Why was being a Roman citizen a big deal?

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Acts 22:22 Up to this point (the Jews gathered) listened to (the apostle Paul), but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23 And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, 24 the tribune (a local provincial authority figure) directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. 25 But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” 27 The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” 29 Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. 

Every time I read about Paul invoking his rights as a Roman citizen I wonder what the big deal is. So, today I looked it up in some of my bible resources. Basically, Roman citizenship was a status granting special rights and privileges outside of the city of Rome but within the Roman empire. In this case Paul was in Jerusalem which was under Roman rule. The local authorities outside of Rome could not summarily judge someone to torture or death as was the case with non-citizens. The accused Roman citizen could appeal to Rome, asking for due process of an investigation and trial before a verdict was rendered. This is what Paul did.

But why was the local tribune so freaked out when Paul let it be known he was a Roman citizen? The tribune served at the pleasure of his Roman overlords, meaning that abuse of a Roman citizen could result in his being dismissed as tribune – or worse. Flogging Paul would have placed the tribune in serious jeopardy of losing his position of privilege and power.

So that’s the big deal.

 

Equally yoked…

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2 Chronicles 21:1 Jehoshaphat (a good and faithful king) slept with his ancestors and was buried with his ancestors in the city of David; his son Jehoram succeeded him. 2 He had brothers, the sons of Jehoshaphat: Azariah, Jehiel, Zechariah, Azariah, Michael, and Shephatiah; all these were the sons of King Jehoshaphat of Judah. 3 Their father gave them many gifts, of silver, gold, and valuable possessions, together with fortified cities in Judah; but he gave the kingdom to Jehoram, because he was the firstborn. 4 When Jehoram had ascended the throne of his father and was established, he put all his brothers to the sword, and also some of the officials of Israel. 5 Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he began to reign; he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. 6 He walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done; for the daughter of Ahab was his wife. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. 7 Yet the LORD would not destroy the house of David because of the covenant that he had made with David, and since he had promised to give a lamp to him and to his descendants forever. 

Remember, at the time of this story, there were two kingdoms belonging to God’s people instead of one because the people were divided. There was the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Though both kingdoms eventually went astray, the southern kingdom of Judah (which included the holy city of Jerusalem) tended to be the more faithful of the two.

Jehoram was the new king of Judah after his father Jehoshaphat, a faithful king who brought peace to Judah, passed away. However, Jehoram was not a good king like his father. He adopted some of the pagan practices found in the northern kingdom of Israel which resulted in God withdrawing favor from him. Why did Jehoram adopt unfaithful practices? V.6 tells us that he married a woman from the north, a daughter of king Ahab, who taught Jehoram the pagan ways of her family.

God had warned the people many years before not to marry outside of their own people group/kingdom/nation for just this reason. In fact, one can hear similar counsel today among Christians. It is said that a Christian should not marry a non-Christian, for they might be led astray. The term people use is “unequally yoked”. In other words, a Christian person marrying a non-Christian would not share the same commitment to be “yoked” (joined, submitted to) the Lord, which can cause problems in the marriage.

I think there is some wisdom here. I have three young adult children, none of whom has yet married. Should they be married someday, I would strongly prefer they marry a fellow Christian – not because I fear they would walk away from the faith, but because sharing a faith tradition can have a very positive impact on a marriage. Yes it’s true that Christians divorce at a rate almost equal to non-Christians. Shared Christianity is no silver bullet when it comes to living “happily ever after”. But having a shared set of values, commitments, paradigms for building a life together and raising children is important. At least it is in my opinion.

Am I saying that people of different faith traditions cannot have a successful marriage/family/union? Of course not. I know several examples where this has been the case. I’m talking about an ideal here. Lord teach us to choose well when considering one with whom to live a life. Amen.

 

 

He restores my soul…

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Psalm 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

This morning I’m struck by the verbs associated with the shepherd: “makes”, “leads”, “restores”, “leads” again. The shepherd is taking initiative, not the sheep. Sheep wander off. Sheep frighten easily. They can be anxious animals. It is the shepherd who brings peace and safety.

Lord Jesus seek me when I wander. Calm me when I fret. Restore me when I’m broken. Amen.

Christians and the law of Moses…

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Acts 21:17 When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. 18 The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. 21 They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.

Paul and his companions are meeting with the leaders in Jerusalem, who are thrilled to hear how the Lord was moving among the Gentiles. However, there is also a problem to be dealt with. In Jerusalem many Jews were becoming believers, but they also retained a zeal for the law of Moses – which is understandable since they’ve lived under that law their entire lives. There was no perceived need to deviate from that way of life.

But it was different with Paul who proclaimed the gospel in Gentile territory where observance of the law of Moses was not normative. In his writings Paul makes clear that Christians are no longer required to live under the law to secure one’s place before God. At times he outright discourages people from observing the law, seeing it more as an instrument of condemnation given that no one can keep the law perfectly, because of our inherent human sinfulness. Many Christians in Jerusalem strongly disagree.

What we have here is a clash of cultures that had not yet been sorted out.

This kind of thing still happens in our day, particularly as the church tries to adjust to a rapidly changing world. What parts of our historical practice need to be retained? What parts can be changed or let go of altogether? Not easy questions my brothers and sisters. Lord Jesus, give us grace to answer these kinds of questions in ways that best serve the gospel message. Amen.

Off the rails…

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2 Chronicles 16:1 In the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Asa, King Baasha of Israel went up against Judah, and built Ramah, to prevent anyone from going out or coming into the territory of King Asa of Judah. 2 Then Asa took silver and gold from the treasures of the house of the LORD and the king’s house, and sent them to King Ben-hadad of Aram, who resided in Damascus, saying, 3 “Let there be an alliance between me and you, like that between my father and your father; I am sending to you silver and gold; go, break your alliance with King Baasha of Israel, so that he may withdraw from me.” 4 Ben-hadad listened to King Asa, and sent the commanders of his armies against the cities of Israel… 7 At that time the seer Hanani came to King Asa of Judah, and said to him, “Because you relied on the king of Aram, and did not rely on the LORD your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped you. 8 Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with exceedingly many chariots and cavalry? Yet because you relied on the LORD, he gave them into your hand…10 Then Asa was angry with the seer, and put him in the stocks, in prison, for he was in a rage with him because of this. And Asa inflicted cruelties on some of the people at the same time.

To clarify, God’s people were divided into two kingdoms at the time of this story. There was the northern kingdom of Israel (led by King Baasha) and the southern kingdom of Judah (led by King Asa). Though they had a common heritage, and had been united as one people under kings David and Solomon, later generations often fought each other.

In chapters 14 and 15 King Asa was a model king. He disposed of idol worship in the land and trusted God to give victory over his enemies, most notably over the 1 million strong Ethiopian army. Things went well for Asa and the people of Judah who enjoyed peace and prosperity in those days. Then after 36 years of faithful rule… Asa went off the rails. We’re told he relied on an alliance with the king of Aram to confront a threat rather than relying on God. Then he punished the prophet whom God had sent to confront him and “afflicted cruelties on some of the people”. Which brings to mind a couple of questions:

What the heck happened to Asa? Why the defiance against God?

We’re not given an explanation. We only know that a king who started strong, and remained faithful for many years, ended badly. This speaks to me as I enter the back half of my work as a full-time pastor. I’m in my 21st year and, at 52 years of age, may have as many as 20 more years in front of me before retirement. Our passage reminds me that I want to end well.

I assume King Asa was like many of us who desired to do the right thing but failed. What was the problem? His ego? Victim of success? Who knows. But I want to do better. Lord let it be so. Amen.

 

 

A son imitates his faithful father…

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2 Chronicles 14:8 Asa (who became king of Judah after his father Abijah died) had an army of three hundred thousand from Judah, armed with large shields and spears, and two hundred eighty thousand troops from Benjamin who carried shields and drew bows; all these were mighty warriors. 9 Zerah the Ethiopian came out against them with an army of a million men and three hundred chariots, and came as far as Mareshah. 10 Asa went out to meet him, and they drew up their lines of battle in the valley of Zephathah at Mareshah. 11 Asa cried to the LORD his God, “O LORD, there is no difference for you between helping the mighty and the weak. Help us, O LORD our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O LORD, you are our God; let no mortal prevail against you.” 12 So the LORD defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled. 13 Asa and the army with him pursued them as far as Gerar, and the Ethiopians fell until no one remained alive; for they were broken before the LORD and his army.

In some sense this story is a repeat of yesterday’s passage – only with different characters. Asa was the new king of of God’s people who faced 1 million Ethiopian troops with less than 600,000 of his own. Like his father Abijah, Asa ignored the numerical disadvantage and depended on the power of God to carry the day – which he did. V.13 tells us “the Ethiopians fell until no one remained alive.” I thought yesterday’s death count of 500,000 was unbelievable. One million dead?! In one day?! Wow! I can’t even conceive of a million corpses in one place. Asa’s faith in the Lord saved him and his people. It also strikes me that Asa was imitating what he’d seen his own father do some years before.

Abijah’s faith was multiplied into his son by example. 

We’re not only called to follow Jesus, we are called to offer a life worth imitating. If that idea weirds you out, I understand. None of us is completely worth imitating (me included) because none of us is perfect. I’m sure there were any number of areas where Abijah was not a stellar example of faithfulness. But at least once, Abijah demonstrated faithfulness under pressure, which his son Asa took to heart – doing likewise once he became king. Abijah wasn’t a perfect example, but a living example of faithfulness. Who is imitating your example?

Lord Jesus, you have made us new in our baptism. And every day since you’ve been doing a work in us that we might be transformed more and more into your likeness. Give us grace to live a life worth imitating. And teach us to imitate others who are a bit ahead of us in the journey of faith. We pray this in your holy name. Amen.

 

 

It was a slaughter…

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2 Chronicles 13:2 Now there was war between Abijah (ruler of the southern kingdom of Judah) and Jeroboam (ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel). 3 Abijah engaged in battle, having an army of valiant warriors, four hundred thousand picked men; and Jeroboam drew up his line of battle against him with eight hundred thousand picked mighty warriors. 4 Then Abijah stood on the slope of Mount Zemaraim that is in the hill country of Ephraim, and said, “Listen to me, Jeroboam and all Israel! 5 Do you not know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt? 6 Yet Jeroboam son of Nebat, a servant of Solomon son of David, rose up and rebelled against his lord; 7 and certain worthless scoundrels gathered around him and defied Rehoboam son of Solomon, when Rehoboam was young and irresolute and could not withstand them.

After King Solomon died the united kingdom of Israel was divided in two. Scripture can be confusing because sometimes “Israel” refers to all of God’s people in both kingdoms. But other times “Israel” refers to the northern kingdom alone. In this case it refers only to the northern kingdom where Jeroboam ruled.

We’re told in v.3 that Abijah was outnumbered two-to-one, but he was clearly not afraid of Jeroboam. Why? Because God had promised to preserve the throne for the descendants of David. As David’s grandson Abijah was heir to that promise. Jeroboam was not. Abijah warned that fighting against him was essentially fighting against God, but Jeroboam ignored the warning. He had a huge numerical advantage! At day’s end Jeroboam had lost 500,000 men. In one day! To put that in perspective, the deadliest day in US military history was at the battle of Antietam during the Civil War in which 3,600 soldiers died in a one day. No comparison.

Jeroboam allowed himself to be impressed with the power of his military force rather than with the power of Almighty God.

This is a common theme in scripture: with God all things are possible. There are times in life when the odds seem impossible, the challenges overwhelming, the prospect of success nil. This morning I’m asking myself where I’m too focused on what is seen instead of focused on God who is unseen. How am I making the same mistake as Jeroboam?

Lord give us grace to fix our gaze on you. Amen.