By Pastor Glenn Pease
A lion, a fox, an a hyena were moving through the jungle collecting their dinner. When they were done they had gotten a large pile of animals. The lion said to the hyena, "Why don't you go over and divide the pile into three equal parts." The hungry hyena said, "Sure." He quickly separated the dead animals in three equal piles. Immediately the lion sprung to his feet, and pounced on the hyena, and killed him. He then put the three piles back together, and threw the hyena on top. Then he said to the fox, "Why don't you go over and divide the pile into two equal parts." The fox shuffled over and pulled out a crow and made that his pile, and he left all the rest for the lion. The lion smiled and said, "Mr. fox, how did you learn to divide so equally?" The fox answered, "The hyena taught me."
Learning can take place fast with the proper motivation. The Bible says that Satan goes about like a roaring lion seeking who he may devour. The wise man learns fast that you don't eat this lion, or you will soon be a part of the menu. But Satan is not the only lion in the Bible. In Rev. 5:5 Jesus is called Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Paul learned fast that here is another lion you don't mess with. Jesus sprung on Paul on the road to Damascus, and He knocked him to the ground, blinded. Paul was persecuting his people, and Jesus took it personal, just like a mother lion if someone is hurting her cubs.
The paradoxical difference in these two lions is that the goal of one is to devour, and the goal of the other is to deliver. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah attacked Saul of Tarsus and delivered him from a life of bondage to law, and made him Paul the Apostle of liberty, with a Gospel of freedom and life for all men. It was not the lion's bite, but the lion's light that penetrated Paul, and made him a reflector of that light. This lion, and his prey, became the awesome twosome who together made Christianity a world wide movement that broke down the walls between Jews and Gentiles.
Paul was no lion tamer, but he had the paradoxical experience of being tamed by this Lion of heaven, who was king, not of the jungle only, but of the universe. Jesus became Paul's Lord and King, and from his conversion on, Paul was a man with one priority-to do his Master's will. But what we want to see is that being lion-tamed, that is under the Lordship of Christ, does not mean one is robbed of their individuality and uniqueness. Paul, as a Christian, was still a very complex man with a great deal of variety about him. He is different from any of the other Apostles. The more we study him, the more we will see he is the product of two worlds. He has both a strong Jewish background, and a strong Gentile background. He is a hybrid, and brings together in one personality some radical differences.
Paul took seriously the obviously impossible goal of being all things to all men. The result is, he had the potential for pleasing everybody, but also for aggravating everybody, and Paul was quite good at both. As far as I can weigh the evidence, he was the most wanted man in the New Testament-dead or alive. There were more plots to kill Paul than there was against Jesus, and all of the other Apostles put together. Paul made more people angry then any other New Testament personality. He was the most criticized by non-Christians and by Christians alike. He has been the most controversial man of the New Testament throughout history, and still is today. People love him or hate him, and sometimes it is the same people, for Paul can be so loving and yet so demanding.
James S. Stewart, the great preacher, said, "Paul can contradict himself, can land himself at times in hopeless antinomy, can leap without warning from one point of view to another totally different, can say in the same breath, work out your own salvation, and it is God working in you, but through it all and beneath it all there is a living unity and a supreme consistency...." His consistency is that he was following his Lord, for Jesus was also a paradoxical personality. Jesus said such things as, to save our life we must lose it, to live we must die. Paul says, to conquer we must surrender. Jesus says, to be exalted we must be humble. Paul says, to be wise we must become fools. Jesus said, to be first we must be last. Paul said, to be strong we must be weak. Paul said we are to have the mind of Christ in us, and he certainly did. He was Lion-tamed, and trained to think like his Lord.
William Wilkinson writes, "Paul, like his Lord, was found of paradoxes, and like his Lord he presented in himself a miracle of paradoxes reconciled." In our text, and in the context, we see in Paul a man of unbelievable stubbornness and unbeatable flexibility. He could be as hard as nails, and as soft as putty. When it came to his goal there was no compromise, but when it came to means toward a goal Paul was open to compromise. If we could be like Paul, we could stand fast, and yet bend at the right time, so as to be more effective in being a tool for the kingdom of God. Let's examine the two sides of this particular paradox in Paul, and see if we can learn something about being both stubborn and flexible. First let's look at-
I. PAUL'S DEMONSTRATION OF INFLEXIBILITY.
Verse 17 simply states that Paul arrived in Jerusalem. That sounds innocent enough until you go back and see that Paul, in his determination to reach Jerusalem, defied most all of the steps for knowing the will of God. He rejected the counsel, advice, and warnings of just about everybody who cared about him. Paul smashed through more road blocks to get to Jerusalem that he did to get anywhere else in his world wide travels. He was like a man obsessed. He would let no one hinder him in reaching this destination. It was Jerusalem or bust for Paul, and he meant it.
Everybody else saw Paul on a collision course with his deadly opponents among the Jews. It was like watching him play chicken, and as the two vehicles raced toward each other, they warn Paul to pull off and save yourself! But Paul never flinched, but like his Lord before him, he set his face steadfastly for Jerusalem. Look at the obstacles he plowed through to get there. In verse 4 of chapter 21 it says, "Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them 7 days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem." But Paul said good-bye and headed on to Jerusalem. Then in verses 10 to 11,
it says a prophet named Agabus bound his hands and feet with Paul's belt and said, "This is what the Jews will do to Paul if he goes to Jerusalem." It was a prophecy right from the Spirit of God, and everyone else was persuaded that Paul needed to change his course. Then in verse 12 we read, "When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem."
Paul just said that he was ready to die if need be, but he was not going to turn back. They argued with Paul, but he was so absolutely determined that they just gave up. Everybody gave up on Paul, for nothing could change his mind. He would not listen to anybody. When Dr. Luke says we pleaded with him, he was including himself, and so all of Paul's best friends were all convinced he was making a mistake. Red lights were flashing everywhere, but all Paul could see was green, and he was ready to go. He was marching to a different drummer, and was as stubborn as any saint has ever been. All his friends were like gnats trying to stop a run away locomotive. Their efforts were all in vain, and Paul went on to Jerusalem.
Paul was as mule-headed as anybody in history. There are some who match him, however. Colonel Thomas Butler Jr., the Revolutionary War hero is an example. He fought in many major battles, and Washington used him for special assignments. When Thomas Jefferson became president, he made a new rule that American soldiers could no longer wear pigtails. For over a century it had been a custom for military men to wear a braid of long hair down their back, usually tied with a ribbon. Now they were to be cut off. It had nothing to do with our feelings about being feminine. Jefferson wanted no badges of
aristocracy, and the monarchy of the past.
Men of all ranks complained bitterly as their locks were shorn. It made them feel like convicts, but they had no choice. With one exception, Colonel Butler, they all obeyed. Because of his great service to his country, the touchy issue was avoided for two years by his commanding officer. But then they got into an argument, and the General ordered him to cut it off. He refused and was arrested, and was taken to trial in 1803. After 6 months in prison the General offered to release him if he would obey the order. He said he would not do so, and appealed to Andrew Jackson, and got a petition going which was signed by prominent citizens. The General countered with a court martial. But before the papers reached him, Colonel Butler died of yellow fever. He knew his end was near, and so had his friends prepare his coffin with a hole board through the coffin right under his head, so that at his military funeral his pigtail could hang out for all to see that even while dead he was defying that order.
Now, that was stubborn, but history is filled with stubborn people. Sometimes they are a pain, but sometimes they are also a key to progress, just as Paul was the key to his being a witness for Christ to all the world. Look at key people in the history of any field, and you will see a stubborn determination to reach some goal.
Irving Berlin has been called the father of American music. His, Alexander's Ragtime Band circled the world. Back in 1895 this 7 year old refugee, son of a Jewish Rabbi, was on his first job selling papers on the East side of New York. He made 5 pennies, and when he stopped to watch a merchant ship being loaded, a crane caught him and knocked him into the East River. Some nameless Irish wharf rat dove in to save him. They got him to a nearby hospital and pumped a considerable portion of the East River out of him. The intern who did it noted this interesting detail: Even though he was rescued just as he was going down for the third time, his right hand still clutched all five of those pennies-the first he had ever earned. It was prophetic, for this poor little kid was determined to make it in America, and he did. The day would come when he would give a check for half a million to the Emergency Relief Fund. He held on to his dream, and would not let go, but persevered toward his goal.
Time does not permit, but I assure you that there are numerous true stories of how determined people have changed the world. It is a principle that works for the kingdom of darkness as well as the kingdom of light. You can't even be effective in evil without determination. Al Capone was successful as a criminal. He said there are three rules of success. The first is, you always smile; the second is, you always carry a gun; and the third is, you always stick with the plan. If you have to give one up, give up the smile. If you have to give up two, give up the gun, but you never give up the plan. He was right. He applied it wrong, but it is still true, and that is what we see in Paul-he never gave up the plan. Nothing, or nobody, could dissuaded him, for he knew he was fulfilling God's plan.
In chapter 20 verses 22-24 Paul spells it out clearly as to why he was so stubbornly persistent in going to Jerusalem. He says, "And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the Gospel of God's grace." Paul kept pressing on because he was bitten and smitten by the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and nothing but death could stop him from doing what he was captured to do. Paul was a man of stubborn determination, and his arrival in Jerusalem was a demonstration of his inflexibility. Now, in this very context we see an example of just the opposite-we see,
II. PAUL'S DEMONSTRATION OF FLEXIBILITY.
When Paul got to Jerusalem, he found a problem waiting for him. False rumor that he was anti-Moses, and thus, anti-Jewish, had preceded him. This was not a healthy reputation to have in Jerusalem. The leaders of the church were concerned, and they had worked out a plan whereby Paul could make clear that the rumors were lies. All Paul had to do was to get directly involved in a strong Jewish custom relating to vows and purification. This would take him to the Temple, and give the Jews a live demonstration that he was pro-Jewish, and not against the customs of Israel.
Paul did not raise one word of objection to this plan, but went along with it in full cooperation to try and bring peace, and prevent a division between the Jewish and Gentile church. Now Paul would never impose this Jewish custom on the Gentiles. It had nothing to do with salvation, and there were other far more simple ways for Gentiles to be forgiven and purified without all of this legalistic ceremonialism. But for the Jewish Christians who still loved their heritage, this was the way they did things. Paul was not interested in trying to change their customs, and make them forsake their cultural heritage. As long as Jewish Christians did not consider their customs essential to their salvation, Paul could go along with them. It is no part of the Gospel to tamper with cultural issues and customs that people practice, that are not immoral.
Compromise and flexibility on non-essentials is the essence of all positive human relationships. If you are not flexible with friends, mates, and associates in all walks of life, you will lose those relationships. No two people agree on everything. There has to be a point where you give in and compromise, and let them have their way and say. To be stubborn and inflexible, demanding your own way as the only way at all times, spells the doom of any relationship. C. G. Jung said, "You can exert no influence if you are not susceptible to influence." In other words, if you are never open to any values in the lives of others, you cannot expect others to be open to your values. Flexibility is the key to making any relationship work. Paul not only knew this, he was the expert in its application. He knew how to be all things to all men. He could bend and compromise on all sorts of personal and cultural issues that had nothing to do with God's revealed will.
In dealing with some of the controversial issues that divided Christians in his day, such as food offered to idols, vegetarianism, and the observance of special days, Paul wrote to the Romans in chapter 14:5, and was so flexible he could be on both sides, and he concludes, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." Paul did not take a stubborn stand on every issue and say, this is the way and there is no other. Paul was stubborn, however, in opposing those who had that sort of spirit. The Judaisers said the Gentile Christians must be circumcised to be truly Christian. There was no compromise for Paul on this issue. He fought this legalistic requirement as a rejection of salvation by grace. Paul said to forget circumcision, for it is no longer an issue. I Cor. 7:19 he wrote, "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts." In Gal. 5:6 he wrote, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." Paul was stubborn on this issue, and refused to give an inch.
Paul said that circumcision is nothing, but also that uncircumcision is nothing. There was no superiority in not being circumcised either, and so Paul could be flexible in this very area where he was so stubborn. Paul did not fight Jewish Christians in getting circumcised. That was their business, and he accepted it. In Acts 16 he found the godly young man named Timothy, and he desired to take him along on his journey. Verse 3 says, "So he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew his father was a Greek." Did Paul compromise here? Of course he did, and it was a brilliant strategy, for it prevented unnecessary controversy and friction, and it led to strengthening the churches.
Paul did not circumcise Timothy out of any conviction that it was necessary, but rather, as a flexible bending to the cultural circumstances. It gave Timothy the freedom to minister with full acceptance where he otherwise might be rejected. It was a cultural issue, and not a theological issue, and Paul was flexible on such issues. That is why we see Paul involved in what, to our Gentile mind, seems like much ado about nothing. It is ritualistic and ceremonial, and smacks too much of the Old Testament law to have any appeal to us. But Paul is not trying to teach us, or anybody else, that ceremonial purification is of any value. What he is teaching us, by these actions, is that the most stubborn saint alive, when it comes to determination to do the revealed will of God, must be flexible in areas of life that are merely cultural. The Christian who cares his stubborn theological convictions over into cultural convictions is guilty of the idolatry of his own opinions.
The reason Paul could survive the storms that hit the early church was because he was a paradoxical combination of stability and flexibility. Tornadoes will sweep away that which is not deeply rooted, and also that which is rigid. That is why the tree is the best survivor. It is deeply rooted, yet also flexible, and able to bend a great deal without breaking. This combination is what made Paul the key tool God needed to establish the Gentile church, and yet, keep peace with the Jewish church. He was both rooted in God's principles, and yet flexible to bend with the cultural winds that sweep over the church. He was both a man of conviction, and a man of compromise.
To think it is a virtue to be stubborn on everything is to be like the man who lay in the ditch paralyzed, who kept saying, "But I had the right of way. I had the right of way." So what! There are situations in life where you forget your rights, and bend to avoid an accident, or, you bend to avoid a war, or some unnecessary suffering that can be prevented by a little self-denial. The stupidity of stubbornness on the wrong issues is illustrated in an old Marx Brothers film. They are searching for a lost work of art. Grocho is convinced the picture is hidden in the house next door. But Chico points out that there is no house next door. Not to be deterred, Grocho responds, "Then we will build one." Determination to support one's own theory in spite of the facts, is no virtue. Such determination is not only dumb, it can be deadly. General Custer was determined to solve a problem even when all the evidence indicated it was a hopeless case. He rode into Little Big Horn with the seventh cavalry so outnumbered they were wiped out in 18 minutes. This was dangerous and detrimental determination.
Paul was willing to die to do the will of God, but he was equally determined to live at peace with all men, so far as it was in his power. He also knew when to run, and we find him sometimes fleeing from his foes in the middle of the night, and not stubbornly confronting his foes. Paul was not stupidly stubborn, but fantastically flexible in his response to life's obstacles.
The point of all this is that Paul's paradoxical personality is the key to his being able to be Christ-like, and it is like wise a key for us to be like our Lord. Without the balance of forceful conviction and flexible compromise, no Christian can be the tool God needs in every situation. There is a time to be stubborn, and not let even those who love you most stop you from going the direction God is calling. There are destinations we must be determined to reach whatever the cost. But there is also a time to be flexible, and to eat with the publicans and sinners, or even the self- righteous Pharisees. Being paradoxical can get you into a lot of trouble, just as it did Jesus and Paul, but it also makes you the tool God can use most effectively, for being Christ-like means to have a paradoxical personality.