Sermon for November 7, 2021

Paul versus Popular Opinion

Acts 28:17-31

Acts 28:17–30 (NIV): 17 Three days later he called together the local Jewish leaders. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. 18 They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death. 19 The Jews objected, so I was compelled to make an appeal to Caesar. I certainly did not intend to bring any charge against my own people. 20 For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”

21 They replied, “We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of our people who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you. 22 But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect.”

23 They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. 24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

      26 “ ‘Go to this people and say,

         “You will be ever hearing but never understanding;

         you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”

      27 For this people’s heart has become calloused;

         they hardly hear with their ears,

         and they have closed their eyes.

         Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

         hear with their ears,

         understand with their hearts

         and turn, and I would heal them.’

28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” [29]

30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.

Luke, who is the author of Acts, gives us some interesting information about Paul in Rome.  Before I left on vacation, I spent a couple of weeks in Romans, a letter constructed prior to what is recorded in Acts as:

  • Paul records that he longs to visit Rome as he has heard about their faith
  • Paul is not yet a prisoner in Rome.
  • The book of Romans is widely considered to have been constructed around 57 AD.
  • This means that what Luke records is after this.

Germaine to understanding this is who is in the Emperor in Rome at this time:

  • From 54 AD to 68 AD, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero came to power, following his stepfather Claudius to the throne. 
  • After few years on the throne, he had his own mother murdered convincing those around him that she was plotting to kill him. 
  • In the year 62 AD, he then preceded to murder his first wife Octavia, who was his half-sister.
  •  Nero would go on to marry the already pregnant Poppaea Sabina in that same year, and she would give birth to their daughter (who lived only about three months) in January, A.D. 63. He took the death of their infant daughter hard and had the baby deified.
  • On the night of July 18, A.D. 64, a fire started in the Circus Maximus that would burn out of control, leaving little of the city untouched. At the time it occurred, Nero was at Antium but immediately returned to Rome to oversee relief efforts.
  • While ancient writers tend to blame Nero for starting the fire, this is far from certain. Much of Rome was made with combustible material and the city was overcrowded.
  • After the flames died down Nero apparently tried to cast blame on the Christians, at the time a small sect. “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace,” wrote Tacitus (translation from Jürgen Malitz’s “Nero”). “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired.”
  • Peter was crucified upside down and his remains lie in state at the Vatican still today.  Paul was beheaded.

Paused in time is Luke’s record of Paul during his final years.  It seems that most Jews are at odds with Paul in Rome.  However, the Gentiles, pagans seemed very interested in what he had to say that they went to his rented home to see him under guard.  However, as historians dictate, the number of Christians in Rome during this time is very small.  They are the smallest of minorities and soon they will be persecuted heavily.  Of course, Paul already knew this.

Romans 16:17–19 (NIV): 17 I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. 19 Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

Before they were persecuted by Nero, there were already seeds of discord from within.  Tertius, who records Paul’s words in Romans, remarks about the individuals in Rome that are the leaders of the church before Paul becomes a prisoner there, roughly 24 are acknowledged as leaders, many of them women and there is a mixture of Judeo-Christians and Gentile Christians.  However, a few years later, we read again Luke’s account in Acts:

21 They replied, “We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of our people who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you. 22 But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect.”

23 They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. 24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

      26 “ ‘Go to this people and say,

         “You will be ever hearing but never understanding;

         you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”

      27 For this people’s heart has become calloused;

         they hardly hear with their ears,

         and they have closed their eyes.

         Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

         hear with their ears,

         understand with their hearts

         and turn, and I would heal them.’

28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” [29]

30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.

Now, one thing is for sure, while the book that Luke writes is called the Acts of the Apostles, the content is more the Act of the Apostles filled by the Holy Spirit.

So, do Paul’s words reveal?  Romans reveals that he had gotten word of unauthentic Christians who look the part, speak the part, but are only out for themselves.  They go behind the scenes and create divisions due to their own tastes and preference.  A common obstacle of the early church was the act of circumcision, that a Gentile must become a Jew first before they could become a Christ-follower.  It seems that Paul dealt with this problem in other Greco-Roman churches as well.  And of course, in the background throughout Paul’s letter and the last couple years of his life, there’s Nero.

He had killed his mother, first wife and, by some accounts, his second. Additionally, the rebuilding of Rome, not to mention the construction of his “golden palace,” was putting a financial strain on the empire. This forced him to raise taxes wherever he could and even take religious treasures.

“Nero took votive offerings from temples in Rome and Italy as well as hundreds of cult statues from temples in Greece and Asia, after the fire of Rome in A.D. 64,” writes Richard Duncan-Jones in his book “Money and Government in the Roman Empire” (Cambridge University Press, 1995), who also notes that Nero reduced the size of the coins Rome minted.

Additionally, a rebellion in Judea in A.D. 67, a year before his reign would end, would eventually lead to the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the destruction of the Second Temple. One effect of this was the abandonment of Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found stored in nearby caves.

Not long afterward, the Praetorian Guard, the force charged with guarding the emperor himself, renounced their support for Nero and the now former emperor was declared an enemy of the people by the Senate on June 8, 68 AD. The following day, he committed suicide.  So, the church was divided and so was the country.

To the Apostles, it must have looked like the end of the world was near, and from their perspective, it was.  Things were so terrible governmentally and the populous of the Roman territory was in uproar.  Nero then implements a huge tax increase to pay for Rome being rebuilt and he didn’t exactly budget shop to do it.  Things were boiling in Judea and Jerusalem and threats of their demise were observable, especially by the type of torture that Nero permitted the Roman Legion to do.

Propaganda was issued by Nero claiming that it was the Christians that burnt down Rome, so for one to say that they were a Jesus follower could have drastic consequences.  Racism, sexism, xenophobia, and nationalism ruled the day.  The Christian church went underground.  It wasn’t safe to go to the synagogue anymore, both Roman officials and Jewish leaders were there.  Word of the treatment of the Jews in Jerusalem had reached Rome and they didn’t want the added attention of Christians added to an already established propaganda tour of Nero. 

So, the church was people’s houses and in Acts, it ends up being Paul’s rental.  This leads to Paul’s beheading.

In today’s verse, it mentions about the Jewish leaders talking with Paul and they did some investigating about him.  No one had anything bad to say about him, however, as he began to share Jesus with them, only a few listened and most just walked away.  There is a conundrum at play here.  One, Paul is a Roman citizen, that’s good, he’s a Jew, that’s good, he has a good reputation, that’s good, but he’s a Christian, that’s bad!  To the Nero, Paul is a Roman citizen, that’s good, he’s a Jew, that’s bad, and he’s a Christian, that’s bad.  When it comes to the idea of popular opinion, percentage wise, Paul is in the single digits.  So, Paul was faced with a decision, to be liked by most or to be a genuine follower of Jesus.

One of the things that is left out in this narrative is that Paul had a character that was transformed, most could agree that Paul was a good person, and the amazing thing is that Paul was a good person without being a jerk about it, a lost art in modern Christianity.  And even though he was a good person, he was strongly disliked but he was disliked because of the opinions and the posturing of the day.  This ought to cause us to pause for a moment.

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