For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the sermon text this week is how Paul ends up in Roman custody. I note in the sermon how ironic it is that the advice of James and the other elders in Jerusalem precipitates the commotion that lands Paul in custody. Their advice was meant to calm nerves, not stoke a fire. And yet, the secular proverb “no good deed goes unpunished” has merit here. No matter how much Paul’s actions might have promoted the purity and peace of the church, Paul’s opponents were hyper aware of how “threatening” he was. It only took the suggestion of giving offense to the customs of Moses in order to light the tinder box.
And we should recognize that Paul is entirely innocent of both charges laid against him by the Jews from Asia. In the first place, they accuse Paul of “teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place” (Acts 21:28 ESV). Frankly, Timothy should be the most provoked of all people by this accusation because if it were true then he would have been circumcised as an adult for no reason! But it isn’t true. Paul did speak hard words to the Jewish people during his missionary journeys, but it was because of their unbelief that the Messiah is Jesus and not because of his own prejudice against them. In sum, he was actually unjustly accused when he was really faithfully serving the Lord and loving his own people.
In the second place, they accuse Paul of bringing Greeks into the temple and defiling the holy place (Acts 21:28). Luke mentions in the very next verse that this second accusation was purely an assumption. From their perspective, it probably seemed like a safe assumption given their opinion of Paul. But it was nevertheless patently false. Again, Timothy knew well that Paul had a strong desire to respect the law and the customs of Moses so that he might not give unnecessary offense to his own people.
Paul did say, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16-17 ESV), but he also said, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom 14:13 ESV). In sum, Paul was actually unjustly accused when he was really seeking to balance love for his brother with the freedom that we all have in Christ.
Taking the evaluation of these two accusations together, he was clearly unjustly accused and abused. But perhaps what really makes it a massive miscarriage of justice is that he wasn’t actively doing anything. He hadn’t gone into the temple to proclaim the gospel or to reason with the Jews. He was going about his life in the most peaceable way when he was ambushed by his opponents.
Why highlight how massive this miscarriage of justice is? Primarily I want to highlight how important it is to abandon yourself to the will of the Lord. While it is true that Paul knew that he would experience affliction in Jerusalem, the way that the Lord’s will worked out must have required serious faith from Paul and trust in God. I can even imagine Paul thinking, while he’s being beaten based on a false assumption, “Why have you worked out your will this way, O Lord?”
Indeed, it is only when we are wholly committed to the truth that the sovereign Lord is working all things out for his glory and for the good of those who love him that we can wrap our minds around such injustice. As Paul is processed through the civil and religious authorities of his day in the following passages, his only hope is that the will of the Lord is being done. It would not be profitable for him to attempt to fathom the depths of God’s reasons. Rather, having already placed his full faith and confidence in the Lord, he must continue to do so throughout his time in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome.
And so, I commend two particular verses of the hymn of response from this week’s worship to you:
But weaker yet that thought must prove to search thy great eternal plan,
thy sovereign counsels, born of love long ages ere the world began.
When doubts disturb my troubled breast, and all is dark as night to me,
here, as on solid rock, I rest—that so it seemeth good to thee.