December last year saw racial tensions boil over on Cronulla beaches. Proud Aussies reacted angrily to the behaviour of “youths of Middle Eastern appearance”. Then gangs from ethnic areas of Sydney started random violent pay-backs. And Cronulla businesses are still recovering.
Waxheads vs Wogs. Aussies vs Lebs.
And in his Australia Day speech a few weeks later John Howard called on Australians to exercise greater racial TOLERANCE in the wake of the Sydney beach riots.
“The strength of a CULTURALLY DIVERSE COMMUNITY, united by an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, is one of our greatest achievements and one of our greatest national assets,”
“Some have questioned my optimism, especially in the wake of the in Sydney earlier this summer. These events brought shame on all involved. Australians, whatever their background, deserve to be treated with TOLERANCE and with RESPECT.”
And I’ll agree. I think, in general, Aussies are pretty good at giving people a fair go. And that they’d be able to teach these rioting Jews in our Bible reading/ a thing or two about tolerance.
But it all depends on your definition of TOLERANCE. For many people in Australia, tolerance seems to mean something like agreeing that everyone is somehow RIGHT. That all religions, or points of view, are TRUE and VALID. And that you’re not allowed to DISAGREE. It’s politically incorrect to suggest someone is WRONG. And if you DISAGREE with them/ you’re INTOLERANT.
And so they’ll say things like “It’s okay for you to believe what you want to believe. I’ve got my beliefs. We’re both RIGHT. And everything’s good.”
But that’s just NONSENSE. It’s post-modern mumbo-jumbo. You only have to scratch the surface to realize that many religions are DIRECTLY CONTRADICTORY. ONE has to be WRONG for one to be RIGHT. Or perhaps BOTH are wrong. But it’s not possible for BOTH to be right.
That’s not TOLERANCE. Instead, listen to THIS definition of tolerance by Paul Copan in his book “True for You, But not for Me”, “Contrary to popular definitions, TRUE tolerance means ‘PUTTING UP WITH ERROR’ – not ‘BEING ACCEPTING OF ALL VIEWS’…It is BECAUSE real differences exist between people that tolerance becomes necessary and virtuous.”
Tolerance means you can DISAGREE with someone. You think they’re wrong and you’re right. And vice-versa. And what’s more, tolerance allows you to try to CONVINCE that person of YOUR opinion. You CARE ENOUGH ABOUT THEM that you want THEM to be right TOO.
You can disagree STRONGLY. But you still respect the person, and the RIGHT of the person to hold their opinion. THAT’S TOLERANCE.
Tolerance is listening to your Muslim neighbour as they explain Islam to you, and as you explain Christianity to THEM. And still getting on.
Tolerance is maintaining your friendship with your non-Christian workmate – even though their lifestyle and behaviour is the complete opposite of yours. Trying to show by word and action that Jesus has made a difference for the best. That, rather than MISSING OUT on life, Christians expect a BETTER LIFE.
Tolerance is inviting your friend and his partner over for dinner. Listening to their point of view, and then trying to explain YOURS.
To explain that you USED to think ONE thing. But that NOW you know THE TRUTH. Once you were WRONG. But now you’re RIGHT.
It’s the situation Paul’s in. Paul was WRONG. He was wrong about ACCESS to GOD. About how SINFUL PEOPLE can approach a HOLY GOD. About how they can PLEASE him. He thought it was all about law-keeping – about the temple and about sacrifices and food laws and circumcision.
And that meant he was wrong about THE GENTILES. But more important – he was wrong ABOUT JESUS.
And as he comes to Jerusalem. And the worst case scenario begins to unfold. Just like the prophet Agabus said it would. The Jews DISAGREE with Paul. They think just what Paul USED TO think. And they start a riot that probably looked a lot like the Cronulla riots. He’s disrespecting their culture. Teaching Jews to stop obeying the law. Desecrating the temple. Welcoming unclean Gentiles. Or so they think. And they react violently. They throw him out of the temple. And they’re ready to tear him limb from limb.
Then Paul stands up and declares that he was WRONG. And they need to CHANGE. He USED to think just like THEY did. In fact, he was at the EXTREME end of their position. But something happened that turned him around. And pointed him in the other direction.
And now, his life is dedicated to convincing OTHERS AS WELL. Turning OTHER wrong people around. And pointing them to JESUS. Which some might say is INTOLERANT.
But in a way, it’s the ULTIMATE action of RESPECT. Of TOLERANCE. Because he’s willing to risk everything so that these people might hear CRUCIAL NEWS – news that’s a matter of life and .
If he DIDN’T care. He wouldn’t bother. He’d just maintain the status quo. Keep the peace. Because his news didn’t matter ENOUGH to rock the boat.
Do YOU care enough about your neighbours, workmates, friends, team mates and family to rock the boat?
Let’s have a look at how the situation got to where it did. And what’s SO IMPORTANT that Paul’s willing to risk his life to convince people of.
1. Paul and the Gentile brothers
We’re looking at Ch 21 v 17. But if you cast your eye over the previous section, you’ll see Paul with his Gentile brothers. He’s traveled through Europe and Africa, picking up Gentile Christian co-workers as he goes. From all sorts of different backgrounds. But all UNITED in telling the world about King Jesus.
And in v15 we see them all arriving in Jerusalem, with their collection for their Jewish Christian brothers.
2. Paul and the Jewish brothers
Who Paul meets up with in v17.
17 When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 When they heard this, they praised God.
Jews and non-Jews. Brothers in Christ. All rejoicing at how God had brought people everywhere into his family through faith in Jesus.
But they can see A PROBLEM. That’s the second half of v20. Because even though thousands of the brothers are now Christians, they’re still good Jews. Still doing all the things that show their Jewish culture. Going to temple. Keeping the food laws. Circumcising their kids. Keeping the festivals. Even offering sacrifices.
And they’ve heard that Paul’s telling JEWS around the world to STOP BEING JEWISH. Which is not it at all. Paul is saying to WHOEVER will listen “Whether you eat certain foods, or celebrate certain days doesn’t matter at all. Do it, or DON’T do it. It makes no difference. Because your ACCESS TO GOD doesn’t depend on THAT, but on Jesus”.
And so, Paul’s willing to be a Jew to Jews and a Gentile to Gentiles. To wash his hands and not eat pork when he’s in JERUSALEM. And to eat a bacon and cream tortellini when he’s in CORINTH.
Because external things don’t matter.
And so, he goes along with the plan to offer a sacrifice at the temple, along with some other Jewish Christians – being a Jew for the sake of Jews. To REASSURE them.
3. Paul and the Jews
But it’s at the temple that he gets into trouble. He meets up with some old enemies. V27. Jews from Ephesus. Who got to know Paul a few years earlier when he was based there.
And they’re no friendlier towards him now than before. There’s intolerance for PAUL. And intolerance for GENTILES. Look at v27.
27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our PEOPLE and our LAW and THIS PLACE. And besides, he has brought GREEKS into the temple area and DEFILED this holy place.” 29(They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.)
The ironic thing/ is that Paul’s in the temple for a PURIFICATION rite. But they’re accusing him of POLLUTING the temple. By bringing in an unclean Gentile.
You see, the one thing that would bring the swift sentence of was being a GENTILE and entering the temple. There were signs on the walls around the temple that said “No foreigner may enter within the barricade which surrounds the temple and enclosure. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing ”.
And there’s a riot. And they drag Paul out of the temple. And, v30, the temple gates are SLAMMED SHUT. Just like they’ve shut their EARS to the good news of Jesus. And shut their EYES to what God’s doing among the Gentiles.
And the REALLY sad thing. Is that it should have been a day for celebration. But there’s anger and rage instead.
Because what’s happening here is something that their Old Testament scriptures said would happen.
Let me remind you of that. I want to have a look with you back to the prophet Isaiah. Right at the end. Isaiah 66 (p533). As Isaiah looks ahead to what God’s planning.
A passage where God says, “Look forward to the time when I’m going to come and gather ALL NATIONS AND TONGUES. And they’ll come and see my glory”. Isaiah 66 Verse 19.
“I will set a sign among them, and I’ll send some of those who survive to the nations – to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lidians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece – where Paul’s just come from – and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations. And THEY WILL BRING ALL YOUR BROTHERS FROM ALL THE NATIONS TO MY HOLY MOUNTAIN IN JERUSALEM AS AN OFFERING TO THE LORD.” And he goes on to say, they’ll bring them, my messengers will bring these Gentiles like the Israelites bring their grain offerings to the temple. And verse 21, I’ll select some of them also to be Priests and Levites. To be among my holy people.
Now let me run that by you again. And ask yourself, if you’re a Jew, what does Isaiah say you should be expecting? What should you be looking forward to?
You should be expecting a time when the glory of your God isn’t something that’s only seen by the Jews. But that it’s going to to the nations. God’s going to set a sign among them, verse 19; to call them in.
You should be expecting people like the Lydians. They used to be called that. A bit later on they’re called Ephesians. To come pouring in to Jerusalem to pay tribute at the temple. And they’ll be counted among the people of God.
Which you’d think would be something to celebrate. Wouldn’t you? The bigger the party, the better. The more the merrier!
And if you were part of that, if you were actually doing it, you’d reckon when you GOT to Jerusalem, there’d be some sort of celebration. A welcome home party.
Well, that’s exactly what Paul’s been doing. He’s been out to the nations; telling them about the glory of God. The great sign that’s gone out all over the world is the sign of the cross of Jesus. His . And resurrection.
And now here’s Paul back at Jerusalem. And he’s brought some of the Gentiles with him. And they’ve even brought a tribute – a huge pile of money Paul’s been collecting from the Gentiles for the believing Jews in Jerusalem, because there’s a famine there. First century Farmhand Appeal.
And so everything Isaiah said/ is happening. Gentiles pouring into Jerusalem to pay tribute. To the God of Israel. Which you’d have to think is something worth celebrating.
But for these intolerant, and blind, Jews. They can’t see things God’s way at all. All they can see is someone UPSETTING THEIR SYSTEM. Doing things differently.
Do you realize God wants the same things for THIS CHURCH? That God wants ALL SORTS of people in his family? People who LOOK different to us. Who SPEAK differently. Or DRESS differently. He wants people who are inconvenient, and time-consuming, and hard to get along with, or hard to have a conversation with. God wants people who are noisy or smelly. Or who don’t see things the way WE do. Or DO things the way we do. Or enjoy the same THINGS we do.
God wants ALL people/ EVERYWHERE to worship him.
And when we’re tempted to think that maybe church would just be EASIER if things stayed the same. Or if we DIDN’T get any bigger. If the locals from Doonside or from Woodcroft DIDN’T come to church. If we just stayed small and comfortable. Then our view of the world is just as blinkered – just as far from God’s view – as the Jews giving Paul a hard time.
They should have been throwing A PARTY for Paul. But instead they’d rather throw STONES at him. And Paul barely escapes. But thanks to the Roman soldiers he makes it out alive. And gets the opportunity to stand up in front of the crowd. And give his defense speech.
4. Paul and Jesus
And it’s a speech that’s focused on the MOST FASCINATING PERSON PAUL’S EVER MET. It’s a speech about Paul and Jesus.
It’s a question you hear when someone’s being interviewed. Michael Parkinson or Andrew Denton. “Who’s the most FASCINATING person you’ve ever met?” It’s got to do with influence, or charisma, or personality, or achievements.
And they might answer Nelson Mandela, or Bono, or Bill Clinton, or Fidel Castro, or the Dalai Lama.
But for Paul, the answer is obvious. It’s Jesus. Because he’s the one who’s turned Paul’s world around. Look at what Paul USED to be like. V3
3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was JUST AS ZEALOUS FOR GOD AS ANY OF YOU ARE TODAY. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their , arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison,
But then something happened – or rather, someONE – who showed him how WRONG he was. V6
6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ 8 “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.
Paul thought Jesus was in the ground. That the Christians had been wrong. That God was pleased whenever he arrested one of these blasphemers. But in that one meeting, Paul discovered that all his ideas were upside-down. Jesus really WAS alive. He really WAS God’s Messiah. And that Paul’s efforts at arresting Christians were harming JESUS HIMSELF. And fighting AGAINTS God’s purposes.
And Paul’s immediately transferred his allegiance. Changed sides. From PERSECUTING Jesus. To SERVING him. V10. “What shall I do, Lord?”
It’s a fairly bold position to take. Admitting that you used to be WRONG. Running solidly in the OTHER DIRECTION. But that now you’ve seen the error of your ways.
Men don’t like doing it when they’re lost.
But that’s what Paul does.
And so, he ends up in Damascus. At the house of Ananias. Where he’s given his orders from his new commanding officer. His new rules of engagement. V14
14 “Then he said: ‘The God of our fathers has CHOSEN YOU to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 You will be his WITNESS to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
Chosen by God himself. To be a witness to Jesus. Then some time later, Paul gets the orders CLARIFIED by Jesus HIMSELF. V17
17 “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ he said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’
Which Paul finds a little difficult to believe. He thought his past reputation would have earned him a hearing. V19
19 “‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20 And when the of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were him.’ 21 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'”
And as the Jews hear Paul say THESE words, it’s the final straw. Because they want to keep God all to themselves. To remain a special people.
But that was never God’s intention. His plan was ALWAYS for Jesus to be the WORLDWIDE king. To whom people from EVERY nation and language would bow.
Which is GREAT NEWS for US. That WE can be part of God’s people TOO. And receive his PROMISES. And his GIFTS. His fatherhood, his forgiveness, his inheritance. Peace, hope, love, purpose. The Holy Spirit, the Bible.
Jesus is RIGHT. Every other way is WRONG. A life following him IS the best life there is. There’s nothing in our message to be APOLOGETIC about. Or to be ASHAMED of.
We SHOW love and tolerance for the people we meet by speaking the truth to them in love. Always being willing give an account of the hope that’s in us.
Listen to how Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians. He wrote these words a of years later when he was under house arrest in Rome. Col 4:3-6
Pray for us – that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders, make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone”.