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Identity

Date: Jul. 27, 2014

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Acts 21:37-22:29

Key Verse: Acts 21:39

“Paul answered, ‘I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.’”

On November 23, 1963, a TV show played for the first time in Britain. It was called Doctor Who and the main character is known simply as the Doctor. The Doctor was a time traveling alien known as a Time Lord and the show followed this adventures with his human friends or companions. The show has been on the air for over fifty years and the next season starts next month. The Doctor has an interesting ability. Being a Time Lord, the Doctor can change his body when it is severely injured. That means that if he gets nearly killed, the Doctor can just change his body, and everything from his face, hair, organs, height, eyes, taste buds and everything changes. The Doctor regenerates and becomes a new man. The funny thing about this regeneration is the Doctor’s personality can change dramatically. He’s been both dark and brooding and completely weird and quirky. For all this change that the Doctor undergoes, in the end, he is still the Doctor. His identity doesn’t change, even in a new body with a new personality. Identities are not rooted in the ephemeral things around us. Who we are is not based on what we do, what we wear, whom we like or where we live. It is based on something more, something deeper. Paul had a clear identity and what was going on around him did not muddy that fact. Let’s look and see where Paul’s identity is rooted and know where ours should be rooted too.

Last week, we saw that Paul finally arrived in Jerusalem. He went to meet the church elders in the city. He gave them the report of what was going on in the Gentile world. They praised God for the work going on in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia, but there was a problem. A lot of the Jerusalem Christians were still devout Jews who were very zealous for the law. People had heard that Paul was teaching against the law, and the church leaders did not want to divide the church so they proposed that Paul take a Jewish vow along with four other men. This was to show the people the Paul was not against the law, but that he took it very sincerely. During the time of purification, Paul was leaving the temple and some Jews from Asia noticed Paul and assumed that he had brought dirty Gentiles into the inner courts. They were furious and seized Paul and riled up the whole city in an attempt to kill him. A mob of people surrounded Paul and was beating him mercilessly.

When the Roman commander heard about the uproar, he arrived on the scene with some 200 soldiers and the crowd stopped beating Paul. The commander arrested Paul, and had him ordered to the barracks. “As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, ‘May I say something to you?’ ‘Do you speak Greek?’ he replied. ‘Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?’” (37-38) Paul wanted a favor from the commander, so he very politely asked to speak with him. The language that Paul spoke in was very polished Greek. Paul was a smart and educated man, and he put his best face forward.

The commander was surprised that Paul spoke Greek so well. For some reason, the commander had thought that Paul was an Egyptian leader of a Jewish revolt that failed. You see, not too long before this time, an Egyptian Jew who was a false prophet who stirred up a following of 4,000 people. He led them into the wilderness and then to the Mount of Olives, where he promised that the walls of Jerusalem would fall at his command and allow them easy subjugation of the Roman forces. Instead of the walls falling, the Roman governor Felix arrived with a detachment of soldiers. Four hundred were killed, two hundred were taking captive and the rest fled, including the Egyptian. This group wasn’t an old group; it rose during the time of Felix. Their practice was to mingle in large crowds on special occasions, plunge the daggers into their pro-Roman political enemies, and then quickly disappear into the crowd. The commander probably witnessed the rise and fall of the group. He would naturally associate them with crowds and riots, like the one surrounding Paul. The commander probably just assumed that Paul was the Egyptian and the people were getting their revenge on him. But when Paul spoke Greek he proved himself not to be this Egyptian, but a well-educated man who would not be a leader of a rabble-rousing revolt. Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.” (39) Paul specified that he wasn’t an Egyptian, but a Jew from Tarsus.

When the commander noticed that Paul was a well-educated person, he granted Paul’s request to speak to the people. Paul then turned to the crowd and began to speak to them in Aramaic, the local language. Paul showed his education to the Roman commander and his Jewishness to the Jews. He wanted to give his defense. The accusations were that Paul defiled the temple, but he never had a chance to defend himself before he was attacked and the mob formed. When the crowd heard Paul speaking in Aramaic, they stopped and became quiet. It wasn’t Paul’s words that silenced them, but the fact he was speaking their local language.

Paul identified himself with the people who were trying to kill him. He was standing there on the steps of the barracks trying to relate to the mob. They were his people and he wanted them to know it. Paul wrote, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) Paul wanted to bring people to Jesus and he would do anything, become anyone, to aid in their coming to believe, and he is doing no different here. By identifying himself as educated, it allowed Paul to speak to the people. By speaking Aramaic, it silenced the crowd so that they would listen.

So, what did Paul say? “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.” (3-5) Paul started off by giving his life story. He was a Jew born in Tarsus but brought up in Jerusalem. He was a Pharisee in training under Gamaliel, the great rabbi that everyone loved and respected. Paul was not some revolutionary. He was not one that was against the law. Paul had studied with the best teacher of the law that ever existed. On top of all that, Paul was so zealous for the law, that he was the head honcho of the Christian Persecution Brigade. He wiretapped people’s phones and intercepted texts to find out if they followed Jesus. He went through their email looking for clues and trolled Facebook and Twitter looking for references to Jesus. Anyone he found that hashtagged Jesus was locked up. It didn’t matter who it was. When he saw that some of the tweets were from Damascus, they had their geolocation turned on, he went there in order to arrest people in Damascus. Not only were the people arrested, they were killed for their faith. Paul didn’t pull the trigger, but he knew that they were going to the firing squad. These aren’t the actions of a man who doesn’t care about the law. They are the actions of a man full of zeal and determined to do something about it.

After this Paul talks about what happened to him on his way to Damascus. We saw it back in chapter 9 of Acts, but Paul’s account is his. On the way to Jerusalem, he saw a blinding light and he heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul wasn’t actually sure who it was, but he knew that he was powerful and called him Lord. The voice identified himself as Jesus, the very Jesus that he was trying to stamp out. Even though the people he was with saw the light, they could not hear the voice. Paul asked what to do and Jesus said, “Get up and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.” (10) Paul was blinded by the light and his companions had to lead him into the city. While in Damascus, a man named Ananias came to see Paul. As Paul notes in the passage, Ananias was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews of Damascus. He came to Paul and restored his sight by the power of God. Then, Ananias said, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” (14-16)

We saw all that in Acts 9, but Paul actually continues, “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’ “‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ” (17-21) This part is something that we haven’t heard before. Paul went to the temple to pray and anyone who goes to the temple to pray is highly unlikely to desecrate it. If it were sacred enough to pray in, then why would Paul desecrate it? Also, this part mirrors what happened with the prophet Isaiah, hundreds of years earlier (Isaiah 6:1-13). Both Paul and Isaiah had a vision of the Lord. Both received a call from God. Both were told that their message would not be accepted. Isaiah was told to stay in the city, but Paul was told to leave. Paul was to leave because his message was for the Gentiles, whereas Isaiah’s message was for the Jews.

Paul’s defense ends right here. He gives lots of evidence on why it is absurd to think that he desecrated the temple. On top of that evidence is the fact that his head in nearly shaved from the vow that he took. There was no way that he was going to desecrate the temple. However, it wasn’t enough. As soon as he said that the Lord sent him to the Gentiles, they go cuckoo bananas. They shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” (22) Then they threw off their cloaks and flung dust into the air. They seem to be acting like animals. They are flinging stuff left and right like a ticked off chimpanzee. It’s amazing.

The Roman commander couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on, so he had Paul brought into the barracks and ordered that he be flogged and interrogated to find out what is going on. Flog first and ask questions later must be their motto. As the Romans were stretching Paul out to be flogged, he had a question for them. “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (25) Well, it looks like Paul is trying to play the Roman citizen card. It spooked the centurion that was about the beat him, and when the commander found out, it spooked him too. Roman citizenship was costly and afforded the person who had it with some special privileges, one of which allowed a Roman citizen to appeal directly to Caesar. If there something was amiss with a citizen, he could bring it up with the emperor. Would you like to be the commander who stands in front of the emperor and tells him why one of his citizens was flogged for no reason? It is likely that the commander would be killed for his actions. It wasn’t a small matter at all.

In this passage, Paul says a lot about himself, but who exactly is he? What is Paul’s identity? Paul wasn’t the Egyptian and he wasn’t a man who defiled a temple. Who was he? Was he a Jew? Yes, but that is not his identity. Was he born in Tarsus and raised in Jerusalem? Yes, but that is not his identity. He was a Roman citizen, who studied under the greatest living rabbi. He knew the law inside and out. He was so zealous for the law the he led the persecution of the church. He had men and women thrown into jail and killed because they believed. He went to Damascus to find more Christians, but instead he found Christ. All these things are true and yet none of them are his identity. They add to his life, but they don’t change who he is. Paul is still himself even without these pieces.

You see, an identity is not based on things that can change. We like to identify ourselves by what we do or who we know, but those things change. I went to school for aerospace engineering but am now doing web development. My work changed, but I am still me. My situation in life changed when I became a husband and a father, but I am still me. I am still me even though so much has changed in my life. An identity is what identifies you as you. When you were a baby, you were still you even though you did not have the experiences that you have as an adult. There is something that is unchanging in the middle of a person that is what really identifies us. This is important to know because each and every one of us has wondered who we were and why we are here. They are fundamental questions that plague us all. Many people push aside everything that surrounds them so that they can find themselves, but I tell you that you don’t have to look far for who you are because it is not found in this world.

Our identity is defined by the one who made us, the one who is truly unchanging. God is the one who gives us our identity, whether you believe in him or not. The part of us that does not change as we grow up and grow old it the part that comes from God. We were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and it is that image that is our identity. Everyone has the image of God in them and it is unique to each of us. When sin came into the world and broke the world, that image was dirtied and even broken, but it is still there. Our life choices can hide the image, but that image is still there. It was there before you were born. King David wrote in a song, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13) and “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:15-16)

It’s kind of funny that our identity exists before we are born, but the wonderful thing is that that identity cannot be stolen because of our changing circumstances and our identity cannot be added to because of what we do. We don’t have the burden of performance to define us and that is liberating. Much like salvation, who we are is shown to us by what Jesus has done. Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent resurrection cleanse us and reveal the image of God underneath. Jesus’ blood washes us clean and his wounds heal our brokenness (Isaiah 53:5). When we are clean and healed, the image of God can shine through and we can know who we are.

So, who is Paul? What is his identity? You can see it in this passage. Paul’s identity is revealed in his calling and it is shown in a few places. When Ananias came to Paul to give him back his sight, he said, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard.” (14-15) Paul’s identity was to know God’s will, to see his Righteous One, and to hear the words from his mouth. Paul’s identity was to be a witness of who Jesus is especially to the Gentiles. It was a singular calling for Paul alone and it set him apart from everyone else. Back when he was arresting Christians, it may not have seemed like that is who Paul is, but his sin covered up his true identity. It was only after Jesus visited him and removed the blockage of sin that Paul’s identity was revealed.

We like to identify ourselves by what is around us or what we do. We think that our identity is in our nation, our jobs, our family, what we have, where we have been, who we know or even our sexual preference. But what happens when those fail? If we base our identity on our jobs, what happens to us when we lose that job? If we base our identity on our family, what happens when our children hate us or die? What happens is that we are devastated and broken. We don’t know what happened and we give up. If we lose what defines us, then the very essence of who we are is called into question and some people may even take their life. Brazil prided itself on its soccer heritage. It is said that although the game was born in Europe it was perfected in Brazil. Soccer is what united the nation as a nation. It didn’t matter what ethic group you belonged to; soccer brought the nation together. Brazil had won five World Cups, more than any other country. It was something to be proud in. The 2014 World Cup that just ended was held in Brazil and many expected their home team to take the crown. This was their identity. They could not lose on their home soil. Brazil made it to the semi-finals where they faced Germany and what happened was just insane. The first goal was scored in the 11th minute, and the next 12 minutes later. A minute after that the score was 3-0, and in the first 30 minutes the score was 5-0 Germany. Soccer is known to be a low scoring game, but it was 5-0 in the first 30 minutes. When the cameras panned around the stadium, the people were in tears. Their dreams were broken. The players on the field did not know what was going on that they looked like they just gave up. Their identity was destroyed in a single game. It was the worst defeat they had ever seen eventually being 7-1, but it was worse than that. That defeat came in the semi-final game of the World Cup that was being played at home. Cheer and hope turned to tears, all in a few minutes. That is what it is like to place your identity in in something of the world. It can be gone in an instant and your soul ripped apart.

On the other hand, when your identity is found in Jesus, you are firm because God is unchanging. When you are anchored in the unchanging, you can handle anything, just look at Paul. Paul, in this chapter was unfazed by his circumstance and he looked like he commanded authority, even though he was in chains. Paul convinced the commander to allow him to speak to the crowd, and he calmed the crowd with a few words. They had tried to kill him, but now they were listening to him. He was certain of who he is and he was ready to die for it as we saw a few passages ago. This is a marked difference from those who try to identify themselves by what they do or who they know. Paul was certain of who he was because it was based on the one who called him and nothing else. There was no doubt about it and that allowed him to stand in chains and tell his story.

So, who am I and who are you? I am now known by some as Ella’s daddy, but that is not my identity. Some people know me as the grumpy dude who never seems to have much positive to say, but that is not my identity. My mother still sees me as the little boy she knew, but that is not my identity. My identity is as God’s child whom he rescued through the blood of his one and only Son. My identity is to be one hears his words and shares them with others. That is who I am. What about you? You might not have thought about it much or you might have wondered about this for a while. But you are his child that he purchased back from sin and he his trying to tell you the rest even right now. We just need to open our ears and listen. You can’t lose that identity and you can’t add to it. What God gives you is all you need. It is pure. It is joy. It is satisfying.

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