NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED
15 After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. 16 And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge.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. 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. 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. 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!”
— Acts 21:15-36, ESV
Thomas Aquinas wrote, “No evil deed is unpunished, by God the just judge, [and] no good deed is unrewarded” (Summa Theologiae, 1274).
Other figures have taken his wisdom and turned it upside down. Oscar Wilde is the first credited with saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” It has been echoed often, from the young witch Elphaba, “No good deed goes unpunished. Sure, I meant well — well, look at what well-meant did” (from Wicked), to the latest release from rascal rock and roller Van Morrison, “No good deed goes unpunished, When it starts to unravel on you, No good deed goes unpunished, No matter what good you try to do.”
The Apostle Paul might have sided with Van the Man in the spring of AD 57. He had done a lot of good around the world, and hoped his return to Jerusalem would be a sort of triumphal entry. Unlike Jesus, he didn’t get one. But like the Lord, severe punishment awaited him once inside the old city. It must have seemed to Paul that no good deed goes unpunished.
The Good Paul Did
Paul “went up to Jerusalem,” even though prophetic warnings assured him nothing but trouble awaited. He went to do good, and a lot of good he did. Just what good did Paul do?
Paul brought a large offering to relieve the Christian Jews in Jerusalem, where persecution against Christians, that he had helped to start, still remained. The epistles Paul wrote during this same time period confirm the collection plates were passed. Learn from Paul here, if you ever have the chance to right a wrong, do it.
Paul brought something financial and sought something personal. He sought respect and reconciliation among Jews and Gentiles. He, of course, was Jewish, and went to the Jews first on his many missionary stops. But Christianity was quickly becoming a Gentile sport. The new Gentile Christians were told to abstain from idolatry and immorality as the New Testament was formed. They were allowed to set aside certain sections of the Old Testament. But this created a tension between Jew and Gentile, inside and outside the church, and the strife was not unlike that between Blacks and Whites in certain sections of America.
Paul reached out to both sides. Paul's first visit was with Manson, a Hellenist (a Jew who mixes with Gentiles). Then he reported to “James, and all the Elders,” who were still trying to protect the strict Jewishness of their original brand of Christianity. Paul had proved his love for the Gentiles, now he wanted to demonstrate respect for the Jews and Jewish customs, so he took a Nazarite vow and made his way to the Temple Mount.
Racial tension is as old as the Scriptures and as relevant as today’s newspaper. The best way to break it is to be a missionary-minded Christian, like Paul, and to see people as souls, not skin colors. The gospel demands repentance from sins, like racism. The gospel demands belief in the person and work of Christ, where the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
Paul did good. He came to Jerusalem to give, seek reconciliation, and preach the gospel. These are good things. Above all Paul came to love, which, as he wrote to the Corinthians, is the best thing. So what did Paul get for all his good deeds?
The Punishment Paul Received
As Paul made his way to the Temple, “Jews from Asia” were there to celebrate Pentecost. Some of them were hornets from nests lodged in places where Paul had planted churches. These churches became populated by Gentiles who did not have to honor the civil and ceremonial Old Covenant laws (God’s moral law, however, stands forever). The Judaizers made false accusations against Paul, and the wheel of punishment started to spin.
The text graphically illustrates how Paul’s good deeds did not go unpunished. The Christ-centered, missionary-minded, color-blind Apostle was “seized,” “dragged,” and took a “beating” as “they were seeking to kill him.” When the police finally showed up, instead of handcuffing the perps punishing Paul, “They arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains.” As they did, his tormentors chanted, “Away with him,” an eerily similar chorus to the one made by the Jews at the crucifixion of Christ.
Such chains and chants would hover over Paul and cover over his good deeds for the rest of his life. He did so much good. Yet he was punished so severely. No good deed went unpunished, or so it seemed.
We could say the same thing about Simon Peter, the sons of Zebedee James (already a martyr) and John (eventually tortured and imprisoned), and all of the Apostles. Christians, especially missionaries, have been martyred in every century, punished for bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the four corners of the earth.
I could tell you of much good I have done for the Lord, His church, family and friends, even strangers. I could also tell you that many of those good deeds did not go unpunished. You’ve got your stories, too. There are times when you stood for biblical truth, shared the gospel with others, tried to build up the church, only to have people cut you down, slander your name, punish you for doing good. What in God’s name is going on?
An Earthly Proverb
What Oscar Wilde did, or whoever said it first, was twist Aquinas’ logic into an actual proverb. It does appear, often in this life, that no good deed goes unpunished. Paul and others prove it.
But a proverb is not necessarily a blanket statement. Not everyone at the Pentecost of 57 wanted to 86 Paul. Not everybody at the last Passover wanted to kill Christ. Not everyone in our world is going to try to punish us for trying to live an overtly good and godly life.
So, believe the good news of the gospel and give your life to the Lord Jesus Christ. Give your life to the Lord Jesus Christ. Do good with your life, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Most people, in our particular place in the world, the Old South, will actually appreciate it.
Accept, however, that the proverb is often true, and the more you live like Jesus, love like Jesus, give like Jesus, the more chances there will be that some anti-Christian will mock you, perhaps hurt you, or otherwise see to it that you are punished for doing good.
Watch yourselves when this happens. Do not back down. Do not seek retaliation nor revenge. Consider the proverb, but more importantly, obey the word of God that tells us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). There’s a proverb that’s constant.
And don’t go looking for trouble. Trouble will find us soon enough. Real Christianity is not for the faint of heart, not for those who get going when the going gets tough, nor for those who think Christianity is a means of gain or reward in this life. True reward, and total escape from punishment, comes not in this life, but the life to come.
An Eternal Truth
At the end of the day, Aquinas will be vindicated, and so will Paul. Before he faced the fiery trials described in this text, he wrote, “Eye has [not] seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Can you imagine what Paul has been experiencing for the past 1,959 years? Sure, on earth no good deed went unpunished, but he’s not on this earth anymore. What is his reward like? What will yours be like?
No good deed goes unpunished in this life, perhaps, but no good deed done, by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone according to Scripture alone for the glory of God alone, will go unrewarded in the life to come. Live today for the life to come!