The Lord’s Will be Done
Bible Text: Acts 21:1 – 16 | Speaker: Clayton Fopp | Series: Acts – What Kind of Church? | The Lord’s Will be Done
Acts 21:1 – 16
How do you know God’s will?
How do you know, what is God’s will? If you have to make a choice, between 2 or more options, how do you decide, which one God would have you choose? Or which one is right, and which is wrong? Which is God’s will, and which isn’t? If you’re not a Christian, probably you wouldn’t speak of doing God’s will, but do you think, is it possible to know, in any given scenario, what is the right thing to do?, the correct course of action?
Often when we’re faced with decisions, and I mean big decisions?
Not, what should I have for breakfast, although that one is a tough one for some of us!,
But I mean decisions of life,
Decisions about ministry,
Decisions, particularly for those of us who are Christian, about how we can best honour God.
Wouldn’t it be great, if, God would somehow speak into the situation, to make it crystal clear, what we ought to do?
I know that many of us have wished for that at some point!
But here in Acts chapter 21, it appears on the surface that that’s exactly what God does, speaks into a situation with a revelation by his Holy Spirit, and yet,
Well it doesn’t seem to clear up the confusion about what the best course of action is, does it?
So what’s going on?
Why does God speak by his Spirit and through these prophecies?
Is it to make it easier for Christians, for Paul and others, to make a decision?
Or is it for some other purpose?
Well let’s have a look.
The Spirit predicts #1 v 1 – 6
See there in verse 4, Part way through their journey to Jerusalem, Paul and his companions find some Christian brothers and sisters to stay with in Tyre, and Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
Now, on the face of it, there’s nothing at all remarkable about that.
We know that in the book of Acts, there are times when God speaks to people directly, think of Jesus speaking to Paul, then named Saul on the road to Damascus, when he was still persecuting Christians.
There are times when God moves people or reveals something to people through the Holy Spirit, and we think of God directing the path of Paul and his companions throughout their second missionary journey.
And there are occasions when somebody prophesies, that is, they speak a message from God, often into a particular situation. So for example, in verse 9, we’re told of 4 women who prophesy, and even this Agabus has made an appearance already in Acts, in chapter 11, speaking of a famine, and that leads the Christians to take up a collection for those in need.
So there’s nothing remarkable about this; The Christians in Tyre, through the Spirit, urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem,
Luke has already made it very clear that God has revealed to Paul, through the Spirit, that he should go Jerusalem.
There are a couple of verses from the earlier chapters of Acts printed on your outline. Have a look there at how the Spirit of God has directed Paul towards Jerusalem.
Acts 19:21, Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem,
Acts 20:22, Paul says, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, ”
Has the Holy Spirit changed his mind?
“On second thoughts Paul, we, the Trinity, think it’s a bad idea for you to go to Jerusalem.”
So tomorrow morning when I’m waiting at the airport for my flight to Sydney, and I hear that announcement, “Virgin Australia paging passenger Clayton Fopp. Please make yourself known to the staff at the gate.”
That means they’ve double-booked my seat and I’m no longer going to Sydney!
Is that what’s going on here? Last minute change of plans?
Or did the Holy Spirit contradict himself?
He says one thing to Paul, but something different to the other Christians?
If Paul goes to Jerusalem, will he be disobeying God’s Spirit?
Jeb Bush the former governor of the US state of Florida once said that “there’s a fine line between stubbornness and, dogged determination.”
So which one is it?
Is Paul being determined?
Or is he just being stubborn?
The Spirit predicts #2 v 10 – 14
Well, I’m sure you noticed, a similar incident takes place in Caesarea, starting in verse 10.
So let’s have a look at that one too.
After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “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
And so, the Christians in Caesarea, and Paul’s friends, plead with him not to go to Jerusalem.
Now, a couple of things that are worth noting.
First of all, this guy has a track record. As I mentioned before, Agabus had, through the Spirit, predicted a famine, and Luke tells us in chapter 11 that it happened during the reign of the Emperor Claudius.
And so naturally, when someone who accurately predicts the future, makes another prediction, people tend to take notice!
During 2005 and 2006, an economics professor from New York University, named Nouriel Roubini, made some predictions about the global economy,
He warned about massive mortgage defaults, the collapse of mortgage-backed securities, and the breakdown of the global financial system.
And everyone who heard all this, which wasn’t many people because he wasn’t famous scoffed!
Until it all happened exactly as he said it would!
And now he’s considered one of the leading economic minds in the world, and he has the ear of Prime Ministers and Presidents.
Which means that when he makes more dire predictions about the global economy, which he is at the moment!, everybody pays attention!
No surprise that his nickname in the economics world is Dr Doom!
Well, Agabus might have had the same nickname!
Last time it was a famine,
This time it’s seizure and arrest.
You can imagine the locals, when Agabus walks into a town, their hearts would sink! “Here’s Dr Doom!
What terrible thing is he going to say, because we know it will come true!”
People know this man has spoken a message from God, before.
The other thing just to clarify, Agabus binding his own hands and feet, and saying In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt, That’s not to say that this is the very means by which Paul will be bound with a belt!
But Agabus acts out his prophecy, to heighten its impact.
It’s reminiscent actually of some of the Old Testament prophets.
Ezekiel, for example, made a little model of the city of Jerusalem, out of clay, and made model siege works, and little battering rams, to accompany and drive home the message from God, about the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem!
Did it mean that the Babylonians were going to use model siege works to lay siege to a clay replica of the city of Jerusalem?
No, not at all!
It’s a symbolic representation of the reality that is going to happen.
But some people argue that since Paul, at least according to Acts, wasn’t tied up with his own belt, then the Holy Spirit got this wrong
No, Paul will be bound, and handed over to the Gentiles, here’s a symbol of that.
So it’s no surprise, really, that When we heard this, Luke says, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.
And yet, once again, Paul would not be dissuaded.
He is determined to leave Caesarea and go up to Jerusalem, answering them, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?”
So what’s going on in these two episodes?
How do we make sense of this?
What does the Holy Spirit actually say?
Well, of course it’s important for us to work out, what does the Holy Spirit actually say on these 2 occasions?
If we leave aside for a moment, what people say, of their own accord, What is it specifically that God says?
In the case of the prophecy from Agabus, that’s easy to figure out, we’re given a direct quote of the Spirit’s words, In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.
In the first instance in Tyre, we’re not told the exact content of what the Spirit said, that made the disciples there urge Paul not to go on, but in the light of what we’re told explicitly, by the Spirit in Caesarea, and if, as Christians, we’re convinced that God is consistent and unchanging,
That God isn’t going to give contradictory instructions, then the best explanation for what happened in Tyre, is that it was a similar sort of message to that which God gave through Agabus.
So the Spirit leads the Christians in Tyre, to see the suffering that Paul would in endure in Jerusalem; arrest and imprisonment.
Now, it’s clear that as he’s writing, Luke thinks Paul is right to go to Jerusalem. He doesn’t think that at the time, that’s for sure. He includes himself among those who urge Paul not to go, in verse 12.
But by the time he sits down to write Acts, some time after all these events have taken place, he can see that under God’s sovereign hand, it was right for Paul to be so determined in heading for Jerusalem.
And so maybe it’s helpful for us to think about this in terms of the difference between prediction, and prohibition.
The Holy Spirit predicts what will happen in Jerusalem,
But he doesn’t prohibit Paul from travelling to Jerusalem.
He doesn’t say, “Don’t go”, he just says, “this is what’s going to happen when you get there”
And as we’ve seen, the Spirit’s already told Paul that he has to go to Jerusalem.
So Paul’s not disobeying the Spirit, and neither is there any contradiction with what the Spirit’s said earlier.
Revelation is not the same as interpretation
It is the people, specifically in Caesarea, and as we’re probably supposed to understand, in Tyre also, who, of their own accord, tell Paul not to travel.
Do you see the distinction?
The Spirit of God says, “This is what will happen.”, and in response to that the Christian brothers and sisters say to Paul, well, you mustn’t go up there then.
“If such suffering and hardship awaits you, then clearly you should stay away.”
But it’s anything but clear, isn’t it?
And in fact as we’ve noted, Luke wants us to see that the exact opposite is true, that it’s right and necessary for Paul to go to Jerusalem,
And so he highlights for us, the clear difference between the message from God, and the interpretation of the message from God.
They’re not the same thing!
The message: “Suffering and trouble await.”
But there are any number of different possible interpretations of that message aren’t there?
We have 2 here:
“Maybe Paul shouldn’t go”,
“Maybe Paul should go, because that’s what God has in store”
But equally, some other Christian person there in Caesarea could say, “Well, clearly, in response to this prediction from God about suffering and arrest, we ought to raise an army, and accompany Paul, armed and ready to act in his defence!”
That’s an interpretation of the message from God.
Someone else might say, “OK, go up to Jerusalem, Paul, but stop acting so well, Christian!
Just act more like a Jew,
Blend in a bit,
Stop talking about how Jesus fulfils all the Old Testament promises and God’s plans and purposes, and then the Jewish leaders won’t have any problem with what you’re doing, and things won’t go so badly for you.
That’s another possible interpretation of the message from God.
And I didn’t just make them up, Both those interpretations have been promoted by Christians throughout history, as an appropriate response to the very same kind of persecution and hardships that Paul will face in Jerusalem.
But clearly to interpret God’s prediction of suffering and hardship, in way that requires either the raising up of a Christian militia, or the watering down of the gospel message, those are incompatible with what God has made known elsewhere.
It is possible then, for Christian people, to hear the word of God, and yet interpret it wrongly.
It is possible for God to speak, and for God to speak the truth as he always does, and yet for Christian people to interpret or apply that message in a way that is contrary to God’s revealed plans and purposes.
And it’s not just that on some occasions, it might be, theoretically possible, for a Christian person to, every now and then, get the wrong end of the stick, a little bit!, like this is some kind of exception.
The Bible teaches us that every single person is tainted with the stain of sin, and that affects, even how we respond to God and his Word.
The 16th Century church Reformer, John Calvin used the term “total depravity” to refer to the human state apart from God’s gracious action in our lives.
Now, total depravity doesn’t mean, that every person is as wicked as they could possibly be, but that there is no part of us, that isn’t stained by sin.
And even as Christians, who have experienced the gracious work of God, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we still need to remember that our broken and sinful human nature shapes and influences our interpretation of God’s Word.
On two occasions in my life, people have spoken to me, what they have claimed to be a prophetic message from God.
One of these messages was the promise of a Christian revival in Adelaide, that would begin in the Adelaide Hills.
We don’t have the time to go into detail about how we ought to test prophecies, or claimed prophecies, other than that the Bible tells us that we must, but on this occasion, I had no way of knowing whether this was a word from God, or not.
It may well be true!
Let’s assume for now that it is, That’d be great!
The problem is, that my interpretation of the prophecy, or my application of the prophecy, is always going to be tainted by my own sin.
“Revival is going to start in the Adelaide Hills”, “Well,” thinks Clayton, “That means I can stop doing evangelism! God’s obviously got it all sorted out already!”
“Revival is going to start in the Adelaide Hills”, “Well,”, think the people of Trinity Mount Barker, “We’re going to need lots of converts if there’s going to be a revival, so let’s just take out of the gospel message, all those bits that people find hard, and exclusive, and difficult to accept.”
“Revival is going to start in the Adelaide Hills”, well, interestingly I wasn’t working in the Hills when those words were spoken, so some time later when I had a conversation with Paul Harrington, the Senior Pastor of the Trinity Network of Churches, and he asked me to come and work at a church that was called at the time, get this, “Holy Trinity Adelaide Hills!” Well part of me just wants to go there, because my interpretation of that prophecy is, “That will be an exciting place to work.”
“Revival is going to start in the Adelaide Hills”, and since I now work in the Hills, then surely some of that glory of that revival will rub off on me”, etc etc etc,
Can you see how easy it is, for our selfish, sinful, character, to wrongly interpret what God says.
Now, perhaps you’re much more godly than me, and better able to filter your selfish impulses out of your response to God’s Word, but since my experience reflects exactly what the Scriptures tell us of these believers’ behaviour, I think it’s fairly safe to say that this is a universal problem.
In Tyre, and in Caesarea, it wasn’t selfishness that lead to the misinterpretation of what the Spirit was saying, it was quite the opposite!
It was great love for Paul.
Great concern, no doubt, that the gospel would continue to spread and be honoured,
And the great hope that many many more lost people would hear from Paul’s lips the great news of God’s son, sent to die in the place of people who were living as God’s enemies.
Those are great concerns!
But it wasn’t the correct interpretation of God’s message.
Their great concern led them to conclude the very opposite of what God intended.
Why does the Spirit say what he does?
So why did God, through his Spirit, speak these words?
If it wasn’t to dissuade Paul from travelling to Jerusalem, what was the point?
And, not once, but twice!
Well clearly God knows exactly what will happen to Paul in Jerusalem, that he will be imprisoned, that this will be the beginning of a long series of imprisonments, and so it seems that God sends these messages to Paul, not to prohibit him from going to Jerusalem, but to prepare him, for what’s going to happen there!
You might remember what I said the other week about the studies that show the expectations that church planters have, significantly predict the effectiveness and even the life of the church that they plant.
Well, God wants to make sure that Paul has right expectations.
He wants Paul to be prepared for what’s in store,
He wants Paul to know that he is sovereignly overruling the events that are about to unfold,
And God wants Paul to be assured of his presence in the midst of the turmoil of arrest, and imprisonment, and trial.
Some of you know Chris Edwards, who was the pastor at Trinity Hills Church in Aldgate.
Just a week or so ago, it was announced that Chris has been appointed as Bishop of North Sydney.
Which is a tremendously exciting appointment, and is great news for those churches in Northern Sydney.
And when I rang Chris to congratulate him, he described his surprise when the Archbishop of Sydney asked him to accept the role. He was speechless! And those of you who know Chris, know that’s probably the only time in his life, when he has been speechless!
But imagine if Paul thought had that he was going to be really warmly received in Jerusalem, in fact, imagine if he thought he was going to be made bishop on his arrival!
Then when he gets there, and things go very very differently to that!
What’s going to happen?
Well, we have a whole range of metaphors to describe that situation don’t we?
The wind will be taken out of his sails,
The rug will be pulled from under his feet.
No, God prepares Paul for exactly what’s going to happen.
He speaks by his Spirit, so that his servant will be prepared, for the next stage in his ministry.
There’s also a sense in which these words of prediction, serve in the very opposite way to what these other Christians imagine.
They think the prediction of suffering is a warning not to go, but Paul understands the predicted suffering as a confirmation that in fact he must go!
In chapter 9 of Acts, at the time of Paul’s conversion, from one who was the enemy of Jesus and the church, to one who serves Jesus and the church, God had said about Paul, chapter 9 verses 15 and 16, this man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings, and to the people of Israel.
I will show him how much he must suffer for my name
And so for Paul to be promised suffering, is to confirm this is the path that God has chosen for you!
If Agabus had said, “Thus says the Lord:, when you arrive in Jerusalem, you will be whisked away by limousine, to a 5 star Mediterranean resort, where you can lay by the pool, and people will wait on you hand and foot and bring you drinks with little umbrellas in them”, Paul would know something had gone wrong!
This is not the path that God has established for me!
My path is not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus
These predictions of suffering, are gracious provisions of God, to re-assure him of his particular calling as Apostle to the Gentiles, and to prepare him for what his service of Jesus will lead him to next.
It would be through these very events, that Jesus would fulfil his words to Paul a couple of chapters on, As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.
Paul could hardly have known that these next steps towards Jerusalem would be the means by which the possibility of testifying in Rome, the capital of the Empire, the capital of the world, would be brought about.
But he knows that this is the path of Christian ministry.
He knows that to be a follower of Jesus, is to be a follower to death if necessary.
The Lord’s will be done
It’s not always easy, is it, to say these words, that the Christians in Caesarea, eventually find themselves able to utter: The Lord’s will be done.
It clearly wasn’t easy for them,
It wasn’t even easy for Paul!
He asks, Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?
Literally it’s “why are you pounding at my heart?” The word he uses is the word for washing clothes! It describes someone ponding away with a rock!
But clearly Paul’s determination to follow in the steps of Jesus,
His willingness to suffer for the name of the Lord Jesus,
Helps his friends accept the Lord’s will, as unpleasant and senseless as it no doubt seemed to them,
And sometimes, isn’t it true, that that’s the way that the Lord’s will looks to us?
There are times when, if we’re a Christian, we know we ought to say, “The Lord’s will be done”,
But isn’t it true, that sometimes we’d much rather say “The Lord’s will stinks!,
The Lord’s will needs a bit of tweaking around the edges!,
The Lord’s will needs a makeover!,
The Lord’s will ought to be different!
I meet people who tell me “God’s will, for me to remain sexually pure, is just too hard, so I’m going to sleep with my boyfriend or girlfriend.”
Or “God’s will shouldn’t result in me being lonely, so I’m going to marry this person, even though they’re not a Christian.”
We might feel that if it were God’s will for us to be sidelined or ridiculed in our workplace, for standing firm in the Christian faith, or our classroom, or even within our family, then that’s just too hard, And God’s will needs some adjustment.
But these Christians in Caesarea, eventually acknowledge that even though they can’t understand how this is best,
They don’t see how this will fulfil God’s plans and purposes,
And yet by the grace of God, and through the witness of this one man, they come to accept that God’s will is best, and right, and trustworthy.
Decision making and the example of Christ
If we return to where we started, and that question of, how do we know what God’s will is?
How do we make the right choice?
Often, for many of us, if there’s going to be a negative outcome, well that’s a reason for not choosing that particular course of action, isn’t it?
If I stand up to that bully, in my office, class, social group, and call him out on his unacceptable behaviour towards someone else, there will be a negative outcome.
Most likely, I’ll become the one being bullied!
And for many of us, that negative outcome would be enough to stop us doing what we know to be right.
For a number of years I was involved in interviewing men and women, who were putting themselves forward for missionary service in the Church Missionary Society.
And I remember interviewing one woman, who was hoping to go and serve Christ, in a country we could describe as a closed, Islamic warzone!
And in the interview, one of the other people asked her, “Well what happens if you get killed over there?” Which was a very real possibility, since the person she was hoping to replace had been killed by militants.
And this young woman responded, “So what if I do?
Just because I might die for the sake of the gospel, doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do! In fact, Jesus said that sort of thing would happen.
That young woman had learned the lesson of Acts 21.
A negative outcome,
A painful negative outcome,
Even a guaranteed negative outcome, capture and imprisonment, is not the basis on which to make a decision.
It’s not the way to determine the will of God.
There are times, when a negative outcome is guaranteed!
Monday night, at our Hour of Prayer, we prayed for Christian brothers and sisters around the world, who are being persecuted, discriminated against, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, murdered, for their faith in Jesus.
And we read Paul’s words to his young friend Timothy, in 2 Timothy 3, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus, will be persecuted
The negative outcome is assured!
Sure, the level of persecution will vary.
Our country has been significantly influenced by Christianity throughout its history, so we suffer much less than others, but clearly, a painful outcome, guaranteed persecution, is not grounds to say, “This is not the will of God”.
But in fact, and this is a scary thought, that I share with no little hesitation, perhaps as Christians in the rich, comfortable, pluralistic west, as we make decisions, perhaps we ought to give more weight, to the pathway that would seem naturally to lead to greatest opposition.
When we’re faced with options,
How do live out my faith in my workplace?
How do I allocate my time, among my non-Christian family members,
At what level do I engage in conversation with my friends who don’t know Jesus?
How do I prioritise the way I spend my money?
What do I express to those who I know are influential, and decision-makers in our community,
Who should I invite to Carols by Glowstick?
If, as God’s Word says, to live a godly life in Christ, is to be persecuted,
And just as Paul could find assurance that he was serving in the unique and particular way to which he was called through the predictions of what lay ahead,
Just perhaps, we should give more weight, to the path that seems likely to lead to greater opposition.
If this pathway will lead to more people opposing the gospel, is it because more people are going to hear the gospel?
And maybe that’s a reason for choosing it.
If this choice puts me in greater conflict with those who are determined to keep the gospel of Jesus out of public life, does that suggest that in the alternative course of action, my faith would really be flying below the radar,
That I’m not being the light of the world,
That I’m not honouring Christ with my life?
I’m not suggesting in any sense that we should suffer for the sake of suffering,
Or seek out persecution!
Far from it! In fact, reading the New Testament, we’d probably have to conclude, that living really distinctive Christian lives, will bring us plenty of suffering, and opposition, and ridicule, without us having to seek it out!
One of the themes that Luke weaves through these chapters, is the parallel, between Paul’s travel to Jerusalem, and Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.
During Jesus’ journey, he too prophesied about the sufferings that awaited him,
He was just as resolute, in setting his face towards Jerusalem and what he knew was in store there.
He too spoke of seizure and arrest,
He was called before the Jews, and the Romans,
Jesus’ friends and disciples did their best to dissuade him from his journey, because they thought, “The Lord’s will stinks!”
And yet Paul, can set his face towards Jerusalem, and certain persecution,
And the Christians in Tyre and Caesarea can commit him confidently to the Lord’s will,
And we today, can trust that God’s will is right and good all the time,
Because, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the persecution and opposition there, was the occasion of divine triumph.
God’s will truly was done,
And what looked like loss, as Jesus hung dying on the cross in the place of rebellious humanity, was the greatest victory the world had ever seen.