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Get into Jail Free

God is not only understanding of our disappointments, but he can use them for his plans.


A couple of hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. Terrified, his friend whips out his cell phone and calls 9-1-1.

“My friend is dead! What can I do? What can I do?!” he cries over the phone.

In a calm, soothing voice, the operator says, “Sir, just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.”

There is a moment of silence, and then a single shot rings out—BLAM!

The hunter’s voice comes back on the line: “Okay, now what?”

Misunderstandings can be a tremendous source of comedy. If you’ve ever seen the old comedy team Abbott and Costello perform their classic routine “Who’s On First,” you know how comedy can derive from a very simple misunderstanding. Think of your favorite TV situation comedy, from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld to Big Bang Theory, and I’ll bet some of your favorite episodes are constructed around a simple misunderstanding between characters. But that’s TV comedy. In real life, it doesn’t feel good to be misunderstood.

It doesn’t feel good to be misunderstood

Professional translator Nataly Kelly tells the following story about what journalists have called the “$70 million word.” In 1980, 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the paramedics and doctors who treated him, but Willie’s family only spoke Spanish. They told the hospital staff that Willie was “intoxicado.” The word is what translators call a "false friend"—it doesn’t mean what you’d assume it means.

In Spanish, “intoxicado” refers to a state of poisoning, usually from ingesting something toxic to the system. Ramirez’s family was trying to say that Willie was suffering from food poisoning. But when the doctors grabbed a hospital staff person to translate for the Ramirez family, the staff worker said that Willie was “intoxicated.” The doctors treated him as if we were suffering from an intentional drug overdose. Willie was misdiagnosed and, because of the wrong course of treatment, became a quadriplegic. The hospital finally settled in court with the Ramirez family for $71 million. That was one expensive misunderstanding!

Have you ever been misunderstood? Of course you have! Any conversation, any communication can be an occasion for misunderstanding. Several years ago now I was helping a group of church folks reset the chairs in our sanctuary after an event. A friend of mine served as facilities director, and he was supervising the reset. Somewhere along the way, he either miscounted or misremembered the number of chairs we needed in one particular row, and we had to do that row over. I made an offhanded joke about reporting him to the elder board to review his employment after such a (not at all) costly mistake. I laughed, he laughed, and we both forgot about it.

But what I didn’t know was that one of our deacons, a young woman new to the deacon board, had overheard me, and was aghast that I would be so abusive toward another staff member. (She had been standing behind me and hadn’t seen my facial expression to realize I was joking.) Later that week, I found myself in a meeting with her and an elder who sat me down to confront me about mistreating other staff. I explained that I had only been joking, and we eventually settled the matter, but this one tiny misunderstanding affected our perceptions of each other for a long time afterward.

How do you handle being misunderstood?

It’s a terrible feeling when someone takes something you have said or done and misunderstands it or misrepresents it. Being misunderstood was a feeling the apostle Paul would become all too well acquainted with. Let’s read what happened upon his return to Jerusalem.

[Read Acts 21:17–26]

When Paul and friends arrive in Jerusalem, they are warmly welcomed, and then the next day they go to visit James and the church elders. (Peter and John seem to have left the city by this point.) There was some tension in the air: James and Paul had become the representative leaders of two expressions of Christianity, one Jewish and one Gentile. They had met several times previously, including at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. But during the intervening years, the movements they led had grown considerably under the Lord’s direction. Here, as they greeted one another, each man was flanked by members of his entourage: Paul by his companions from the Gentile churches (including Luke), and James by the elders of the Jerusalem church.

So when Paul and James faced each other in Jerusalem, there could have been a very tense confrontation. There could have been conflict. The early church could have forked or splintered. But happily, both apostles were aligned with the Holy Spirit. Paul gives evidence of God’s grace toward the Gentiles, and James and the elders respond with praise. I think we’re meant to understand their response as genuine and joyful.

Then Paul presents to the Jewish church offerings given by the Gentile churches of the west (which Luke will mention later in chapter 24). Besides an expression of loving Christian responsibility to the poor, this offering was an important symbol of solidarity between Gentile believers and their Jewish brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. This moment was important to Paul, which is why he had urged the Roman Christians to pray with him that his “service in Jerusalem would be acceptable to the saints there” (Rom. 15:31).

But the Jerusalem elders have a concern that they raise with Paul (Acts 21:20–21). What was it? It was not about how to be saved—Paul and James agreed that salvation was through Christ, not the law—but about the way of discipleship. It was not about what Paul taught the Gentile converts but about what he was teaching the Jews who lived among the Gentiles (v. 21).

The issue was whether Jewish believers should continue to observe Jewish cultural practices of the Law of Moses. There was a rumor going around that Paul was teaching them not to. And some Jewish Christians were abandoning their Jewish practices. Read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and you can imagine how these rumors got started.

But, it was a misunderstanding. There was confusion between what Paul had been permitting versus what Paul had been commanding. The leaders of the church understood and suggested something practical that Paul might do in order to make clear that the rumors against him were false.

There were four men in the church under a Nazirite vow. The termination of their vow would be accompanied by the offering of a sacrifice at the temple, and it was proposed that Paul should pay the expenses of the sacrifice on their behalf. This was an accepted act of Jewish piety, and Paul’s action would demonstrate that he still lived as a Jew, in observance of the law.

We interrupt this sermon for a brief public service announcement, as well as a lesson in cooking 101: In order to cook pasta, you must first boil water. Three American college students living abroad in Italy accidentally started a fire in their apartment after purchasing pasta from a local market and attempting to cook it without using any water. The young women insisted to fire department officials dispatched to the scene that their exclusion of water was an honest mistake and that they genuinely did not know water was necessary for cooking pasta.

Italian newspaper La Nazione confirmed the account, explaining that the damage was limited to a few articles of kitchen furniture. Naturally, the students’ culinary adventure attracted jeers on social media, especially from Italian natives who’ve had their fill of ugly-American stereotypes. “Return to the USA to eat hamburgers & chips from [McDonald’s],” wrote one commenter. Another declared, “American women in the kitchen are a disaster. They do not even know how to make a boiled egg.” One even warned others not to be “too ironic” in their comments, as “from one of those three could come the next US Secretary of State ... or the next president!”

Amid all this, though, one person who took notice was famed restauranteur Fabio Picchi. Instead of sarcastic barbs, Picchi offered the students a four-hour culinary lesson, which would conclude with lunch with the chefs at his restaurant in Florence. “I feel guilty,” Picchi told La Nazione. “I feel there was a strong communication deficit on the part of this city. I think this can be useful to them but also to us. Understanding is always—with simplicity and cognition—what is beautiful and necessary.” Ignorance can lead to misunderstanding and embarrassment, but a gracious response can promote healing.

This would be Paul’s approach. We have already seen Paul’s conciliatory spirit in accepting the Jerusalem decrees and having circumcised Timothy. Now, in the same spirit, he was prepared to undergo some purification rituals and pay some money in order to pacify Jewish scruples. Paul was willing to go to some lengths for the sake of Jewish-Gentile solidarity, rather than asserting his freedom at every turn.

Is Paul being inconsistent or hypocritical here? What about his virulent opposition to works of the law in his letters? His opposition there was to the belief that such works were necessary for salvation. Paul was not opposed to the law per se, just the misunderstanding and misuse of it.

Remember what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:20—“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.” His actions in Jerusalem here are completely consistent with this approach.

So I’m sure once Paul follows through that this will all turn out great, with big grins and backslaps all around! Let’s see how things turn out.

[Read Acts 21:27–36]

What a lousy, rotten story! Who picked this passage to teach on today? What? Oh, it was me? Well—never mind then, let’s keep going.

Misunderstanding can lead to mistreatment

Near the conclusion of this seven-day purification ritual, Paul was in the temple. He was recognized by some Jews from Asia, probably from Ephesus. These Jews provoked the worshiping crowd into a frenzy with two accusations. The first of these was a misunderstanding, for they represented Paul as teaching everybody everywhere “against our people and our law and this place” (v. 28)—kind of an ironic charge given that Paul himself was undergoing purification so as not to defile the temple! Their accusation was similar to that made against Stephen, who was accused of speaking against the holy place and the law (Acts 6:13).

But the Jews misunderstood both Stephen and Paul, just as they had misunderstood Jesus. Jesus spoke of himself as the fulfillment of the temple, the people, and the law, and Stephen and Paul followed his lead. This was not to denigrate these things but to reveal their true glory.

Their second accusation was that Paul had brought Greeks into the temple area and so defiled it (v. 28). This was simply false, however, Luke explains that it was not a deliberate lie but rather an erroneous assumption on their part (v. 29). They had seen Trophimus (whom they knew to be a Gentile) with Paul in the city and had jumped to the conclusion that Paul had also brought him into the temple’s inner court, which was off-limits to Gentiles.

The combination of these two misunderstandings was enough to bring people “running from all directions” (v. 30). The agitated mob seized Paul, dragged him out of the inner court, and tried to kill him. Fortunately, soldiers of the Roman garrison, always on the lookout for public disorder there in Jerusalem, saw what was happening, intervened, and rescued Paul in the nick of time.

When the commander couldn’t determine who Paul was and what he had done, because of the chaos, he had him arrested and carried into the barracks. (I guess when in doubt, just arrest the victim.) Meanwhile, the crowd was shouting, “away with him,” just as nearly 30 years previously another angry Jerusalem crowd had shouted something similar at another Jewish prisoner of Rome.

Misunderstanding can lead to mistreatment. Some of you know that from experience, painful experience. Maybe you’ve lost a friendship over a misunderstanding, or a romantic relationship, or a job, or had a break in your family that can be traced back to a tragic misunderstanding. Some of you may have even spent time in jail from a misunderstanding.

But this passage has two points of encouragement for you to remember the next time you’re misunderstood.

When you’ve been misunderstood, God understands you

In a 2013 interview, Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges was asked to identify his worst character defect. Bridges said:Not loving enough. … Not having enough compassion, empathy, wisdom. My wife and I have been married for 36 years. I’m deeply in love with her, but every once in a while we’ll get into what I like to refer to as our ‘deep, ancient battle.’ It’s always very elusive, and it’s hard to find the real kernel of it, but basically it is about this: ‘You don't get it. You don’t get what it is like to be me.’ Neither of us really understands what it’s like to be that other person.”

It hurts to be misunderstood. But God understands. He knows the truth and he knows your heart. He knows what it’s like to be you because he made you and because, in Jesus, God became a fully human person. Don’t let the failures of others to understand impede your faith in Christ or your pursuit of him.

Had I been in Paul’s place, I believe I could have become cynical and embittered if I had done all these things to accommodate and help the Jerusalem believers, only to be kicked in the head while bending over backward. (“This was some great idea you had, fellas!”) But read the rest of Acts and all of Paul’s letters, and you don’t find a man filled with resentment, anger, or bitterness. You find a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit. That’s amazing!

Paul knew that although he’d been misunderstood, God understands. And you need to know that when you’ve been misunderstood, God understands you.

When you’ve been misunderstood, God stands under you

God has a larger purpose in the things that go wrong in our lives. As Paul sat in a Jerusalem prison reviewing his bad luck, he didn’t know what God was up to. Up to that point, Paul’s ministry had been in the Greek provinces. But Rome was the center of the known world. It wasn’t built in a day, and all roads led to it. What an opportunity, if only Paul could preach the gospel in Rome, the very center of the civilized world.

Well, Paul didn’t know it, but God was working things out for him to receive a free, all-expenses-paid trip to Rome, compliments of the Roman government! But he wasn’t going to get there the way he would have planned. God had a better plan. (He usually does!) Paul had long wanted to go and preach to the church already established in Rome. He wrote to the Roman church how he was eager to preach the gospel in Rome but had been unable to get there. But he was not to go there as a preacher but as a prisoner! That may sound terrible to us, but actually it was God’s grand plan, and here’s why.

[Read Philippians 1:12-14]

Paul wrote to the Philippians from a jail cell, but guess where that cell was? Paul said that his bondage was well-known in all the palace. Paul’s case was so special, and his position so important, that he had been imprisoned in Caesar’s own palace. From this vantage point, Paul began to witness about Christ, and pretty soon he had a band of believers right there, under Caesar’s feet! And the Christians there were becoming bold—speaking the gospel without fear—in the palace of Caesar himself.

We don’t know for certain whether Paul died in Rome or went on from there to Western Europe. One thing is certain: a beachhead was established in the heart of pagan Rome for the gospel, and it all began with one really bad week in Paul’s life. He wrote in Romans 8:28—“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” In his case, misunderstanding led to mission. Remember this the next time you have a really bad week or find yourself badly misunderstood. Perhaps God has something bigger and better in mind!


A young man from an impoverished background dreamed of a better life for himself and his family than the hardscrabble existence he had known growing up. He saved all he could and went deeply into debt to launch a grocery startup in a town called New Salem. His business partner had an alcohol problem, and he ended up so far in the hole that he referred to his financial obligations as “the national debt.” He gave up on ever being a successful businessman, and it took him more than a decade to pay off his failed dream.

He went into law, and then politics, and in 1860 he was elected president. Abraham Lincoln was an avid Shakespeare fan, and his favorite quote came from Hamlet: “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, roughhew them as we may.” He came to believe this deeply about his own life and also about the nation he led. His entire second inaugural address is an amazingly profound reflection on how God was at work in the Civil War in ways more mysterious and profound than any human being could fathom. What a loss it would have been—not just to him but to our whole nation—if the doors of that little grocery he started in New Salem hadn’t closed.

God understands you, and God stands under you.

David Ward is Pastor of Teaching Ministries for New Hope Church in Greenwood, IN.

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