We are picking up a sermon series that we started way back in 2018. For the past two summers, we have gone through the book of Acts. The thinking was that the book of Acts describes the actions of (1) the Holy Spirit and (2) the Early Christian church. Starting with Pentecost when the Holy Spirit begins the church with fire and strength, Acts shares how that fire kept burning within the Early church as they shared the message of Jesus.
And in the first 20 chapters, the Early Church is deeply engaged in sharing Jesus.
They sent out missionaries to do mission work.
They gave gifts to support mission work.
They prayed for the expansion of mission work.
They started new churches as a result of mission work.
The central figure in that mission work? Jesus.
After Jesus? A guy named Paul.
Paul’s faith was on fire for Jesus.
He had been on three different mission journeys.
He had been to over 20 cities.
He had started churches in at least 11 of them.
He had even written 6 books of the Bible.
Paul was (and is) a missionary legend.
If he would have had a YouTube page, he would have gotten 100 subscribers (a lot faster than we would have).
That’s why the plans that God has for Paul in the last 8 chapters of Acts seem so…
Today we’ll examine what to do when God has other plans. Before we begin, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The Story
Chapter 21 picks up where we left Paul last summer.
He had visited with the elders of a church in Ephesus, encouraged them, and said his goodbyes. Then, he had gotten back onto a boat to deliver a sizeable offering that he had collected from all the mission churches for original church in Jerusalem, a church that was struggling with poverty.
The account, written by Paul’s travel buddy Luke, says in Acts 21:1-3:
After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Kos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. (v.4a)
Finally, a chance to slow down.
They got to hug fellow believers in Jesus.
They got to sit down and have a meal with them.
Maybe it was even a potluck meal. (“Please Paul, try some of my green Jell-O with pear pieces in it.”)
They studied God’s Word together.
They encouraged each other.
Maybe they even went sight-seeing together.
As they went…
The believers from Tyre also did something else:
Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. (v.4)
Good morning Paul! Would you like a glass of orange juice? You’ll need your vitamins if you plan on going to Jerusalem. I don’t think they serve OJ in jail.
Paul, can we do this Bible study outside? I just wanna show you the sun, before you end up in jail and never see it again.
Paul, before you leave, our kids have a brief song to sing. It’s called “God’s Got the whole world in his hands - except for possibly that jail cell in Jerusalem where Paul is headed.”
But Paul barely knew these people.
The Holy Spirit had told him to go to Jerusalem, so that was where he was going.
His companions agreed.
When it was time to leave, we left and continued our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.
“Lord, thank you for brother Paul. Thank you for his ministry. But Lord, could you change his mind? He’s being a fool, Lord. Amen.”
After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home. We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven.
Maybe you’ve heard of Philip the Evangelist before. He was one of seven men chosen by the original church in Jerusalem to help expand the mission work of the early church. He had brought the Gospel to quite a few places. He was a long-time servant of Jesus. If anyone could convince Paul not to go to Jerusalem, Philip could!
Philip also had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. (v.9) The Greek word used in this way means they had skills in explaining the teachings of God’s Word. So…maybe they could explain from God’s Word why Paul needed to go somewhere, anywhere else other than Jerusalem.
After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. (v.10)
Notice the difference.
The daughters of Philip were known for prophesying. That means they could explain God’s revelation of Scripture.
But Agabus was a prophet. That means he was directly given revelation from God.
Agabus took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it (v.11a)
He couldn’t move.
He couldn’t walk.
He was inside a makeshift straight jacket.
“The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” (v.11)
Paul’s companions couldn’t handle it.
Even Luke himself, the guy writing this down confessed, we…pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. (v.12)
“Paul, I don’t want that to be the end of the story.”
“Paul, I can’t imagine that God wants that to be the end of your story.”
“Paul, God must have different plans.
Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (v.13)
Paul didn’t get angry.
But Paul also didn’t stutter.
He was going to Jerusalem.
“When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”” (v.14)
II. The Truth about God’s Plans
Does that ending seem like an empty platitude?
Because if you break apart what they’re saying…
If it was the “Lord’s will”…
If it was God’s plan…
…then that means God’s plan was for Paul to suffer.
That doesn’t seem right. Because when human beings plan things, we plan things specifically to avoid suffering. Otherwise, preparing for a trip to the Outer Banks would sound much different:
Let’s leave the suntan lotion behind. I’d really like to get burnt to a crisp, because I’m hoping to have the pain of burnt skin by the time this is over.
I wonder which AIRBNB on TripAdvisor has the worst review. I could really go for a terrible night’s sleep.
Hey, Honey! I think I found the place we should eat on Friday night. This Google review says that Bob’s Seafood has tasteless appetizers and a rancid fish smell. In fact, there’s a guy here who got food poisoning for 24 hours. Shall I go ahead and book a reservation?
As human beings, who hate suffering, we do everything in our planning to avoid suffering.
For God to plan suffering doesn’t seem right.
But can I show you something?
It’s from the previous chapter in the book of Acts, before Paul left the Ephesians elders to head to Jerusalem.
Look at what it says:
Now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. (Acts 20:22-23)
God’s plan for Paul did involve suffering.
SOMETIMES God’s Plans Involve SUFFERING
Because God is different.
God doesn’t try to avoid suffering.
He faces it.
He conquers it.
He knew that because of our sins, we were going to suffer.
Not just sunburn.
Not just inconvenience.
Not just through a salty clam.
He knew we would suffer eternal burning in hell.
God made plans.
God made plans to suffer so that you wouldn’t have to suffer.
And God went through with those plans.
He suffered rejection from his own people.
He suffered betrayal from a trusted friend.
He suffered abandonment from the rest of his friends.
He suffered humiliation as he was arrested.
The suffered through a false trial where lies were hurled against him.
He suffered slap after slap after slap to the face.
He suffered thirty lashes that made his back raw.
He suffered a crown of thorns jammed into his head.
He suffered a wooden rod strike to the body.
He suffered one nail through his right wrist.
He suffered another nail through his left wrist.
He suffered a final nail through his feet.
He suffered as he labored to breathe.
He suffered as he bled out.
He suffered as he died.
And his suffering ensured that you will not suffer eternally.
Since God suffered on earth, you will not suffer in hell.
God’s plan for Jesus involved suffering.
God’s plan for believers involves suffering too.
In fact, Romans 8:17. It was written by Paul, most likely, after he knew what was going to be happening to him in Jerusalem. He said: We share in his sufferings…
Did you notice what Paul said?
He said, “We.”
As in, “I’m not the only one that has suffering in God’s plan for them.”
As in, “You other believers will too.”
Sometimes God’s plans involve suffering.
ALWAYS God’s plans involve ETERNAL LIFE.
Because think back to Jesus.
Jesus suffered until he died on the cross.
But then the suffering was over.
Jesus went down to hell to enjoy proclaiming victory over the devil.
Jesus came out of the grave alive, well, and not suffering at all.
Jesus appeared to his disciples and…
He didn’t have to take a seat because he was out of breath.
He didn’t have to get some Neosporin because the wounds on his hands were causing him pain.
He didn’t have to leave the room because it was too painful to look in the faces of disciples that deserted him.
He was done with suffering.
Because he had conquered suffering.
This means God’s plan involved some suffering.
But it also involved a complete removal of suffering in eternal life.
And this wasn’t just for Jesus.
Can I give you the rest of that Romans passage? It says, “We share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (v.18)
Paul knew that if God’s plan was for him to suffer on earth, it was because God’s plan was to get him and others into heaven.
Not to give too many spoilers to the rest of our summer series, but as a result of God’s plan for Paul to suffer…
Paul gets opportunities to share Jesus that he never would have gotten.
People hear the Gospel message that never would have heard it.
Paul becomes an example for Christians centuries later to keep the faith in the midst of suffering.
The end result?
People are saved to eternal life that wouldn’t have been saved to eternal life as a result of Paul’s suffering.
And Paul gets eternal life too.
That’s because God’s plan always involves eternal life.
That’s God’s plan for you too.
He wants you in heaven.
He wants you to enter eternal life.
He wants you to go to a place where you won’t suffer.
III. What Now?
(1) Determine God’s Plan by God’s Word
That’s what Paul did. He determined God’s plan based on what God told him about God’s plan.
They had the same Word of God.
From the same Spirit of God.
But they determined it was not God’s plan, because they didn’t like it.
They were determining God’s plan based on how they felt about it.
By that logic, God’s plan would be for us to sin.
Because being a jerk to people that upset you? That can feel pretty good.
Drinking too much alcohol to get over stress? That can feel nice.
Sleeping with your girlfriend before you’re married? That can be exciting.
But God’s plan isn’t for us to sin.
Instead of going to sin-tainted emotions,
We go to God’s Holy Word.
In God’s Word, God reveals God’s plans for us.
Plans for us to love him.
Plans for us to love one another.
Plans for us to share his message.
And if going through with God’s plans means that we also go through some suffering?
The Lord’s will be done.
If standing up for your friends of a different race means you receive angry comments online?
The Lord’s will be done.
If keeping yourself pure sexually means you miss out on a moment of excitement?
The Lord’s will be done.
If keeping your faith in Jesus means that God removes the idol of money by causing you to lose your job?
The Lord’s will be done.
If being able to share the Gospel with people who need the Gospel means that you contract COVID-19 and head to the hospital?
The Lord’s will be done.
If a pandemic happens and we aren’t able to meet for large-group in-person worship for a long period of time, and that’s hard because we enjoy seeing the large groups of people gathered together all at once, but our online efforts reach one soul that we never would have reached otherwise?
The Lord’s will be done.
(2) Keep Jesus as Your Motivation
That’s what Paul did. Remember his reason for suffering?
It wasn’t for the name of Paul.
It wasn’t for the numbers in his IRA account.
It wasn’t even for his family
It was for the name of the Lord Jesus
Because Jesus saves; Paul doesn’t.
Jesus saves; I don’t.
Jesus saves; you don’t.
Making Jesus your motivation means your motivation is love.
And love allows you to follow God’s plan even when the plan involves suffering.
I’ll never forget the conversation.
There was a woman who was very sick.
She was in the hospital.
She was suffering.
A lot of her friends and family couldn’t believe she was sick!
They were upset.
They were angry.
They thought there was no way this could be God’s plan.
I looked up all the comforting Bible passages I could.
Because I was expecting she wouldn’t be in a good mood.
She said, “I’m fine pastor. I’m sick. Sure. It hurts. Yep. But God is good. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been able to tell some of the nurses about Jesus. One of the nurses revealed that she just had a nasty breakup with her husband who was unfaithful to her. I listened to her. I told her I was sorry that happened. Then, I told her about Jesus. How he has always been faithful to me. How he’s always loved me. How he was loving me and caring for me even in the hospital. And how that same Jesus loved her too! When I was done talking, the nurse didn’t laugh at me. She listened. She nodded. She said what I said affected her.”
And you know what, Pastor?
I think that’s one of the reasons God had me get this sickness.
So I could share the Gospel with her.
That she might be saved.
I couldn’t disagree.
I still don’t.
Friends, follow God’s plans even when there’s suffering.
Because his plans for you also involve eternal life.