In the chapters from the book of Acts that we read for both yesterday and today, we see the apostle Paul embarking on what appears to be a noble mission of martyrdom. The Holy Spirit compels him to leave Asia Minor and travel to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost.
On his way, each group of Christians Paul encounters pleads with him not to go, prophesying that imprisonment, suffering, and possibly death await him in Jerusalem. Still, he is resolute, “ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
At first glance, his journey seems unnecessary, and his resolution appears tragic, almost like the great tragic heroes of western literature.
If you are like me, when you read or watch a tragedy, you start talking to the characters in the story as if they could hear you: “Oedipus, don’t kill that strange man at the crossroads – don’t you know that he’s your dad?” Or: “Romeo, don’t worry, Juliet is just drugged!”
Deaths within classic tragedies often feel senseless to me, and the ultimate example occurs in Sophocles’ ancient Greek play, Antigone. The title character defies the king’s law by burying her dead brother, Polynices, and is then sentenced to death. Antigone tragically takes her own life just before receiving a royal reprieve.
Antigone’s cause seems misguided, and her death feels senseless and morbid.
At first glance, Paul’s determination in the face of persecution might make him appear like Antigone: a naïve and tragic martyr. However, Paul is neither misguided, nor is his eventual martyrdom senseless.
God’s story of salvation is not a tragedy. God is ultimately victorious within human history, no matter what kind of setbacks his people experience in this lifetime. Paul does not find himself in a tragic story, and neither do you or I, even when it feels as though the world is set against us.
Paul’s willingness to die for the sake of the Gospel differs greatly from the morbidity of the classic tragic “heroes.” Paul pursues a positive goal – the proclamation of the gospel – even to a place of great persecution. He desires only to “finish his course” and to “testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
We see his purpose most saliently in two beautifully timed moments. In yesterday’s reading, Paul is stretched out with a bare back, and a Roman soldier stands over him with a raised whip (Acts 22:25). Suddenly, Paul happens to mention right at this moment that he is a Roman citizen, and everyone freezes.
In today’s reading, Paul stands before the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1), which is entirely set against him. They are poised to pronounce a negative judgment on him, when Paul brings up the contentious theological issue of the resurrection. Chaos and division ensues!
In both instances, Paul fights for his life rather than succumb to a martyr’s death. Paul will play every card that he has in order to get to preach the Gospel to as many listening ears for as long as possible.
The power that drives Paul is no mere “cause,” but it is the joy and freedom that comes from having received the gospel. Having personally received God’s forgiveness and his grace through Jesus Christ, Paul will do anything and everything to tell that same message as many times as possible to every person that he meets.
For Paul, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Ephesians 1:21).
Lord Jesus, so move our hearts that we too would strive like your servant Paul to proclaim what you have done for us through our lives and through the little deaths to self that we die each day. Strengthen and uphold those in our world today who face suffering and death because they believe in you.