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Conscience, Hope and Courage

Date: Aug. 3, 2014

Author: Bob Henkins

Acts 22:30-23:11

Key Verse: Acts 23:11

“The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”

In today’s passage we’re going to find that Paul received three precious gifts from God that are essential to life and none of us can’t do without. Can you guess what they are? Let’s find out.

As we have learned from the previous chapters, when Paul arrived in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders riled up nearly all the people of the city to the point that they charged at him from all directions. This crazed mob started beating Paul with the intent to kill him. All this noise alerted the Roman commander and so he sent his soldiers to find out what was going on. Arriving on the scene they arrested Paul, bound him with chains and were going to take him in but the violence of the group became so great that at one point the soldiers even had to carry Paul just to keep the crowd from tearing him apart. Once inside the barracks the commander discovers that Paul is a Roman citizen, now he’s concerned because he doesn’t know who Paul is and he’s worried that Paul might have friends in high places. Also the commander needed to have some official charges for his own records to share with his superiors. He was sure that Paul had done something, otherwise why would so many people want to do away with him? Yet nobody seemed to know what Paul’s crimes were. What a situation for a Roman official to be in! The logical thing to do was to get everyone involved together and flush it out. So the next day he released Paul from the cell and ordered the chief priests and all the members of the Sanhedrin to assemble. The commander was serious, he didn’t ask for them to come, he ordered them. This was not a trial, but a hearing to determine what charges, if any, might be brought against Paul. The commander brought Paul in and had him stand before the Sanhedrin. (v30) There was Paul standing alone in front of 70 of Israel’s top leaders with the Roman commander and his solders nearby. It was a tense scene, but in a bold and fearless move Paul takes the initiative and speaks first. Take a look at verse 1. “Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” He addressed them as “brothers” (Acts 23:1—in the Greek, it is “men, brothers”). Such a familiar address, though respectful, was hardly the one appropriate for addressing such an distinguished group. This may be a further indication that this was not a formal meeting of the Sanhedrin but an informal hearing in the tower of Antonia. Strangely, the first thing that Paul talks about is his duty and conscience. Paul has given his life to serve God. In doing so, he has been on three missionary journeys, traveled through many nations, planted many churches and saw new believers accept Jesus as their Savior. And I believe that it was his conscience, led by the Holy Spirit, to do these things.

In this passage, conscience is the first gift that God gives us. What is our conscience? When God created man, he gave each of us a conscience. Our conscience is the inner “judge” or “witness” that approves when we do right and disapproves when we do wrong. One note I must say is, our conscience is not always a safe guide for conduct. Paul followed his conscience when he was persecuting Gentiles and he was also following his conscience when he was saving the Gentiles. These are opposite actions and yet Paul was following still following his conscience. Therefore we must still be careful about listening to our conscience. Because not only can it be led astray by false information or wrong judgments, it can become seared so that it no longer serves as an alert watchman. You can destroy a nerve ending by burning it or by pricking it with a pin. Treated this way, the nerve ending no longer sends its warning message to the brain. Similarly, you can destroy your conscience by repeatedly disregarding its messages. So treated, a conscience loses its sensitivity and no longer performs its proper function. (See 1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15.) What we fill our minds with is really important because it can also influence our conscience. If we fill it with garbage, it can weaken it, but if we fill it with God’s word, we can strengthen it. Our conscience does not set the standard; it only applies it. So as long as we do good, we are at peace with our conscience and we’re happy. But when we do evil, we are burdened with guilt and our conscience is upset. And that’s when we can’t get any sleep because our minds and conscience are colliding. Sometimes our thoughts accuse us; sometimes they defend us (Ro 2:15). In movies & TV, our conscience is often depicted by having two miniature versions of ourselves sitting on each of our shoulders. One dressed in white, depicting the good conscience and one dressed in red or black depicting our bad conscience. And they try to influence our decisions, often fighting with each other. It’s a cute scene, but I think it comes close to what happens when we go through temptation.

I acknowledge that Paul has done a lot of good things in the service of God but I still can’t forget about some of the terrible things he has done. He openly admitted to hunting down Christian men, women and children throwing them into jail and even killing them. How could Paul say that he had fulfilled his duty to God in all good conscience? Humanly he couldn’t he was guilty. We can’t just offset a bad action with a good one it doesn’t work that way. If we combine a glass of water and a handful of dirt they don’t offset each other. Even if you use twice or three times as much water it’s still going to be dirty. It needs to be purified to be clean. Just because Paul had done many good things doesn’t negate the fact that he has done some bad ones.

So how could he say this in verse 1? It was totally by the grace of Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb of God who shed his blood on the cross for all sinners. God made Jesus the sacrifice of atonement for our sins (Ro 3:25). Hebrews 9:14 helps us to understand how Paul’s dirty conscience could be made clean. It says, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ...cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death so that we may serve the living God!” There is power in the blood of Jesus. Because Jesus’ blood satisfies God’s demand for justice and it cleanses our consciences from acts that lead to death. The blood of Jesus justifies us before the holy God and enables us to serve him. This is what really makes us happy. When Paul confessed that he was a terrible sinner (1Ti 1:15) and asked God for forgiveness, he claimed the blood of Jesus as his righteousness and his conscience was cleansed. From that moment on, Paul served God with all his heart. And it was through this that he discovered his purpose was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (Ro 15:16) not condemn them. Now, because of the blood of Jesus, Paul could stand before God with a clear conscience. And when he could stand before God, he had no problem to stand before these corrupted religious leaders.

I believe that the religious leaders were different than Paul when it came to their consciences. Our conscience may be compared to a window that lets in the light. God’s Law is the light; and the cleaner the window is, the more the light shines in. As the window gets dirty, the light gets dimmer; and finally the light becomes darkness. A good conscience, or pure conscience (1 Tim. 3:9), is one that lets in God’s light so that we are properly convicted if we do wrong and encouraged if we do right. However some people think that they can go against their conscience engaging in things they know are wrong but they are hoping to have some fun. They think they can simply forget about it afterward and it will go away. But it doesn’t. After a while guilt creeps up on them and nags their heart. Take for example Shakespeare’s story of Macbeth, who was a brave successful general in the Scottish army. After he received a prophecy that he would one day become the king of Scotland, he is consumed with ambition and spurred on to action by his wife. So Macbeth and his wife hatch the plan to get the kings servants drunk until they blackout and remember nothing and they kill the king in his sleep. He secretly kills King Duncan and takes the throne for himself. They are successful and no one knows about their murder. The perfect crime, or so they think. Even though no one knows, their conscience knows and soon they are wracked with guilt from the crimes they have committed. Macbeth begins to see ghosts and his wife begins to sleep walk as she tries to wash imaginary blood off her hands. Eventually Macbeth is beheaded and his wife commits suicide after she descended into madness believing nothing can wash away the blood stains from her hands. Who can live happily in this condition? Obviously no one can. So instead of repenting of their sin, what people do when their conscience is bothering them, is they try to drown the voice of their conscience in various ways. Such as throwing themselves into work or movies so that they are distracted in the hopes they can forget their past. Others may try drinking, or drugs to dull their senses. Or any number of things, but they never work because they are only temporary and our conscience returns. This is a good thing because it is calling us back to God to repent and be right with him. However there is something worse and that’s a dead or defiled conscience (1 Cor. 8:7). The most dangerous people in society are those with dead or defiled consciences. A person with a dead conscience is one who no longer hears the voice of his conscience whereas a defiled conscience is one that has been sinned against so much that it is no longer dependable. If a person continues to sin against his conscience, he may end up with an evil conscience (Heb. 10) or a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2). Then he would feel convicted if he did what was right rather than what was wrong! God gave you the gift of a conscience for a reason; it is a blessing so listen to it. The best way to a clear conscience is found in James 1:22 “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

Ananias the high priest (not to be confused with Annas in Acts 4:6) was so incensed at Paul’s saying that he had “lived in all good conscience” that he ordered the nearest Jewish council members to punch Paul in the mouth. (Jesus had been treated in a similar way—John 18:22.) This was, of course, illegal and inhumane; for, after all, Paul had not even been proven guilty of anything. Certainly the high priest would be expected to show honesty and fairness, if not compassion and concern (Lev. 19:15; Heb. 5:2).

Paul responded with what appears to me to be justified anger, though many disagree about this. Paul responded in verse 3. “Then Paul said to him, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!’” When called to account for what he had said, Paul didn’t apologize. Rather, he showed respect for the office if high priest but not for the man. Ananias was indeed one of the most corrupt men ever to be named high priest. He stole tithes from the other priests and did all he could to increase his authority. He was known as a brutal man who cared more for Rome’s favor than for Israel’s welfare. In calling the high priest a “whited wall,” Paul was simply saying that the man was a hypocrite (Matt. 23:27; see Ezek. 13:10–12). Many believe that Paul spoke prophetically, because God did indeed smite this wicked man. When the Jews revolted against Rome in the year A.D. 66, Ananias had to flee for his life because of his known sympathies with Rome. The Jewish guerrillas found him hiding in an aqueduct at Herod’s palace, and they killed him. It was a dishonorable death for a despicable man.

“Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!” Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’” Paul’s response has been variously interpreted. Some say that Paul did not know who the high priest was. Or perhaps Paul was speaking in holy sarcasm: “Could a man who breaks the law actually be the high priest?” Since this was an informal meeting of the council, perhaps the high priest was not wearing his traditional garments and sitting in his usual place. For that matter, Paul had been away from the Jerusalem for so many years, he probably didn’t know many people in the council. Whatever the case, I believe that Paul was sincere when it came to following the law. However this convicts me, in our country today because we speak evil about our leaders all the time. We need to repent.

Take a look at verse 6. “Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” Paul knew the Sanhedrin well. It was made up of two major parties: Sadducees and Pharisees. They seemed united in their attack on Paul, but they disagreed strongly on spiritual issues. The Sadducees said that there was no resurrection and that there are neither angels nor spirits but the Pharisees acknowledged them all. When Paul identified himself clearly as a Pharisee and declared his hope in the resurrection of the dead it caused a dispute to break out that threw the Sanhedrin into chaos. Some Pharisees began to side with Paul, saying, “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” The dispute was so violent that the commander had Paul removed by force. In this way the trial ended.

At first glance, it may seem that Paul was playing politics with the Sanhedrin. However, Paul meant what he said. He was on trial because of his hope in the resurrection of the dead. There was no legal charge against Paul. There was no reason for him to be on trial. In fact, he was on trial because enemies of the gospel had conspired against him. Paul was eager to make the hope of resurrection the topic of discussion. Paul believed that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, according to the Scriptures. And that Christ’s resurrection was the first fruits, and that all who believed in him would also be raised from the dead. Paul believed that he himself would be raised from the dead and transformed into the glorious image of Christ. Jesus’ resurrection proved God’s power to destroy all unrighteousness and restore his kingdom. Paul looked forward to a new heaven and a new earth with eternal life in God’s glorious kingdom. And it was because of this hope, Paul freely committed his life to God’s mission and was willing to suffer to preach the gospel even in the face of death. If there was no resurrection, Paul’s attitude would have been different. He said in 1 Corinthians 15:32b, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” Even Paul would have lived different if there were no resurrection of the dead but since he met the Risen Christ, he knew the truth and that’s where he put his hope. Peter also had this hope. He said in 1 Peter 1:3,4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you....” Those who believe in the resurrection of Christ have a living hope in the kingdom of God and the can visualize it. This hope is a wonderful gift that God gives us because he knows that we need it. We can’t live without it.

Paul’s one-two gospel punch knocked the Sanhedrin members off balance. Now they were on trial before the gospel. Paul must have stood like a victorious commander after brutal spiritual war. Yet look at verse 11. “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ”Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” According to the Risen Christ, Paul needed to take courage. Why? Paul must have been drained spiritually and emotionally. Paul had risked his life to serve God in Jerusalem without seeing the desired result. He may have felt a sense of failure. Jewish and Gentile Christians were not any closer together. The unconverted Jews did not repent; they became more anti-Christian. Paul was a prisoner in a Roman barracks, not knowing what would happen next. The stubborn and vicious religious leaders would never give up. The power of their hatred was deadly. Already, their pressure was being felt around Jerusalem. What’s worse is that Satan was always looking for the chance to accuse Paul. This is the very moment that any of God’s servants can fall into fear, sorrow or despair. It happened to Abraham after he rescued Lot. It also happened to Elijah after he defeated the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. We tend to have a hi view of Paul, but he was human and vulnerable.

When Paul was vulnerable, the Risen Christ visited him to strengthen his heart. At the right time, Jesus stood near Paul. Isn’t that comforting, Paul wasn’t alone. The Risen Christ, the King of kings, his Lord and Savior was right there with him. The Lord spoke to him, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” At the words of Christ, “Take courage!” the swelling tides of darkness that threatened Paul’s heart were completely repelled, and dissipated like a mist. Bright heavenly sunshine came into his heart like the dawn of a new day. The word of Christ assured him that God loved him and that made him strong, strong enough to face the challenges ahead.

Then the Risen Christ said, “As you have testified about me in Jerusalem....” As we know, Paul had been burdened with the problem of his own people, the Jews. He knew his trip to Jerusalem would be dangerous. Yet he made it for the sake of helping his people see the work of God. When you read the account of Paul’s days in Jerusalem, you get the impression that everything Paul did failed miserably. His attempt to win over the legalistic Jews only helped cause a riot, and his witness before the Sanhedrin left the council in confusion. But the Lord was pleased with Paul’s testimony, and that’s what really counts. Jesus accepted it. It was as though the Jesus said, “You did it! Your mission is accomplished. Now leave the result up to me.” Paul would continue to bear a burden of prayer for his own Jewish people, but he could have peace in his heart, knowing that he did everything he could for them and that it was accepted by the Risen Christ, small as it may seem.

The Risen Christ concluded, “...so you must also testify in Rome.” When Paul started for Jerusalem, he had really wanted to go to Rome (19:21). In Romans 1:13a he said, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now)....” Though Paul was eager to go to Rome, he was always prevented from doing so. Now the Risen Christ gave him clear direction and a promise that he would not die here in Jerusalem as he may have thought, but that he would testify in Rome. It was the desire of his heart. It was time for Paul to go to Rome. Paul’s passion to preach the gospel in Rome ignited once more. New vision gave him new strength. He was fully restored in spirit to serve God’s purpose.

In this passage we see how God gave Paul three precious gifts which restored, renewed and strengthened him. In truth all of us need these gifts, we can’t live without them. Who can live without a clear conscience, without hope and without courage? We would be a complete mess. We can’t manufacture these by ourselves, we need Jesus. And they build upon one another. Only with Jesus can we have a clear conscience. And when our conscience is right, we can have hope. And with hope we can have courage. Notice how hope is in the center of them, holding them together. Apart from Christ there is no hope in the world. Our bodies are aging, there are terrible wars going on. The poverty and suffering is unbearable, but thank God for Jesus who cleans our conscience, give us hope in the resurrection and eternal life and helps us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Lk 1:74-75)

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