It’s been said that we live in an age of outrage. Author Mark Manson writes:
Outrage is everywhere today, on the political left and right, with old people and young people, people of all races and economic backgrounds. We may live in the first period of human history where every demographic feels that they are somehow being violated and victimized. From the wealthy billionaires who have somehow convinced themselves that their 15% tax burden is simply oppressive. To the college kids who hijack stages and scream threats at people because their political views differ from their own.
Most people believe that people are becoming more polarized. According to the data, this is actually not true. People’s political beliefs are not that different than they were a few decades ago. What is changing, the data indicates, is how we deal with the viewpoints that make us uncomfortable.
It isn’t that our beliefs have changed, it’s that the way we feel about people we disagree with has changed.
In short, people have become less tolerant of opposing opinions. And their reactions to those opinions has become more emotional and outrageous. (https://markmanson.net/outrage)
Manson places much of the blame on the internet and media, as its easier to find information that confirms our beliefs, news media both traditional and modern get licks by writing sensationalistic and outrageous stories, and that we’re now more removed, often with a digital screen between us, from the people we disagree with. Or as someone encapsulated in this take on a children’s book “Everyone I Don’t Like is Hitler; A Child’s Guide to Online Discussion”
While it is common to think that the ages we live in are unique, and perhaps they do present unique challenges like the internet, we are not living in the first and only Age of Outrage. Consider that George Orwell, best known for his works 1984 and Animal Farm, wrote in his personal Diary in 1942. (https://orwelldiaries.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/27-4-42/)
“We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.”
The era in which the New Testament was written has been referred to as one of these ages of outrage. Political tensions were extremely high in Palestine, and in its principle city, Jerusalem. And in Acts 21, the Apostle Paul returns to Jerusalem, led there by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, who has all along been preparing Paul that suffering and imprisonment will await him there. And in verse 17, Paul enters Jerusalem, steps into the tinderbox, and yes, is greeted by outrage. Not at first, and not by everyone, but by the end of this chapter, he is engulfed in it.
In An Age of Outrage, Lies Outrun Truth
Acts 21:17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to 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 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.
Paul and his companions had arrived in Jerusalem and they brought a great report about all that God had done among the Gentiles and everyone rejoiced glorified God. Great right? But look how quickly the conversation shifts - whoever put the verses in the Bible didn’t even give the transition its own verse. In the same breath that everyone says, “that’s great Paul!” they immediately inform him that a different story has already reached Jerusalem. There’s a saying that a lie can go halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes, and that what’s happened here. Look at verse 21; before Paul made it back to Jerusalem, a story about him had already circulated, that he taught “all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.”
This is a lie, but its a lie that needs a little explanation. In Paul’s writings and teaching ministry, yes, he did teach against the necessity of Gentiles keeping the law of Moses, and he railed against requiring Gentiles to be circumcised or follow the customs of the Jews. That was the issue, did Gentiles need to convert to Judaism to be part of God’s family. And if you remember Paul’s argument from Galatians for example, it was promised to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations - not just one. Therefore, Paul concluded, Gentiles can come into God’s family through a relationship with Jesus Christ, as Gentiles - they don’t need to become Jewish first. But Paul does not in the book of Acts or in any of his letters up to this time insinuate that Jewish people should forsake their customs. In fact, he himself took a vow, likely a Nazarite vow, in 18:18 and had in fact rushed back to Jerusalem to be there in time for the major jewish feasts. But none of that mattered. The lies about Paul had outrun the truth.
Notice this - there is one reality inside the room, the people talking with and interacting with Paul, the ones who know Paul and welcome Paul, and know how he conducts himself and his ministry, yet their is another reality outside of the room, the ones who don’t know Paul, who distrust Paul, and notice something even more convicting - many of those who believed the false report about Paul were Jews who had believed.
Some of you here today, may not be Christians, and I would hope that when you hear a report about someone, anyone, you may be diligent to not just accept the reports you hear but directly go to the person and look into it for yourself. I thank you for being here today, because if you’re hear that means that you’re not just hearing reports about Christianity, but that you’re looking into it for yourself. How much more for us who are Christians must we be discerning in this age of outrage to understand that the report may not be the person. It’s gossip. It’s slander.
In An Age of Outrage, We Speak With Clear Words and Consistent Actions
23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.
25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.
Now there is a lot of debate over whether the advice given to Paul is good advice or bad advice. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t make one bit of difference in silencing the age of outrage. So is this a bad PR stunt gone wrong? I think it is helpful by looking at what they’ve already done, what they advise Paul to do and what Paul does.
First, notice that they have already made their position clear on this issue. That is, they have spoken clear words. They had sent a letter to all the churches detailing what is to be done about the Gentiles. We’ve already read that letting in the book of Acts. So they issued a clear word.
Second, they advise Paul to make a public action. Paul is a still Jewish. He recently performed his own vow. So it is not inconsistent with his or any of the apostles and elders that Paul would sponsor other Jewish men at the temple. After issuing a clear word, they back their words up with consistent action.
Third, notice, Paul though this was good advise. He had reason to oppose the advise given to him. And yes, generally speaking, clear words are well met with consistent actions. And in many cases, the advise of the brothers to Paul would have been enough to at least quiet the outrage. In a sense, this is what Peter is getting at in 1 Peter 3.
1Pet. 3:13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
When we are confronting an age of outrage, clear words plus consistent actions, will often put our opponents to shame, for it is clear to everyone that the lies they are telling about us are not true. I don’t believe in the common phrase, “Preach the gospel, use words if necessary”. The point is that your actions are always speaking. I agree that our actions are always speaking, but also that they must be met with clear words.
In An Age of Outrage, Evil Men Will Exploit the Unwitting
Acts 21:27 When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.
Here’s the problem. Our part is to be people of clear words and consistent actions. And all men and women of goodwill, and Christians especially, are concerned with being people of truth. Yet we must not be ignorant of the fact that there are people, especially in such politically charged environments, who will take anything we give them, twist it to serve their message, and use it to exploit the unwitting. So here you have Jews from Asia - remember these are the cities that chased Paul out and tried to kill him, so they had an axe to grind. And they flat out lie about what he’s down at the temple. And the crowds, they follow along unwittingly, because they saw Paul with a Gentile friend in the city, and so they said, yeah I guess that sounds right.
Here’s the thing, evil men exploit the unwitting, because it’s so effective. Most of us do not question what we hear everyday. Hardly any of us go back to original sources, whether a written source or an interview. We hear soundbites, we get the news filtered through our sources that might include a part of a quote or two, and we accept the reality that is presented to us. People know this. And that’s why it is so easy to exploit people.
Listen, if you are hear today, and you are not a Christian. We are not here to give you a jesus soundbite and try to exploit you. I will encourage you to not just take my word for it, but go back to the original sources of Christianity, go to them, and see what they say about Jesus and about God and about how you can have peace with God through Jesus. I met a guy last night who grew up atheist, who literal came to faith by picking up a Bible and saying, ok, this is going to be stupid, and archaic and he read the book of Romans and he said, this is smart and powerful.
In An Age of Outrage, Darkness Often Opposes Light Through Violent Force
30 Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!”
I originally entitled this sermon, “How to Break the Mob Mentality” but perhaps I’ve learned a lesson about titling my sermon before I finish my study. For please understand that you can speak clearly and act consistently, you can love the truth and speak truth and love. You can be in the room with people and close your ears to the slander you hear, and people will still drag you out into the streets and hurt you, and possibly commit violent acts against you. There may not be an easy formula for breaking the mob mentality, and if there is, then it may be that its not the Christian life. The Christian life is not for the weak of heart. We have a call to speak the truth, and we have a call to live consistently with our actions, we are called to seek peace and be peacemakers, but we are not promised peaceful lives. We live in an age of rage, but that’s nothing new. Thousands of years ago a man named David wrote a psalm that we called Psalm 2, and he questioned, “Psa. 2:1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” And when David wrote that, it wasn’t new either. Thousands of years before him, Cain slew his brother Able because his deeds were righteous. So the secret is that this is not an age of rage. The world has always been raging. They raged when the star appeared over Bethlehem. They raged when he spoke in his hometown about God’s love of the nations. They raged when he healed the demonic. They raged when he rode in to Jerusalem on the donkey and they raged all the more when he stood silent before his accusers. They didn’t stop raging until they thought they had crushed him under their feet, until the blood and sweat streamed down his face from the crown of thorns they shoved into his head. And they danced upon his grave because his claims of Lordship over their souls had been denied once and for all. And when he rose from the grave, they raged against his church, and they raged against his witnesses - that’s why we call them martyrs. Christianity is not for the fearful, not for the cowardly, it is a faith that faces the raging mob with calmness of spirit and clarity or word and consistency of action, and says once again, Here’s the truth.
In An Age of Outrage, Love Compels Us to Speak
Amazingly, that’s what Paul does. Beaten, abused and bound, we read,
Acts 21:37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: Acts 22:1 “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.”
Now why would he do that? Why would he address the crowd again? Why would he think that whatever he is going to say will make any shred of difference? He’s already seen how willing this crowd is to lie about him. He’s already seen them twist his words and slander him. He’s already had to be rescued once from their hands and yet he begs to speak again. So many of us shut down. They are not going to listen. My words won’t make a difference. I don’t want to be hurt again. This is too hard, God. So what compels Paul to speak? It must be that the bonds that constrain him to speak are stronger than the bonds that restrain his body. And what is he constrained by? What compels him?
14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
That’s why we don’t write off the age of outrage. That’s why we enter the fray. Because we believe something about God and about us and about how people like us can be made right with God. We believe that God entered into our world, into our outrage. We hated him and he loved us, and his love compels us to go to those who rage against us and with clear words and consistent actions point them to the grace we’ve found.