I opened Acts chapter 26 at a very timely moment.
Last time I posted, I wrote about the current international situation, which is so very distressing and frustrating as we watch innocent people suffer. Faced with this, it can be hard to believe in a good God.
Acts 26 gave me a bit of a jolt though. This chapter sees the apostle Paul on trial before the first-century Judean king, Agrippa. Serious charges had been levelled against Paul because he had been claiming that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the son of God. Paul’s fellow Jews had plotted to kill him because of these claims. Prior to making his case to Agrippa, Paul had spent time in prison and appeared on trial before local Roman governors. Not an easy time for Paul!
In his defence speech to Agrippa, Paul describes how he himself used to oppose Jesus’ name, imprisoning Christians when he was a Pharisee. He tells Agrippa how he then met with Jesus whilst travelling to Damascus. He finishes by saying, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22-23). In other words, trustworthy historical documents (now known as ‘The Old Testament’) did promise that God would do something to rescue us from darkness. His suffering on the cross and his subsequent resurrection (documented in the ‘New Testament’) bear the promise out. But what really grabbed me was the local governor Festus’ interruption of Paul’s defence at this point: “You are out of your mind, Paul!” [Festus] shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”
And a voice in my head murmured, ‘That’s me’.
I make God smaller
When I hear about or experience things that distress me, I’m tempted to reduce my view of God. If God doesn’t seem to be intervening in the way we want, we sometimes say that it’s because he’s just not big enough to cover the problem in question. Festus, Paul’s persecutors, and Paul himself before his Damascene conversion, may have felt like this. Felt that the idea of a Nazarene carpenter being God was insane. Stretching belief too far. Too big.
But how does the Bible portray God?
If we start at the beginning of the Bible, we read of God creating everything we see (and don’t see). Pretty big! After humans have turned away from God, we see God reveal more of his might throughout the events of the Old Testament. At the same time, Old Testament prophets speak of the coming Messiah who will save us. The Jesus of the New Testament changes lives – he has the power to turn water into wine, make the blind see, feed five thousand people with a little boy’s pack-up, and even raise the dead. (Which does sound incredible, but as Paul says to Agrippa and the others in the court, in view of the Old Testament prophecies, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” – Acts 26:8). Jesus’ earthly ministry constantly reveals a God who actually does care about us, who does desire to free us from suffering. And finally, his death on a cross, a cross he would have been powerful enough to get down from had he chosen to. People die horrible deaths all the time, don’t they, but this death was different. It defeated death on our behalf. The resurrection is the Bible’s central miracle, its ultimate sign, assuring us of our salvation and convincing us that we are loved. No matter how big the horrors we see in the world, love is bigger.
I am fastidious and like to fit things into boxes. My son’s first word was ‘tidy’! Just like I bossily coach him to put his toys away, I want to fit God into my own mind, my own experience, my own world. But that’s where I miss the point – if God was small enough to fit into our little human minds, he wouldn’t be worth believing in! The world as we know it is finite and won’t be around forever. The Bible tells us that God’s kingdom will endure forever – so perhaps we need to start thinking bigger. The long-suffering Paul summed it up when he told the Corinthian church (quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah), “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived — the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Why not test this? Go with God, talk to him and see what happens. Not necessarily about something small – although, just as nothing’s too big, nothing’s too trivial either! Perhaps you could chat to him about something massive and difficult though. Be expectant about what might happen. Instead of making God smaller, let’s expand our view of him. Think bigger!
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12