Paul, the Lawyer, & His Legal Chess Game

As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
Acts 22:25 (NIV)

I am the youngest of four siblings. When you grow up with a number of siblings it doesn’t take long for a child to perceive and to learn how to manipulate the family system for one’s own gain or against a sibling rival. There is a classic  story in my family that my older brother, Tim, loves to tell about my sister, Jody, who was five years his junior and the only girl in our brood.

Tim shares that he and Jody would be sitting in the living room apart from one another and minding their own respective business. Suddenly, my sister yells out at the top of her lungs, “Mom! Tim’s HITTING ME!

Of course, mom comes running to protect the younger, female member of our family from her older, larger brother. Tim’s pleas of innocence would go unheeded and Jody would enjoy getting her brother in trouble. The two learned how to push one another’s buttons and did so throughout our growing up years.

In today’s chapter, Paul has  arrived in Jerusalem after being warned by both Jesus (in a vision) and prophetic believers that he is going to suffer if he goes there. Paul was raised in Jerusalem by the esteemed  religious leader, Gamaliel. He  was, himself, an up-and-coming expert in Jewish law  who was well-known among the religious leaders of Jerusalem. It was also well-known among the Hebrew religious elites that Paul threw it all away to become a believer of Jesus and had been stirring up trouble in Jewish synagogues throughout Judea, Asia  Minor, and Greece.

In the many times I’ve  journeyed  through the book of Acts, I’ve always thought of Paul as simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time and having circumstance conspire against him. As I read the account today it struck me that Paul knows exactly what he is doing. Like Jesus before him, Paul is the one driving the action. Paul is playing a grand chess game of his own choosing. He knows how his opponents are going to react to his moves, and he knows in his  own mind how he is going to counter their predictable response.

It’s lost on the casual 21st century reader what a huge deal it was for Paul to be a Roman citizen. He was born a citizen which means that a previous generation of his family were given Roman citizenship back in his hometown of Tarsus. Roman citizenship was a considerable luxury within the Roman Empire and many, like the commander in today’s chapter, had to pay exorbitant bribes to have their names (illegally) added to the list of citizens. As a  Roman citizen Paul had certain rights, and Paul was trained as a lawyer from childhood. He knew his way around the jots and tittles of legal arguments and issues.

When Paul’s presence finally stirs up a riotous crowd he waits until the crowd has grown to large numbers to ask the Roman centurion to let him address the crowd. He waited until he  had a maximum audience. Paul knew that his speech would result in a riot calling for his execution because he himself had led the same mob execution against Stephen. He knew this was going to happen just as knew that the Roman commander would be compelled to quell the riot and investigate what happened. Paul is taken into Roman custody and the local commander decides to torture this Jew for causing the riot.

What’s interesting is that Paul waited until the Centurion had him stretched out for flogging before asking, ““Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”  He could have  mentioned this before, but he waits until the last-minute because he knew that it was illegal to punish an accused  Roman citizen before they’ve been tried in the Roman legal system. He also knew that is was illegal to flog a Roman citizen (flogging was a nasty, bloody, painful form of torture from which any Roman citizen was exempt). Paul also knew that the Centurion who flogged a  Roman citizen, even by accident, could face execution. By waiting until the last moment, Paul gets a maximum reaction from his Roman captors and maximum deference (i.e. “Please, sir, don’t tell the governor I had you strung up for flogging. Can I get you anything?!“)

Paul also knows that with his appeal and claim of citizenship he has now officially entered the Roman legal system. There will be a trial and, as a Roman citizen, he has the right of appeal  all the way to Caesar himself. Paul the attorney has just ensured that, even if this game he’s playing ends up with his beheading (the preferential mode of execution for a Roman citizen, instead of crucifixion for non-citizens) his story, and the Message of Jesus, is going to become a matter of public record for the entire Roman Empire. He’s just taken his witness to a whole new level.

Checkmate.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways we humans learn to navigate our world, our systems, and our relationships. We rarely talk about the unseen ways we push buttons and leverage circumstances in our own chess games of getting siblings in trouble with mom or getting what we want from a spouse. So often these games are motivated by self-centered aims. Paul, however, is motivated to proclaim the Message of Jesus to the greatest number of people:

“I do know that it won’t be any picnic, for the Holy Spirit has let me know repeatedly and clearly that there are hard times and imprisonment ahead. But that matters little. What matters most to me is to finish what God started: the job the Master Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about this incredibly extravagant generosity of God.”     

Paul

One of the Things We Continually Get Wrong

Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Acts 21:13 (NIV)

I have a notebook in which I keep thoughts, notes, and ideas that come to me at odd times. In this notebook I have a series of messages I’d like to give someday. The working title of the series is The Things We Continually Get Wrong. It’s about the common thoughts and beliefs I observe followers of Jesus continually embrace (and, I confess, that I sometimes catch myself embracing) despite what God’s Message teaches and two millenia of examples provide.

One of the things on my list of The Things We Continually Get Wrong is the notion that God’s will is for all of us is to be healthy, wealthy and wise in the temporal and material sense. There are plenty of teachers and preachers willing to tell us that (usually as they ask people to give them money), yet those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus often find a very different reality.

As I read today’s chapter I thought about Paul’s resolute decision to travel to Jerusalem, despite being told by both God and prophetic believers that it would not end well for him. Paul is on a mission, and as Luke describes the events I couldn’t help but think of how Luke also described Jesus’ in Luke 9:51: As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem[emphasis added]

Now, Paul is following in Jesus’ footsteps, and he knows it.

This morning I’m again reminded of our human desire to cling to this life and avoid death [see yesterday’s post]. It’s a natural desire, but it’s another thing I find that we continually get wrong as believers. If I truly believe what Jesus taught, what Jesus exemplified, and what I see Paul doing in today’s chapter, then I must embrace the notion taught in the old timey spiritual:  This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through. Paul, like Jesus before him, is pressing the events that will lead to his death. This isn’t some act of suicidal desperation, but an act of obedience and sacrifice knowing that the events which will transpire will provide the platform for Paul to share the Message in unparalleled ways with people he would otherwise never reach.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, while those willing to lose their lives will find it.”

Life, Death, Sacrifice, & the Multiverse

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
Acts 20:24 (NIV)

Over this past week Wendy and I watched the third season of the Amazon Prime original, The Man in the High Castle. Most every television or movie drama hinges on some kind of threat to life. Someone’s life is in danger. Someone is trying to escape those who seek to end his or her life. Someone’s life had been taken and the protagonist must find out who did it before more people die. In The Man in the High Castle the writers throw in the twist of the multi-verse, the theory that parallel realities exist and people known as “travelers” can slip between them. Nevertheless, seeking to stay alive and striving to avoid the threat of death don’t change. They are always the common themes.

As I read today’s chapter, the themes of death and life are just as prevalent as they weave themselves through Paul’s story. The Jews plan another attempt to assassinate Paul, so he changes his travel arrangements. A boy falls from a third-story window and dies, but Paul miraculously brings the boy back to life. Paul then declares to the elders of the believers at Ephesus that he will not see them again on this earthly journey. Even though Holy Spirit has continually revealed that prison and persecution await, Paul is ready to face it: “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.”

Here we have yet a different twist on the theme of life and death: the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a higher purpose. Paul has faithfully followed the footsteps of Jesus. Self-sacrifice is the way of Jesus:

  • “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
  • “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  • [Jesus] said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself wrestling with the themes of life, death, and self-sacrifice. In a relatively safe midwest American existence the threat of death is incredibly low. The odds for a long and relatively easy life are incredibly high. So, what does the way of Jesus, the way of self-sacrifice mean for me on this journey? In a culture that values a “better life” as defined by the acquisition of things and the accumulation of bucket list experiences, what does it mean to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow? I live in a completely different reality that Paul, Luke, and the Ephesus elders. I know what self-sacrifice looked like for Paul, but what about me in this place, in this century, in this reality?

Monday morning. More questions than answers. I’m gonna keep wrestling with this one.

Have a good week my friend.

Of Mobs and Motives

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another.Most of the people did not even know why they were there.
Acts 19:32 (NIV)

While I was in high school there was a large education bill making its way through the state legislature. The teachers in my school began wearing “Save Our Schools” buttons. Some teachers spoke to us over a series of weeks about how important this bill was and predicted doom, gloom, and the end of education as we knew it were the law not to pass. Extra-curriclar programs would go away, athletics programs wouldn’t have the funding they needed, and students would suffer, we were told.

A short while later it was announced that on a certain afternoon any student who desired could take the afternoon off of school, ride a bus to the state capitol, and participate in a rally of teachers and students to march on the statehouse.

Afternoon off of school? Are you kidding me?! I’d go on a tour of a sewage treatment facility if it meant getting to skip English, Algebra II and American History.

And so it was I found myself in a mob of students and teachers from all over the area chanting “Save our schools!” as we marched up Capitol hill. We filed into the Statehouse and up into the gallery of the legislature where debate was taking place on the floor regarding the school bill. There I listened to the debate between legislators regarding the bill and found out that the bill was put forth by the teachers’ union and was primarily about teacher compensation. Now, I’m all for teachers being paid well and funding public education, but the more I listened to the debate and the particulars of the bill were revealed, the more I realized that the legislation itself wasn’t really about the things I had been told.

I will never forget sitting in that gallery and the sudden realization that I’d allowed myself to be a pawn in a political rally simply to get out of school for an afternoon. I even remembering watching the evening news and how the rally and the issues were described. The truth is, I hadn’t truly known what the issues really were, or why I was there. I vowed that day never to participate in anything like that again without being fully versed in the issues at stake and fully believing in the cause for which I marched.

In today’s chapter a riot breaks out in the city of Ephesus because Paul and the Jesus movement became a threat to the local trade union who made idols. Suddenly the Jews and the Tradesman, who would normally be antagonists (for what good Jew would support idolatry?) had a common political foe in Paul and the Jesus movement. A mob breaks out and  everyone in Ephesus runs to the local amphitheater to find out what’s going on.

Then Luke makes an astute observation: Most of the people did not even know why they were there.

Along my life journey I’ve observed just what lemmings human beings can be. My experience at the school rally and my studies of mass media have made me discerning regarding what I’m told and shown in the news as it relates to political rallies. Even as I worship among my local gathering of believers, I sometimes wonder how many truly come because they believe and how many are there because it’s what they were taught they should do by the family or societal systems that raised them.

Of course, I can’t control or even really know the motives of others, but I know and am responsible for myself. This morning in the quiet I find myself thinking about the things I do each day, each week, and the events to which I give my time.

Do I even know why I am there?

 

Resurrection of the Organism

[Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard [Apollos], they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.
Acts 18:26-27 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been studying the book of Acts. It’s one of the reasons I’m journeying through it again here on my blog. Like all institutional organizations, my local gathering of believers has a traditional hierarchy and well-maintained organization. We even have an official prayer ministry and volunteers who have been trained up and will pray for those who ask for it or need it. That is an absolutely awesome thing for which I’m thankful.

In the past couple of weeks, however, something very interesting has been happening. A few weeks ago the teacher of the morning asked anyone who wanted prayer, for whatever reason, to simply stand where they were during our worship song. Those seated around anyone standing were then encouraged to stand, reach out, place a hand on that person and pray for them. Many stood and many prayed. It was beautiful.

Over the coming weeks one could see that after the morning worship there were several small pockets of believers praying over and for one another. This wasn’t some official part of the service. These weren’t official prayer ministers from the prayer ministry doing what they were trained to do by the organization. These prayers for and over one another were happening organically from among those hanging out after the service, unprompted by any leader or individual.

In today’s chapter, we meet three new individuals. First, there’s Priscilla and Aquila (interesting that even Luke references the wife before the husband). The couple were among all of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius (a well established historical event). The fact that they appear to have already been believers means that the Message of Jesus had already spread to Rome, though we have no evidence of Paul or any of the other apostles having made an official missionary journey there at that point in time.

The other individual we meet in today’s chapter is a man named Apollos, also a Jew who was a believer of Jesus. We don’t know much about his background other than what Luke provides here. From Alexandria, he’d been traveling and sharing the Message of Jesus in synagogues much as Paul had done.

The underlying message of today’s chapter is that the Message of Jesus had been unleashed. The concentric circles of the Jesus movement was spreading out further and further. This was not happening by official means led by authorized envoys of the twelve in Jerusalem. It was happening organically. The Message was being embraced and shared by the growing number of believers. Everyone was in on it, and everyone was compelled and encouraged to share the Message even if they, like Apollos, didn’t have a complete understanding.

Notice that Apollos wasn’t discouraged from what he was doing, even though there were some details he was ignorant about. Priscilla and Aquila took him in, educated him, and sent him back out with their blessing. Paul didn’t do that. Priscilla and Aquila didn’t send him to Jerusalem to be educated by Peter and the boys and receive an institutional stamp of approval. This early church was a living organism in which every individual cell was growing, multiplying, and shaking things up wherever it went.

That’s why I’m both excited and encouraged by what I’ve witnessed in my local gathering of believers in recent weeks. For centuries the Institutions of Christianity have encouraged believers to sit quietly in their pews, go about their business, and let the professional, officially trained and approved ministers do things. Suddenly, I find that everyday believers from all walks of life are rediscovering their spiritual giftedness, their personal calling to use those gifts, and Holy Spirit power that fuels and empowers both.

I hear that we have moved into a “post-Christian” and “post-Evangelical” world. Perhaps we are. Yet, from where I sit I’m witnessing something remarkable. As the old Institutional organizations wane and die, the organism is being resurrected.

Truth About Trouble

As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.
Acts 17:10 (NIV)

Trouble in the water, trouble in the air
Go all the way to the other side of the world, you’ll find trouble there
Revolution even ain’t no solution for trouble

Trouble
Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin’ but trouble

-Bob Dylan, Trouble, 1989 (Shot of Love)

These are the lyrics from the song that flitted into my brain as I read today’s chapter. That’s the way my right-brain works. It connects events I’m experiencing or what I’m reading with an appropriate theme song from memory. I know. Weird.

The book of Acts is the story of how the Jesus movement explosively expanded in the decades following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Whenever a company, organization, or movement expands rapidly there are certain inflection points at which a major shift occurs in perception and reaction towards that expansion. We saw one a few chapters back when the Jesus Movement broke through the borders of its Jewish roots.

In today’s chapter, we’re following Paul, Silas, and Timothy on a journey through Greece. As always, the goal of their journey is to proclaim the Message of Jesus to those who’ve probably never heard it. They have a standard game-plan which is to start in the local Jewish synagogue where Paul uses his steel-trap knowledge of the Law and Prophets to explain to the Jews that the Messiah is not who they think He is. He’s not some human conqueror who would show up with an army to wipe out Rome and set up an earthly Kingdom. Rather, Paul argued, the prophets describe a suffering servant who would be sacrificed for humanity, then raised from the dead to declare victory over death, not Rome.

While Paul’s preaching had gotten him in trouble before, in today’s chapter we see that trouble begins following him. Locals aren’t content to simply drive Paul and his posse from the city, now his detractors are following him, and bringing trouble with them. Trouble in Thessalonica drives Paul to Berea, but Jews from Thessalonica arrive to stir up trouble for Paul in Berea, which drives Paul to Athens.

What strikes me in the circumstances is how trouble, rather than thwarting God’s plan, actually advances it. How long would Paul have stayed in the Thessalonica if everything had been peaceful? How long would it have taken him to move on to Berea? And, would Paul have even made the long journey Athens had it not been for trouble?

Along this Life journey I’ve encountered periods of trouble when daily existence is accompanied by emotional stress, sleeplessness, anxiety, unwarranted fear, and the like. It’s easy for me to obsess about the troubles I’m experiencing. It’s also easy for me to feel that only doom and gloom will be the outcome. Today’s chapter is a good reminder for me to stop obsessing about the trouble, and start looking for where God might be using the trouble to propel and advance His purposes for me.

The very next track after Trouble on Bob Dylan’s Shot of Love LP is Every Grain of Sand which contains this lyric:

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

Sometimes trouble propels me toward the place the Master’s hand is guiding me if I’m willing to open my eyes to see it.

Have a great day, my friend.

Money Trouble

When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.
Acts 16:19 (NIV)

I’m writing this morning’s post in the airport. Having wrapped up a week-long business trip I’m headed home. I spent the week serving a client in the financial sector. As I meditate on all that I’ve done this week, the teams I’ve worked with, the managers I’ve mentored, a common theme has been money.

  • Agents leaving their jobs to go to another company to make more money.
  • A manager who told me she’s turned down multiple job offers, including one that promised to double her pay, because she was happy in her job and her father taught her that more money was a foolish reason to leave a job you loved.
  • A young man telling me about his job scrutinizing the flow of money for potential threats.
  • A manager struggling to find new hires because most applicants have such poor credit histories from the way they handle their money.
  •  An agent at a restaurant with his boss, an award he’d received for his exceptional customer service, looks at the menu and then asks how much money he could spend.

All these little moments come back to me as I think about today’s chapter. Until this point in the history of the early Jesus Movement the conflicts (and there has been a lot of conflict) have been theological in nature between the Jewish tribe from which the Jesus movement sprang, the orthodox Jews who viewed the Jesus movement as a threatening heresy, and the explosive growth of non-Jewish believers who had no interest in holding to Jewish traditions.

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that there had been an inflection point, and today’s chapter begins to hint at the differences that are beginning to emerge. Paul and his companion, Silas, are in the town of Philippi sharing the Message of Jesus. A conflict arises in which Paul and Silas are accosted, beaten, threatened, accused, and thrown into the local jail. The conflict wasn’t about theology, however, it was about money.

A young slave girl, possessed by an evil spirit, was a capable and profitable fortune-teller because of the presence of the evil spirit indwelling her. She was also so annoying that Paul commands the spirit to leave the girl in the name of Jesus. The spirit leaves. You’d think that this was a good thing, but not for the slave girl’s owners. No spirit, no fortune-telling. Paul and Silas, these out-of-town street preachers  had effectively screwed with the business and cash-flow of an upstanding member of the Philippi Chamber of Commerce.

You want to stir up trouble for yourself? Visit a strange town and mess with a local businessman’s cash-flow. As my week conducting business with my client reminds me this morning it’s always about money.

I sit this morning amidst the hustle and bustle of business travelers scurrying about in a major international airport. I’m reminded that Jesus said more about money than almost anything else. He used stories of money in parables because he knew that everyone could relate. He compared the spiritual desire we should have for the Kingdom of God to the frantic search of a poor woman for her lost savings. And of course, there’s that uncomfortable bit Jesus had to say about money being the number one thing that distracts us from that which is of eternal value.

This week as I sat in mentoring sessions with managers and supervisors, I found it fascinating that most of them came to our sessions with things that they wanted to talk with me about. For one it was the break-up of a long-term relationship, for another it was managing conflict within a personal relationship, and for another it was about a struggle to remain sober. Funny, the things with which they were ultimately concerned were not about business leadership and finance, though we did talk about those things. What they were frantic about was not about money, but about life and relationships and matters of Spirit.

Me too.

It’s been a good business trip, but now I’m headed…

Home, where my thoughts escapin’
Home, where my music’s playin’
Home, where m’love lies waiting silently for me.

Have a good weekend, my friend.

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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