James Emery White tells a story about his visit to The Eagle and Child pub in Great Britain, the place where C. S. Lewis and his friends used to meet. White says he was sitting at his favorite little table there one day, and another stream of tourists entered—and left—and he heard the manager muttering, “Bloody Christians.” White was enough of a regular there to feel comfortable asking the manager what he meant.
“Take a look at this,” he said, holding up a menu. “They cost me two pounds each. Two pounds! I ordered hundreds of them, and now I only have ten because they keep getting nicked.”
“You mean people are stealing the menus?” White asked, incredulously.
“Yeah, the bloody Christians take the menus, while the bloody students take the spoons and ashtrays.” White could understand the students’ need for utensils but had to ask, “Why the menus?”
“I don’t know. It’s what they can get their hands on, I suppose,” he answered. “It got so bad I started making copies of the menu that they could take—for free—but they still take the good ones.”
“I’m surprised they don’t try and take what’s on the walls, then,” White mused, looking at the pictures, plaque, and particularly a framed handwritten letter from Lewis, Tolkien, and others commemorating the day they had drunk to the barmaid’s health.
“Oh, those aren’t real,” said the manager, “just copies. They still get taken. I’d never put the real ones up.”
He paused a moment and then said, “What gets me is that all these people who come in for Lewis are supposed to be Christians, right?”
It’s a bitter irony; the manager of The Eagle and Child pub holds Christians and, presumably, Christianity itself, in disdain because of the behavior of the Christians who flock there to pay homage to C. S. Lewis. Many of them wouldn’t dare drink a pint of beer, but they will gladly steal.
This raises an important and somewhat sobering question for us today.
How well will we witness when our faith is on trial?
Our mindset when our faith is on trial shouldn’t be to avoid the trial or escape the trial but to witness well when on trial. Because, as in the Eagle and Child pub, our faith can be on trial even when we aren’t aware of it!
That wasn’t Paul’s situation, though—he was well aware that his faith was on trial. At the end of Acts 23, Felix the Roman governor sent to Jerusalem for Paul’s Jewish accusers while keeping him in custody in Caesarea. Five days later the high priest Ananias responds to the summons and travels 65 miles to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus. When the court convened, they brought their charges against Paul before the governor. So we have a politician, a lawyer, and a Jew all together in the same room. Make up your own joke, then let’s see what actually took place.
[Read Acts 24:1-9]
As a trained and experienced trial lawyer, Tertullus opens with an attempt to capture the judge’s goodwill. Traditionally it was complimentary, but on this occasion it descended to almost nauseating flattery. Tertullus expresses gratitude for the “peace” Felix had secured and the “reforms” he had introduced, whereas in reality Felix had stamped out several insurrections with barbarous cruelty. (Not unlike complimenting Osama bin Laden for his architectural reforms in lower Manhattan.)
Tertullus proceeds to make three charges against Paul: First, that Paul was a troublemaker who stirred up riots among the Jews all over the world (v. 5a). This was a serious accusation because of its political overtones. Rome wasn’t known for tolerating troublemakers.
Second, that Paul is a ringleader of “the Nazarene sect” (v. 5b). The term Nazarene derives from the fact that Jesus grew up in Nazareth and was used of Jesus in the Gospels. It’s not difficult to imagine Tertullus’s sneer when he said that.
Third, that Paul tried to desecrate the temple, a reference to the mistaken assumption that Paul had brought Trophimus the Ephesian in where it was not permitted (v. 6). This was a particularly damaging and dangerous accusation, because the Romans had given the Jews wide latitude in dealing with offenses against their temple.
Tertullus concludes his prosecution with a direct appeal to Felix to examine Paul himself, and the other Jews join in, asserting these accusations were true (v. 9).
How would you react?
When your faith is on trial, expect to be misquoted. Expect to be labeled, often unfairly. Expect a measure of hostility. That’s the way it went with Jesus; that’s the way it went with Paul. That’s the way the world behaves when confronted with the gospel. When your faith is on trial, how will you respond? Will you be prepared?
Paul was prepared.
[Read Acts 24:10-21]
When our faith is on trial, we must be blameless before the world
When it was his turn to speak, Paul launched into his defense. He also began with an opening statement to the judge, although it was considerably more modest and moderate than Tertullus’ had been. Paul then proceeds to refute the prosecution’s allegations one by one.
First, that he was emphatically not a troublemaker. In the few days at his disposal in Jerusalem, he had had no time to foment an insurrection; he had had no intention of doing so either, since he went to Jerusalem as a pilgrim to worship, not as an agitator to cause a riot. His accusers could produce no evidence that in the temple, synagogue, or city Paul had caused a disturbance or even engaged in an argument.
Second, Paul addressed himself to the charge that he was a “ringleader of the Nazarene sect.” This led him into an affirmation as well as a denial. Although he was indeed a follower of the Way, this was not a “sect,” as they called it, for he worshiped the God of their forefathers and believed the teaching of the Scriptures. “The Way” enjoyed direct continuity with the Old Testament, for the Scriptures bore witness to Jesus Christ as the one in whom God’s promises had been fulfilled.
The third accusation against Paul was that he had profaned the temple (v. 7). This he strenuously denied (vv. 17–21). Far from desecrating the temple, Paul’s purpose in visiting Jerusalem had been religious (v. 17), and his condition when found in the temple had been one of Jewish ceremonial purity (v. 18). There was no crowd and no disturbance. It was a group of Asian Jews who had interfered with him and caused a riot just when he was demonstrating his love for his nation and his respect for its laws. And why were these men not in court to press charges? Their absence was a serious breach of Roman law.
Since those Asian Jews were not there as witnesses, then those who were there should state what crime the Sanhedrin had convicted him of (v. 20). The fact was that the Pharisees on the Sanhedrin had thought him innocent of any crime (Acts 23:9). Only the Sadducees thought him guilty, and that only of a theological disagreement concerning the resurrection of the dead. But what does Rome care about Jewish theological disputes?
Look again at v.16: “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.” Paul asserts his blamelessness. He does not claim to be sinless but blameless. There’s a difference. He isn’t saying he hasn’t sinned before God; he is saying that he has committed no crime against Rome and no crime against Jerusalem. No one can point a finger at Paul regarding his personal life—a powerful state for an ambassador of Christ to be in. When our faith is on trial, we must be blameless before the world.
James “Deacon” White played at the very dawn of professional baseball. In fact, on May 4, 1871, James White had the very first hit, in the first game, of the first professional baseball league. It was a double. He was the first catcher to use a mask and the first pitcher to go into a wind-up before throwing the ball. Over his 20-year career, White played for teams in Cincinnati, Buffalo, Detroit, Boston, and Pittsburgh before joining the team that became the Chicago Cubs. White would eventually become the oldest player in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that White helped create the game of baseball we know today. The inscription on White’s plaque in the Hall of Fame, however, doesn’t begin with the words “19th-century star of baseball,” or “premier catcher of his era,” or “led teams to six championships,” although all three phrases are there. The first words on the plaque are “consummate gentleman.” At a time when professional athletes were viewed as unsavory, hard-drinking womanizers, James White earned the nickname “Deacon” for his commitment to Christian faith and virtue which were evident to everyone who saw him play.
For example, in 1878, the Indianapolis Journal reported that an umpire actually consulted with White, a player on the field, about whether the base runner was out. When the opponent complained, the ump declared, “When White says a thing is so it is so, and that is the end of it.” In 1886, the Detroit Free Press wrote:
No one ever yet heard Deacon White [curse]; no one ever saw him spike or trample upon an opponent; no one ever saw him hurl his bat towards the bench when he struck out; no one ever heard him wish the umpire were where the wicked never cease from troubling and the weary never get a rest. And think of it! Nineteen years of provocation! Will anybody deny that Deacon White is a great and good man, as well as a first-class ballplayer?”
Deacon White stood out and was remembered for being blameless.
So case dismissed, right? Let’s hear the verdict:
[Read Acts 24:22-27]
When our faith is on trial, we must be shameless about Christ
Note that Paul keeps introducing resurrection as a topic, even when his own neck is on the line. He went there with the Sanhedrin and it threw them into a tizzy. He goes there again here. He wants to talk about resurrection, Christ, faith, and new life because he is shameless about Christ. He won’t get the chance publicly, but he will in private.
Felix, who “was well acquainted with the Way,” adjourned the proceedings. He could not convict Paul, since no one had been able to convict him or substantiate their charges. Paul was blameless. On the other hand, Felix was unwilling to release Paul, partly because he hoped for a bribe (v. 26) and partly because he wanted to curry favor with the Jews (v. 27). The only other option was to postpone his verdict on the pretext that he needed his commander’s advice (v. 22). Meanwhile, Felix ordered Paul to be kept under custodia libera, a category reserved for Roman citizens who had not been convicted of a crime. Paul was never left unguarded but his friends enjoyed free access to him (v. 23).
There was to be no further public hearing for two years (v. 27). During this period, however, Felix conducted a kind of private investigation of his own, perhaps prompted by his wife, Drusilla. Drusilla was the youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa I, whose opposition and death Luke described in Acts 12. She had a reputation for ravishing beauty, on account of which Felix had seduced her from her rightful husband to make her his third wife. In their conversations, Paul focused on faith in Christ Jesus (v. 24). Since Drusilla was a Jewess, he must have recounted the facts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and deployed his customary arguments that this Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of Scripture. He would also have presented Jesus not only as a figure of history and the fulfillment of prophecy but also as the Savior and Lord in whom Felix and Drusilla should put their trust.
Paul never proclaimed the Good News in a vacuum, but always in context—the personal context of his hearers. So he went on to talk about “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” (v. 25). Some describe these as the “three tenses of salvation,” namely, how to be justified or pronounced righteous by God, how to overcome temptation and gain self-mastery, and how to escape the awful final judgment of God.
These topics are relevant to people in power, for they respect power. Many of them look at Christians as weak people who need the crutch of a loving God to enable them to face the hardships of life. They regard themselves as self-made people, who do not need that crutch. People like that must be confronted with the holiness and sovereignty of God and made to realize that they too need to come to grips with the power of Almighty God if they want assurance of a secure future.
Ajith Fernando suggests that one way to present the gospel to powerful people is to confront them with the reality of future judgment. God did this with Nebuchadnezzar, John the Baptist did this with the Pharisees, Peter did this with Cornelius, and Paul with the Athenians. Do we neglect this today?
One role of the Holy Spirit is to “convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). As his people, we can become the medium through which he performs that role, if we are shameless enough.
It is not surprising that given his background, Felix became afraid and declared that he had had enough for the time being. Unfortunately there is no evidence that Felix ever surrendered to Christ and was redeemed. When Porcius Festus succeeded him, Felix still left Paul in prison.
The publicist for the late author and debater Christopher Hitchens asked Christian author Larry Taunton to arrange a series of debates between Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, and Christian thinkers. Over the ensuing years, Hitchens and Taunton developed an unlikely friendship. Hitchens stayed in Taunton’s home, and prior to Hitchens’s death from cancer, the two friends took two long road trips across America. Here’s how Taunton describes what happened on one of those trips:
[We were traveling through] the Shenandoah. The skies are clear, the autumn leaves are translucent in the early afternoon sun, and the road ahead of us is open. … In a strong, clear voice, Christopher is reading from the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John. Reaching the 25th and 26th verses, his face lights up with recognition. He stops. “I know this one too,” he says. “I did not recall its connection with the resurrection of Lazarus.”
“It’s a great verse,” I add, sensing we have reached a defining moment.
“Yes, Dickens thought so,” Christopher says, and then, taking his reading glasses off, he turns to me and asks: “Do you believest thou this, Larry Taunton?” His sarcasm is evident, but it lacks its customary force.
“I do. But you already knew that I did. The question is, do you believest thou this, Christopher Hitchens?” As if searching for a clever riposte, he hesitates and speaks with unexpected transparency: “I’ll admit that it is not without appeal to a dying man.”
I recently visited the Indiana Blood Center to donate blood. I was waited on by Misty, who wears a Bible verse on her nametag so people will ask her about it. While lying on the table, I observed how Misty goes about encouraging everyone there, blameless in her work and shameless about her Lord.
Beachgoers along the shores of Panama City Beach in Florida last July found themselves witness to an event as dangerous as it was inspiring. While playing in the water, two boys suddenly became caught in a rip current and started screaming for help. Understandably, the boys’ mother jumped in the water to try to save them, only to get caught herself. One by one, more family members came in after the group, only to face the same predicament.
After just a short time, the spectacle and shouts had attracted a number of onlookers. “There was a guy in the water, saying, ‘Man, they’re all stuck out there, the riptide’s pulled them out. I tried to go out there; if I go any farther, I’m going to get stuck,’” said witness Derek Simmons. But luckily, Simmons’s wife, Jessica, did some quick thinking, gathered the help of those around them, and began instructing people to grasp arms and wade into the sea as a human chain, anchored to the safety of the shore. As many as 80 people worked together in this fashion, and after a stressful few minutes successfully pulled the swimmers to safety. “It was the most remarkable thing to see,” Jessica Simmons told reporters. “These people who don’t even know each other and they trust each other that much to get them to safety.”
Christians in the past have observed how “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” One of the most beautiful parts of the gospel is how after God saves his children, he does not tell us to just stand by but allows us to join him in the precious work of taking the Good News to the rest of the world.
Let’s stay blameless and shameless together, and we too will witness well.
David Ward is Pastor of Teaching Ministries for New Hope Church in Greenwood, IN.