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Summary: Identity determines destiny.

“ A Question of Identity”

Acts 21:37-22:21

July 20, 2008

Identity determines destiny.

Now, hold onto that thought; I fully recognize that some folks will interpret that statement differently than others. Some of us have seen our share of televangelists who jettison the Word of God and substitute in its place self-help programs, self-enrichment propaganda, self-fulfillment panaceas, and when I say, “identity determines destiny”, we get a little queasy, wondering if ole Harv is about to go off some deep end. Others of us have seen racial identity used as a tool to keep people down, or as a club to seek political gain. Still others have grown up in homes where, seemingly for kicks, a parent or some other adult has said, “you’re nobody; you’ll never amount to anything.” The sting of those lies may still haunt some of my hearers, and the last thing you want a preacher to do today is to remind you of how someone identified you, and so the words “identity determines destiny” scare you as inside you say silently, “don’t go there.”

But still, identity determines destiny. See, I’m not talking about some “power of positive thinking”, Oprah Osteen stuff. I’m talking about getting a Bible grip on what the Scripture says is true of you—and why it’s true of you, which is critically important. In our text today, Paul has an opportunity to tell his story, to identify himself to a howling mob intent on his execution.

Remember our story last week? Paul had finally made it to Jerusalem in time for the Feast of Pentecost, intent on delivering the offering collected from the Gentiles for the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem, an offering he was intent on delivering personally because of the solidarity it showed between Gentiles and Jews in Christ. All along the way, though, Paul had been warned, time and again, that what awaited him in Jerusalem was pain and imprisonment. But with laser focus on what Paul believed God had called him to do, he went forward. Sure enough, Paul was arrested by the Romans, more as a measure to save his life than for any wrongdoing on his part.

That’s where we pick up the story today. Note first a case of

I. Mistaken Identity – 21:37-38

Three years earlier a phony baloney Egyptian Jewish terrorist had appeared claiming to be a prophet. He’d attracted a substantial following and led his mob to the Mount of Olives in preparation for an overthrow of Jerusalem, only to be dispersed by the governor Felix and his soldiers. The tribune jumped to the conclusion that the reason the crowd was so incensed was because this impostor was back, and some people who’d been duped by him were incensed at his presence. This is why Paul’s educated Greek speech caught him off guard. Notice Paul begins speaking of his

II. Old Identity – 21:39-22:5

The first words of Paul’s old identity are given to the tribune, in order to clear up his identity with him. The tribune didn’t catch on to the fact that Paul was a citizen of Rome; Paul didn’t come out and say it, something he would do later. Not only was Paul a citizen of Rome, but a native of Tarsus, a city not only with great material wealth but one of intellectual distinction as well. The tribune granted Paul permission to speak, which he did in the vernacular of the people, the Aramaic idiom of Hebrew, and asking them to listen to his defense. The crowd, to its momentary credit and perhaps because Paul chose to speak in their heart language, did give its attention to the apostle.

The next words of Paul’s old identity are words of respect for his audience—an audience that had only moments earlier been trying to rip him limb from limb. He calls them, “brothers and fathers”. Paul begins his story by talking about the man that he had once been. He sets his conversion into the context of his identity as a Jew. He has been criticized for being an apostate Jew, one who has urged the renunciation of Jewish heritage and customs. This is not the case, and it’s important that he begin by placing himself squarely in the context of Judaism. To begin to establish his claim, he speaks of his birth, upbringing, and education, a triad of identity markers which firmly place him in the context of 1st-century Judaism. In Philippians 3:5, he describes himself as a “Hebrew of the Hebrews”, one who need not apologize to anyone as to his heritage. His education was quite impressive; his teacher had been Gamaliel, who was the most respected of Hebrew teachers.

The problem with these Jews (to whom Paul addressed this speech) is that they mixed a professed devotion to God with a strong patriotism and a clear prejudice against people who were not like them; i.e., Gentiles, whom they considered unclean.

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