Sermon — Acts 21:15-36, “Friends and Enemies”

13 Jan

This morning we return to the book of Acts. We started in Acts way back in 2011 and have come back to it from time to time over the years. The plan is to finish this book in January and February of this year. We are in chapter 21 this morning and the rest of the book through chapter 28 is very much like what we will look at today. This last section of Acts is all about Defending the Faith.

On one level, our faith needs no defending. It is true. God does exist. He has created the world. Humanity has sinned and God has sent His Son to pay the penalty for that sin so that all people who repent and believe can be restored to relationship with God, escape His wrath and live eternally with Him. These things are just true. They don’t have to be proven on one level. They can’t be seen or touched but this does not mean they are not real. As Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

On the other hand, there will always be many challenges to our faith. Our world is sinful. People would rather be the captain of their own ship rather than submit to the authority of God. There is much hostility against Christians in our day. In parts of Africa and the Middle East, you may be killed for professing Christ as Savior. In some countries you may be imprisoned or your rights restricted. In America, you may be looked at as narrow-minded or bigoted or unloving if you really seek to follow Christ. None of this is new. The Church has always faced persecution and hardship has often been the crucible of revival. Jesus told us in this world we would have trouble. 1 Peter tells us not to be surprised at the fiery trial we are undergoing, as if something strange were happening to you. Paul tells Timothy that all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. And James tells us to count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds.

As Christians, we ought to be the most joyful people in the world. Our past is covered. Our future is secure. In the present we have the Holy Spirit living in us and everything we need for life and godliness. And yet . . . for many of us there is a weakness and a joylessness to our Christian experience. We have been taken down by the trials of life and have grown discouraged. Concerns about the future plague us.

Many of us stand on the edge of a new year with fear and trembling rather than faith and joy. But the man whose story we are looking at over the next few weeks was not like that. The apostle Paul was a man of great faith and deep joy. To be sure, he had his sorrows. There were times when the ministry was overwhelming, when watching people turn away from God hurt him to the core. There were times when he felt anxiety over the churches he had planted. But the overwhelming tone of his life is joy. And the overwhelming message of his life is joy. This is the man who wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice.” This is the man who wrote, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

The end of the year is a time for reflection and as I was reflecting on my life this last week and as I studied through this passage, I recognized that joy has been decreasing in my life for some time. There are many reasons this is so . . . maybe it’s getting older, kind of getting to mid-life. Maybe it’s all the death and sickness we face as a church, watching people we love suffer. Maybe it’s my ongoing battles with sin and the discouragement that comes when I fail to live as I should. Maybe it is concern for the future of the church. Maybe it’s the times of prayerlessness or times when God’s Word seems dry to me. It could be all these things in some combination which has sapped some of my joy. But then I remember Paul’s words . . . “rejoice in the Lord.” I have failed in my life to rejoice in the Lord and this has affected everything negatively. You see, that’s my failing and I’m owning it publicly today because I believe it is probably also the reason many of you also lack joy. Like Peter walking on the water, we have gotten our eyes on the wind and the waves and taken our eyes off Jesus. I know the wind and the waves are scary. They can be overwhelming. I know. And I know Jesus is not visible to us like He was to Peter on the Sea. Still, He has promised, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

If we’re going to understand joy from a biblical perspective, we’ve got to understand what it is not. It is not perfect circumstances or pleasurable experiences. If you’re waiting for everything to be right in your life before you can be joyful, you’ll never be joyful. When you consider the lives of God’s choice servants in the Bible, you find mostly very harsh circumstances. Paul’s own life was filled with persecutions, hunger, danger, abuse and scorn. Yet he was the man of joy. I believe it was the great missionary Hudson Taylor who said, “Peace is not the absence of trouble but the presence of God.” This is right. Yes, we should be joyful and peaceful in our lives, but we will never get there by trying to manipulate our circumstances until we are in a happy place. And we will never get there by looking within. Look to yourself and you will find the problems. How many of you love looking at yourself in the mirror? Most of us, when we look in the mirror, find something to be displeased about. The same thing happens when we look within for joy.

Joy and peace and love and all the rest are the fruit of the Spirit. This means God produces them in us as we trust Jesus and walk with Him. If you seek joy and peace you’ll never get them. If you seek Jesus and walk with Him, you suddenly find joy and peace breaking out in your life. They are the fruit that is produced from abiding in the vine, the Lord Jesus.

You will also find, if you really walk with Jesus, trouble breaking out. And I do not think this is outside of the will of God but is integral to His plan. There are two reasons for this that I can see. One is to wean us off the notion that joy comes through lining up my circumstances to be the best they can be. God knows that we live in a fallen world and because of the effects of sin nothing quite works the way we hope it will. So God lovingly brings hardship into our lives so that we do not put all our hopes in things which will ultimately perish, spoil or fade. The other reason God brings hardships into our lives is for the spread of His gospel. One of the key verses many Christians think of when we consider the issue of defending the faith is 1 Peter 3:15, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. What strikes me about this verse in the context of what we’re talking about this morning is that phrase, “be prepared to make a defense for anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” And the question that comes to mind there is, “if I have my life all together and everything is going great, if the bank account is fat and the waistline is thin, if the car is running great and everybody loves me, who is going to has me about the hope I have?” What reason do I even have for hope? I don’t need hope if everything in my life is perfect. The very idea of hope is rooted in the longing for something (or Someone) beyond what we have. In other words, hope only flourishes in hardship. So God brings hardship into our lives to cause us to base our lives on Him, not on our fleeting circumstances or our uncertain future. This hardship is intended to draw us to hope in God and when those close to us see us hope in God in the midst of hardship, they will ask us for the reason for the hope that lies within us.

About a week before Christmas, I learned that a college friend, Eric, had died. He was just 43. His father had died a few years ago of a brain tumor and then about a year and a half ago he was diagnosed with four brain tumors. He fought valiantly but in the end he died. But he maintained the same gentle faith throughout his whole ordeal. He remained faithful in the midst of the deepest trial and God used Him mightily. We can’t make sense of all that happens to us and some things are tragic and seem unfair. But the difficulties we face are God’s tools of change in our lives and He chisels away at us through hardship so that our hope in Him is rock-solid and sure and sufficient. God gives us trials to show us that He is enough and that we can rejoice in Him come what may. This is the kind of life Paul lived.

We may understand the dynamics of how God works that I have just described but fail to enter into that life unless we know the secret of Paul’s joy. Paul was not joyful in bitter circumstances because he understood God’s purposes for hardship. He was joyful for a different reason, which we will see all through this last section of Acts.

I realize I have been talking all this time and haven’t yet addressed the text for today’s message. So let’s jump in for a moment and look at this story from Acts 21 and see if we can discover the secret of Paul’s joy.

Now Paul has just completed his third missionary journey and has had a very emotional parting from the church in Ephesus. They shed tears and said their goodbyes on the beach as Paul and his traveling companions set sail for Jerusalem to deliver the monetary gift he had collected from the Gentile churches to give to the church in Jerusalem, which had been facing a famine and much hardship. This would be a gesture of great meaning, as the Gentile Christians would be helping the Jewish Christians, demonstrating their unity in Christ. Paul hoped to arrive in Jerusalem by Pentecost. At that time there would be many people in Jerusalem from the surrounding areas. Some studies say up to 2 million people may have been in Jerusalem and vicinity at this time. Paul’s travels went well and he made it to Jerusalem. He stayed with Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple. He may have been converted on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Mnason was from a Greek background, so Paul may have stayed with him because he had Gentiles in his traveling party and didn’t want any unnecessary conflict that could come from having Gentiles in a Jewish home.

In the beginning, things look good for Paul. He is received warmly by the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The next day, he goes to meet with the elders, or pastors, of the Jerusalem church, led by James, the half-brother of Jesus. Paul shared what God had done through his ministry to the Gentiles just as he had at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. The Jerusalem leaders rejoice and tell him excitedly of the many thousands of Jews who have turned to the Lord Jesus in Jerusalem. So it seems things are going well among both the ministry to the Jews and the ministry to the Gentiles. But there is trouble afoot. These Jews who have believed in Jesus are suspicious of Paul because they think he has been teaching Jews living in Gentile lands to not follow the law and not circumcise their children or keep the traditions of Judaism. This suspicion was not exactly right. Paul did indeed teach that the law could save no one and that if a person added keeping the law to believing in Jesus that person would actually be believing a different gospel, which was really not a true gospel at all. But Paul did not shut the door to people observing the traditions of Judaism while also following Jesus. He just insisted that these things must never be seen as gateways to salvation. Romans 14 makes it clear that Paul left decisions over the Sabbath and things like it to the conscience of his hearers. So the Jews who were suspicious of Paul had no real reason to be suspicious of him. It seems they believed exaggerations and rumors rather than seeking the truth.

The Jerusalem elders were concerned enough about this faction of troublemakers in their midst that they devise a plan for Paul that amounts to something of a PR campaign to put him in the good graces of the Jewish Christians and other Jews in Jerusalem. Paul is told to go with four men to the temple who had taken a vow and to pay for their expenses in their ritual purification. So they want Paul to participate in a Jewish ritual to show that he is not against the traditions of his people.

And Paul followed their instructions. There has been much debate over the years about whether Paul did the right thing by making this decision. What we do know is that in spite of Paul trying to not offend people, he still got into trouble. Some Jews from Asia who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost, saw Paul and stirred up the crowd against him. These Jews were likely from Ephesus, because they knew the man, Trophimus the Ephesian, who was with Paul in the temple. And they stirred up the crowd against Paul and seized him, accusing him of teaching against Judaism, charging him with denigrating the Jewish people and the law and the temple. Their trump card was that Paul had brought Trophimus into the Jewish temple courts. This was a lie, based on the fact that Paul was with Trophimus in Jerusalem they assumed Paul had taken him into the temple. But Paul would have never done such a thing. There was a Gentile court in the temple, but the Jewish court was clearly marked that any non-Jew who entered could be put to death. Paul would have known this. But these enemies of Paul lived by the same principle as people on the internet live by today, never let a false rumor go to waste.

So Paul is seized from the Jewish courts of the temple and the temple gates are shut at once. In other words, the Jews in Jerusalem at this time are ready to kill Paul but they don’t want to defile the temple by killing someone within its gates.

In the sovereignty of God, word gets to the Roman officer in charge of Jerusalem and he takes soldiers and centurions to the temple immediately. The fact that he took more than one centurion with him probably means he took more than two hundred soldiers, since a centurion was charged with leadership over a hundred soldiers. The presence of the Roman soldiers causes the beating Paul is receiving to cease. Paul was arrested and chained then he was asked by the Roman officer who he was and what he had done. No innocent until proven guilty here, just arrest. And lots of confusion. The crowd is not even clear about what is angering them. Paul is delivered by being brought back to the Antonia Fortress, the Roman barracks at the northwest point of the temple. The crowd went after him so fiercely that the soldiers had to actually lift him up to carry him through the crowd to safety. And then Luke quotes the mob in the one thing they could all agree on. We read in verse 36, “for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!” These are the exact same words the crowds used when they chose Barabbas over Jesus and Pilate delivered Jesus over to be crucified. Paul is truly walking in the footsteps of his Master.

And so will we, if we really follow Him. The road to the fullness of God is paved with suffering. Paul did not rejoice in being struck by people’s fists. He did not celebrate being insulted and rejected by his own kinsmen in the flesh. He did not enjoy being arrested. But there are several truths his encounter with his friends and enemies here which can help us pursue real joy in God and reject empty and fading joys.

First, we can see in this passage the power of rumor and false accusations to mobilize a mob. This is something that happens so often in our world today. We hear a story, assume that we know the truth and then go into outrage mode. To deliberate over the facts, to carefully consider what is true, is looked at as weakness. The pace of our world demands instant decisions, but rash decisions are often wrong. Paul wasn’t against Judaism. He loved his kinsmen according to the flesh. Paul insisted that Judaism must not be made a requirement for salvation but he was not trying to overthrow the culture of Judaism, his goal was to transform Judaism from within by showing that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism. This is why in Romans Paul’s longing is that Jews would trust Jesus.

Paul’s motivation, and the secret of his joy, was his desire for Christ to be preeminent. This is why he did what he did in this chapter. I don’t think he was fearful. He went to the temple after all. I don’t see him in the next chapters cowering under pressure. He views his hardships as an opportunity to testify to his captors. Paul’s heart was for the gospel.

I remember when my dad was sick, one of the things he said was that he was thankful for the opportunity his sickness gave him to testify to the nurses and doctors of God’s goodness to him. That was a challenge in everyday life, because cancer stinks and the treatments for cancer are just as bad, but I think he saw that even in the midst of all that he had an opportunity to glorify God. For Paul, the old cliché really was true: he viewed obstacles as opportunities.

Paul’s focus throughout his Christian life was on the preeminence of Christ. This is why he says in Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ.” Paul’s constant focus was on how he could point other people to Jesus and how he could continually live by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself for Paul.

We will always face opposition. Much of it will be unfair. We see that unfairness in this passage. We will often be misunderstood and misinterpreted. The issue is not that we face hardship. The issue is how we deal with hardship. We are quick to blame hardship on the devil but I have come to believe that much hardship is from God and all of it passes through His sovereign hand. I find support for this idea in Hebrews 12, where we read, “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Ricky Nelson was a young man who became a star at a young age. An actor on the Ozzie and Harriet television show in the 1950’s, he parlayed his good looks and celebrity into a singing career. He had almost as many hits as Elvis in the late 50’s and early 60’s. But by the late 60’s times had changed and his music fell out of favor. In the early 70’s, Nelson was doing a show at Madison Square Garden with several other singers and groups. He was working on new music and began to sing those songs. The audience booed him loudly. In response he wrote a song called Garden Party. The key line of the song is the chorus, “It’s alright now, I learned my lesson well, you see you can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself.” The first part of his lesson is exactly right but the second part is way off. We can’t please everyone. You’ll never be loved by everyone. But the answer to the fact that you can’t please everyone does not mean that you should then please yourself. The choice in life is not either about pleasing others or pleasing yourself. Listen to Paul for the right answer . . . 2 Corinthians 5, “we make it our aim to please Him.” Don’t live to please others. And don’t live to please yourself. Live to please God. How do you please God? Remember Hebrews 11:6, “And without faith it is impossible to please God.” Jesus doesn’t want you to work really hard to make Him happy. He doesn’t demand that you do everything right before He will accept you. He invites you to trust Him and walk with Him daily and in that daily walk your life echoes the chorus of the great hymn, “Faith is the victory, faith is the victory, O glorious victory that overcomes the world.”

As you walk with Jesus in this way, you will find two things bubbling up in your life, two things that will strengthen your soul and make you a useful instrument in the hand of God: courage and joy.

My wish for 2016 is that the words of the great hymn we sang at the beginning of the service would be true of us . . .

And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim, We tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, For lo, his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers Not thanks to them, abideth. The Spirit and the gifts are ours Through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever…

This life is available to every one of us through faith in Christ. Let’s walk with Him in 2016 and watch His work in our lives.

 

 

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