When we last left Paul, he had gone to Jerusalem despite warnings that when he went, he would suffer. While there, he met with the Jerusalem church leaders and learned that some Jewish believers were concerned that he was against the Jewish people. To prove this wasn’t true, Paul decided to participate in a traditional Jewish ceremony.
Today’s Scripture picks up as Paul is finishing up the ceremony. 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 Strange Time
The lesson begins in Acts 21:29 where Paul is completing the temple ceremony.
I picture him sitting in the mikveh pool relaxing with cucumbers over his eyes and soothing chanting in the background.
But then one of the cucumbers falls off.
And before he can put it back on, he notices some people who look familiar.
Opponents from his mission journeys.
People that hated him.
Paul tries to hide his face under the water, but it was too late:
Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul in the temple. they stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law, and against this place. And now he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (Acts 21:27-28)
The first accusation was an exaggeration of the truth:
Paul did not preach that the Jewish culture was bad.
Paul did preach that the religion the Jewish leaders were teaching was bad.
They taught that you needed to following Hebrew traditions in order to make God love you and possibly, although not probably, earn your way to eternal life
Paul taught that you can’t earn God’s love, but God loved you so much that he suffered on a cross in order to absolutely earn your way to eternal life.
The second accusation was a bald-faced lie.
According to Jewish tradition, it was unlawful for a Gentile to enter the Jewish temple.
Paul knew this and hadn’t brought any Gentiles with him into the temple.
But this group had seen Trophimus, one of Paul’s comrades, in the city. They assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple. (v.29)
Long before Twitter.
Just like on Twitter.
It didn’t take long for others to join in the outrage.
The whole city was stirred up.
The people rushed together as a mob.
They seized Paul.
They dragged him out of the temple.
They had the “the gates…shut.” (v.30)
And Paul was surrounded by his enemies.
Let’s kill him.
Sure! But how?
Does anybody have any stones to throw?
Maybe we could ask one of the priests to borrow the knives they use in sacrifice.
While they were looking for a way to kill him… (v.31a)
The bell rang as the local law enforcement chief stepped out of a nearby coffee shop.
He took a sip of his cup o’ joe
And dunked his Jerusalem jelly donut in his coffee.
He almost spilled as concerned citizens got his attention!
“Sir, there’s a riot!”
“Sir, come quick!”
“Sir, you’d better get some of our best soldiers. It could get ugly.”
He immediately took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. (v.32)
As the crowd heard the sound of Roman chain mail rustling towards them (like the Ancient version of a police siren) and saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. (v.33)
Then the commander approached Paul.
He arrested him.
And gave an order that he should be bound with two chains.
The commander turned to the crowd:
What are you doing?
What’s going on?
Who is this guy?
What has he done? (v.33)
Some people shouted one thing.
Some people shouted another.
Some people just shouted.
It reminded the commander of a riot that had taken place in Jerusalem years earlier.
A mob had brought a man to the Governor’s palace in order to crucify him.
What was that guy’s name?
The commander motioned to his soldiers.
They needed to remove this man from the crowd if they wanted answers.
Two soldiers grabbed Paul under his arm pits and helped him climb some nearby stairs, while others cracked their whips to keep the crowd at bay.
II. The Testimony
As they made their way towards the barracks, the noise faded.
The commander began to relax.
He grabbed his donut out of his pocket, Jerusalem jelly all over his fingers, when…
“Sir, may I say something to you?” (v.37)
It was the prisoner.
You know Greek?
I thought you were that Egyptian terrorist who started the revolt?
Aren’t you the leader of almost 4,000 notorious assassins?
Paul smirked and shook his head.
“I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city. I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.” (v.39)
The commander looked at him.
“Let me get this straight. You want to speak to the crowd that wants you dead?
The commander gave the soldiers permission to allow him to talk.
Paul went back to the high point of the steps.
Raised his hands towards the crowds. (v.40)
Gentlemen, brothers, and fathers, listen to my defense, which I am now going to make to you.
When they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew dialect, they became even more quiet. (22:1-2)
I am a Jew. (v.3)
I was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, a Jewish city.
I was brought up in this city, Jerusalem. Very Jewish.
I trained at the feet of Gamaliel, a very famous, Jewish rabbi. Perhaps you know him.
I was trained according to the strict ways of the law of our Jewish fathers.
Friends, I don’t hate the Jews,
I am one.
I am just as zealous for God as all of you are today. (v.4)
I persecuted this Way, this teaching of Jesus, to the death.
I tied Christians up.
I threw Christians into prison.
If you don’t believe me, ask your high priest.
Ask your leaders. (v.4)
I think I still hold the record for most arrests in one day!
In fact, that’s what I was doing on my way to Damascus.
I was going to arrest all the Christians who had scattered there and thought they had gotten away from my holy hand of the law. (v.5)
While I was on the way and approaching Damascus, about noon a very bright light from heaven suddenly flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (v.7)
I didn’t recognize the voice.
I didn’t recognize the figure.
I did notice that he appeared to have a hole in each of his hands.
“Who are you, Lord?”
He said to me, “I am Jesus.” (v.8)
As in, the guy who started Christianity.
As in, the guy who was killed on a cross.
As in the guy who people had reported as resurrected.
As in the guy, I was persecuting.
I said, “What shall I do, Lord?”
The Lord said to me, “Get up and go into Damascus. There you will be told about everything you have been assigned to do.” (v.10)
Then, he was gone.
So was my sight.
My comrades had to lead me the rest of the way to Damascus (v.11)
There I sat in darkness.
Finally, I heard a knock at the front door.
A man entered named Ananias.
He said to me: “Brother Saul, receive your sight!”
At that very moment I was able to see him. (v.12-13)
Then he said, “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear the sound of his voice. For you will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. Now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” (v.14-16)
What was I to do?
The guy I thought was dead? Was alive.
The guy I was persecuting? Had somehow decided not to kill me.
The guy I thought was a nobody? Was God himself.
I got up.
I was baptized.
Jesus washed my sins away.
And I have been serving Jesus ever since.
Which is why I returned to Jerusalem.
Not this time, another time.
I returned thinking I could preach to all of you.
As I was praying in the temple.
That very temple.
I fell into a trance and I saw the Lord telling me: “Hurry, get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.” (v.17-18)
Of course, that didn’t make sense to me.
I figured that you all knew me.
That you all trusted me.
That you would at least listen to me.
I thought, “Jesus, you’re wrong. They’ll at least give me a chance.”
Judging by your response to me today?
Jesus was right.
He said, “Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” (v.21)
At this, the people shouted for Paul’s death.
The rioting recommenced
Paul was taken away to prison.
III. The Truth
There it is.
Paul’s suffering began exactly as the Holy Spirit said it would.
But as it’s recorded, we get to witness to the incredible changes that have occurred within Paul.
They are changes that happened as a result of witnessing the Risen Lord Jesus with his own eyes.
They are changes that happen to us as we witness the Risen Lord Jesus through the Gospel.
(1) The Witness of Jesus Changes Your ETERNAL FATE
At the end of this pandemic, we are going to have a party.
And at that party, I think we should award Pandemic superlatives.
They’d be just like Senior superlatives only about the Pandemic.
Most creative mask wearer.
Greatest tweets about lack of toilet paper.
Longest run of meals made from food found at the back of the refrigerator.
What superlative would you get?
If you’re anything like me, maybe the one you’d win wouldn’t be all the desirable.
Biggest worrier about money.
Largest lack of faith that God will work things for good.
Most easily angered at being cooped up with kids.
Most effective at making your spouse feel like a failure with your rude comments.
Most impressive at hiding your racist prejudices with defensive words on Facebook.
Can I show you what Paul wrote about himself? He wrote, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16)
“Worst of sinners.”
Not that we should compare sinfulness, but if you challenged Paul for the big blue 1st place ribbon for most sinful…
He thinks he’d win.
Think about it:
Paul didn’t just not believe in Jesus.
He hunted down people who believed in Jesus, threatened to kill them, and threw them in prison.
His life goal was to rid the earth of the Gospel that brings people to heaven.
What might you imagine would happen when Paul met face to face with the death-defeating, demon-destroying, hell-fire-wielding, Jesus that he was persecuting?
Not what happened.
Because what happened was unexpected.
Jesus gently redirected Paul.
Jesus graciously sent Ananias to speak to him.
Jesus washed him from sin.
Jesus forgave him.
Jesus promised him a place in heaven.
The witness of Jesus changed Paul’s eternal fate.
From the eternal hellfire that an enemy of God deserves to the incredible gift of eternal life.
Dear friend, the witness of Jesus brings the same message for you.
In Jesus, you are forgiven.
No matter how much sinful junk you accumulated over your lifetime…
…in Jesus you are forgiven.
From the first of sinners to the worst of sinners and every sinner in between…
In Jesus you are forgiven.
(2) The Witness of Jesus Changes Your WITNESS
As a Pharisee, Paul’s witness had simply been:
Destroying Jesus’ message? Good.
In fact, he believed it so deeply that he dedicated his life to destroying the witness of the Gospel.
When he visually witnessed the Risen Savior?
His verbal witness changed.
From “Jesus is dead,” to “Jesus is alive.”
From “Jesus is bad,” to “Jesus is good.”
From “Jesus is not the way to eternal life,” to “Jesus is the only way to eternal life.”
From “Look at what an amazing person I am, God ought to love me,” to “Look at what a wretched man I am, God ought to hate me. But he didn’t and he doesn’t, because of Jesus.”
Jesus changes the witness for us too.
There’s a newer feature on Social media called “Stories.”
On “story” you can build your own brand.
You can do so without having to deal with comments of “haters.”
You can use your story to show yourself doing a good deed.
You can use your story to show yourself being a good mask wearer.
You can use your story to show yourself doing an impressive job teaching your kids.
But do you know what I’ve noticed?
No one ever uses their story to show their sin.
Here’s a photo of me yelling at my kids.
Here’s a graphic of something racist I once said.
Here’s me cheating on my wife.
No one wants sin to be part of their story.
But since we can’t get rid of sin, we just distract from it.
There’s this underlying tone on social media I must showcase the good that I do so that it will distract from the narrative that I might not be that great of a person.
But Jesus changes that story.
No longer is the story about how impressive you are.
Nor is the story about how unimpressive you are.
The story is about how impressive Jesus is.
About how he loved you.
About how he saved you.
About how he made you a part of his family.
About how you will be with him in heaven.
The story is that in Jesus, you are forgiven.
(3) The Witness of Jesus Changes WHAT YOU SEE
Something happened to Paul when he was blinded by Jesus.
Suddenly, his physical inability to see matched his spiritual inability to see.
But when Ananias showed up, he gave Paul his physical sight and spiritual sight.
A spiritual sight that changed what Paul saw.
For example, when you look at this account in Acts 21, what do you see?
…an angry mob?
…a violent crowd?
…Paul being beaten within an inch of his life?
That’s what I see too.
He didn’t see that.
He saw an opportunity.
An opportunity for a witness.
Jesus changes what we see.
Instead of seeing a never-ending pandemic, Jesus helps us see opportunity to tell others about how Jesus promises an end to all pandemics in heaven.
Instead of seeing insurmountable racial tensions, Jesus helps us see opportunity to tell our black friends that their lives do matter. They matter so much that Jesus died for them!
Instead of seeing tension in my own family, Jesus helps us see an opportunity to ease that tension with the Gospel.
Friends, may Jesus, who changed our eternal fate, empower us to witness for him even during unexpected opportunities. Amen.
Racism is a problem in America.
Maybe you knew that.
Maybe you know that from watching video of the brutal killing of George Floyd.
Maybe you know that from scrolling through your friend’s comments on social media.
Maybe you know that from your own personal experiences with other people.
But even if you didn’t see the video, aren’t on social media, or have a personal experience, you ought to believe it to be a problem.
Because the Bible says so.
The Bible says that this world is sinful.
The Bible says that racism is one of those sins.
The Bible says that everyone in the world is sinful.
Therefore, racism will be a problem in this world.
Since Raleigh is a part of this world, it’s a problem in our community.
How do we do battle racism?
How does the church respond?
Today we’ll examine what the Early Church did to deal with racial tensions. 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
At the beginning of Acts 21, it was revealed that Paul was on his way to Jerusalem even though he knew from the Holy Spirit that he would suffer as he went. Many tried to stop him. But Paul went anyways.
In the next verses, Paul and his companions finish the final leg to Jerusalem. Look at what Luke, Paul’s companion, writes:
After this, we started on our way up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples. (v.15-16)
As you see it on a map, Caesarea is very closed to Jerusalem. In fact, this is the last stop that Paul makes before he gets to Jerusalem. There he finds a guy named Mnason. He was living in Caesarea. Mnason gets to meet up with Paul’s companions.
Who are Paul’s companions?
Luke. A fellow Jew.
Timothy. A biracial son of a Jewish woman and a Greek man.
Aristarchus & Secundus from Thessalonica. Two men with very Roman names.
Gaius from the island city of Derbe.
Sopater from Berea in Macedonia.
Tychichus and Trophimus from Asia.
It’s a large group of people from different cultures, backgrounds, and nationalities.
And how does Mnason react to them?
“You probably want to go downtown. That’s where the people of your race hangout.”
“Ya’ll probably belong at that church over there.”
“Just a second…Hello, police, there are foreigners here and I don’t know what to do?”
He brought them into his home.
But it didn’t stop there. Luke writes this, “We arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly.” (v.18)
Think about this:
Jerusalem was filled with Jews.
That’s one very specific race of people.
One very specific culture.
Paul’s companions are from all over.
But look at how the Jewish believers welcome them:
No cold shoulder.
No lukewarm mistrust.
No hot anger that they dared get near them.
The Jewish believers welcomed them warmly.
With high fives.
With fist bumps.
And it continues -- The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. (v.19-20)
Paul told about his exploits.
He told about preaching in Thessalonica where a large number of Gentiles started a church. (Acts 17:4)
He told about the Gospel-loving Berean church which was filled with Bible believing Jews and Greeks. (Acts 17:14)
He told about his time in Athens preaching in front of a crowd of Greeks! (Acts 17:16-33)
He told about the people of Corinth, a culture completely different from that of the Jerusalem Jews, and how there was a church there now that believed exactly what they believed. (Acts 18)
He told about Acquila and Priscilla, non-Jews, who were Paul’s friends and coworkers in Gospel preaching.
He told about his stop in Troas, a non-Jewish stronghold, where a young man named Eutychus was raised from the dead.
Paul told all about his exploits in sharing the Gospel with the Gentiles.
And the Jews?
They didn’t take to social media to bad mouth the Gentiles.
They didn’t insist that the work in Jerusalem was more important.
They didn’t say, “We don’t care that much about mission work to the Gentiles. Because Paul, all mission work matters.”
They praised God!
Believers have a BOND that penetrates RACIAL differences.
Not to embarrass this duo. But in church we have one set of friends that always gives me hope.
One is a middle-aged, Middle Eastern man who moved from Iraq.
The other is a senior Caucasian woman from Michigan.
At first glance, they don’t seem to have a lot in common.
Every time I’ve called on one of them during COVID-19, that friend has pointed out how they just got done speaking with the other one.
They love each other.
Almost like a mother and son.
Consider this passage:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles…. (1 Cor. 12:12-13)
In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile…for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
We preach Christ crucified… to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:23-24)
Believers have a BOND that penetrates RACIAL differences.
There isn’t white baptism and black baptism. But baptism in Christ.
There isn’t a Caucasian Spirit and a Hispanic Spirit, but One Holy Spirit.
There isn’t one Savior for this group and another Savior for that group, but one Savior in Jesus.
The bond is JESUS who defeated RACISM on the cross!
Take note that the verb is written in the past tense.
Racism is a sin.
Vocal racism is a sin.
Quiet racism is a sin.
All racism is sin.
Jesus went to the cross to die for all sins.
One of those sins?
The sideways comments you said that ruined a friendship – Jesus died for that.
The insensitive meme that you posted online – Jesus died for that.
The judgment you made of another person because of what shade their skin is? Jesus died for that.
And when he died.
That sin died.
Your racism died.
In Christ, you are forgiven.
In Christ, you get to start fresh.
In Christ, you are called to fight against racism.
II. What Now?
To get to our very applicable what now, I need to finish the rest of the story.
The Jews got done with their impromptu worship service praising God for his work among the Gentiles, when the mature-in-faith Jewish leaders spoke to the mature-in-faith Gentile pastor. They said: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.” (v.20-21)
A key truth about the Gospel is that forgiveness in Jesus is free.
A complementary truth is that one doesn’t need to follow certain cultural traditions in order to get to heaven.
Even though the message about Jesus came from the Jewish people (Jesus was Jewish), Paul correctly had been teaching the non-Jewish people that their faith in Jesus did not require them to follow Jewish customs in order to be saved.
But apparently, some of the “less mature in faith” Jewish believers had heard about what Paul was doing and incorrectly came to the conclusion that Paul was telling all of the Jews he came across to give up their Jewish customs completely.
Gossip led to them wrongly interpreting Paul’s actions.
And this was long before Twitter.
So…the leaders of the Jewish church had a suggestion for Paul, the leader of many Gentile churches:
There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. (v.23-24)
The vow that the leaders are referencing is a Nazarite vow.
The Nazarite vow was an Old Testament Jewish custom, but not for the faint of heart.
It was a Jewish tradition on steroids.
Those participating had to:
Abstain from all alcohol.
Refrain from cutting their hair.
Not to become ritually impure by coming into contact of any graves – even their own family members.
After a long period of time, the one who made the vow would mikveh, which is like a fancy, religious bathtub, then they’d shave their head and make three offerings: a lamb, a ewe, and a ram in addition to a basket of unleavened bread, a portion of their grain, and a drink offering.
The Jewish leaders are telling Paul,
Do you know what would calm the concerns of your Jewish brothers?
Even though you don’t have to…
Even though it isn’t required by God…
Even though you haven’t done anything wrong.
Pay for their expenses.
Pay for the mikveh visit for 4 men.
Pay for 4 lambs.
Pay for 4 ewes.
Pay for 4 rams.
Pay for all the grain.
Pay for the haircut.
Pay for it all – and they’ll see that you don’t hate their traditions.
That you love them too.
So, what does Paul do?
The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them. (v.26)
(1) Listen to Believing Family of Another Race
That’s what Paul did.
He could have said: “This doesn’t apply to me.”
He could have said: “This is their problem.”
He could have said, “I’m going to go back to taking care of myself.”
Because that’s not what Jesus did to him.
And it wasn’t what Jesus would do to them.
God calls us to do the same thing.
Now, I’m a white guy.
I’m going to speak as a white guy.
I haven’t experienced all the challenges people of color in America face.
The only way I’m going to find out?
I need to listen when my Asian brothers tell me about the harmful stereotypes they’ve encountered.
I need to listen when my Hispanic friends tell me about the prejudice they face.
I need to listen when my black brothers and sisters tell me that they feel like their lives don’t matter.
That last one is very serious.
Because their lives do matter.
They matter so much Jesus died for them.
What can I do?
Stop trying to defend myself.
Stop getting on angry Facebook rants.
(2) Act on Behalf of Your Christian Family of Another Race
Again, that’s what Paul did.
He took money of out his own pocket.
He took time of out of his own day.
He took appointments out of his own schedule in order to act on behalf of his Jewish brothers.
It’s the same right now.
Reach out to your Christian brothers and sisters of another race.
Tell them that you love them.
Tell them that you want to understand – then listen to what they’re saying.
Speak up when someone tells a racist joke.
Speak up when someone is acting in a prejudiced manner towards that other person.
Speak up when someone is causing your brother in Christ to feel afraid, endangered, or unvalued because of the color of their skin.
Seek out friendships outside of your race.
Seek out friendships for your children outside of your race.
Pray that God would work to drive out racism in this world.
With the absolute confidence that one day it will happen.
TRUTH: Jesus Promises an END to racism.
Revelation is the last book of the Bible.
It describes the last place we believers will end up –
A place called heaven.
Listen to this passage about heaven:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9)
Do you see it?
People from all over the world.
People from all different cultures.
People of all different races.
Not one racist comment.
Not one racist thought.
Not one racist action.
They’re too busy giving glory to the one who defeated racism.
They’re too busy enjoying the glory of heaven.
They’re too busy being united in Jesus.
May God drive out racism from our hearts and our united as a community. Amen.
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.
Our soon-to-be daughter is still down at the orphanage. COVID-19 has closed the borders of Colombia and it may be a long while before they reopen.
Thankfully, we have been able to Skype with her. At least once a week, we get on the video call and Julianna reads Spanish stories while I say, “Hola! Hola!” over and over again in the background. It’s not the same as being able to have her, but it is a blessing.
Anyways, over the course of these calls, I’ve learned something.
It is HARD to hold the attention of an 18-month-old through Skype.
I mean…I give it my all.
I squeak the squeaky Flamingo.
I speak in a high-pitched voice.
I make a popping noise with my mouth.
I turn on the pretend telephone.
I make a big commotion all so that she’ll LOOK at the camera – just for a moment.
It can be a bit frustrating.
I wonder if God doesn’t feel the same way.
Everyone’s looking around and panicking about the Coronavirus, wondering how they’re going to stay healthy and keep the economy strong.
And God’s speaks through his Word and says,
“Hey. You. Look up here. Everything is going to be fine.”
Today God’s Word reminds us where to look for hope and direction. Before we get into it, 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. Where to Look?
The lesson we’re looking at in order to learn where to look is found in Colossians 3. A bit of background. Colosse was a city in Asia Minor. It had once been a glorious place filled with a booming economy and decadent riches.
At the time of the letter, it was less important.
It was old.
It was forgotten.
it was deteriorating.
Still, there was a group of believers there led by a pastor named Epaphras. Epaphras had taught them that they could be rich again. Not with gold or silver, but with the blood of Jesus shed for their forgiveness. The result would be eternal riches of God himself.
Enough people believed that a church formed.
But more recently, this church had been learning about a different sort of Gospel.
We don’t have full specifics on what exactly this false teaching was. But if you look at the book of Colossians, there are clues.
This teaching claimed that Jesus wasn’t God (2:8-9)
It taught that Jesus wasn’t the Savior. (2:11-14)
It taught that Jesus was a man who did the right things to become enlightened and if you just did the right things too… (2:16-23)
If you read enough academic articles…
If you gained enough human wisdom…
If you figured out the right medicinal combination…
If you listened to the most compelling philosophers….
If you found the correct spiritual disciplines…
If you ate the right kinds of foods…
If you just looked around for the right kind of wisdom, you would be…
Above this slime-ball world and all its problems.
Of course, none of that is the Gospel.
That’s why Pastor Epaphras left Colosse and traveled to Rome to meet up with another pastor named Paul. He explained the situation to him and (since Paul was experienced at writing letters to Christian churches), he asked Paul to write a letter to his congregation to get them looking in the right direction again.
Let me say that again:
Colossians was written to believers that had been LOOKING in the wrong place…
Colossians was written to redirect that group of believers to LOOK in the right place…
Sounds a bit like 21st century American believers in the midst of a global pandemic?
And to be fair.
Paul wrote this down.
But he was inspired by the Spirit of God.
The Spirit had this message preserve.
And we’re about to read it.
This is just as much as message for you and me as it was for the Colossians.
Because right now…
Where are you looking for answers?
Where are you looking for hope?
Where are you looking for guidance on what to do next?
Are you LOOKING AT the news? One source says things are getting better. But there’s a conflicting report on this second source? Followed by an opinion piece that calls all reports into question.
Are you LOOKING AT the curve? Maybe you’ve got it bookmarked as your home page, so you can check it at a moment’s notice: “It’s going down. It’s going up. It’s going down. Nope…I’m just holding my phone upside down.”
Are you LOOKING AT social media for comfort!? Do you know what would make me feel better? If I read through all of Uncle Mike’s conspiracy theory posts and then read through all 179 comments attached to it. That’ll make me feel better.
Are you LOOKING TO your bank account? Cause…if that IRA can just turn around and stop losing money – we’ll be ok.
Are you LOOKING TO politicians? They are trying their best. But have you ever considered all the things they’ve got to look at? They LOOK AT…
…what the rest of their party is saying,
…hundreds of thousands of differing opinions.
…scientific tables that are difficult to understand
…economic charts that that are just as difficult to understand.
…how their vote on a COVID-19 bill affects their own electability.
...one group of people that just want life to go back to normal.
…another group of people that want life to go back to quarantine.
All resulting in some rules/recommendation/encouragements that people are to follow.
I’m not making any political commentary on any politician’s work at all.
I’m simply saying that if government is where we’re looking for hope and comfort, we won’t find it.
Because I’m not sure they’ve found it.
Here’s the truth…
If you look AROUND for answers, you just find others LOOKING AROUND.
That’s what’s happening right now. It’s as if we’re throwing our shoulders in the air, scrunching our facing, and generally looking bewildered, only to look around and find others throwing their shoulders in the air, scrunching their faces, and looking bewildered.
If you look for comfort from those who need comfort? You won’t find it.
If you look for direction from others who are directionless? You won’t find direction.
If you look for peace from people who lack peace? You will continue to be without peace.
Where should we look?
Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1)
Don’t look to the left.
Don’t look to the right.
Don’t look straight ahead.
Don’t look straight down.
Don’t look at your family.
Don’t look at your friends.
Don’t look at your computer screen.
Don’t look introspectively within yourself.
God calls us to LOOK UP!
It’s like what your swimming instructor taught you while you were learning the backstroke. They strapped on one of those little flotation pillows to your stomach. They guided you into the water. They gently placed their hand underneath your back and calmly reminded you, “Look up!”
Because if you look down or around, you’ll cause yourself to spasm, to sink, to get a mouth full of chlorinated water.
But if you look up…
God says the same to us:
I know it feels like you’re drowning.
But you aren’t.
Just look up.
You’ll see me.
You’ll see me smiling,
I got you.
II. Why Look Up?
Colossians 3 gives us some very specific reasons to look up. Let’s take it apart.
(1) UP is where Christ LIVES
Verse 1 says “Seek the things that are above, where Christ IS…”
Notice the present tense.
It means that whatever the verb is referring to is currently happening.
In this instance, Christ is currently happening.
Because Jesus isn’t dead, but he lives!
He isn’t some bones in a grave.
He isn’t a pile of ashes on a mantle.
Jesus is alive.
If you don’t look up, you’ll miss him.
Can you imagine if that happened at Jesus’ Ascension?
Imagine that Jesus feet began to lift off the ground.
That his body began to rise in the air.
That his form was at the level of the pine trees.
But Simon the Zealot was too busy looking at the bee that had landed on the dandelion!
Simon! Look up!
You’re missing it!
You’re missing our Savior.
You’re missing our Hope.
You’re missing our Comfort.
You’re missing our glorious Christ!
Friends, it’s the same for you.
Look at Christ.
(2) UP is where Christ RULES
Verse 1 continues, “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”
Do we have any left handers out there today? I apologize. I don’t want to appear discriminatory to left handers. (I have some good friends who are left-handed. We’ll remain good friends…as long as we don’t sit next to each other while we’re eating.)
Generally, more people are right-handed. So in ancient culture, an idiom developed. Because the right hand was more powerful, a powerful person in government was often said to be, “the king’s right-hand man.” It didn’t mean he was always on his right side, but that he had authority.
Jesus is at God’s right hands.
He has authority.
He is in control.
Not some government official that barely knows you.
Not some bankers on wall street.
Not the devil.
Jesus is in control.
There’s no one better to have in control.
No one who is wiser.
No one who is more powerful.
No one who knows you more than you.
No one who loves you more than you…
No one more than Jesus.
The one in control.
(3) UP is where PURPOSE is
Verse 2 continues the thought. It says, “Set your mind on things above, not earthly things.” The logic is simple. Jesus is our leader. Jesus is in heaven. If you want to follow your leader, you listen to the things coming out of heaven, not the things that are coming out of earth.
If you are shopping and you see a roll of paper towel available on the shelf and you catch a grandma shopping next to you giving that same paper towel roll a glance…
The world says, “You need it! Put the pedal to the metal and grab the glory!”
But the message from heaven says, “The Lord loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
You let her have it. And smile while doing so.
If you are meeting up with a friend for a walk and you notice that they are putting on a mask because they are afraid of catching COVID-19 and/or spreading it.
But you aren’t afraid. Because, “God’s got me.”
The world says, “Tough cookies for her. I do what I want. Nobody can make me do anything.”
But the message from heaven says, “Serve one another humbly in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
You wear the mask. Freely. Out of love.
If we open up for in-person worship and you are comfortable with the principles we put in place and are feeling ready to go. But you notice that another friend has chosen to continue to worship from home for the time being.
The world says, “Text her. Tell her that you’re a better Christian than her because you made it out and she didn’t.”
The from heaven says, “Be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)
So you text her: “Just checking to see how it’s going! Praying for you. You are my sister in faith.”
Look up. That’s where you’ll find purpose.
(4) UP is where your COVERING is
Sometimes you make mistakes while dealing with this pandemic.
Sometimes you lose your cool.
Sometimes you say things you shouldn’t say.
Sometimes you don’t take the proper precautions and expose someone to the virus.
Sometimes you harm friendships as a result.
Guilt is a thing.
Guilt over COVID-19 missteps is a real thing.
When COVID-19 guilt happens, the world wants you to just hide under a blanket of blaming other people:
“They’re just over sensitive.”
“They’re just misinformed.”
“They’re the ones with the problem.”
But that’s like taking a blanket and tossing it over your head in a game of hide and seek.
It doesn’t work.
Instead, look up for the eternal covering.
“For you died, now your life is hidden with Christ in God. (v.3)
Did you hear that?
Christ covers your guilt.
Christ covers your sins.
Christ covers all of your failures.
In Jesus, your sins are hidden.
In Jesus, you are forgiven.
(5) UP is where YOU will BE
The final reason to look up is found in verse 4,
“When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (v.4)
I had a colleague of mine die the other day.
He was a pastor of a mid-sized congregation. He had a family. He served many people with God’s Word. As a result, he will be sorely missed.
And as I was thinking about this, it home with me.
If that happened, that would be sad.
I enjoy all of you.
I enjoy ministering to you.
I look forward to seeing you again.
On the other hand…
I’m kind of jealous.
He is in a place where there aren’t computer glitches while preparing the sermon for Sunday.
He is in a place where he doesn’t have to deal with the fear of coronavirus.
He is in a place where he doesn’t have to social distancing from his people.
He is in a place where he doesn’t have to feel guilt for not making the best pastoral choices.
He is in a place where he doesn’t have to try to remember where he put his mask.
He is in a place where he doesn’t need to look up.
God calls us to look up right now, so that eventually we join him in a place where we no longer have to look up.
Because in heaven, there’s no need to look up.
In heaven, you simply look around.
You look around and see God.
You look around and see fellow believers.
You look around and see peace, safety, and health.
You look around and see Jesus.