Expect Persecution

Acts 21:27-40

January 29, 2022 | Brian Bill

Today we’ll discover how God accomplishes His purposes through persecution.  When we think about persecution, we usually think of believers in closed countries or what happens to missionaries.  Let me share with you a true story.

In 1921, a missionary couple named David and Svea Flood went from Sweden to the Belgian Congo in Africa. They met up with the Ericksons and felt led by the Lord to go out from the main mission station and take the gospel to an unreached remote area.

When they arrived at the village they were rebuffed by the chief, who would not let them enter his town for fear of alienating the local gods.  The two couples opted to go half a mile up the slope and build their own mud huts.

They prayed for a spiritual breakthrough, but there was none.  The only contact with the villagers was a young boy, who was allowed to sell them chickens and eggs twice a week.  Svea Flood decided if this was the only African, she could talk to, she would try to lead the boy to Jesus.  She succeeded, but there was no other fruit. 

Meanwhile, malaria struck.  In time, the Ericksons decided they had had enough suffering and left to return to the central mission station.  David and Svea Flood remained near the village in their mud huts up on the slope to go on alone.

Svea found herself pregnant in the middle of the primitive wilderness.  When the time came for her to give birth, the village chief softened enough to allow a midwife to help her deliver a little girl whom they named Aina.  The delivery was exhausting, and Svea Flood was already weak from bouts of malaria.  She died seventeen days later.

Something snapped inside David Flood.  He dug a crude grave and buried his wife.  He came back down the mountain to the mission station and gave his newborn daughter to the Ericksons.  Before leaving he snarled, ‘I’m going back to Sweden.  I’ve lost my wife, and I obviously can’t take care of this baby.  God has ruined my life.’  With that, he headed for the port, rejecting not only his calling, but God himself.

Within eight months, both the Ericksons died within days of each other.  The baby was then turned over to some American missionaries, who adjusted her Swedish name to ‘Aggie’ and eventually brought her to the United States.  Her adopted dad became a pastor and Aggie grew up in South Dakota.  She attended North Central Bible college where she met and married a man named Dewey Hurst.

We’ll pick up the “rest of the story” at the end of message but remember, God accomplishes His purposes through persecution.

In Acts 21:12-13, Paul had been warned about problems and persecution which awaited him in Jerusalem, but he was still determined to go: “When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.  Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart?  For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’” 

Let’s pick up the narrative in verse 27 where we will see three ways to handle hardship.

1. Endure misunderstandings. 

If you choose to follow Christ, you will face misinformation and misunderstanding.  Listen to Acts 21:27-29: “When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, ‘Men of Israel, help!  This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place.  Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.’ For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.”

Some unbelieving Jews from Asia saw Paul in the temple and went ballistic.  As we’ve learned in Acts, Paul spent three years in Ephesus, so these religious legalists knew him and didn’t like him.  Many of them would have been part of the earlier riot in Ephesus when they had tried to kill Paul.  Actually, because of his Jewish background, Paul was allowed to go into the inner court of the temple, but these enemies of the gospel decided to stir up the crowd.  The phrase “stirred up” means, “confused.”  They deliberately used misinformation to accomplish their malevolent and murderous plans.

Have you noticed how much misinformation is flying around today?  This is especially the case online.  According to a recent study, nearly 80% of Americans believe misinformation and disinformation has become a real problem.  In this same study, 10% admit to deliberately sharing fake news.

These religious people yelled out for help, as if Paul’s an assailant.  They made three charges against him, accusing him of “teaching everyone everywhere,” which is a general statement designed to enrage the crowds.  

  • He’s against Jewish people.  They accused him of being anti-Semitic, which is rather funny because Paul was raised Jewish.
  • He’s against the law of God.  During the Feast of Pentecost, people celebrated the giving of God’s law, so this really fired them up.
  • He’s against the temple.  Interestingly, this is a similar charge they made against Jesus.

Acts 6:13 says Stephen faced similar charges before he was martyred: “And they set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never ceases to speak words against this place and the law.’”  

Herod the Great wanted to be liked by the Jews, so he decided to build them a temple fashioned after Solomon’s Temple, which had previously been destroyed.  Herod’s temple was huge in comparison.  The whole temple mount area was the size of 20 football fields.  The temple took 40 years to build and was surrounded by 1,000 pillars.

The temple had some specific rules regarding where people could go.  Gentiles could gather for prayer in the outer courtyard, women could meet in the Court of Women, Jewish men could gather in the Courtyard of Israel, the priests could enter the Holy Place, and only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only once a year.  They charged Paul with “defiling” the temple, which is similar to the word “pollute” by bringing Greeks into the inner courts.  This was not true, but they persisted in this false claim.

Separating the court of the Gentiles from the other courts, stood a barrier beyond which no Gentile could pass.  On the wall was this solemn inscription written in Latin and Greek so pagans could read the warning: “No man of alien race is to enter within the barricade which surrounds the sanctuary and enclosure.  Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.”  The Romans honored this prohibition, allowing Jews to kill anyone who violated the order.

After starting with a general accusation, they got more specific in their charges.  They assumed or “supposed” that because a Greek named Trophimus was often seen with Paul, he must have gone into the temple with him.  This was not true, but they weren’t after truth at this point.  They saw this as their chance to finish the job they began in Ephesus.  So, they dragged him through the various courtyards into the Courtyard of the Gentiles, where it was lawful for them to stone him to death.

Truth is a scarce commodity in our culture as well.  Some people simply don’t care if something is true, as long as it lines up with their feelings.  I came across a sentence which seems to capture our cultural narrative: “With feelings being more important than facts, we clamber onto the raft of a captivating story and paddle to safety more than we assimilate the facts and stand on firm ground.”

Build your faith on facts, not feelings!

Postmodernism is the prevailing philosophy of our day, which is the belief there is no such thing as absolute truth.  Rather, truth is personal and subjective – I have my truth and you have your truth.  This philosophy is not only “out there” but also in the evangelical church.  Barna claims 53% of born-again believers do not believe in absolute truth.  Here’s what I want to say to that: Build your faith on facts, not feelings!

As a new believer I came across a simple illustration which still plays on the screen of my mind.  I share this at least once a year so it’s time for refresher.  Picture a train on the tracks with the engine representing facts, the coal car (it’s an old illustration) as our faith, and the caboose as our feelings.  The idea is not to be led by your feelings but rather to tell your feelings to listen to the facts.  We need to talk back to our feelings instead of letting them run our lives.  Too many of us let our feelings drive the train when the Bible calls us to let the facts of God’s Word be the engine of our faith.  If you let your feelings run everything, you’ll go off the rails. 

God accomplishes His purposes through persecution.  

2. Expect persecution. 

Verse 30 tells us what happened when this misinformation was spread: “Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together.  They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut.”  Something similar happened to Jesus in the same city according to Matthew 21:10: “And when He entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’”  In Acts 16:19, we read Paul and Silas were seized and dragged into prison.  

Notice, how quickly these religious guys shut the temple gates: “and at once the gates were shut.”  Ironically, they didn’t want their persecution of Paul to pollute the temple.  They probably had the warning from 2 Kings 11:15 in mind when Athaliah was murdered: “Let her not be put to death in the house of the Lord.”

Look at verse 31: “And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion.”  The “tribune of the cohort” was an officer in charge of special forces located in the Fortress of Antonia, which was a tall building with guard towers located next to the northwest corner of the temple.  This fortress housed 1,000 Romans soldiers who were ready to respond to any riots or revolutions.  BTW, the Jews resented the thought the Romans had built a building taller and right next to their magnificent temple.

When this military officer saw what was happening, verse 32 tells us what he did: “He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them.  And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.”  Not wasting any time, he ordered soldiers and centurions to get the crowds to stop beating Paul.  A centurion oversaw 100 soldiers, and since the use of this word is plural, we know at least 200 soldiers descended on the scene.

In verse 33 we read, “Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains.  He inquired who he was and what he had done.”  I wonder if the prophecy of Agabus from Acts 21:11 about Paul being bound and delivered into the hands of the Gentiles came to his mind?

Like the “Mayhem” guy from the Allstate commercials, verse 34 tells us “Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another.”  Because there was so much noise and confusion, “he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.”

Let’s pick up what happened next in verses 35-36: “And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, for the mob of the people followed, crying out, ‘Away with him!’”  Just 30 years earlier, Luke 23:18 tells us another crowd turned on Christ in this same vicinity: “They all cried out together, ‘Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas!’”

We don’t like to hear this, but Jesus predicted problems and persecution would come to His followers.  Jesus didn’t preach the prosperity gospel; He preached the persecution gospel.

Luke 21:12: “But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.”

John 15:20: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

1 Thessalonians 3:3-4: “That no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.”

2 Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Many Christ-followers today are persecuted and mistreated.  Listen to what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:13: “We have become, and are still like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”  According to the Open Doors Watch List, over the past year, 360 million Christians lived in places where they experienced high levels of persecution and discrimination.  In 2021, nearly 4,000 believers were abducted and 5,898 were killed for their faith.  Persecution is extremely high in Afghanistan, which for the first time has supplanted North Korea as the most dangerous country for Christians.

This week I went back and reread the sermon I preached on November 16-17, 2019, when we celebrated the completion of our renovation and expansion project. 

On this Dedication Weekend when we celebrate God’s faithfulness and worthiness, I want to call us to persevere even when persecution comes, and it will.  When Christianity collides with culture, there will always be fallout.  

Before leaving this point, I want to mention two things about Paul we might overlook.

  • God gave Paul more than he could handle.  According to 2 Corinthians 1:8, he suffered such extreme pressure and persecution he wanted to end it all: “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.”
  • Paul felt deserted by everyone but God.  He was stoned, beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and betrayed.  Often he went without food, sleep, and shelter.  Demas left him when he was in prison and Alexander did him a “great deal of harm.”  Listen to 2 Timothy 4:16: “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.”   And yet, God comforted him.
God accomplishes His purposes through persecution

Let’s endure misunderstandings and expect persecution but let’s not stop there.  We must always look for ways to leverage the gospel because God accomplishes His purposes through persecution.  

3. Embrace gospel opportunities. 

Listen to what Jesus said in Luke 21:13 after promising persecution to the disciples: “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.”  We’ll see more of this next weekend but let’s learn how Paul laid the groundwork for a gospel presentation in verses 37-40: “As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, ‘May I say something to you?’ And he said, ‘Do you know Greek? Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?   Paul replied, ‘I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.’  And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people.  And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying:”

I see six evangelism pointers from this passage.

  • Be courteous and respectful.  Even though Paul had been pummeled, shackled, and roughed up, he doesn’t tear into the officer.  Instead, he turned to him and asked, “May I say something to you?”  By asking permission to speak, he demonstrated humility and deference.  This makes me think of 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
  • Ask questions.  Paul didn’t begin with a statement but rather with a question which invited an answer.  In a similar way, when Philip heard the Ethiopian reading Isaiah, he took the initiative and asked him a question in Acts 8:30, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  It’s always a good idea to follow the model of Jesus and ask people questions.  It helps them think in new ways and often reveals inadequacies and contradictions in their thought patterns.  Rebecca Pippert, in her book Out of the Saltshaker, says good evangelism is 60% asking questions, 30% building intrigue, and 10% sharing the gospel.  

In this instance, the officer responded by asking two questions which lead to clarity regarding false assumptions being addressed.  When Paul spoke, the officer realized Paul was not a commoner, but a well-educated person who spoke Greek.  Up until then, he thought Paul was the Egyptian leader of an anti-Roman revolutionary group.  

  • Clear up misconceptions.  It’s highly likely the person you are witnessing to will have some misconceptions about who you are and what you believe.  Listen to what Paul said in verse 39: “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city.”  Paul was Jewish by religious background, Roman by citizen, Greek by culture, and Christian through the new birth.  As a Jew, he had every right to be in the temple.  The town of Tarsus had a great reputation and was known for commerce, culture, and scholarship.  Paul was a citizen there, meaning he was not a rebel.

Invite a response.  Because Paul had already demonstrated respect, he was granted permission to speak to all the people after asking in verse 39, “I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.”  

  • Get people’s attention.  When speaking with someone, it’s important to try to get and keep their attention.  Paul did that in verse 40 by motioning “with his hand to the people.”  It must have worked because there was a “great hush.”
  • Speak the language of the heart.  Even though Paul spoke Greek and perhaps Latin, in verse 40 “he addressed them in the Hebrew language.”  This was likely Aramaic, a common language based on Hebrew, spoken by Palestinian Jews and Jesus himself.  By using this dialect, he connected with them and showed he respected their culture.

We have been learning how God accomplishes His purposes through persecution.  Pastor Ed and I have the privilege of serving as board members for Keep Believing Ministries.  At our board meeting this past Saturday, Pastor Ray led a devotional from Ephesians.  BTW, Ray is teaching an online class on this book Tuesday through Thursday each week.  Here’s what Ray shared from Ephesians 3:1: “For this reason, I Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.” 

Remember when Paul wrote those words, he was under house arrest in Rome…He never says I’m a prisoner of Rome, although he could have said that.  He calls himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

He didn’t deserve to be there; his imprisonment was completely unfair.  How could he still say he’s a prisoner of Christ Jesus?  Perspective makes all the difference. When hard times come, be a student, not a victim.  Paul is not a victim because he saw God’s hand in everything.  

Do we understand that great principle?  Nothing happens to us apart from God.  You are where you are right now, in every part of your life, in every situation you are facing, because God wants you there.  Because if God wanted you somewhere else, you’d be somewhere else. 

It’s a lot easier to bloom where you’re planted if you like the soil and garden where you are.  You may say, I’m stuck in manure…Well, bloom there, grow there. Don’t waste your days dreaming you were somewhere else. 

Paul could do more in prison than he could out of it at that moment – he wrote four books in our Bibles from prison.  It’s not wrong to want to be out of prison but seize the day where you are.  If you feel like you’re in prison, don’t complain about the chains…Jesus put you where you are.

God loves to bring good out of bad as Genesis 50:20 says: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

Let’s pick up the story of Aggie, the baby born in the Congo, who is now a young wife.

One day, a Swedish religious magazine appeared in her mailbox.  She couldn’t read the words, but as she turned the pages, a photo stopped her cold.  There in a primitive setting was a grave with a white cross, with the name of her mother, ‘SVEA FLOOD’

A translator summarized the story about missionaries who had come to a village long ago…the birth of a white baby…the death of the young mother…the one little African boy who had been led to Christ…and how, after the whites had all left, the boy had grown up and finally persuaded the chief to let him build a school in the village.  The article said that gradually he won all his students to Christ…the children led their parents to Christ…even the chief had become a Christian.  Today there were six hundred Christian believers in that one village…

All because of the sacrifice of David and Svea Flood.

Years later, Aggie sought to find her real father in Sweden.  An old man now, David Flood had remarried, fathered four more children, and generally dissipated his life with alcohol. He had recently suffered a stroke. Still bitter, he had one rule in his family: ‘Never mention the name of God, because God took everything from me.’

Aggie was not to be deterred.  She walked into his squalid apartment, with bottles of alcohol everywhere, and approached the 73-year-old man lying in a rumpled bed.

‘Papa?’ she said tentatively. He turned and began to cry. ‘Aina,’ he said, ‘I never meant to give you away.’ ‘It’s all right Papa,’ she replied, taking him gently in her arms, ‘God took care of me.’ 

The man instantly stiffened and said, ‘God forgot all of us!  Our lives have been like this because of Him.’  He turned his face back to the wall.

Aggie stroked his face and then continued, undaunted. ‘Papa, I’ve got a little story to tell you, and it’s a true one.  You didn’t go to Africa in vain.  Mama didn’t die in vain.  The little boy you won to the Lord grew up to win that whole village to Jesus Christ.  The one seed you planted just kept growing and growing.  Today there are six hundred African people serving the Lord because you were faithful to the call of God in your life.’

‘Papa, Jesus loves you.  He has never hated you.’

The old man turned back to look into his daughter’s eyes.  His body relaxed. He began to talk and by the end of the afternoon, he had come back to the God he had resented for so many decades.  Within a few weeks, David Flood had gone into eternity.

A few years later, Aggie attended a large evangelism conference in London. A report was given from Congo (Zaire) by the superintendent of the national church, representing over 100,000 baptized believers.  He spoke eloquently of the gospel’s spread in his nation. 

Aggie asked him afterwards if he had ever heard of David and Svea Flood. ‘Yes, madam,’ the man replied in French, his words translated into English. ‘It was Svea Flood who led me to Jesus Christ.  I was the boy who brought chickens and eggs to your parents before you were born.  In fact, to this day your mother’s grave and her memory are honored by all of us.’  He continued, ‘You must come to Africa to see, because your mother is the most famous person in our history.’

In time that is exactly what Aggie did.  The most dramatic moment was when the pastor escorted Aggie to see her mother’s white cross for herself.  She knelt in the soil to pray and give thanks.  Later that day, in the church, the pastor read from John 12:24: ‘I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’  He then followed with Psalm 126:5: ‘Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.’ 

[Adapted from an article written by Randy Alcorn based on an excerpt from Aggie: The Inspiring Story of a Girl Without a Country, Gospel Publishing House, 1986]

So, here’s a question for us.  No matter what situation you are in, in what soul will you sow the seed of the gospel this week?  

God accomplishes His purposes through persecution.  When persecution becomes personal for you, hold on to these three truths.

  1. Endure misunderstandings.
  2. Expect persecution.
  3. Embrace gospel opportunities.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?