When Life Backfires
Text: Acts 23
Proposition: When things backfire in life it leaves us with lost opportunity, disappointment and frustration, all of which God uses.
Introduction: The definition of ‘backfire’ is an unexpected and undesired result. In a car it can be when the timing of the motor is off and the fuel is ignited at the wrong time, sometimes even in the muffler as the unexploded gas fumes ignite. Backfire also refers to when a bullet goes off in a rifle’s breach or chamber and the effects can be disastrous. From those sources the word ‘backfire’ has been adopted to refer to anything that ‘explodes in our faces’, that unexpectedly goes wrong. The thing is it’s not ‘if’ your life will experience a backfire of some sort, but ‘when’. In the passage today we are going to look at a time when Paul’s life backfired. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and Paul expected it to be used of God in a wonderful way and then, just as he got started, things ‘backfired’. Have a look at Acts 23.
I. Even When You Do Everything Right, Life Can Backfire.
The Commander of the garrison in Jerusalem sets up a meeting with Paul and the entire Jewish council to determine whether Paul has committed a crime under Roman law. For Paul this was a golden opportunity. He would have the chance to speak to Supreme Court of Israel as he tried to win them to Christ and to see the Gentiles as equal recipients of God’s grace. If he could influence these men there was an opportunity to radically transform the entire nation of Israel. Likely he went over in his mind what he would say, how he would present his case and what the possible resistance to it might sound like. So the time comes and Paul is invited to speak and he begins like this, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” He addresses them as friends and respected colleagues and he says that right up to this very moment he has sought to do the right thing, to have a good conscience before God about what he has said and done. That sounds like a good start, it was very similar to what he said the day before on the Temple steps and an angry crowd had been willing to listen. So he tries the same approach expecting it to at least have some receptivity. I guess the point is that we can do what’s worked before, we can even do everything right and we can expect that it should be effective and then all of a sudden… backfire. It seems that just one word, no matter how well you intentioned it to be taken, can become to another a word so out of place that they are incensed by it. The words which exploded were simple enough, ‘good conscience’, but to the High Priest Ananias it was like a red flag. That’s what a backfire is, you don’t expect it, the result is not what you wanted and the consequences can send you reeling.
II. When Life Backfires Your Own Response Can Take You By Surprise.
Ananias commands the Temple guard to strike Paul on the mouth. The slap is heard around the room and Paul’s response is instantaneous, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?” Paul was right in saying that Ananias had crossed a line in having him struck before his hearing was complete. In that sense Ananias just broke the Law of Moses (Deut 25:1,2), but Paul went too far when he insulted the High Priest calling him a whitewashed wall. The point is that when he was struck Paul struck back, he did what he hadn’t intended on doing. It was against the Law of Moses to show this kind of disrespect, Paul knew that he would lose credibility because of his actions and the opportunity to persuade the Supreme Court would be lost. So there is a variety of opinion over what Paul said next, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.” Some think Paul is being sarcastic about Ananias the corrupt High Priest. Some think that Paul really couldn’t see well and truly didn’t know it was Ananias. Either way his reaction was likely one that he regretted. I suppose the thing about a backfire is that we don’t expect it and don’t see it coming. It just suddenly is there and we have to deal with it and trust that the Word of God within us will balance us.
III. When Life Backfires, Timing Is Everything.
The crowd is getting out of hand, Paul’s opportunity and even life are on the line. If the Romans see him as being legitimately guilty before Jewish Law they may just hand him over to the court and he knew what would happen then. So Paul cries out at the top of his voice, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” It is an attempt to split the council, a third of whom were the ruling class called Sadducees. It is this comment that sends the entire court into confusion and the crowd begins to get out of control as the Pharisees cry out, “We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.” The animosity of the Pharisees against the Sadducees was greater than the hatred they had for this Christian Pharisee named Paul. What I’m getting at is that in the very height of this backfire in Paul’s life, when his very life was on the line, what he did right at that moment was absolutely critical to the whole outcome. Timing is everything, even in the kingdom of God. Jesus listened for the Father’s timing, the disciples moved at Christ’s timing, the church grew at the right times. Even in backfire know that God still has a timing that He is about to execute.
IV. When Life Backfires and You Feel Defeated, Christ Brings Hope.
The Commander sees the situation spiraling out of control and pulls Paul out and takes him back to the barracks at Fort Antonia. It’s here, later that night that we see Paul overcome by despair. Look at verse 11, “But the following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome.” ‘Be of good cheer’ infers that he wasn’t. When Paul saw the lost opportunity of the day, when he thought about what might lay ahead, when he felt the cause of the gospel in his life struggle… there was despair. That’s when suddenly he felt the presence of the Lord, Jesus was standing right there, encouraging Paul that things were going to be okay. In fact they were going to be perfect because of the backfire. Sometimes what Jesus means by ‘perfect’ is a little different than what we might think. When He says be of good cheer it sounds like things are all going to be great. Little did Paul know that at that very moment more than 40 men were taking a vow not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. Little did Paul know that though he would one day testify to the gospel of Christ in Rome it would first mean a mutiny, a ship wreck, a snake bite and months of trial and waiting. Paul didn’t know that but Jesus did. When Jesus says be of good cheer he’s not talking about the journey but about the outcome, the destination, the end result.
What becomes clear is that there are no backfires in the kingdom of God that somehow take God by surprise, that were unexpected to His eye. Every action of man, even the ones that seem to be full of chaos and ruin, God accommodates into the outworking of His will. We still make choices, we still encounter the choices of others that adversely affect us, but God’s design encompasses it all. He uses young boys to defeat the plot of desperate assassins, He uses Roman Commanders to deploy more 400 soldiers just to keep Paul safe. He uses Herod’s fortress at Caesarea to house Paul for the next two years. He uses all of these things to become part of Paul’s story that Paul would share time and again to convince people of the wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Backfires, God knows them before they occur and He uses them to His glory.