Summary: The "invisible hand" of a sovereign God guides Paul (and us!).
“The Invisible Hand”
July 27, 2008
From Wikipedia: “The invisible hand is a metaphor coined by the economist Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations and other writings, Smith demonstrated that, in a free market, an individual pursuing his own self-interest tends to also promote the good of his community as a whole through a principle that he called “the invisible hand”. He argued that each individual maximizing revenue for himself maximizes the total revenue of society as a whole, as this is identical with the sum total of individual revenues. Smith used the term ’invisible hand’ only three times, but the metaphor later gained widespread use.”
This definition of “the invisible hand” is well-known to many, but may I suggest that the lives and destinies of followers of Christ are guided as well by an “invisible hand”, if you will, the hand of a sovereign God. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of Paul’s life, the goings-on in the early church, etc., and miss the deeper story, which is the invisible hand of God working behind the scenes accomplishing His purpose. The thing that we have to remember is this: God works through the good and the bad, even through sinful circumstances, to accomplish His will. We’ll see that operative in the life and ministry of Paul today.
I. The Invisible Hand in Paul’s Citizenship
Remember last week we said that, at least for a few moments, Paul was able to defend himself before his fellow Jewish countrymen; when he began speaking in the Aramaic dialect, that which they themselves considered their “heart language”, they quietened down to hear what he had to say. That didn’t last long, though. What set Paul’s Jewish hearers off was when Paul insisted that God had called him to take his message directly to Gentiles; this was enough for them to call for his head. See, what he was declaring, as we said last week, is that the ground at the foot of the cross is level, that both Jews and Gentiles could equally come to God for salvation, that in taking the gospel directly to Gentiles without making them Jews first, Paul was declaring “equal access” to God by faith in Christ.
Note the response: the whole cloak-tossing/dirt-throwing deal involved signs that they considered blasphemy to have been committed. On a side note, we can at least affirm the seriousness they attach to the name of God, a seriousness that I fear sometimes doesn’t characterize even professing Christians these days. I would remind you that among the most egregious sins you can commit is to take the name of God on your lips without in your heart giving it the considered reverence that it demands. Uttering the name of God as our first response to some surprise, taking that name in vain, as Exodus suggests, is an offense to God’s holiness. These men, though misguided, did act as they did out of what they believed to be a transgression of God’s holy name, a blasphemy committed by Paul. We’d do well to take the name of God as seriously ourselves.
But because he could not understand what was going on, the Roman tribune decided to torture Paul in order to get at the truth once and for all, his earlier graciousness turning to brutality as his patience began to wear thin. The instrument of torture was to be the Roman flagellum, a particularly nasty piece of work: it consisted of strips of leather embedded with bone and metal, and attached to a handle. Many men died under the lashes of this particular device; those who did not would almost certainly be left crippled for life. And if you saw “The Passion of the Christ”, you saw a grotesque example of this horrid practice, as Christ was flogged prior to His crucifixion.
Fortunately for Paul, this was a punishment that could not be inflicted on a Roman citizen, at least prior to conviction of a serious crime. This prompted Paul’s question; while he had many times proven himself willing to suffer for the cause of Christ, there was no reason to suffer needlessly, and so Paul pressed his rights as a Roman citizen not to be subjected to flogging.
This got the tribune’s attention immediately, as he received word from the centurion binding Paul for the flogging, as there would be a significant penalty for the tribune if he had flogged a Roman citizen. Better to be safe than sorry! He could hardly believe that someone who looked like Paul, as haggard a character as he, could actually be a Roman citizen, and thus he tells Paul of how much he’d paid to get his citizenship (the implication being that things were going to pieces these days if someone so rough as Paul could also purchase a citizenship!). But Paul tells him that his citizenship is natural; Roman citizenship was passed from father to son. This changes everything; the Roman tribune shudders to think that he’d nearly treated Paul with this severe punishment. Now, instead of beating the truth out of the prisoner, the Roman tribune takes legal steps to get answers.