By Ben Owens | January 6, 2023
Few things are as discouraging as the current state of politics. If one were looking for a perfect strategy to cultivate existential despair, keeping up with the news would be hard to beat. The details vary from day to day. But the common thread is that the most corrupt, unscrupulous, cynical people among us have managed to acquire all the political power. Wickedness and foolishness are thus championed as progress while righteousness and wisdom are shouted down and legislated out of acceptable public discourse.
This is not new. Nearly three thousand years ago, the prophet Isaiah pronounced “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20).
Living under such rule, our situation often seems hopeless. It is not. The final chapters of the Book of Acts record the Apostle Paul’s years-long imprisonment on the basis of fabricated accusations. Paul had been accused of blaspheming the Old Testament and attempting to desecrate the Jewish temple. Not a bit of it was true.
As a Roman citizen, Paul might have expected a prompt and fair hearing of the evidence, followed by full exoneration and release. Instead, Paul was left to rot by cynical politicians. There was Ananias, the high priest who hired a smooth-talking lawyer to concoct a case against Paul (Acts 23-24). There was Felix, the lecherous, venal governor who kept Paul around in hopes that, eventually, he’d break down and offer a bribe (Acts 24). Felix’s successor, Festus, wasn’t sure how to handle Paul. So he brought in Agrippa, a corrupt and immoral king descended from a long line of corrupt and immoral kings (Acts 25-26).
If we had been witness to these dealings, we might well have concluded that things had come to an end for Paul. This was a hopeless situation. It was Paul, the itinerant preacher, on the one side versus the high priest, the Sanhedrin, the Roman governor, and the local vice-regent on the other.
And yet, we’re still talking about Paul. We’re still reading his writings. In fact, there’s a compelling case to be made that his epistle to the Romans is the foundational text of Western civilization. And what do we know of Ananias or Felix or Festus or Agrippa? Mostly, we know that they had dealings with the apostle Paul. They were the ones with power. Yet twenty centuries later they are mere footnotes on the life of Paul.
As F. F. Bruce wryly observed, “[M]ost people nowadays who know anything about Agrippa …and Festus know of them as persons who for a brief period of time crossed Paul’s path and heard him speak words which might have brought much blessing to them had they been disposed to pay serious heed to what he said. All these very important people would have been greatly surprised, and not a little scandalized, could they have foreseen the relative estimates that later generations would form of them and of the prisoner who now stood before them to state his case.”
And why is this so? Why is it that the powerless prisoner is remembered and the great men of authority are forgotten? Paul gave us the answer in that legendary letter to Rome: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)
That is the answer. The gospel. The good news of Jesus and what He’s done for us is the world-changing power of God. Because it’s true, it’s real. We were without strength, without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2). And the God against whom we had rebelled—the God who spoke the worlds into existence—became a man, “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2). “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5).
And He was then totally vindicated, “declared to be the the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead.” So Paul spent his life calling the world to faith in Jesus: “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38-39)
That is why Paul, “being dead still speaks.” Rome is gone. The letter to the Romans is not. The message is still true. Political leaders will come and go. How many of us can recall who was president a hundred years ago without pulling out our phone to Google it? Yet you know the name of Jesus Christ. There will be tyrants and fools and dreamers and heroes, great men and small. They will make their mark and be forgotten. But the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ remains true. It is still the power of God to salvation.
The ancient Psalm had it right.
“Do not fret because of evildoers,
Nor be envious of the workers of iniquity.
For they shall soon be cut down like the grass,
And wither as the green herb.
Trust in the Lord, and do good”
None of this constitutes a call to reticence or passivity. We work, we engage, we make every effort. But as we do good, we trust Him, “knowing that our labor is not in vain in the Lord.” “For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame.”
So take heart.
“Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
Does its successive journeys run,
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.”