After several months, we conclude our Bible readings in the Acts of the Apostles this month.
Sunday 1st February
Here we have the official letter from the Commander of the Guard, Claudius Lysias, to Governor Felix. The letter is somewhat ‘economical with the truth.’ It gives the impression that the Commander rushed to the rescue when Paul was in danger and saved him from his enemies. The truth is that he was about to have Paul flogged, on no charge (Acts 22:24-25), when he discovered that Paul was a Roman citizen. One of the basic sins of humanity is to tell a story in such a way as to put ourselves in the best light, whatever the truth might be. This goes right back to the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve told their respective stories of what had happened (Genesis 3). Do we always tell the truth? Or do we sometimes manipulate a story so that we look better?
Monday 2nd February
Five days after Paul had been taken under armed guard to Caesarea, the trial begins. Picture the scene in court: in the judge’s chair we have Felix, the Governor of the Roman province of Caesarea. Then on the prosecution side we have Ananias, the High Priest, assisted by the Jewish elders and by Tertullus, a lawyer. Finally, in the dock we have Paul, conducting his own defence. From that day until now, countless thousands of Christians have been put on trial for their faith. Even today, we read month after month of new cases, all over the world, some of them carrying the death penalty. Like Paul, most of these Christians simply want to live as Christians, with the freedom to share the Gospel. In many ways, the world is just as dangerous for Christians now as it was in Paul’s day.
Tuesday 3rd February
The Jews were the first to speak. They had a lawyer with them and he began by attempting to flatter the judge (verses 2-4). Then he laid out the case against Paul. There are three charges: First, Paul was a troublemaker who stirred up riots. This was a regular accusation against Christians both then and now. People like their religion to be docile and not disturbing! Second, Paul was a ringleader of the Nazarene sect. This was in itself a charge. For the Jews, simply to be a Christian was culpable. Third, Paul tried to desecrate the Temple. They were suggesting that they had arrested him in order to prevent desecration of the Temple, a very hard charge to prove. The prosecution concludes its case by making it clear that all the Jews agreed with these charges. These charges were weak, as Paul would soon demonstrate.
Wednesday 4th February
Paul steps up to make his defence and it is in three parts. First, he begins by rejecting charges one and three. He insists that he did not stir up riots and he did not desecrate the Temple (verses 10-13) and therefore these charges are invalid. Second, Paul admits charge two but insists that it is not against the Jewish faith to be a Christian, rather it is the fulfilment and completion of Jewish faith. Notice what he says here (verses 14-16): he fully accepts everything written in the Law and the Prophets (a convenient summary term for the Scriptures); he believes in the resurrection; and he has a clear conscience. In these three sentences, he points to the Bible, the Resurrection and the life of faith. Third, Paul underlines his complete innocence (verses 17-21).
Thursday 5th February
Today, we think about Governor Felix and what we can learn of him in this trial. What we learn about Felix in this chapter does not give much hope for a fair trial. On the positive side, he was ‘well acquainted with the Way’ (verse 22) and he gave Paul some freedom (verse 23). On the negative side, however, there are three things we learn about the character of Felix which are disturbing. First, he was an indecisive man. As we read in verse 23, he wanted to put off judgement until Claudius Lysias, the Commander of the Guard, arrived. Yet Lysias was the very person who had sent him to Felix for trial in the first place! Second, he was a dishonest man. We’re told in verse 26 that he met with Paul frequently, partially to discuss Christianity, but mainly because he was hoping to receive a bribe from Paul or his companions. Third, he was a partial and biased Judge. We’re told that he ignored justice in order to do the Jews a favour (verse 27). In summary, Felix was weak, indecisive, greedy, dishonest and biased.
Friday 6th February
After the trial had concluded without a judgement, we read of a most interesting encounter. Paul met with Felix and his wife to discuss Christianity. If you had an opportunity to present the Gospel in such circumstances, I wonder what issues you would highlight. Paul concentrates his witness on four points: faith in Jesus Christ; righteousness (justification); self-control (Godly living); Judgement to come. It is very telling, however, that when he and his wife were discussing Christianity with Paul, Felix became afraid. The Gospel scared him, especially when Paul spoke about the judgement to come! It is right, of course, that Felix should have been afraid, as should everyone who knows the Gospel but who has not yet come to Christ for salvation.
Saturday 7th February
We read this chapter one more time in order to consider how we might best defend the Christian faith, as Paul did. How do we do this? First, we must pray; second, we must be ready to speak up in defence of our faith when talking to our families, friends, neighbours and colleagues; third, we must support those who are seeking to defend the faith in the corridors of power and influence, whether in government or in the universities or in public debate. We must protest when governments and others ride roughshod over our beliefs and we must demand a hearing in the public square. The best biblical advice on this subject is in 1 Peter 3:15-16: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.’ May God help us to defend the faith in this gracious and respectful manner.
Sunday 8th February
Chapter 24 ended with the words, ‘Felix was succeeded by Portius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favour to the Jews he left Paul in prison.’ (24:27). As today’s chapter opens, we find Festus beginning to take the matter in hand. Once again we see the wickedness of these Jews; they tried to get Paul moved to Jerusalem so they could ambush and kill him on the way. These were the spiritual leaders of the nation of Israel and yet they were prepared to arrange for the ambush and murder of an innocent man. Once again we see the weakness of a Roman Governor: Festus too, we read, wanted to do the Jews a favour (verse 9). Never was a man less likely to get a fair hearing and a fair trial. Everything was rigged against him from the beginning, wicked, implacable enemies and weak, corrupt Roman judges. Yet Paul was God’s servant and God is sovereign. The sinful behaviour of Jews and Governors could not stand against the Lord God. We should remember this whenever church or state seems to be exercising control in ways contrary to God’s revealed will in Scripture. Their time will come!
Monday 9th February
Paul appealed to Caesar, as was his right being a Roman citizen. This meant that he was entitled to be tried in Rome before the imperial court, but it seems as if Festus hoped to avoid this. Then he saw a way out of his difficulties. King Agrippa and his wife Bernice were due to arrive for a visit so Festus decided to leave judgement to Agrippa. Let him make the decision about Paul, which was going to be difficult either way. It was perhaps natural that Festus should ask Agrippa’s opinion since he was regarded by many as an expert on matters related to the Jewish law, Jewish customs and Jewish Scriptures. He was the great-grandson of the King Herod who tried to kill the baby Jesus.
Tuesday 10th February
There is one verse in this chapter which I believe to be of crucial importance. It is verse 19. In his description of Paul’s case to Agrippa, Festus says this of the Jews, ‘they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus whom Paul claimed was alive.’ Here, almost in a throwaway sentence, is what our Christian faith is about: ‘A dead man named Jesus whom Paul claimed was alive.’ This is the very heart of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul tells us the consequences if there was no resurrection: If there was no resurrection, says Paul, then we are still in our sins and are unforgiven. Those who have already died are lost through all eternity and both our faith and our preaching are in vain. Paul also stresses the importance of the Resurrection in Romans 4:25: ‘He (Jesus) was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.’ To be placed in a right relationship with God, the resurrection is essential.
Thursday 12th February
In these verses, Festus fills Agrippa in on the background to the situation. This summary helps us to see what a disgraceful business it really was. Festus admits that Paul had not done anything deserving death and admits that although Paul is to be sent to Rome, he had nothing at all to put on the charge sheet. He says in verse 26: ‘But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write.’ How many times since then have false accusations and charges been brought against Christians, who had become a thorn in the flesh of the authorities? The Gospel is not a panacea, it divides, challenges and calls to repentance. It does not make easy listening for sinners.
Friday 13th February
In order to discover the meaning of the whole affair and to provide Festus with something to say in his letter to the Emperor, Agrippa calls Paul before him and invites him to speak. After a few gracious words of introduction (verses 2-3), Paul lays out the case for his defence. He begins by describing his background and general conduct, noting that he was a strict Pharisee. Then he makes his main point, namely, that God’s promise has now been fulfilled and Messiah has come. It is interesting to see how Paul shares the Gospel in different circumstances. In Acts 17 he was in Athens and spoke of the many idols and religions before speaking of God as Creator. Here, however, he is speaking to an expert in the Jewish religion and so he speaks about the promised coming of Messiah. The lesson here is that we must understand the people with whom we are sharing the Gospel, so as to make it relevant and challenging to them.
Saturday 14th February
In our passage today, Paul describes how he was originally very hostile to the Christian faith and indeed persecuted the Christian church. He then goes on to describe his conversion experience, on the road to Damascus. It is instructive to note that Paul tells this story of several occasions in his evangelism. One of the best ways to help people to understand and believe the Gospel, is to tell of our own experience. This may mean giving a testimony. Or it might mean speaking about a problem which kept us back from Christ and how God by his Holy Spirit overcame that problem and gave us the gift of new birth and new life. Either way, personal witness is a powerful tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit. When did you last share something of your personal faith?
Sunday 15th February
Paul continues his testimony before King Agrippa by describing everything that he had been doing since he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. The message he had been preaching everywhere since his conversion is summed up in verse 20: ‘I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.’ Paul describes Christian conversion in various ways but these words bring it down to the essentials. Sinners must turn away from one way of life and turn to God. This turning (called repentance), as Paul explains elsewhere, is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. On our own, we cannot repent but by the Spirit we can.
Monday 16th February
All of this was too much for Festus who interrupted and said, ‘You are out of your mind Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane.’ I wonder how many times since then a Christian has been accused of madness while trying to explain the gospel? Now I want you to take careful note of Paul’s reply because it is very important indeed: ‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied. ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable.’ The Christian faith, as far as Paul is concerned, is true and reasonable. For five hundred years western civilization has been built on this foundation. Now the secularists try to maintain civilization without the foundation on which it was based. No wonder it is collapsing all around us.
Tuesday 17th February
After this exchange between Festus and Paul as to whether or not Paul was mad and whether or not the Christian faith was true and reasonable, there followed an exchange between Paul and Agrippa (verses 26-29). Paul began to reason with Agrippa. We’re only given one line but it’s clear the way in which the argument was going to proceed: Paul was going to get Agrippa to admit that he believed the teaching of the Jewish prophets, then he was going to show him those places in the prophets where the future messiah is mentioned; then he was going to show that all of these references were fulfilled in Jesus. In other words he was going to reason on the basis of Scripture. But Agrippa was not prepared to go down this line. Perhaps he already felt out of his depth, perhaps there was a conviction that he was going to lose the argument, or perhaps he just felt it was above him to debate with a prisoner. In any case he cut Paul off in the middle of his argument and promptly left with his wife and various others. Was God convicting him?
Wednesday 18th February
We read the whole chapter today, so as to see the whole story and what a dramatic story it is! Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion and set out by boat for the long journey to Rome. On the journey, the weather turned bad and the place where they were anchored was not suitable for wintering. They really wanted to get to Crete. A decision had to be made and there were conflicting opinions. Paul told them not to sail because it would lead to shipwreck. The Pilot and the Owner of the vessel disagree. The centurion decided to take the advice of the owner and the pilot and ignore Paul’s advice. Now I travelled regularly by sea during my ministry in Mallaig and the Small Isles and if a decision had been needed as to whether the boat would sail, I would always trust the experts. The difference in our passage here is that Paul had received a word from the Lord. You see, the experts are not always right, indeed the majority is not always right. When God speaks, it does not matter how expert is the opposition, a word from God always has authority. The result was disaster. Very soon the boat was in real trouble. Paul had been right and the others had been wrong.
Thursday 19th February
Here we see the courage of Paul. When everyone was in panic he was calm. What they did not understand, until he told them, was the source of his courage. Notice what he says in verses 23-24: ‘Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul.”’ There we have the source of his courage: it came from the ‘God. Do you see the point? The courage was not his own. This is similar to what Paul says elsewhere, ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.’ Paul’s courage came from his God and from the fact that Christ was dwelling in his heart through faith. Christians throughout history have found courage in the same way. Think of Stephen as he faced martyrdom. Remember, courage is not the absence of fear. It is standing firm even in the face of great fear and great danger.
Friday 20th February
This is really an amazing story: here is a prisoner, on his way to Rome to face trial before Caesar but yet he is actively involved in the deliberations about what to do in this emergency, this crisis. Why should this be? The answer surely is that they recognised his dignity and his authority. Perhaps they did not believe in his God but they seemed to believe in Paul. He told the centurion what to do, he told everyone to eat so as to regain their strength and he promised that not one life would be lost. When the soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to prevent them escaping, the centurion refused, in order to save Paul’s life. In the event, all 276 people on the boat reached land safely. This story shows us that when God speaks through his servant, he keeps his Word.
Saturday 21st February
We read this chapter once more, this time to focus on the providence of God. The shipwreck described in this chapter was part of God’s plan. What from a human point of view was a disaster was in fact an act of God’s providence. This doctrine of the providence of God is very important. Jesus put it like this in Matthew 10:29-30: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.’ As Thomas Boston once said in a sermon: ‘God does not make man as the carpenter does the ship, which afterwards sails without him; but he rules and guides him, sitting at the helm, to direct and order…’ Or to put it in the words of the Larger Catechism Q.18: ‘What are God’s works of providence?’ Answer: God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory.’ We can trust in the providence of God.
Sunday 22nd February
These verses speak of a remarkable time in Malta, after the shipwreck. The people of Malta showed them ‘unusual kindness’ and later Publius showed them significant hospitality. This speaks well of the character of these islanders. In the passage we also see remarkable examples of God’s power. Paul was bitten by a snake and the people assumed he was a criminal deserving death but it did him no harm, and they assumed he was a god! He was neither, simply a man of God. Then there was another miracle, when he healed Publius’ father. From time to time God does miraculous things as testimony that Jesus Christ is truly his Son. We see this in the ministry of Jesus himself and in the ministry of the apostles. We also hear of such things when the Gospel moves into new territory and God graciously shows himself in great power.
Monday 23rd February
Paul stayed in Malta for three months and then set out on the last part of the journey to Rome. The details of the journey are given in verses 11-14. When they arrived in Rome, Paul was put under what we today would call house arrest. He was, however, free to evangelise. As was his pattern in evangelism, he began with the Jews. He called the Jewish leaders together and stated his case. Following this, a day was arranged for Paul to explain his position. He taught these Jews from morning to night from the Scriptures. Some were for him and some against. Paul notes that their refusal to believe was the fulfilment of prophecy. Then he declares that the Gospel will go to the Gentiles, the Jews having rejected it. This was God’s pattern: go to the chosen people first and only then to the Gentiles.
Tuesday 24th February
Today I want to draw your attention to the last two verses of the book: Acts 28:30-31: ‘For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Notice those words, ‘without hindrance.’ Despite all that has happened to him, despite the fact that he is a prisoner, despite the fact that he had made so many enemies among Jews and Romans alike, the Gospel was unhindered. This is a real testimony to the sovereign power of God. The Gospel goes on unhindered and so God does his work of bringing men and women to Christ. In our land the Gospel is unhindered. We are free to speak of Christ and call men and women to believe in him. That is a great privilege, one not shared by many Christians in other parts of the world. We ought not to take it for granted but instead should use these opportunities while they are still available to us.
Wednesday 25th February
In the four days left of the month, I want us to focus on four great themes which we can see throughout the Acts of the Apostles. The first theme is growth. From eleven disciples at the beginning of the book through to thousands at the end and millions today, growth is a key theme in this book. When Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 were saved. Later we read that the Lord added to their number day by day. It seems clear that God intends his church to grow. So why are we not seeing growth today in this country? We must pray that God will build his church!
Thursday 26th February
The second theme is dedication. Faced with deprivation, imprisonment, beatings and death, these early Christians stood firm. They were dedicated to the task in hand. In this passage, as Paul says farewell to the Ephesian elders, he underlines his dedication, whatever might lie ahead. In verse 24 we read: ‘I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.’ Is there the same dedication among Christians today? Why do so many seem unwilling to take their part in the spread of the Gospel? Very few people today volunteer for the mission field. Many Christians even put their own comfort and pleasures before the call of Christ in the Great Commission. We must re-dedicate our lives to Christ.
Friday 27th February
The third theme is faith. What comes over very clearly as we read the Acts of the Apostles is a strong faith in God and in the power of God to bring salvation. In this passage Paul was stoned and left for dead but as soon as he recovered he went back into the city to preach. It was madness from a human point of view but he was a man of faith and believed that God would use him. Do we find such faith today? By contrast, what we often find today is an apathy and a depression which imagines that things are going to get worse and worse. Often we don’t even expect people to be converted to Christ. Among many ministers and elders in the Church of Scotland right now there is a deep pessimism about the future of the Gospel in our church and country. Yet God is the same yesterday, today and forever!
Saturday 28th February
The fourth and most obvious theme is evangelism. These early Christians were driven by a desire to tell others of Christ through preaching, teaching and witnessing. They had a message to tell and they told it with conviction and enthusiasm. In our story, Philip evangelises the Ethiopian using the Book of Isaiah. All of the apostles had a passion for the Gospel and a desire to see men and women saved. Today, by contrast, there is often a lack of enthusiasm for evangelism. Evangelism is regarded as a duty, rather than as the driving passion of our lives. It is seen as something we ought to do, rather than something we want to do. The Church today needs to recover enthusiasm for evangelism.