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Take Courage

When you fear the worst, take courage in Christ.


Football referees are unbiased, right? They would never be influenced by fans or football players, right? Well, according to a recent study, football officials are often swayed by their surroundings. Michael Lopez, a researcher and statistician at Skidmore College in New York, led a study that found referees are much more likely to make calls that favor the team whose coaches and players are on the sideline closest to the potential penalty.

Lopez analyzed five years of NFL games, including 1,400 penalty calls where the action happened close to one team’s sideline or the other. One of the files he examined was whether referees called a late hit on a player. If one player is tackling another, he’s allowed to do it while the opposing player is within bounds but not if he’s out of bounds. But the bodies are frequently flying into one another near a sideline. It’s what’s called a bang-bang play: It all happens so quickly and the refs have to make a judgment call.

Lopez measured how often these kinds of judgment calls go in favor of the team whose coaches are on the sideline closest to where the potential penalty is taking place. He found referees are much more likely to make calls that comply with what people nearest to them are demanding.

In short, intimidation works. Yell at the refs, get in their face, and they are more likely to cave to social pressure. Social pressure is a powerful force, and it takes either a special kind of person or a special kind of power to stand up to it.

How do you stand up under social pressure? Where does your courage come from?

Last week we saw how Paul the apostle went out of his way to show the Way to the people of Jerusalem. Paul had been in the Jewish temple when he was falsely accused of defiling it by bringing a Gentile inside. A riot followed in which the angry crowd intended to kill him and would have done so on the spot had he not been rescued by Roman soldiers. Paul asked the captain for an opportunity to speak up and then gave his personal testimony to the crowd. In terms of the response, it didn’t go all that great.

[Read Acts 22:22–24, 22:30–23:10]

The Good News can Bring Out the Worst in People

When I was in college, a friend and I went out one Friday night to attempt some street evangelism, hoping to talk to people about spiritual matters and share Christ if we could. We approached one guy who was sitting quietly on a bench, not doing much of anything. We introduced ourselves and as soon as we mentioned Jesus, the man jumped up, shook his fist at us, and yelled, “I ain’t interested in that stuff!” (Only “stuff” wasn’t the actual word he used.) We moved on. And I learned then and there that the Good News can bring out the worst in people.

Derek Lam is a courageous young Christian leader living in Hong Kong. Last year he wrote for The New York Times about the suppression of human rights for Christians in China. Lam wrote: “Since I was 16 years old, I have wanted to be a pastor. I was raised in a Christian family in Hong Kong that urged me to live by biblical principles [which] have also informed my democratic activism for the past six years—and it is for that reason that I am likely to be jailed next month and that I will be barred from ever becoming a pastor.”

Lam provides examples of what he calls “an unprecedented erosion of religious freedom in Hong Kong, especially for Christians”—believers forced to worship in underground churches, the government tearing down church buildings. The only way to avoid trouble, Lam says, is for churches to stay quiet and small or to bow down to the current leader of China—Xi Jinping. But Lam boldly declares, “I won’t make Jesus bow down to Xi Jinping.” He concludes: “Although there is nothing I would love more than to become a pastor and preach the gospel in Hong Kong, I will never do so if it means making Jesus subservient to Xi Jinping. Instead, I will continue to fight for religious freedom in Hong Kong, even if I have to do it from behind bars. What I ask of you is to keep Hong Kong in your prayers as we seek to find light amid the sea of darkness descending upon us.”

Let’s remember that the gospel is offensive. To those in power who love power, to those who think this world is all there is, to those who think all truth is relative, to those who think themselves righteous, to the Jews in Paul’s day who refused to receive Christ as Messiah, the gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive.

Paul made a bold statement before the Sanhedrin when he said he had lived with a clean conscience, a comment which enraged the high priest. The high priest has no rational reply to Paul, and in his frustration resorts to force and insult. (According to Josephus, Ananias was a corrupt, quick-tempered character.) Ananias ordered that Paul be slapped in the mouth for his impudence and impertinence.

Now that was an especially degrading form of insult to an Israelite, and, in fact, Gentiles don’t particularly care for it, either. To strike an unconvicted person was illegal, as both Paul and the high priest knew. Paul reacts strongly: “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” To describe him as a “whitewashed wall” was simply to accuse him of hypocrisy. In Ezekiel 13 we read of prophets who painted over a rickety wall with whitewash, foolishly imagining that this would strengthen it. This metaphor was still known and Paul made his own use of it. More openly, he accuses the high priest of hypocrisy in claiming to act as judge in accordance with the law and yet violating the law during a trial.

The members of the high council were astounded that Paul would call down a curse on the high priest who, in their eyes, was appointed by God to his office. They called Paul to order (v. 4). Paul was well aware that one should not act in this way, as the law stated in Exodus 22:28. But it isn’t a simple apology that Paul offers. He claims that he did not know that it was the high priest he addressed. This is hard to believe. Theories that Paul had poor eyesight or that he did not see who had given the order or that he did not recognize the high priest seem unlikely.

My take is that Paul was speaking with biting sarcasm: “I did not know that such a man as that could be the high priest.” (Paul’s comment about Ananias proves to be prophetic, for within ten years the high priest had to flee to Herod’s palace, his house was burned, and he was eventually assassinated by Jews for being pro-Roman.)

The effect of this incident shows that Paul was unlikely to get justice from a Jewish court. He introduces a new issue by claiming that what was really at stake was the question of belief in the resurrection. Although he introduces it in general terms, his real point is the resurrection of Jesus.

This throws the court into confusion, especially with some (not all) Pharisees partly siding with Paul. Theologians love to argue, and things get so heated in the room that the Roman commander was compelled to bring the proceedings to a halt and again remove Paul from possible danger to his person.

The Good News can bring out the worst in people. Think about Paul’s last two days: He has been misunderstood, falsely accused, beaten, arrested, chained, misidentified, shouted down, threatened with flogging, dragged into court, punched in the mouth, and taken back into custody. How would you feel? Could you go on another day? What fresh horrors might tomorrow hold?

It’s not difficult to imagine that Paul felt dejected and discouraged. Now he is back in a cell, humiliated, defeated, with his dreams of being a testimony to the Jews in ruins. His friends cannot help him, and he is alone.

Well, not entirely alone. God in his grace did not leave Paul on his own.

[Read Acts 22:11]

Here are three vitally important points to hold on to for standing up under social pressure.

When You Fear the Worst, Take Courage in Christ’s Presence

“The Lord” (i.e., Jesus) appears and stands near Paul. He tells Paul to “take courage!” It’s a word Christ has spoken before: He called to the bedridden paralytic, “Take courage son; your sins are forgiven (Matt. 9:1–8). To the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage, he said, “Take courage, daughter, your faith has healed you” (Matt. 9:22). To his frightened disciples as he walked to them across the water he said. “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27). In the Upper Room on the night of his betrayal, he said, “Take courage, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Many mothers attend their children’s graduation ceremonies—but how many attend the ceremony and receive an honorary degree at the same time? That's what happened to Judy O’Conner, who received an MBA from Chapman University—to her complete surprise—just after her son was awarded his. Why? Because her son, Marty, is a quadriplegic and couldn’t take his own notes while in class, so Judy attended every class with him and took his notes.

Judy had been living in Florida when Marty fell down a flight of stairs and was paralyzed back in 2012—she then moved to Southern California to help her son earn his MBA. After Judy had wheeled Marty across the stage so he could receive his diploma, a choked-up graduation announcer said the school's faculty, administrators, and board of trustees had decided to give her an MBA as well—an idea that her son had originally thought up and suggested. According to the Los Angeles Times, “[a] stunned but composed Judy O’Conner blew a kiss to the crowd giving her a standing ovation.” For Judy, the classes were a privilege: “I’m a geek. I love being in school. … I’m not going to lie. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

I want us to take comfort and courage in the fact that our own Lord stands even more steadfastly alongside us. Jesus says, “And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” When you fear the worst, take courage in Christ’s presence.

When You Fear the Worst, Take Courage in Christ’s Purpose

There seemed little prospect of Paul’s leaving Jerusalem alive, let alone of traveling to Rome. So in this moment of discouragement, Jesus comforts Paul with the straightforward promise that “as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” Amid all the confusion of these days, the apostle receives assurance that his ministry is not over! God is working out his purposes, and one of Paul’s great dreams is going to be fulfilled—he will go to Rome to witness for Christ. God had a job for Paul to do and nothing could thwart it.

What is Christ’s purpose for your life? If you aren’t clear on that, ask him!

The 1973 movie Serpico, starring Al Pacino, is a true-life story about a New York police officer, Frank Serpico, who went undercover to expose corruption in the police department. Serpico was an honest cop trying to do the right thing, but he was harassed and threatened by his peers.

In one scene, Serpico tells a fable he calls “The Wise King.” It’s a story about a king beloved by his people. In the middle of the kingdom, there was a well from which everyone drank. One night, a witch poisoned the well. The next day, everybody drank from the well except the king. All the people, apart from the king, went crazy, committing crimes and creating chaos.

Observing this behavior, the king approached his subjects and reprimanded them. He demanded they change their behavior. The citizens who once had loved their king became irate and accused him of acting crazy. They came together and made a pact to kill the king, since from their perspective he had gone mad. The king feared for his life. Later that night, he too drank from the well, and immediately went insane. Upon seeing the crazed king the next day, all the people rejoiced because their beloved king had regained his reason.

Going against the grain is never the easiest choice. And voicing what is unpopular can often make us terribly unpopular as well. But sometimes the very things people are least willing to see and hear are the very things they most need to be told and have their attention drawn to. So even if you can’t beat ’em, don’t join ’em. Take courage in Christ’s purpose, and refuse your drink from the poison well.

Ken Wales, a TV and film producer originally from Salem, Indiana, started his Hollywood career as an actor. But early in his career, Wales chose to turn down a significant role because it conflicted with his faith in Christ.

While he was under contract with MGM, he was cast for a film starring Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Shirley MacLaine. At one point in the script, his character enticed a young woman to get drunk so he could take advantage of her. Wales described his decision to decline the role:

I had been speaking to a lot of church groups and conventions around the country on the subject of making right choices. So when I read the script I had to meet with the director, Vincente Minnelli, to tell him I couldn’t do it. He told me, “You’ll do it, or you’ll be out of your contract, you’ll go on suspension, you’ll have no salary for a year, and I’ll see that you never work in this town again.” I told him he’d have to find someone else, and he literally threw me out of his office. I was put on suspension. When the film came out the following year, I was speaking at a youth convention in Denver, to about 600 kids. We took a break at dinnertime, and everybody piled out to see a movie and to get pizza. As we started to walk across the street, there was a huge marquee with a sign for the movie I’d turned down. And I thought that was interesting. “What if I’d done that film and the kids had gone in and seen it?

Wales went on to say that declining that role propelled him into his current role as a film and TV producer. Since then, he has produced a number of award-winning TV series and films.

The Lord’s words greatly encouraged Paul, so much so that he would never again waver, in spite of all the perils yet to come in his life. The Lord’s promise that he had more ministry yet to do helped Paul to keep on faithfully serving him and testifying about him confidently, with faith unbound.

When You Fear the Worst, Take Courage in Christ’s Plan

The vision makes it clear that what is to happen will follow a divinely initiated plan; the hand of God will guide the course of events until Paul stands before the Roman emperor. See if you can see God’s hand at work in what happens next.

[Read Acts 22:12–24, 31–32]

Some 40 men banded together, vowing not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. They are serious about this! But God intervened on Paul’s behalf by taking a previously unmentioned nephew and placing him in just the right place at just the right time to overhear the details of this attempted ambush.

In response, the Roman commander committed 200 soldiers, 70 horsemen, and 200 spearmen; that’s 470 armed men to protect one little Christian. That’s nearly one half of the strength of the garrison in Jerusalem dedicated to guaranteeing Paul’s safety. So Paul was taken from the jurisdiction of the Jews to be placed under that of the Romans, and in the process advanced a step toward his appeal to Caesar and his journey to Rome. Nice, huh?

Joe McKeever tells a true story about his friend Bryan: Aboard a plane to Salt Lake City, Bryan got acquainted with his seatmates, a mother and her ten-year-old daughter. The lady found it intriguing that Bryan was a minister and peppered him with questions. Eventually, Bryan shared his story with her—of how Jesus Christ had changed everything about his life—and ended up praying with them both as they invited Jesus to become their Savior.

That’s when the lady told Bryan why they were headed for Utah. She had been separated from her husband for two years due to his drinking problem, but he had conquered the bottle, and they were going to try marriage again. “He needs the Lord, too,” she said. “When we get to Salt Lake City, would you mind talking to him about this?” Bryan was more than willing.

In the airport, they met the husband and found out that just minutes earlier, as he was waiting for the plane, a furloughed missionary had sat down beside him and led him to faith in Jesus Christ! God had arranged the schedules of two Christ-followers on opposite sides of the world to get this family into the kingdom.


The Good News of Jesus Christ came together at a moment in time when the Greek language and Roman highways and disillusionment over the old religions flowed together to create an ideal situation for spreading it to the known world. Coincidence? No, just a sovereign God on the job. Paul the apostle, imprisoned for no crime, the target of an assassination plot. Will he be silenced? Will the gospel be stopped? Not while Christ has a plan. When you fear the worst, take courage in Christ.

Jesus Christ has a plan for your life. It may not make sense to your family or the rest of the world, it may not be lucrative, and I can all but assure you it won’t be easy. When you fear the worst, take courage in Christ.

Maybe the circumstances you’ve been praying to be delivered out of are the very circumstances he wants you to stay in to enact his greater plan. Hang in there, and follow him. When you fear the worst, take courage in Christ.

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

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