This is a manuscript of what will become, in some form, my Sunday evening sermon for May 19, 2013.
Scattered by Sin, Gathered by God
Acts 2:1-41; Genesis 11:1-9; Ephesians 2:19-22
The Spirit creates the church and is at the center of God's work in his church. We must pay attention to the movement of the Spirit and follow where God is leading.
Sin confounds people's understanding of God and scatters them from their faith.
"It was a dark and stormy night..." What associations do you make with this phrase? Usually, when we hear this phrase, it is used to setup something dark and foreboding, an event that will have lasting and negative consequences. Similarly, in the Bible, darkness is used as an image for sin and lack of knowledge of God.
Genesis, the beginning of the story of God's work among and for his people, begins on a positive note, on a bright and sunny day, but quickly turns the page towards a dark and stormy night. The reason for this is sin--and the consequences of sin. We know the story--how God creates the world, culminating with the creation of human beings. He places them in a garden of perfection. But no sooner does this happen than sin creeps in, and Adam and Eve disobey God, leading to a worsening and worsening condition until even after the Flood, when human beings had occasion to start over afresh, sin has taken such a hold that violence, arrogance, and pride are the rule. Godliness is nowhere to be found.
Sin continues to stretch out in the Genesis story. Eventually we arrive at Genesis 11, and we see the people who began building their Tower in Babel following their own sinful desires in trying to pridefully attain glory for themselves at God's expense, building a tower to stretch high to the skies, to reach the very palace of God, perhaps to even take over the running of the world from God. After all, if we can tame God, if we can understand God, if we can know God by our construction, or even according to our own construction, what kind of gods are we? If God can be known like that, what kind of god is that? Where is the strength of that god? Where is the might and power of that god? It is in our own hands...in our own making.
Pride comes before a fall, we say...and sin scatters us, away from God, confusing our ability to even find him.
We all know the scenes of sin that follow, both in the Bible, and in our lives: For the nation of Israel, century after century of struggle, from the call of Abraham, who never quite gets it right, through the patriarchs, during the conquest, throughout the time of judges, and into the period of the kings, the exile and beyond. We know this pattern in our own lives, too: the struggle, the pride of not relinquishing our own wills to God's will because we know better, we want what we want, we don't believe God's way could possibly be the best way.
We struggle with our views towards others, with accepting those who are different than us, or who think differently than us; we struggle to help those in need without painting them with a broad brush of laziness; we snap at family members rather than extending them the same grace that was extended to us; we hold to lifeless traditions, our own Towers of Babel, rather than listening to the fresh leading of God.
So we wander through life, until either on our own, or with others, we begin to build a tower, a dark tower, during the dark and stormy period of our lives. We build this tower up, and up, and up...and the whole time, even though we think we are the ones doing the building, it is the tower that is controlling us, keeping us locked up in our sin, as we pridefully try to advance our way to God.
We need God to rescue to us, to destroy our tower of sin and disobedience, to take our away our pride, to show us that we are nothing without him but we are everything with him. As a song that was popular in my youth says, "You and me and God make 5." There is exponential growth when we turn to God, but turn we must, and abandon our old ways, we must.
Sin confuses us. It confounds us. But God brings clarity out of confusion. Where sin scatters, God gathers. He gathers us by his own Spirit.
God, through the gospel and his Spirit, bring clarity to confused people and gathers the scattered.
Our reading in Acts 2 began on the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival. The Jewish people were gathered in Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book of Acts, we see the disciples gathered together, waiting for further instructions from Jesus who told them to wait for the "promise" from the Father. As they waited, they prayed. They waited expectantly. It was unclear to them what the promise was, but they waited. And on the Day of Pentecost, the promise was given.
The day started out like normal. The disciples were gathered together in one place. The only thing different than usual was the festival day. But then something very unusual happened. There was a sudden sound and a stunning visual. Things were happening that could only be described as metaphors. But it was a spiritual event. Something really happened. And suddenly, the apostles were preaching.
And the preaching sounded good! Everyone gathered heard a gospel message that called for a response. We know from later in this story that thousands responded to the message that day, resulting in thousands of baptisms for the forgiveness of sins.
But when we look at who heard the preaching, who it was who responded, we see something even more amazing than the thousands of conversions. We see Jewish people from many nations, perhaps even from "all" nations, gathered and hearing gospel preaching! And they heard the gospel preached in their own language!
Think about this...Jewish people from all nations gathered to hear the gospel...God's people who were scattered from Babel through the introduction of different languages...the long struggle of sin and pride...and now the gathering of God's scattered people through a common language given by God.
How was this common language achieved? How were a diverse people, united in ethnicity but divided by language, able to hear preaching in their own languages? How did God gather his people that were scattered by sin? He did all this through his Spirit.
After the demonstration of power, Acts reveals to us that the Spirit descended upon the apostles. They were filled with the Spirit and they began to preach. Their preaching was heard in other languages, but these were not scholars who spoke. These were not linguists or translators or experts in foreign languages. These were ordinary men, whose only claim to fame was that they were plucked out of their regular lives by Jesus and they began journeying with him. These were farmers and schoolteachers, office workers and factory workers, nurses and hospital staff. Yet by the power of God, by God's own Spirit, they preached in the language of others as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And it is the same Spirit, at the end of this story, that is given as a gift to those who are baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. This Spirit is the promise the disciples were told to wait for. It is the promise of God. It is the promise "for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."
When Peter acknowledges the Spirit as the promise for all whom the Lord calls to himself, he is stating that the Spirit is the fulfillment of prophecy. The call from God is a call unto salvation and it is given by the Spirit. This is what the prophecy from Joel is about. The preaching was heard only by those who received it. To the rest, it sounded like babble. It sounded confused. And so they accused the apostles of being drunk.
But Peter said, "We are not drunk at all! This is the work of the Lord. This is what was spoken through prophecy." And he dug deep into the well of scriptural prophecy and spoke about the promise of God given to the prophet Joel, who spoke about the great outpouring of God's Spirit that would happen in the last days, where God, by his Spirit, would create a community of people for himself who would prophesy about him. The prophetic preaching would be so powerful that it would lead people to call upon the Lord's name. And in this calling is salvation. And in salvation is the Spirit. This is the promise, the promised Spirit, given to all who call upon and are called by the Lord.
So you have received the Spirit in your baptism, as have your children, all generations, and those who have been scattered by sin have been gathered by God through his Spirit. God gathers those who had once been scattered.
God dwells among his gathered people, who become a spiritual temple for him, not an idolatrous tower for themselves.
But what does this gathering look like? If our sin and scattering can be described as a tower, something that we build for ourselves against God, then God's gathering of us can be described as a temple. After all, a temple is one location where God chose to dwell among his people, the Israelites. And it's also the location he chooses to dwell among us.
In Ephesians 2:19-22, the apostle Paul describes the Spirit as building the church into a temple where God dwells. And he uses the same "scattering and gathering" language that we see in the Tower of Babel/Day of Pentecost stories: We are no longer strangers and aliens but are now fellow citizens. Here, the church is described as a building, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone. This whole structure is growing into a holy temple for the Lord, and this structure, this temple, the church, will be the Lord's dwelling place...by his Spirit. So we see yet again the promise of the Spirit, indwelling us, dwelling among us, building us and shaping us to be the people and church God desires us to be.
We are God's building project, his building, his temple, where he dwells, growing his people into maturity.
What are the signs of God's dwelling among us?
But what are the signs of this maturity? How do we know we are being built up? How will we know that God is dwelling among us?
From the story of the Tower of Babel, we see that the presence of God among us brings the awareness of sin. God did not allow pride and arrogance to take hold. If we are at all self-aware and dependent on God, we can be sure that if we listen to him he will point out the pride and arrogance, the sin, that rests in our lives. Is your awareness of sin increasing? I am not asking about your feelings of guilt, for guilt is not an attitude of the Spirit. But if your awareness of sin is increasing, you can be assured that God's Spirit is dwelling among you.
From the Day of Pentecost story in Acts, we see that, combined with an increasing awareness of sin, as the opposite of guilt, God's dwelling among us by his Spirit will also lead to repentance from sin. As we become more aware of our sin, our pride, our arrogance, we will turn away from those things and turn to God, cling to him, in repentance. Just as the the people who heard Peter's sermon became aware of their own sin, they also realized that they needed to repent...and repent they did. Are you turning from sin in your life? Then know that God's Spirit is active in your life.
We also see, in Paul's description of the church in Ephesians 2:19-22, that the presence of the Spirit will lead to spiritual growth and maturity and unity in the church. Do you find your relationships with others in the church growing? Is your ability to overlook faults and flaws in others increasing? Are you more focused on God's work than on the church's traditions? These are all signs of God's activity in your life.
We can continue to discern these things...and discern we must, for God calls us not only to salvation but also to a life of obedience. Let us move from our towers of sin to the temple of God, letting him fill our lives, both individually and as the church. Let us look for his leading, to follow him at all times without excuse.
We find the Spirit's movement among us, both in our lives and in the life of the church, as we listen to God. It's in our listening that we find him. And it's in our following that we obey him. Let us live up to the call of God in our lives. Let us keep our focus on him, repenting from sin, growing in grace and maturity, and obeying the word of the Lord.
This is a manuscript towards my Sunday sermon (for May 5, 2013)
Acts 16:9-15: Every Home a Church
Conversion to the gospel results in lifestyle of discipleship. Fight for your faith by embracing lifestyle discipleship over decision-oriented faith.
Why do so many leave the church? Especially young people?
- crisis hits, people bail
- young people leaving in droves--some because of hypocrisy they see; others without explanation
- churches struggle with stagnation, there appears to be no life--churches have become museums obsessed with the past and not looking ahead to the future
- when these troublesome times hit, we become concerned with numbers and budgets, things we can look at objectively, things we think we can solve objectively
- why do these things happen?
Perhaps one reason is that we focus too much, or even exclusively, on the decision-point of faith, and we neglect the "weightier" matters of how the gospel converts us and calls us to a whole-life transformation.
For example, we see the pattern of salvation in Acts. In Acts 2, Peter preaches, many "obey the gospel." The same happens with the Samaritans and the eunuch in Acts 8 (with Philip). It happens again with Cornelius in Acts 10. This becomes the pattern for Paul's ministry in his journeys. He most often began by entering a city, seeking out a synagogue, and preaching. As a result, many would obey the gospel, believe and be baptized. Thus, we draw a conclusion that faith is about a decision-point. Conversion is not seen as a process, but as a moment of turning from wrong to right. Rightly, we argue that baptism is instantaneous--when one realizes their sin before God they ought to turn to him and be washed from sin in baptism. But this pattern can lead to abruptness, where we often believe that he preaches an isolated sermon, leading to a decision point, where people respond. Further teaching then takes on the role of strengthening doctrinal understanding about the church while largely ignoring ethical issues about how we should live. We point to some of the big sins, the taboo ones that every Christian should "know" to avoid, but we don't address how ongoing conversion and transformation happens. As a result, many are never fully converted. They live a life hoping that their sins will be forgiven while never growing into the fullness of discipleship in Christ.
Maybe the problem is that we haven't really been converted. Maybe the problem is the gospel has not led to the conversions of our lives.
Back in the 1980s, John MacArthur wrote a book called The Gospel According to Jesus. In this book he detailed a doctrinal argument that was making the rounds among conservative churches. The argument was known as "The Lordship Controversy" and it sought to define the question of salvation of faith through grace. Because, in these churches, the acknowledgment that a person had been saved was that they had received Jesus as Lord and Savior, the question arose about what this meant. In an effort to protect the doctrine of salvation by grace, the idea made headway that this reception was not a gift, and that to acknowledge Jesus as Lord was merely to acknowledge his position over you. Works that would result from a transformed life could not be trusted as evidence of salvation because we cannot earn our salvation. So the pendulum swung too far in one direction. In an effort to uphold doctrine, and to protect salvation by grace, works were overlooked and the Lordship of Jesus over our lives, and discipleship was underemphasized.
We find these same issues in our tradition, though not the same questions. We have followed Paul's paradigm to a "T", but almost to a fault. Though we emphasize a "sixth step of salvation" (faithfulness to the end), we realize from our history that this step was added much later as a necessary corrective to an earlier oversight.
Our efforts to distinguish ourselves from others have left us with an anemic faith. Churches have struggled to have anything left to give younger generations. These folks, many of whom are our own children and grandchildren, are not looking for entertainment, as we often criticize them for, but for authenticity in faith. They recognize that faith is more, MUCH more, than simply making a decision, trying to live morally as culture defines it, and attending worship services and Bible studies. And when they do not see the Spirit of Jesus alive in the church, they look elsewhere. Beyond seeing Jesus as Savior alone, they see him as both Savior...AND Lord.
Which takes us back to the Bible. An emphasis only on Paul's evangelistic approach misses the bigger pattern. The real pattern is seen when we combine the pattern of apostolic preaching and Paul's missionary preaching with the pattern of the reception of the gospel in the life of the hearers.
- in Acts 2, the preaching led to baptism, which led to follow as seen in the devotion to ongoing teaching, breaking of bread, prayer, and house to house fellowship. There was conversion beyond the point of decision.
- in Acts 8 and 10, we see special cases where salvation is given to non-Jews, first to Samaritans and "God-fearers" (who were converts to Judaism), then to the Gentiles themselves. But in Acts 8, we see the Jerusalem leadership sending Peter and John to the Samaritans for follow up teaching (8:25). In Acts 10:48, we see Peter staying on for several days, likely to include follow up teaching as the Gentiles needed to learn how to integrate the gospel with their lives. There was conversion beyond the point of decision.
- we see this clearly laid out in Paul's example in Acts 16. Here, Paul follows his usual pattern of going to a city and looking first for Jews. He typically begins in a synagogue, but in Philippi, there evidently was not one. So they look for a place of prayer, which is possibly like a non-commissioned synagogue, where women met because there were not enough men to commission a synagogue. Here, Paul meets with several women. He speaks with them, which we should understand to mean he preaches the gospel to them. Lydia They are converted. And there is conversion beyond a point-of-decision. There is conversion beyond there initial response. There is ongoing, lifestyle discipleship as a result of their conversion.
Conversion beyond the point of decision sounds obvious. But have we experienced this? Let's note one thing about Lydia's conversion--it was a work of the Lord. And Lydia's conversion was defined by a changed lifestyle. Far from seeing Jesus only as a Savior who took her sins away, she recognized that she was entering into a new kingdom, with a new Lord, the Lord Jesus, and that her life would be forever changed as a result. No more would meeting quietly with the women at the riverside suffice for her religion, but her relationship with Christ required more drastic transformation. She invited the apostles to stay with her, to use her house as a base of operations for their work, which they did for some time.
Note this: Rather than simply "go to church," Lydia became the church. Now, I don't say this to discourage us from showing up here, but rather to encourage us to seek to grow daily in our faith. Previously to her conversion, Lydia no doubt had an active faith, but it was based around observance of the law and in particular the worship requirements of the synagogue. But after her conversion, her faith was more active, it grew, because she saw herself as a part of God's kingdom, a part of God's mission, to redeem and save the world through his people. The gospel changed her life and she experienced a whole life conversion as a result. She began to live a lifestyle of discipleship that went beyond a decision-point faith.
And this is seen in two different ways: the conversion of her household, and her commitment to hospitality. Lydia was either single or had an unbelieving husband. But the context of the passage indicates she was likely a wealthy woman, and as the leader of her household, she had property enough to invite Paul and Silas to stay in her household, to allow it to become a beachhead for ministry and mission. Her household was probably also a place of business, and as such would have had servants, and their families and even children. And it was through Lydia that the entire household found faith. Part of Lydia's whole life conversion through the gospel to discipleship as a follower of her Lord was to take responsibility for the faith of her household.
One of the more troubling aspects of religious culture today is the idea of "church shopping," where folks will attend churches that "meet their needs" and once a church supposedly no longer does so, they begin looking around for a new one. Folks, let's draw a line in the sand and grow up on this one. No church will ever be perfect, and the church is not responsible to single-handedly raise your children, or mine, in the faith, or to serve you the programs, lessons, and activities that you want. Instead, biblically, the church is to nurture the faith of each one, to minister to one another in love and grace, to do the gospel follow up that we read about earlier in Acts where disciples went house to house and listened to the follow up teaching of the apostles. But if you are not here, you are not able to be nurtured...or to nurture.
And the faith that is needed begins in the household. How often do you talk about your faith in your own home? How often is the gospel mentioned or taught? Is the Bible opened and read from regularly, or is it a relic, relegated to the shelf until Sunday, if someone remembers to grab it on the way out the door? Is prayer a part of family unity, or is it an add-on so that God will sanctify a meal? Is worship with the church seen as a regular and normal part of your family life together, or is it something that you get to if everyone wakes up in time and feels like it?
I don't say any of this to chastise anyone or make anyone feel bad. I raise questions to help us think through the idea of gospel conversion. If we understand our baptisms, that we have died to an old life and been raised into a new life, that we have left behind an old kingdom and entered into a new kingdom, then what could be more important than serving and loving our own families into gospel growth?
We can start small. For parents, share a Bible story or passage at the dinner table before prayer. Pray with the children before bedtime. Read the Bible together in the evenings. Find a church member you can get to know better and begin to spend time with that member or family as a family. For married couples without kids in the home, you can do the same--except perhaps add to it this: find a younger couple you can help mentor in the faith. For children in the home, witness about your growing faith to your parents and siblings by being the example God calls you to be through the gospel. For those who have not-yet-Christian spouses, or not-yet-Christian members of your family, be diligent in both prayer for your family members and in your example to them. Pray fervently and expectantly for the conversion. Let God lead through prayer to draw your family closer to him. But most of all, let the gospel convert your whole life. Let your home function as a small church, nurturing one another in gospel growth.
The second aspect of gospel conversion we see in Lydia's life is the opening of her home to hospitality. Hospitality is a gift to others, because we truly open ourselves and make ourselves available, and even vulnerable, to have others in, to feed them, to care for them, and to serve them spiritually while they are among us. Hospitality to others reminds us of the hospitality that God showed to us through Jesus in salvation, and of the hospitality that Jesus reminds us to have as a sign that we know him as Lord (in Matthew 25).
How might we be hospitable? Through the mentoring I've already described, but also through other means. Having people over, for sure, but not only that: feeding them and caring for them might mean going *to* them in their time of need. It might mean hosting Bible teachers in your home. It may mean caring for orphans by becoming foster parents. It may mean going to serve orphans in Haiti. Hospitality is not only opening your house, though certainly it includes that. Hospitality is opening the house of your heart, to let the love of God flow through. This only happens when you have received whole life conversion through the gospel because of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Church, fight for your faith by embracing lifestyle discipleship over point-of-decision faith. A point-of-decision faith never grows beyond what was initially there. It keeps you trapped in a cycle of feeling smug and arrogant while never growing. It holds onto the past and blames others when things are not achieved. It is fearful. Instead, let your life be converted completely by the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Become a disciple in your entire life.
The most dangerous thing in our churches today is not the fight over marriage equality, it is not the threat of atheism, and it is not the supposed rise of the Islamic faith. The biggest threat in our churches is a so-called faith that only claims forgiveness while living a life that has nothing to do with Jesus the Lord. The biggest threat in our churches are people with a dead faith who masquerade as Christians while living as though they are the Lord. Jesus is King, not you. Not me. We may win a cultural battle or lose one, but these things will come and go. But God is eternal. Our faith is forever.
Don't be on the outside looking in. Over and over we see in Acts the same process--preaching followed by conversion. But don't neglect the follow up! Because in the follow up we see that the pattern we need to fold in is our own: hearing, believing, baptism, and gospel growth. Let every home where there are Christians become a church. Let those small churches grow and develop in their faith. Let them become places of hospitality. Let the work of God move outwardly into our neighborhoods, schools, and places of work. Let God's mission to redeem the world happen through. Let a lifestyle of discipleship, gospel growth, and hospitality spring forth, in the Lord Jesus' name.
This Bible study guide includes questions from Acts 4:32-5:11 (morning sermon) and Joshua 10 (evening sermon).
In the morning sermon, I will be looking at the need to be truthful with each other and before God as a community value; and in the evening sermon, I will teach about our need to trust God completely. It is his plan that saves.
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The study questions are from Acts 4:23-31 (morning sermon) and Joshua 5:13-6:27 (evening sermon).
In the morning sermon, I'll be looking at the apostles' prayer upon their release from the religious authorities. It's a gospel prayer, focusing on God's sovereignty and their role within his plan.
In the evening sermon, I'll continue with the theme of obedience in Joshua. Specifically, I'll look at the obedience that was required to conquer Jericho. Sometimes obedience is required even when it is slow and seems mundane.
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The Bible study questions are from Acts 3 (morning sermon) and Joshua 3-4 (evening sermon).
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The Bible study questions are from Acts 4:1-22 (morning sermon) and Joshua 5:1-12 (evening sermon).
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This is the devotional guide for October 16-22, 2011. In it, I've focused on the theme of baptism. As you go through this week, you'll learn both why we are baptized and what happens when we are baptized.
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The theme for this guide is how we participate in God's mission: what does God expect and desire from us? Readings, questions and prayer foci are from Psalm 119:49-72, Acts 8:1-4, Romans 12:9-21, Hebrews 13:1-3, and Matthew 25:31-46.
As always, if you find this useful, please share it with others.
Context: Paul has exhausted his legal defenses in Judea and still no charges were found against him. But because he had appealed to Caesar, he was sent to Rome.
1. Who else is with Paul? (1)
2. Was Paul treated like a prisoner by the guard? (3)
3. What favorable treatment did the guard give Paul?
4. How did Paul need to be cared for? (3)
5. How is the shipwreck foreshadowed in this section? (see vs. 4, 7-8, 9, 12)
6. What does the reference to "the Fast" have to do with their travel plans? (9)
7. What was Paul's message? How was it received? (10-11)
8. How is Paul being presented? (10; cp. 21, 24-25, 34, 44)
1. Why did the crew decide to set sail again from Phoenix? (13)
2. What difficulties did they face on this journey? (14-20)
3. How severe did things get? (20-21)
4. How did Paul seek to influence the crew? (21-26)
5. What did Paul promise them? (22)
6. How did Paul encourage them? (23-24)
7. How did Paul evangelize them? (23)
8. What is the reason given why they--through Paul--will be saved? (24-25)
9. Why must they shipwreck? (26)
10. What similarities and differences exist between Paul in a storm at sea and Jonah?
11. Why was the salvation of the centurion and the others contingent on the sailors not escaping? (31)
12. What scene is Paul's provision of food like? (35) Is this deliberate on Luke's part?
1. What was the plan to deal with the ship? How did the plan work? (41)
2. Why did the centurion wish to save Paul's life? (43)
3. Was the word of God through Paul fulfilled? (44) Why is this important?
Themes for application
1. In this story, how is God's word delivered? What is required upon hearing God's word?
2. What do you learn about evangelism or discipleship from this story?
3. What are the different ways God's word and sovereignty worked along with human action?
4. What did you learn in this lesson that we should pray about?
Paul's Defense Before the Jews in Jerusalem (1-21)
1. What are some signs of Paul's zealousness for God before his conversion (3-5)?
2. How does Paul describe his conversion (6-11)?
3. What did Ananias relate as the substance of Paul's ministry (12-16)?
4. What were the elements of Paul's conversion (16)?
5. What is Paul's testimony about the word he received from the Lord (17-21)?
1. At what point did the people become angry? Why? (22)
2. What did they propose to do with Paul (23-24)?
3. What response did this lead to by the Roman authorities, and what controversy was created by this (23-29)?
Paul Before the Jews, Part 2 (22:30-23:11)
1. What did the tribune do the next day? Why? (22:30)
2. What controversy occurred between the high priest and Paul? Who was obedient to the law? Did Paul really not know who the high priest was? What else could this mean? (23:1-5)
3. How did Paul play the Pharisees and Sadducees against each other? What did this say about the charges against him? (6-10)
4. What did Paul's vision foretell? (11)
The Plot to Kill Paul (23:12-35)
1. Who was complicit in this conspiracy (12-15)?
2. How was Paul's assassination avoided? (16-22)
3. How did Lysias handle Pau? (23-35)
4. What does Lysias' letter to Felix say about the charges against Paul (26-30)?
5. What is Paul's fate as this chapter ends? (34)