had arrived at the house on Straight Street and announced what the Lord had planned for his life – Acts 9:15-16 “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
I’m sure there were times when he thought to himself, “What in the world am I doing here?!” But the fact is, Paul knew exactly why he was there – he was convinced it was where God wanted him and needed him. And if it required his suffering or even his death, then he was willing to go wherever that might lead him.

In Acts 22, we’re still with Paul on the steps leading up to the Roman barracks as he addresses the mob of rioters who were going to kill him. Paul had momentarily calmed them with the story of his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus – of his change of heart and life. But then just as quickly the crowd erupts as he relates God’s commission for his life – vs. 21 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ” It is as if he throws a match on an open tank of gasoline, “The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air…” (vss. 22-23).

Once again, the Roman commander has to step in and rescue Paul – and he hasn’t really gotten to the bottom of this matter at all. He resorts to the reliable Roman standard – torture – not to get information, but to soften up the witness. (Remember, Paul will remind the Corinthians that 5 times he received the 40 lashes minus one, 3 times beaten with rods.)

Now, this interrogation is a fascinating little vignette illustrating the importance of Roman citizenship in the ancient world. They are about to inflict on Paul a painful, crippling, sometimes life-threatening punishment, and he calmly asks, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”” Suddenly a look of panic comes over the centurion’s face and he runs to report to the commander, who asks, “Are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes, I am,” he answered. Then the commander said, “I had to pay a big price for my citizenship.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.”

At that point everyone backs off and tries to figure out how to get out of this dilemma. You see, a Roman citizen was exempt, not just from examination by torture, but even from false imprisonment. Roman citizenship was highly prized – a privileged status. The emperor would confer citizenship on someone because of high social or governmental standing – it could be awarded for exceptional service to Rome – or it could be purchased with a bribe to some imperial administrator. For Paul it was a birthright – his parents were Roman citizens.

For Paul, Roman citizenship wasn’t some ticket into high society – it didn’t give him prestige or power or leverage. His Roman citizenship opened doors and created opportunities. It facilitated his release – it gave him certain rights which furthered the gospel’s advance. He didn’t wear it as a badge, but used it as a key.

The interrogation is suddenly transformed into a trial as the commander calls an emergency session of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish supreme court to deal with this man he didn’t know how to handle. Paul now stands before a hostile audience filled with people who would love to see him eliminated.

Pharisees have taken a bad rap – and there’s no question it is deserved to a degree – it’s hard to forget the stinging condemnations of Jesus in Matthew 23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness…. You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (vss. 23-28,33).
• At the same time, don’t forget his words to his own disciples in the SoM, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). And that was saying a lot.
• Pharisees were the spiritual heirs of the prophets. Pharisaism was established in post-exilic Israel in about the 5th century B.C. to restore and preserve the scriptures and law. They were known for the accuracy of their interpretation and scrupulous adherence to the law. They were exclusive and elite, they were both admired and feared.
• When Paul said, “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee,” he was connecting, not with what they had become, but with what they intended to be – the people who had held firmly to the righteous life God had called them to live. They saw themselves as the remnant of God’s holy people – who had refused to be sucked into the ways of the world. They had stayed true when all the world was rushing headlong into hell.
• As so often happens to good intentions, their commitment to God’s righteousness had evolved into self-righteousness.
• These were Paul’s credentials before this august body before whom he was being tried. They were credentials of commitment and loyalty to something they cherished.

This trial no sooner gets started than Paul brings the proceedings to a screeching halt with one comment – “I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.”

Suddenly, the issue of Paul’s guilt is replaced by a political hot potato. You see, Pharisees were not the only members of the Sanhedrin. Another group, the Sadducees played an important role as well. Pharisees and Sadducees had long despised each other (the age old conflict between conservative vs. liberal. Pharisees were the spiritual, social and political conservatives. Sadducees were pragmatists – they had long ago given up a belief in the supernatural – they had adopted the Roman ways and culture and thinking – and they were political and powerful). This long-standing feud had been boiling just underneath the surface and Paul knew just the right button to push – and these dignified proceedings turn into a knock down drag out – vss. 9-10, “There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.”

What is most remarkable about these proceedings is the confidence of Paul as he stands before those who hold the keys to life and death. And yet, as we read these accounts we have to ask the same question we asked at the trial of Jesus: who is really in control? It’s not the Roman commander, and it’s not the Sanhedrin.

I hope we value our citizenship – as citizens of a nation in which we have tremendous opportunities which aren’t found everywhere and which open doors to great privileges. But while we value our citizenship for the opportunities it creates, our roots are sunk deep in another country. Our loyalties are with a heavenly ruler – our values are guided by a constitution found in God’s Word – our freedoms were won by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Paul writes to the Colossian church, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14).

It’s not just a transaction on paper – but real and radical – it makes a stark contrast with the citizenship of this world – Philippians 3:18-20 “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Because we are citizens of God’s kingdom we strive for righteousness – holiness in our thoughts and actions. We strive after the likeness of Christ in our lives. But we never take pride in our accomplishments, or create for ourselves the delusion of self-righteousness or self-dependence.

All his achievements, all his credentials – Paul counted as rubbish – Phil. 3:8-9 “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

He writes the Corinthians, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21) – not from some inherent, self-achieved righteousness – but because of the holiness of the one who took my sins upon himself.

Perhaps one thing that Luke accomplishes in this narrative in Acts 23 is to make a point the early church needed to make. Christianity had its greatest inroads among the poor and outcast – among slaves and the powerless. But Luke reminds us that Christianity also makes its appeal to those who rank among the best and brightest of society. Paul was inferior to no man – he had the credentials, he was a man of acclaim.

But Luke makes this point as well – that any man, lowly or great, rich or poor, sinner or righteous – stands before God in need – in need of a Savior who has paid the price of our salvation.

What would make a man like Paul, or for that matter, any man or woman face the kind of abuse and sufferings Paul faced? When we are knocked down, what makes us get back up and keep going?

It’s knowing that what you are doing matters. Discouragement has a way of crushing us and sucking the life out of us. And I think the Lord knows that. I think that is what prompted vs. 11 - “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage. As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.’”

Illustration – Derek Redmond
You know the saying, “No one remembers who came in second.” Every now and then, there’s an exception. You probably don’t remember who won the 400 meter race in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. But you very well may remember who came in last. Derek Redmond was the British record-holder and as the gun sounded he was out in front with the leaders. But halfway through the race the hamstring muscle in his right leg ripped and he fell to the track in excruciating pain. He tried to get up and hobble to the finish line, and it was then that something wonderful and touching happened. Derek’s father, Jim Redmond had been in the stands watching his son, and as his son went down, he leapt from his seat on the top row of the stadium, ran down the steps and climbed a 4 ½ foot concrete barricade and onto the track. He had to push past security, yelling “He’s my son!” and to his side. Jim said, “You don’t have to do this, you’ve got nothing to prove,” Derek said, “I’ve got to finish the race.” And his father said, “Well, we’ve started everything together. We’ll finish this together.” And taking his son’s arm over his shoulders, together they hobbled to the finish line to the cheers of 65,000 fans. 4 ½ minutes earlier, the winner had crossed the finish line, but let me tell you who the real winner was in that race.

We need someone who will come along beside us during those dark and difficult times and tell us, “Take courage.” We need to know that what we’re doing and who we are matters to God. Jesus told Paul, “Take courage, I am with you.” If you listen this morning, you’ll here Jesus tell you, “Take courage, I am with you.”