Southminster Presbyterian Church

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An Apostle Takes the Stand

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Acts 26:1-29

Scene: A courtroom. The congregation is the jury. A judge stands at the pulpit. Paul sits in the first row, flanked by Festus, a Roman official, and Tertulus, a Jewish lawyer.

Judge (rapping gavel): This jury is convened for the purpose of determining the guilt or innocence of one Paul of Tarsus. The charges are treason against the Roman government and blasphemy against the Jewish religion. I need not point out that both of these are capital crimes. Bring in the accused.

[Paul with chains on his wrists is brought forward to center stage by Festus and Tertulus. They return to the first pew and sit down.]

Judge (to Paul): Does the accused have anything to say before we begin?

Paul: Only this, your honor. The Lord called me to be a witness long before you did.

Judge: I see. Well I'm glad the Lord and I are in agreement. We begin the questioning with Festus, the Roman governor.

[Festus stands and approaches the witness.]

Festus: Paul, is it true that you are a Roman citizen?

Paul: Yes, it is.

Festus: Is it also true that you are a Christian, a follower of this Jesus of Nazareth?

Paul: Yes.

Festus: How can you be a Roman and a Christian at the same time?

Paul: Following Jesus does not prevent us from being good citizens. I believe you will find that Christians can be the most productive, law-abiding citizens you have if allowed to live according to their faith.

Festus: But don't you Christians believe that Jesus is a king?

Paul: Yes.

Festus: So you don't believe that Caesar is king. You deny the authority of our government!

Paul: We don't deny the government's authority. We believe that the government's authority comes from God. But if God is the one who gave you authority, then God must have the greater authority. A master who puts one slave in charge of the others is still the master.

Festus: Then you would put the commands of Jesus above the commands of our Emperor.

Paul: I would hope they would not be in contradiction.

Festus: And if they are?

Paul: I must obey Jesus rather than the emperor.

Festus (to congregation): That, ladies and gentlemen, is treason. No further questions, your honor. [He sits down.]

Judge: Paul, I have a question. You were not arrested in the temple by Roman soldiers. You were seized by your own people. Why would the Jews bring one of their own people for trial in a Roman court?

Paul: Perhaps for the same reason they brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate. People don’t always appreciate the prophets God sends them. Moses was rejected by the very people he tried to lead out of slavery. Jeremiah was beaten and thrown into jail. Elijah was forced into exile, and a prophet named Uriah was slain with the sword. These things were not done by foreigners, they were done by my own people to the messengers God sent us. Look, I'm just as guilty as the rest. I did everything I could to oppose Jesus' followers: obtaining warrants for their arrest, hunting them down in foreign cities, even voting for their execution.

Judge: So why are your people upset with you? It sounds like you fit right in.

Tertullus (standing up): Excuse me, your honor. I am Tertullus, a lawyer for the Jewish Sanhedrin. I believe I can clarify some of these issues if I am allowed to question the witness. May I?

Judge: You may proceed.

Tertullus: Thank you. (To Paul) Paul, you claim to believe in the resurrection, do you not?

Paul: Yes. Why does it surprise you that God could raise someone from the dead? If God can create the world, God can certainly raise the dead.

Tertullus: But Paul, I have studied the scriptures all my life. I find in them no mention of a resurrection. Quite the contrary. In the Psalms David says, "The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence." Where do you get this idea of a resurrection?

Paul: From the scriptures! In Psalm 16 David says to God, "You will not abandon my soul to death, nor let your holy one see corruption." David certainly wasn't talking about himself in that statement. He died and his body is buried in its tomb. David was looking forward to the coming of God's Messiah. He knew that God would not abandon the Messiah to death nor let his body rot in a grave.

Tertullus: So you believe that God will raise the Messiah from the dead?

Paul: I believe he already has. That's why we believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

Tertullus: But if that is the case, then why did you persecute Jesus' followers?

Paul: Because for a long time I did not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. I thought he was a heretic who got the punishment he deserved. Many things he did were contrary to our Jewish laws. He associated with tax collectors and harlots. He worked on the Sabbath. He claimed to have authority to forgive sin, something only God can do.

Tertullus: In other words he acted like he was God. Isn't that blasphemy?

Paul: Yes, it is. That's why I thought he deserved to die, along with all those who followed him. I did everything I could to have them arrested and executed.

Tertullus: So what changed your mind?

Paul: One day as I was going to Damascus with orders to arrest any suspected Christians, I was blinded by a flash of light, brighter than the sun. It knocked me off my feet. Before I could pick myself up a voice said, "Saul"—that that was my name in Hebrew—“Saul, why are you persecuting me?" I said, "Who is this?" The voice replied, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." When I met Jesus alive, risen from the dead, it changed everything. God would not raise from the dead a person guilty of blasphemy. By raising him from the dead, God made it clear that Jesus really did have God's authority. By raising him from the dead, God declared Jesus to be the Messiah, our promised king. Claiming to be God’s Son is not blasphemy if it is true.

Tertullus: Hmph! He is not much of a king if he can be captured and killed by the Romans.

Paul: Even that was foreseen. Isaiah pictured God's chosen servant in these words: "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities. Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed." God allowed it to happen so we could be saved.

Tertullus: And why did God choose you for this revelation?

Paul: I don’t know. I am the least deserving of all. To be chosen by God is a gift of pure grace. But it is also an opportunity. Having chosen me, God has given me the opportunity of sharing God’s love with the world.

Tertullus: Then being a descendant of Abraham means nothing to you.

Paul: Of course it means something. The Jews are God's chosen people. All of God's promises flow from Abraham and his descendants. But one of God’s promises to Abraham was to make his descendants a blessing to all the nations. We are chosen not for privilege but for service. God sent Jesus to bring salvation to the whole world, and we are witnesses to that good news.

Tertullus: Why should we believe any of this?

Paul: What would you prefer to believe? That a Roman crucifixion has the last word? That our only hope lies in weapons and politics, organizing enough people and arming them to seize power so we can have our own way? Is that the only hope you believe in?

Tertullus: It is the only thing that has ever worked.

Paul: Is it? I thought so too, until I met Jesus. But if Jesus can transform me from an enemy into a friend, he can do the same with any enemy.

Tertullus: Not with the enemies who have killed our people!

Paul: Whom do you think Jesus meant when he said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”? He was talking about the people who killed him. He was talking about the people who put him on that cross, not just the Jews, not just the Romans, but all of us. He died to stop the cycle of violence and reprisal, injustice and retribution, so that we can be reconciled to God and each other.

Tertullus: Paul, you are so naïve, you are dangerous. No further questions, your honor. [Tertullus sits.]

Judge: Paul, are you saying that all of us need saving, even the Romans?

Paul: Sin and death spare no one, your honor. We have no hope unless someone saves us from them.

Judge: You think this Jesus can overcome sin and death?

Paul: He already has, your honor. By dying he overcame sin, and by rising he overcame death. And if you commit your life to him, he will give that victory to you as well.

Judge: So now you expect to make all of us Christians! Paul, do you really expect in so short a time to convince us to follow this penniless unarmed Messiah?

Paul: Whether in a short time or long, I pray that all people everywhere might discover the life and hope I found in Jesus … without having to wear these chains.

Judge: Very well, then. (To the congregation) You have heard the defendant’s testimony. The defendant stands before you accused of blasphemy against God and treason against the government. What say you? Should he be condemned, or should he be believed?

[Exit]

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7