By Pastor Glenn Pease
When Irving Berlin visited London as a young man he gave the doorman at the station the largest tip of his life. He did it because when he held the door open for him he was whistling, "Alexander's Ragtime Band." That was Berlin's first big hit. That doorman was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
On the other hand, there was Mike Maryn in Chicago who had been mugged 83 times in 5 years. He had been mugged by men, women, and by youth. The police didn't know why. All they could say was, "He happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Paul gives us a picture of another possibility, and that is of being in the right place at the wrong time. He was in the temple doing good, but he was recognized by an enemy who started a riot. Paul got into serious trouble even when he did everything right. There are those who dispute whether Paul was right in coming to Jerusalem. Ray Stedman, for example, is convinced that Paul made a major mistake in his stubborn determination to come to Jerusalem. He was warned by people led of the Spirit, and he should have given heed to their warnings. He didn't do so, and it led to two years of imprisonment in Caesarea and three years imprisonment in Rome. It was all unnecessary waste says Stedman, and so Paul's problems could have been prevented had he been open to friendly advice.
The problem with such criticism of Paul is that is ignores the fact that Acts 20:27 says that Paul was compelled by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and that he was fully aware of the risks that awaited him. We have to accept the testimony of God's Word and see that Paul was in the center of God's will. He was doing what was good and right, and yet was nearly buried under an avalanche of problems. Joseph Parker feels that the church leaders were the ones making a mistake in expecting Paul to have to prove himself to the Jewish Christians. Paul was God's man, and the Holy Spirit had used him mightily to open up the Gentile world to the Gospel. What business was it of there's to impose their ceremonial nonsense on Paul?
It is easy to feel this way for us who are Gentiles, but the fact is, Paul did not present one word of resistance. This man of deep conviction, who withstood Peter to his face on an issue where Peter was falsely compromising, did not say a word to this proposal for peace, but he calmly cooperated. Who has the authority to call this a mistake? Paul was seeking unity with the largest Christian church in the world, and the headquarters of Christianity. It was a sensible move. Paul recognized when there were times when you have to cooperate with fellow Christians on issues over which you disagree, but which are not vital to salvation.
I think of Billy and Ruth Graham. Here is the world's most famous Baptist married to a Presbyterian. Many of Billy's friend urged Ruth to be re-baptized by immersion. In spite of the pressure she declined. So Billy has had to live with love, and cooperate with a wife who has a different conviction from his own. It is probably led to some problems, but it has also opened up doors for him in different denominations. Problems are not a valid criteria by which we judge the rightness or wrongness of actions, or the success or failure of a plan. You cannot say that if you do all that God wills that there will be no problems. That does not fit reality.
Paul's life was problem oriented from the moment he stepped on to the stage of history. He was a major problem to the Christians as he persecuted them. He then became a major problem to the Jews when he was converted. He was always somebody's problem, and so he had problems wherever he went. He was in Jerusalem as a peacemaker, and he was in the temple proving he was a lover of the Jewish heritage, and still he became the center of a vicious riot that almost ended his life. He was trying to solve a problem and became the cause of a larger problem. Erick Sevareid was right when he said, "The chief cause of problems is solutions."
Paul was not causing a problem because he was a proud and presumptuous Christian who thought he was above the law. He was not like the one who was driving an evangelist down the streets of Los Angeles when the evangelist shouted, "You are going down a one way street the wrong way!" He responded, "It's okay. We are children of the king, and so we have the right of way." We can understand such a Christian getting into serious trouble. But Paul gets into trouble even when he is being an ideal law abiding citizen. He is bending over backwards to please everybody. He is trying to please the Jewish leaders of the church, and he is trying to please the thousands of Jewish converts to Christianity who have heard false rumors that he is anti-Moses. Paul is a totally cooperative spirit, and yet he still gets into serious trouble.
In My Fair Lady Eliza Doolittle sang of the need for action rather than words.
Words, Words, Words! I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through. First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don't talk of stars burning above
If you're in love, show me!
Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme!
Don't waste my time, show me!
Don't talk of June! Don't talk of fall!
Don't talk at all! Show me!
This is what the leaders of the Jerusalem church wanted out of Paul. They wanted a demonstration of his loyalty to the heritage of Israel. They did not want a testimony or lecture on loyalty, but they wanted action. They said, "Show us," and Paul said by his actions of going into the temple with four other men that he was showing his loyalty. This sincere act of love and cooperation almost got him killed, and it did lead him to spending most of the rest of his life in prison. We have looked at the theme many times of how God brings good out of evil, but here is a switch where we see evil coming out of good.
As Paul's life unfolds after his arrest, and one court case after another, we see again how good comes out of evil of his imprisonment. But in our study now we want to focus on this theme of evil coming out of good, and the primary tool Satan uses to make this possible. Why does it happen that people doing the will of God, and striving to be loving to others, end up in some sort of mess because the whole plan collapses, and folly wins the day? That is what we see happening to Paul, and it happens to Christians all the time. Their honest efforts to be peace-makers leads to more conflict. Paul trying to bring peace produced as much violence that we see anywhere in the New Testament. The whole plan backfired, and now Paul is the most hated man in town.
People try to pin the blame for this on Paul, or on the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, but these accusations will not hold water. The real culprit is a sin we seldom consider, but which is one of the most powerful causes for evil suffering in the world. And all of us are capable of doing it, for it is the sin of slander. All of the conflict and struggle we see in this chapter, and the rest of Paul's life, has its roots in this sin of slander. Slander is the defamation character. It is a false report, oral or written, maliciously designed to injure the reputation of another. This was a popular sin in Jerusalem, and Paul was the victim.
In verse 21 we see that the Christian Jews had been informed that Paul taught all the Jews among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and to stop circumcising their children, and to cease living according to Jewish customs. In other words, Paul was slanderously accused of being anti-Semitic. The Christians believed this false report to some degree, or there would have been no need to device a plan to prove it was not so. What we have here is an innocent man who has to prove he is innocent because he is being held guilty until proven innocent. It is the Christians belief in the false witness against Paul that led to all the problems. Slander cannot be effective without those with willing ears to listen. If such ears are available, there is no escape from the evil power of slander.
Moliere said, "There is no protection against slander." The Bible supports this statement by its frequent denunciation of false witness because it is such a dangerous and serious sin that can hurt even the best of people.
1. It is number 9 of the 10 Commandments: "Thou shalt not bear false witness."
2. David's major conflict is that false witnesses rose up against him.
3. Among the 6 things that God hates in Prov. 6 is a false witness.
4. In Prov. 19:5 God warns, "A false witness will not go unpunished..."
5. False witnesses accused Jesus and Stephen and they were murdered.
6. Paul fought false witnesses his whole ministry.
The point is, in spite of the numerous warning about false witness and slander in the Bible, it has always been a popular sin even among Christians. The reasons for this are that gossip and slander are always exciting because they put us in the inner circle. We are in the know and have privileged information to share about the personal and secret life of others. It is a great boredom demolisher, for it is hard to be bored when you are telling secrets. It also makes you feel superior. When you can put someone else down it makes you feel good because you are not on that level, but on a higher plain. If you can report that so and so never gives her children cookies after supper, it makes you feel good, for you do, and that makes you feel like a better mother.
Francis Schaeffer in True Spirituality wrote, "Every time I see something right in another man, it tends to minimize me....But each time I see something wrong in others, it is dangerous, for it can exalt self.." Since we all need of boast of self-esteem we are perpetually tempted to see the wrongs and the weaknesses of others, and then expose them by gossip and slander, for it is like a shot in the arm to our own self-esteem. Like all sins that are tempting there is pleasure in it, and that is why the Christian is just as tempted to engage in this folly as the non-believer. We need to see that there is a distinction between silly slander and serious slander. In our culture there is a built in level of valid slander. It is one of our rights as Americans to poke fun at authority, and enjoy jokes that slander and insult professional leaders.
Since we have to bear the burden of the mistakes of the politicians, the Constitution gives us the right to expose their folly and laugh at them, and so at least get something in return. Americans take full advantage of this right. Someone said, "If two wrongs don't make a right, the politician will try three." The Supreme Court says that free speech is so important in relation to criticizing those in political office that even false material is not considered slanderous unless actual malice can be shown. In other words, it is legal to slander politicians. This means we need to be very careful what we listen to, for they are open game, and people are free to say just about anything whether it is true or not. We should not listen to what anybody else says about a politician, but listen to what he says himself. The mob was willing to kill Paul based on false witnesses, and they would not listen to his own defense.
Ethnic jokes are slanderous if taken seriously. They are a put down of other people that make us feel good because we are not as stupid as they are. It is like the joke that says Baptists never die in their sleep because they cannot do two things at the same time. This is silly slander, and we can laugh at it as long as we do not take it seriously. Jokes for the sake of making light of the humanness of leaders and races is valid, but when we tell lies with the intent of damaging the reputation of others we are into the sin of serious slander.
Paul was trying to get the Gentiles free from the law of Moses, but it was a slanderous lie to accuse him of trying to get Jews to forsake their heritage. Christians spreading this lie poisoned the minds of people to the point that when Paul was found in the temple he was presumed guilty of defiling this sacred place by having brought Gentiles into the forbidden area. There was nothing but circumstantial evidence. They saw Paul with a Gentile earlier and they assumed he brought him into the temple. The mob spirit took over, and people went mad with blind rage determined to kill Paul and work out the details of evidence later.
Great is the power of slander to pervert and destroy all that is decent and just, even in good citizens. These were basically good people who are out to kill Paul. Some of them were likely very godly, but slander and false witness had blinded them to their obligation to be fair, and to hear the evidence before they jump to conclusions. People motivated by slander do not want evidence, for all the evidence they need is their feelings, and so their prejudice and subjective anger is in control, and they are capable of any evil. One of God's choice men is being beaten to death by people who think they are doing God a favor. That is just how dangerous slander can be.
Satan is a lair and a murderer. One of the ways he gets people to be murderers of passion is to get them to believe lies. The lie was spread that the Huguenats were Protestant Christians who met in secret to satisfy their unlawful lusts. People were aroused to a passionate hatred of them. Mob psychology took over and the masses fell upon them in bloody butchery. This has happened many times in history, and it proves that people are just waiting for a scapegoat to blame and hate for life's burdens. Robert M. Grant in his book The Sword And The Cross makes it clear that one of the major causes for thousands of Christians being persecuted and killed in the first three centuries was due to slanderous lies about Christians. The Roman leaders were ignorant of what Christians believed, and they were easily persuaded by lies to believe they were a dangerous and immoral cult.
Around the year of 180 A. D. the Bishop of Antioch was Theophilus. He wrote a book defending Christians against the false charges made against them. He tells of the slander they had to face. He wrote, "Godless mouths falsely accuse us. The godly who are called Christians, saying that our wives are the common property of all and indulge in promiscuous intercourse; that further we have intercourse with our sisters and that most godless and cruel of all, we taste human flesh." The father of lies kept Christians on the defensive for centuries, and it cost them the lives of many believers.
The stories of false accusation and the tragic consequences are a part of our way of life in America. Guidepost magazine had an account of the Derek Sarow, who was arrested back in 1978 and taken by force from his New York apartment while his wife and child screamed and wept. He was charged with rape and convicted on circumstantial evidence. He spent 2years living a nightmare, he lost his job, his home, and had to go on welfare. Had the real rapist not been caught, and he not confessed to the rape, Derek could be in a prison yet. There are few things in life more destructive to other lives than false witness and slander. It is a violation of all that is just and right. It is the reversal of love your neighbor to hate your neighbor.
Christians need to see the danger of inaccurate words about others. They need to see the warnings, and see the damage it could do. They need to make sure they are not conned into being a tool of Satan. A rumor is to be treated like a check, which means it is never to be endorsed until you are sure it is genuine. Make sure of your source. If people had not taken the accusation against Paul as absolute truth, but checked it out by giving Paul a chance to explain, this whole thing would not have happened. We need to make sure we have an accurate understanding before we begin to label people.
I have very little confidence in anything I hear about Christian authors from people who have not read these authors. The gossip, false witness, and slander is so common that it is my conviction that even if what you say is true, but you have not come to that conclusion by examining the evidence, you are still wrong in passing on your judgment. The reason you are wrong is because you would be passing it on even if it was wrong because you don't care enough about avoiding the sin of slander to be accurate and sure.
The saddest time in Paul's life was when he was a victim of slander. History is full of this kind of sadness and God says that those who are false witnesses will bare an awful load in judgment. We can joke and enjoy human fallibility about our leaders, but we need to beware of the serious danger of slander. Andrew Jackson was the 7th President of the United States. His fight for this office was one of the most vicious in history. His enemies spread scandal about his wife of 37 years. She became so seriously ill that she died. Old Hickory won that election, but he was one of the saddest winners in history, for he had to move into the White House alone because of deadly slander.
Shakespeare in Richard II says, "I am disgraced, impeached and baffled here, Pierced to the soul with slander's venom'd spear." We all have potential poison in our tongue, and it can slay reputations. This is clearly a Christian problem, for in James 4:11 we read, "Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it." When you put together all that the Bible says about slander, false witness, gossip and judging, you have a colossal amount of testimony as to the deadly danger of the misuse of the tongue.
Peter adds to this vast witness by writing in I Peter 2:1, "Therefore rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind." There are all kinds of slander, and so Peter speaks in favor of the Proverb, "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all." Peter the great, when he heard someone saying something negative about another, would say, "Now tell me what you have noticed what is excellent about this person. It is easy to splash mud, but I would rather help a man keep his coat clean." The Christian is to avoid slander, not only because it may not be true, but because, even if it is true, it is very unloving to hurt anyone unless it is necessary to protect the innocent from getting hurt.
If I know there is an insurance salesman who is selling worthless policies, I have a obligation to slander him in the sense of spreading the word that he is a fraud. This is sensible slander that protects innocent people from getting ripped off. Public people who do what is harmful to others should be exposed. That is a part of our system of checks and balances. But to damage the reputation of others when that damage does not protect anyone is to delight in slander, and that is a serious offense against the will of God. Jesus slandered the Pharisees because they were hurting innocent people.
It was legitimate for Jewish Christians to question Paul about his ministry to the Gentiles. It was a whole new idea, and God's will is that we test all things and hold fast to that which is good. Paul did not mind debating the issue and seeking to convince doubters that the Old Testament supported his ministry. Putting ideas to the test is valid, and it is even an obligation for the Christian. But to pre-judge and slander before you hear the evidence is evil of the lowest kind, and it makes the believer who does it extremely worldly. The sins of the flesh tend to destroy you, but the sins of the spirit tend to destroy others. This makes it an even worse evil.
The sin of slander puts us in the category of a drug dealer. It is self-destruction to be a user, but the dealer is destroying other lives and he doesn't care. Roger Palm tells of how he wrote an article for a Christian Journal on the subject of clergy and their families. The editor left out the positive side, which gave the article balance. The lack of balance led to negative reaction, and he had a lot of his friends turn cold on him. His reputation for balance was lost. He felt like suing, but he knew this was not the answer. A wise pastor helped him see that even Jesus was slandered, and he was called a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. The people who knew him personally did not listen, for they knew who he was. He was saying that the people who know you will know you are balanced, and those who misjudge you do not know you, and so it is their problem and not yours. This helped him adjust and go on.
Roger Palm now says that he doesn't believe everything he reads, even if it is by the very man he may be evaluating, for his editor may have radically changed his intent. The point is, we need to be very careful in dealing with another person's reputation. Slander is not unforgivable sin. Jesus died for this sin, and we need to confess it and get cleansed from it. But the consequences can last a lifetime if by careless speech we ruin another's reputation. Even sin forgiven can go on having negative consequences. May God motivate us to make sure that we never make any innocent person a victim of slander.