TODAY’S READING: Acts 20–23
Trouble in missions does not automatically mean that we have done something wrong. The biblical default seems to be the other way around—we are actually not doing anything right unless things go wrong! Paul was repeatedly warned that trouble was in the forecast, but he already knew this as the Holy Spirit had already testified that in every city chains and tribulations awaited (Acts 20:23). Humans tell us that in missions we should avoid trouble; the Spirit says trouble is our norm. Humans criticize missionaries for taking risks that could be avoided; the Spirit rebukes us for avoiding risks that should be taken. Paul traveled to Jerusalem and was arrested in 57 A.D. Those were tumultuous times for Nero was emperor; this was the same year he compelled senators to fight in the stadium. In 59 A.D., Paul would appeal to Nero who ordered the death of his own mother that very year. If we follow Paul as he followed Jesus, we will take risks going to and staying in dangerous places in dangerous times. Appealing to matricidal Nero is not in the risk avoidance game plan.
Paul was arrested on the charge of bringing a Gentile into the inner court of the temple (21:28). The outermost court of the temple was called the court of the Gentiles and non-Jews were allowed there, but the inner courts had no signs warning that to bring a non-Jew into those restricted areas was to face the death penalty. Paul, of course, didn’t break that law. He didn’t need to, for Jesus’ death already tore the veil, signifying that the Holy Spirit was unleashed on the world and that there was no difference in God’s eyes between Gentile and Jew. It was the religious cowards who were behind the times; they wanted to bottle up God for themselves, something Jehovah has never allowed or smiled upon. As soon as the church attempts to contain the God of the nations, lock Him in while locking others out, things go very poorly for those handling the locks. These days we don’t hang “keep out” signs on our temples, just on our wallets and children.
After being arrested Paul asked to address his opposition. Things went well at first as Paul established his Jewish credentials in a familiar language mentioning his acceptable religious pedigree. His credibility earned Paul a hearing, even when he talked of Jesus as Lord. And all was calm until it wasn’t, at which point the crowd rose up in fury, tore off their clothes, and insisted Paul had no right to live. The turning point and Paul’s crime? “Then Jesus said to me, ‘Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles’” (22:21). It was Paul’s obedient response to missions that made his peers vow to kill him.
Isn’t it curious that missions raises such wrath among the religious establishment? Not just 2,000 years ago. In our time missionaries are welcomed as long as they tell good stories and don’t speak too prophetically to the home crowd. Let the missionary voice establish credentials, speak the local slang, tell a few jokes, and stand on affirming ground, and all will be well. But as soon as the missionary voice calls out for the prioritization of the church to be singularly on the unreached, the mood shifts and the church says: “This fellow is not fit to speak in our pulpit.”