An Uncomfortable Gospel

Isn’t going to church supposed to make you feel good? Paul’s message to the Roman governor, Felix and his Jewish wife, Drusilla, made them so uncomfortable that Felix dismissed Paul, Acts. 24:24–25. Claudius Lysias, the Roman commander in Jerusalem, had spirited Paul out of the city to save him from an assassination plot and had sent him to the governor, Felix, in Caesarea. Felix was familiar, not only with Judaism, but also with the Way, but was a notoriously evil and cruel ruler. Drusilla, his wife was Jewish, a daughter of Herod Agrippa I, who had executed Peter. Paul gave an eloquent defense, but Felix kept Paul imprisoned. Now Felix and Drusilla take advantage of the presence of a leader of the Christian Way, and summon Paul to explain his teaching.

Felix and Drusilla may have considered Paul a useful source for doing research about the Way (as Christianity was called), but Paul saw this as an opportunity to talk about Jesus and call his hearers to faith in him. As Paul explains the good news about Jesus, he makes the point that the gospel has implications, and names three specific areas. The first is righteousness. Paul’s hearers had not only God’s revelation in nature and in their consciences, but both had some knowledge of God’s requirement for holiness. Their lives failed to reflect that. Tertullus’ expression of gratitude for Felix’s benevolent administration had simply been flattery. You, together with all mankind, are made in God’s image and have a responsibility to reflect his righteousness. Sin is not just a violation of some social norm, but contradicts God’s character. Beware of de-emphasizing the need for righteousness, for that also depreciates the depth of Christ’s work. Believers, as well as those who do not know the Lord, need to hear of his righteousness.

“Paul’s distinguished hearers had probably never listened to such pointed and practical teaching in their lives as when he talked to them about ‘righteousness and self-control and the judgment to come’ — three subjects which that couple specially needed to learn about!”

F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, p. 473

The gospel has implications for self-control. The feeling-oriented life of Felix and Drusilla make them look like a thoroughly modern couple. Felix had lured Drusilla, a teenage bride, away from her husband, and she became his third wife. Although not limited to that area, self-control includes the area of sexual morality. Paul does not hesitate to speak of self-control, even though he knew of his hearers’ lack of it. Self-control is part of the fruit of the Spirit, Galatians 5:23. Self-control has to characterize your life as you do battle with sin, 2 Timothy 2:3–7. As you live in a culture that is increasingly and self-consciously rebellious, the fruit of self-control in a marriage, a faithfulness patterned after God’s faithfulness to his people, is a powerful testimony.

“The great thing about being a Christian is that you are not only saved from the sin of lacking self-control, you are also sanctified to be able to show self-control. When we have Jesus, we can start living life the way we were meant to live. That power that we forfeited in Eden is returned and restored to us: ‘For the grace of God has appeared that brings salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age’ (Titus 2:11, 12, NIV).” “The start of self-control is actually being controlled by Christ…. The best use of your power is yielding it over to Jesus.”

Jonathan Cruse, The Character of Christ: The Fruit of the Spirit in the Life of Our Saviour, pages 142, 144–5

The third implication gives urgency to the first two: judgment. The fact of the resurrection gives hope to those who trust in Christ—and that is usually Paul’s emphasis. But don’t forget that for the unbeliever it is a resurrection for judgment, verse 15. Psalm 139 is profoundly comforting for believers, but it ought to terrify those who seek to flee from God. Judgment flows out of God’s holiness. He cannot and will not allow sin to go unpunished. It means separation from God’s favor and blessing, experiencing only separation from God. Judgment not only warns unbelievers, it motivates Christians to persevere in their faith.

“Intrinsic to the apostolic gospel is the return of Jesus the Christ, and particularly the reality of the coming judgment. Before Felix, Paul in­sisted that his Chris­tian faith was simply an ex­tension of the confi­dence that he shared with his fel­low Jews (at least the Phar­isees, 23:6), namely, ‘that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked’ (24:15 NIV). Paul’s later discourse on righteousness, self-control, and coming judgment evoked such fear in Felix that the governor interrupt­ed Paul to bring the discus­sion suddenly to a close (24:25).”

Dennis E. John­son, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemp­tion, p. 151

The gospel calls you to respond. Do not put off repentance to a convenient time. Felix’s response is a natural one—not wanting to think about the unpleasant. But that does not work! Beware of delay. Felix did not openly reject the Way. He simply put off dealing with Christ and Paul’s message about him until a more convenient time. That was a time that apparently never came. The discomfort of a faithful presentation of the gospel is beneficial. Don’t get comfortable with your sin. It is a contradiction of what you are in Christ.

Instead of delaying, trust in Christ Jesus. Paul’s message to Felix was not moralism, not a plea to live a better life. Rather, Paul was speaking about faith in Christ Jesus, the setting for the specific topics Luke mentions. The purpose of talking about sin is not to make you uncomfortable as an end in itself, but rather to drive you to Christ. It does that for the unbeliever. But the gospel also functions that way in the life of the believer, motivating continual turning from sin to Christ. What you need is Christ’s righteousness and the self-control that he gives by the work of his Spirit. Christ made a good confession as part of his redemptive work, and summons you to persevere in the good struggle against sin, 1 Timothy 6:11–15. Genuine faith is living and active. It changes your life. The righteousness of the law being fulfilled in you is the reason for Christ’s work. Instead of abandoning yourself to doing what feels good, submit to the control of the Spirit of Christ.

In the proclaiming of the good news, whether by Paul to Felix or as you hear the Word today, Jesus Christ comes to you in the gospel. His righteousness alone enables you to face the judgment, not with terror, but with the confidence that your Judge is also your Savior. Don’t wait for a convenient time. Trust him today! Keep on trusting.