By Pastor Glenn Pease
Sometimes a man can be so different that nobody can agree with him all the time. Such was the case with Roger Williams, who was the founder of the first Baptist Church in America. He came to America for religious freedom, and he expected to have more of it than anybody was willing to give him. The Puritans regulated people's lives. They told them when they could be on the street and when not; when they could kiss their wives and when not. They forced everybody to go to church and pay a tax to keep the church going, and this even included the Jews.
Williams had a different idea of what it meant to be free, and he began to resist the church-state combination that regulated all of life. Keep in mind that he was the pastor of the most powerful church in Boston. His cry for liberty was too radical, and so they asked him to leave. He went to Salem where they also found him too defiant for their blood, and so he moved on to Plymouth where he pastured the Pilgrims. Here he found people who also loved liberty, but they could not go along with his radical ideas about treating the Indians fairly, even to the point of paying them for their land. He resigned his pulpit there and became a preacher without a pulpit. Mary, his wife, kept going to the church each Sunday, and Roger did not stop her, for he believed in religious liberty in the home as well. He stayed home and preached to anyone who would come. The problem was that too many came, and Williams was becoming a threat to the whole Puritan system of church and state.
He had to be dealt with, and so the leaders of the church and state summoned him to court. The governor sat at the head, and his 25 deputies. All of the preachers were there to see that this plague was ended once and for all. Some of the preachers judging Williams were among the greatest in American history. There was John Cotton and Thomas Hooker, for example, whose writings are available in any theological library. It was Christians against a Christian. When they read the list of charges against him Williams pleaded guilty to all of them. When he was asked to recant he said, like Martin Luther, "Here I stand." He would not budge. He refused to stop his promotion of religious liberty, and so the court ordered him to be banished from the colony.
Roger Williams was too different to be tolerated, even by fellow Christians. None of these Christian leaders doubted that Williams was a Christian, but they just could not endure his demand for religious liberty. He was too different to fit into their idea of the ideal relationship of church and state. The end result was that Williams escaped and founded his own colony in Rhode Island. He founded his own church in Providence, which was the capital, and he began the experiment that changed the history of America. In his colony there was complete separation of the church and state, and total religious liberty. His ideal became a part of the Constitution of our country. His way of thinking was so different, but it eventually became the American way of thinking. The point is, history reveals that history is changed most often by people who are different. They are people who do not conform. They are odd balls and mavericks, and people who seem to be always swimming upstream and going against the grain.
Someone said that there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who think there are only two kinds of people in the world, and those who know better. It is easy to say everyone is either a Christian or a non-Christian, but this really does not cover the complexity of who people are. There are many differences among Christians, and many of the great conflicts of history have been because Christians are so radically different. The Jews could have said the same thing saying there are only Jews and non-Jews. But here they are in great conflict with a Jew named Paul, who is turning their world upside down. Paul was a Jew, but he was different from the majority of Jews. Paul was a Christian, but he was also different from the majority of Christians. He was no commonplace sparrow, but he was a rare bird. He was different in his conversion and in most every other way.
Paul was different in his calling. He was uniquely called to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. None of the others had this unique call. Peter was used to bring Gentiles like Cornelius into the kingdom, but Paul was different from Peter. Paul made an easier transition to universal Christianity than Peter did. Paul had to rebuke Peter for his relapse into a narrow Jewish centered Christianity. All of the Apostles were different from each other. Jesus did not choose men who were all alike. Variety is not only the spice of life, it is the very essence of what makes life possible and interesting. I have often thought that if everyone was just like me, the whole economy of the world would grind to a halt in a matter of days, and civilization as we know it would perish. If everyone bought only what you buy, millions of people would be thrown out of work in a week.
Plato in the Republic said, "I am reminded that we are not all alike; there are diversities of nature among us which are adapted to different occupations." Paul makes a great deal of this in dealing with Christians. He points out that God has made every member of the body different, and He has given them different gifts, and so it is important that we recognize the need for differences in the body. We do not have to like everything about the differences of Christians, but we must learn to recognize that God can and does love the differences. We do not have to like everything about Paul, for he didn't like everything about himself, but we do have to recognize that differences are not defects. They are the key to the churches having the diversity necessary to reach a very diverse world.
You do not have to worry if there are things you do not like about other Christians, or that there are things you cannot do that they do. Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, said that the saints have different relationships to God just as children do to their father. He wrote, "When I read some of the prayers of Martin Luther they shock me, but I argue with myself thus: It is true I cannot talk with God in the same way as Martin, but then perhaps Martin Luther felt and realized his adoption more than I do, and therefore was not less humble because he was more bold. It may be that he used expressions which would be out of place in the mouth of any man who had not known the Lord as he had done."
There was no one quite like Luther, and there was no one quite like Spurgeon, but like all whom God has used, they were different. We need to learn to celebrate our differences and recognize that just as our civilization would collapse without differences, so would the church. It grows and thrives on differences. Unity in diversity is what makes our nation great, and this is also what makes the church great. This is not to say that because differences can be delightful that all differences are good. Some people get so different that they become eccentric, which means off balance, and they no longer contribute to the healthy variety of the body.
Differences are also the foundation for conflict. The Jewish Talmud tells of the Jew who had a young wife and an old wife. The young one kept pulling out her husbands gray hair to make him look young. The old one kept pulling out his dark hair to make him look older. The end result was that he ended up bald. Differences of perspective can be destructive to the body.
Paul spent a good portion of his ministry trying to resolve the conflicts of Christians who were different, but still one in Christ. They were Jews and Gentiles, bond and free, male and female, and all of their differences made a lot of waves. They still do, and that is why there has always been a good many books on how to get along with people you love. It can be hard because people are so different. Diakrino Is one of the key New Testament words for describing people's differences, and Paul is the main user of this word. He uses it most often in writing to the Corinthians. They were in constant turmoil over their individual differences. They were saying, "I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephus, I am of Christ."
The church was divided because the people liked different things in their leaders. Paul tells them that this is nonsense. It is God who makes each one different for the benefit of the whole body. Do not pick and choose, but accept all of the differences as beneficial. Do not boast that you are different Paul says, for you did not create this variety. It is God's doing, and so if someone has a difference you are to praise God for it and not the person. Differences divide the people of God when they begin to compare and compete. But when they celebrate the differences as God's gifts then the differences become an asset that unites the church.
The battle of the Apostles in the New Testament is to help Christians see that the differences that use to make such a difference should no longer make a difference for those in Christ. So what if people are Jews and Gentiles, or slaves and free, or male and female? These differences no longer make a difference in Christ. Peter stood up at the first Christian council in Acts 15 and told of what God did for the Gentiles. He said in verse 9, "He made no distinction between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith." The word for distinction is diakrino. God said there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles in Christ, and so Peter says that we are to stop trying to keep Gentiles as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.
This is the message of Paul as well. God has broken down all the walls that divided people. He has shattered all the differences that divide people, and which lead to prejudice and class-consciousness. The differences may be very real, but they are to be dissolved in a baptism of Christian love that washes away all the differences and makes them one in the body of Christ. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the reality of differences in background, gifts, and just a host of inherited and acquired individual differences. This means that Christians are perpetually caught in the tension because of differences that are to make no difference because they make no difference to Christ, but which are still differences, which make a difference to us, because we are not completely like Christ-but different.
All of this brings us again to still another look at Paul before the Sanhedrin. It is a very different setting with Paul being very different in his behavior, because he is dealing with people who are very different in their views. This scene is loaded with surprises and differences you do not find anywhere else. We want to look at it from these two perspectives: 1. The differences which Paul exhibited, and 2. The differences which Paul exploited.
I. THE DIFFERENCES WHICH PAUL EXHIBITED.
We usually do not find Paul mouthing off to dignitaries and starting a court room brawl, but this is what we see Paul exhibiting in this chapter. It is not typical for Paul, and he is behaving differently than usual because of the context. He is a Jew being persecuted by the Jews because he is different, and that difference is that he loves the Gentiles. This was a difference that they refused to tolerate, and so Paul was marked for elimination. When you are in a terminal situation, and it is all unjust, this has a tendency to altar your disposition. If Paul seems hostile here, it is because he is hostile. He is angry that an innocent man can be treated with such injustice.
Who of us has not had our anger aroused by being robbed of our dignity, or by being treated unfairly with no regard for our rights? Should this make us behave differently? Does the Christian have a right to act differently when he is being treated unjustly? It was Paul who wrote in I Cor. 13:4, "Love is patience, love is kind," and then in verse 5 writes, "It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered." Yet we see Paul in this setting exhibiting behavior that is radically different from that description. It seems rather rude to call the chief priest a white washed wall. How can we reconcile Paul's teaching with his behavior, which seems to contradict it? We simply need to recognize that what Eccles. 3:8 says is true, "There is a time to love and a time to hate."
The Christian who is in a context of fighting prejudice and injustice will often have to switch to a hate mode. When love is rejected, not even God can avoid changing His mode to one of judgment. What we see Paul doing here in Acts 23 is imitating Christ in Matt. 23. Over and over Jesus says, "Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees-you hypocrites-you blind guides-you white washed tombs-you brood of vipers." He calls them names and tells them that judgment is going to fall on them. That is what we see Paul doing in our text. He calls Ananius a whitewashed wall and says that God will strike him, and that is what precisely what happened.
The point is, Paul is being different here just as Jesus was different in a context of judgment. The reason Christians often cannot be clever instruments for God in history is their inability to be different when the context demands that they be different. In the conflict with evil forces that threaten all that is right there is a need for Christians who can change their usual pattern of behavior and be radically different in order to fight fire with fire. During the Revolutionary War many peace-loving pastors took up arms to fight for liberty. The British called them, "The black regiment." They feared them, for they stirred up such radical zeal in the Colonial troops.
One of the most colorful examples that Peter Marshall gives in his book The Light And Glory is that of Peter Muhlenberg. This 30-year-old pastor delivered a stirring sermon on Eccles. 3:1, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." He concluded his message by throwing off his pulpit robe revealing he was in an army uniform. He said, "Now is the time to fight!" That very afternoon he led 300 men off to battle, and they won a number of victories. Washington made this fighting pastor one of his brigadier generals. This is not the normal function of a pastor, but in those very unusual years there was a demand for even pastors to be different, and their difference made a difference in who won that conflict.
On another occasion the British had the Colonial Army pinned down near a church. They ran out of paper wadding to hold the powder and ball in place in their muskets. Pastor James Caldwell carried out all of the copies he could of Watt's Psalms and Hymns. He tore the pages out of the hymnals and passed them to the crouching riflemen and shouted, "Put Watts into 'em, boys! Give 'em Watts!" That is a radically different use for a hymnal, but the point is, the context called for radical difference. To be radically different when there is no demand for it is to be strange and eccentric. But to be able to be different when the demand is there is a virtue of flexibility that can make all the difference in the world. Paul, by his exhibiting different behavior from the norm in this tense context makes it clear that the Christian does have to be flexible in order to respond wisely so that being different can make a difference.
II. THE DIFFERENCES WHICH PAUL EXPLOITED.
This word has taken on a negative tone, and often means to be unfair and selfish, but the word exploit simply means to utilize or get the value out of. Paul could see that the Sanhedrin was composed of two kinds of Jews, which were the Saducees and the Pharisees. These two groups were so different that Paul saw how he could exploit their differences to his advantage. Is it right to be a troublemaker, and to stir up conflict between people? Again, the context is the key to the answer. The answer is no if you are like those Jews who stirred up conflict between the Jews and Gentiles over legalistic issues. It is evil and folly to cause strife among brothers, and God hates it. But if we are talking about bringing division among those who are out of God's will, and you can by that division thwart their evil plot, then by all means it is not only legitimate but an obligation to try and create such a division.
Here again, we see how Paul's difference makes all the difference in the world in his ability to exploit the differences in his foes. Paul was the only one of the Apostles who was a Pharisee. He is the only one who could pull the trick that he pulled here, and it saved his life. He shouted to the court, "I am a Pharisee the son of a Pharisee!" We have such negative vibes about Pharisees that it is hard to swallow that Paul, who is our key theologian and guide, was also a Pharisee. We tend to keep this fact hidden. I have never heard anyone say, "Let us turn to the Epistles of Paul the Pharisee." Can you be a Christian and still be a Pharisee? Paul does not say that he was, or that he had been a Pharisee. He says, "I am a Pharisee." This was a rare combination of a Christian and a Pharisee. There were others, but Paul was unique. He was different from most Jews, and different from most Gentiles, and different from most Christians.
Paul was the only person in the New Testament who is constantly being saved by two groups of non-Christians. In this chapter alone he is saved by the Jewish Pharisees and the Roman soldiers. It never would have happened if Paul had not exploited the differences between the Pharisees and the Saducees. The Saducees rejected the resurrection of the dead and the reality of angels. They were anti-supernatural. This was a difference that was intolerable. There is a limit to how different you can be and still be acceptable to the Christian. The Saducees went too far for Christianity cannot survive without the truth of the resurrection. Paul says that if Christ is not risen our faith is in vain.
Paul could honestly exploit this difference between the Saducees and Pharisees because it was a difference that made all the difference in the world to the Christian faith. It was a difference that had to be fought, for a rejection of the resurrection was a rejection of the Christian faith. Paul's survival, and the survival of Christianity depended upon the defeat of the theology of the Saducees.
A black man named Jim Williams sat in the electric chair for 20 minutes back in 1926. He was waiting for someone to pull the switch. The warden and the sheriff were each trying to the other to do it, but neither would give in. Their conflict could not be resolved, and so the convict was un-strapped and returned to his cell. For having to endure this form of torture the court changed his sentence to life imprisonment. Eight years later he saved two lives on the prison farm and he was given a pardon. You just never know what might happen if you can get people divided, and that is what Paul does here. He lived to do work for the kingdom of God because he exploited the differences of his enemies.
We need to recognize that one of the important freedoms of man is the freedom to be different. Justice Charles Evans Hughes said, "When we lose the right to be different we lose the right to be free." When Hitler took over Germany one of the first things he did was to deprive people of the right to be different. He rounded up anyone who spoke out against him and sent them to prison or concentration camps. We need to thank God that we live in a nation where we are free to be different. It is not always pleasant, but we are only free because we can be different. It can divide and it can hurt, but it is nothing compared to the slavery that does not permit differences.
The call of Christ to all of his followers is a call to be different. He was so radically different that they said that no man ever spoke as he did. He was different than all the teachers of his time. Someone said that the whole Sermon on the Mount could be summed up in the words, "Be different." Jesus kept saying, "You have heard it was said," and he would share the traditional view. Then he would go on to say, "But I say to you," and then go beyond the legalism of the past to the life of loving in the now. Don't just go the mile of the law, but be different, and go the second mile of love. Don't just love those who love you, but be different, and love those who despise you and are your enemies.
A boy came home crying and told his father that the neighbor stole his truck. The father said we'll go teach him a lesson. They went next door and the father said to the offender, "We want you to know we forgive you and will be a good neighbor even if you steal from us." They went home and soon the neighbor boy was ringing their doorbell. He said, "I'm sorry I took your truck. Here it is, and I want to be a good neighbor too." It was a different approach, but it was the approach of those who are different because of Jesus. Not to be different is to be not like Christ.
Jesus was so different and unpredictable that nobody knew for sure how He would respond to any situation. They kept trying to trick Him by asking Him about taxes, or by bringing people like the woman taken in adultery, but Jesus was always too clever to be trapped. Jesus was just too flexible and different to be trapped. He was suppose to say, "Stone the sinful woman." He was suppose to feel contaminated by the woman at the well and the woman who washed His feet and wiped them with her hair. There have been Christians who could be predictable in those settings, and they would have self-righteously condemned them all. They would be like the one Mark Twain referred to: "A good man in the worse sense of the word."
But Jesus was not predictable because he was not a legalist. He even ate with Pharisees as well as Publicans, and he choose for his key Apostle to the Gentiles one of the most hot-headed, narrow-minded Pharisees alive. Jesus was so different, and he uses people like Paul who are also so different. If you are a predictable conformist who has all the answers before the case even comes to court, you are not going to be a very usable tool for the Holy Spirit in being an example of creative grace. You have got to be different for that.
Almost everyone who becomes famous does so because they are different. Groucho Marx was so different from other comedians. He loved to tell of the time that he entered a Groucho Marx look alike contest and came in third. It was because the other two looked more like he did when he was younger, and he no longer looked like that, for he had changed. He became different from his own self of the past. We are all becoming different all the time, and if we are in the will of God we will be becoming different in a good way, for we will be becoming more like Jesus as we change.
There are differences and devilish differences. If God is the great I Am, then Satan is the great I Ain't. They are totally different, as life is from death, and light is from dark, and as love is from hate. We need to pray constantly that God would help us be different from the world, the flesh and the devil. We need to be different by being Christ-like, for this is a difference that will make a world of difference.