Facing the Struggles, Teaching the Word

“After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. These went on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas, but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted. But going ahead to the ship, we set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul aboard there, for so he had arranged, intending himself to go by land. And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. And sailing from there we came the following day opposite Chios; the next day we touched at Samos; and the day after that we went to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.” (Acts 20:1-16 ESV)

We all face struggles and difficult times. It doesn’t matter when or where you were born, how much money you have, or how educated you might be because hard times and struggles come to all of us. Just because we are obedient disciples we aren’t exempted from the normal struggles of life. Some might ask, “Why not? What’s the point of following Christ and being obedient to His commands if we aren’t given some relief from the struggles of life?”

In reality, this is the core difference between religion/religious beliefs and following Christ. Religion and religious belief seeks some personal benefit or advantage from the prescribed religious practices while discipleship to Jesus Christ is based on love. Religious people perform worship rituals so that they might receive some “blessing” or gift from God while faith in Christ calls us to love God because of who He is and the love gift He has already given, redemption through Christ’s death and real [eternal] life through Christ’s resurrection. Simply put, religion says “obey God and do these things so that He will love you” and Christianity says “God loves you so much He gave you forgiveness and life through Jesus, so love Him back and show it through your obedience to His Word.”

In today’s story, Paul is facing ongoing struggles with the Jews of Macedonia. As you’ll recall from last week, Paul’s preaching and actions in Ephesus incited a riot. Once the City Clerk had quieted the crowd, Paul and his companions encouraged the Ephesian church and then Paul decided to return to Syria through Macedonia. While that may not stand out as a significant statement, it is when you realize that you don’t go “through” Macedonia to get to Syria from Ephesus. In fact, the trip “through” Macedonia is in the opposite direction from Syria and involves either a significant overland journey or dangerous travel by ship.

Paul doesn’t do things because they are easy, he does them because the Spirit of God is leading him to do those things and because it fulfills the duty he has assumed as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. If you’ll remember, the previous trip to Macedonia resulted in some time in a Philippian prison and multiple encounters with angry Jews. It appears that Paul makes brief stops in each of the Macedonian towns he had previously visited and established churches to encourage the new believers. He then makes his way back to Greece and the city of Corinth. He spends several months in Corinth and opposition begins to build by the Jews of that area.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation where you weren’t wanted, but it is an extremely difficult situation in which to thrive, let alone exist. The Jewish opposition Paul encountered is intense and it caused many issues with the church in Corinth. Paul has already written several letters to that church and most scholars agree that 1 Corinthians was likely written from Ephesus and Paul’s visit, as described here, is a follow up to that letter. Most of us don’t like opposition and we tend to avoid direct conflict with individuals so we avoid them by running away. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think we ought to fight just for the sake of fighting or pride but I have also found that avoiding conflict is often wrong, too.

Conflict is never fun, at least not for normal people, but it is often necessary. I’ve raised three children and have helped raise four grandchildren, and to avoid conflict is often easier in the moment but always disastrous in the long term. When a four year old wants something, he’s not thinking about the future but only about that moment. We definitely have the ability to see the outcome of his choices much better than he does. This is often how a young church or young believers act, too. We are immature in our faith and we tend to act a like “four year olds” in our relationship with our Heavenly Father. When we don’t get what we want then we think that God is “being mean” to us, much like a four year old does. We don’t see the outcome of our choices, but God does and He’s often using these circumstances to teach us.

“Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4 HCSB)

Now, I’m not suggesting we look for conflict or cause arguments. On the contrary, we should seek peace and encourage one another. But, we shouldn’t run from away from struggles when they occur. God is at work in the struggles, too. You really only learn when you encounter a situation in which your knowledge or experience are lacking. Paul recognized this not only about himself but also about the church in Corinth. We read about the conflict and struggles he dealt with in Corinth and then act like they don’t happen in our lives or in our churches, but they do! The question is really not whether the conflict will occur but whether you will learn anything from it or just run away? Will our church grow through the conflict or will we just run away from the conflict (or, perhaps, drive it away)? So, Paul didn’t run from the battle but he prepared himself for battle and he prepared the church.

How did Paul prepare the church to handle conflict and prepare for spiritual battle? Notice what happened after he left Macedonia and returned to Troas. He gathered the church and taught them all night long. You might wonder why I cite this as an example of Paul preparing the church for battle, but he obviously saw this as a critical situation and teachable moment since he taught them all night. It seems obvious that the church did, too, because they stuck with him all night long. It’s hard to get folks to come to church and sit still for 45 minutes of music and fellowship and a 30 minute message, today. Can you imagine what would happen if someone suggested an all night Bible study?

To be honest, the issue is not just with the American church but it is certainly prevalent in the American church. We are OK with a God who demands a few minutes of our time, but not one who demands much more than that. Some try and make this a cultural issue and while I have no doubt that culture is a factor, it really is a question of commitment, love, hunger and desire. We have no problem sitting for hours at a sporting event, but we can’t give God more much more than thirty minutes without complaining about it. In fact, we used to see churches plan and schedule a week or even two of revival services a few decades ago and today we struggle to get folks to attend a weekend of revival services.

“Hear this! The days are coming — this is the declaration of the Lord God — when I will send a famine through the land: not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11 HCSB)

Poor Eutychus… he will be forever remembered as the guy who fell asleep during Paul’s teaching and fell out of the window. It really is a good thing that our church pews are not near windows or we might have a few more names to add to this infamous list. However, rather than dwelling on his fall let’s focus on developing a desire to know God deeper, to desire Him more, to love Him above all else. Let’s focus on a desire that would keep us a awake and attentive to God and His Word. Jesus said, “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6 HCSB) So, how do you develop a hunger or thirst for God and HIs Word?

Our desire for something is entirely based on our perception or understanding of its value and importance in our lives. The more we value something the more we will desire it. Jesus uses an analogy of hunger and thirst to make this point in the passage cited, above. He uses a physical desire to illustrate and explain a spiritual desire. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness in the same way that we desire water when we are thirsty or food when we are hungry, then God will fulfill our spiritual desire and we will realize true happiness. In other words, when we long for God and seek to satisfy that longing in the same way that we seek daily food and water then we will begin to be fully satisfied and discover true happiness. That kind of hunger or thirst keeps you awake during the meal…

Finally, I want you to notice what Paul does as they prepare to leave Troas. He sends his traveling ministry associates and traveling companions ahead on the ship but he makes his way to Assos on foot. The journey via ship from Troas to Assos is twice as long as the journey on foot. It is a 40 mile journey down around the cape and back up to the port of Assos, but just 20 miles when traveling over land. Why would Paul make this journey alone and on foot? Simple answer, time alone with God. The reason Paul has been able to confront the conflict in Corinth and teach the church late into the night at Troas, he had spent time alone with God. I believe he chooses to walk alone to Assos because he wasn’t really walking alone, he was walking with God.

During forty years of ministry I’ve learned one very important and crucial lesson, to be prepared to minister you must spend time alone with God. Above I mentioned that we must desire God, but that desire results in us seeking Him out and that often means time alone, walking and talking with Him. Let me state clearly, this is NOT a substitute for corporate worship with the church but is in addition to it. We must worship together as a church, we are commanded to do so but we also need time alone seeking God. Jesus did this on several occasions: “After dismissing the crowds, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone.” (Matthew 14:23 HCSB)

So, don’t run away from conflict or challenges to your faith. Instead, listen to what God is teaching you in the midst of the struggle. The struggles are not a sign of God’s absence, but they might really be a sign of His nearness. So, listen carefully… He often speaks in a whisper or “still, small voice” during these time. Next, develop a hunger and thirst for God and His Word. Don’t be satisfied with spiritual “fast food” but seek out those morsels of absolute delight. When you truly hunger and thirst for Him then He will come and fill you up with righteousness, and overflow your life with joy. Finally, seek out moments of alone time with God. Sometimes these happen in the early morning hours when everything is still quiet, and sometimes they happen late at night. I’ve also found that when I’m driving somewhere alone it can be a great time to turn off the noise of the radio and tune into God. I can pray while I’m driving (with my eyes open, of course) or just enjoy His presence.

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