Stumbling Through Life

“After we tore ourselves away from them and set sail, we came by a direct route to Cos, the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. Finding a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we boarded and set sail. After we sighted Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we sailed on to Syria and arrived at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. So we found some disciples and stayed there seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. When our days there were over, we left to continue our journey, while all of them, with their wives and children, escorted us out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach to pray, we said good-bye to one another. Then we boarded the ship, and they returned home. When we completed our voyage from Tyre, we reached Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and stayed with them one day. The next day we left and came to Caesarea, where we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven, and stayed with him. This man had four virgin daughters who prophesied. While we were staying there many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us, took Paul’s belt, tied his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into Gentile hands.’ ” When we heard this, both we and the local people begged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be persuaded, we stopped talking and simply said, “The Lord’s will be done! ” (Acts 21:1-14 HCSB)

I recently celebrated thirty years as pastor of this church. My wife and I, joined by our children and grandchildren, were invited to a reception at our church in honor of our thirty years of service as the church’s pastor. I cannot tell you how humbled I am by the love and generosity shown to us by this wonderful group of Christian brothers and sisters.

But if I am truly honest, I am also a bit apprehensive regarding the future of this church. I am not apprehensive because of the people and their commitment, I am really encouraged by their commitment. I’m not apprehensive because of financial concerns or budget challenges, our people are generous and giving and our budget is in really good shape. So, what’s the source of my apprehension? It really comes down to the impression I get from God’s Spirit regarding the future of Christianity in America and, thus, this church’s future in our culture. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I believe Jesus’ words when He said, “…on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:18 HCSB But I also know that He said, “They will ban you from the synagogues. In fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God.” (John 16:2 HCSB)

In other words, I believe things are really looking challenging, difficult and, perhaps, even a bit hard for the American church in the coming days, weeks, months and years. Some will take my concerns and simply pass them off as “victim mentality” or as the American church just blaming others for her declining numbers. Some even see it as a sign of the times, the post-Christian era in America. Some even see the decline of the church as a good thing, very deserving because the hypocrisy and “good ‘ol boy” attitude that has turned a blind eye to the abuse perpetuated by the evil of some clergy and lay leaders. Personally, I see it as a corrective shift and a much needed “purging” that will clarify and refocus the church back onto her mission.

What does all of this negativity regarding the church have to do with today’s focal passage? I want us to spend a few minutes together evaluating our own motives, desires and goals for our own church. In our text, as he continues his trip to Jerusalem, Paul makes a few more strategic stops and encounters several warnings regarding his journey and his destiny. It is the conflict and contrast of these warnings and Paul’s response to them that I’d like to focus on, today. I want us to consider how we often know God’s direction and desires for our lives, but how we often resist and try to move in the opposite direction.

First, let me point out that Luke’s account of this journey is so detailed that it bears the telltale marks of truth. This isn’t some fanciful retelling of a story heard second or third hand and especially not several centuries after the facts. It carries the marks and details of an eye witness account. So, Luke’s retelling of these events doesn’t appear to be some fanciful depiction of St. Paul that is barely a shadow of the truth. It appears to be a very factual recollection of the events. As such, when Paul is greeted at each stop along his trip to Jerusalem with dire warnings regarding the difficulties he is going to face. We’ve already seen this as Paul relates to the Ephesian elders the warnings he has been given by the Holy Spirit. You might wonder why Luke continues to come back to this topic of Paul’s impending “chains and afflictions.” Let’s take a look at that…

Paul is well aware that he will face suffering and imprisonment in very near future. The Holy Spirit has been warning him but Paul continues his journey towards Jerusalem and impending danger. But why? Why would Paul persist in this reckless journey towards “chains and afflictions?” That is precisely why I believe the Holy Spirit propels Luke to tell this story and we are confused by the direction it takes. Let me explain… In today’s focal passage, we see two specific incidents where Christians are spiritually alert to the Holy Spirit’s warning regarding Paul’s encounter with chains and affliction. Their response to the Holy Spirit is to try and warn Paul away from Jerusalem and to avoid the situation, entirely.

In the first incident, the Christians in Tyre relate to Paul the Holy Spirit’s warning and they beg Paul not to go to Jerusalem. While Paul’s response to them is not recorded, it does say that he continued his journey and, thus, implies that he heard their warning but intentionally chose to proceed. Once he reaches Caesarea, the prophet Agabus arrives from Judea and uses prophetic imagery to relate the same warning from the Holy Spirit. He takes Paul’s belt, probably a long piece of cloth that would encircle the waist several times and tie in the front, and he binds his own hands and feet and declares that in the same way the owner of the belt (Paul) would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Gentile authorities.

After Agabus relates his prophetic imagery, the Christian brothers begin to beg Paul not to go to Jerusalem. So, now we have several groups who have heard the Holy Spirit’s message regarding Paul’s fate in Jerusalem and they do everything in their power to dissuade Paul from continuing on to Jerusalem and this is where I want us to focus our attention. We seem to have two conflicting directions from the Holy Spirit and I think it is easy to become confused by this seeming contradiction. I want to spend the rest of our time together understanding the situation and applying it to our lives.

First, I intentionally said that this seems to be a contradiction but I don’t believe it actually is. I think the contradiction is in our understanding of what is occurring. I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is telling the church to warn Paul away from Jerusalem and, at the same time, also telling Paul the exact opposite and to boldly proceed to Jerusalem. I believe the Holy Spirit is giving the church insight or making them aware of the circumstances that Paul will be facing, but I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is advising them to dissuade Paul from the continuing the journey. In essence, I believe the Holy Spirit is giving them spiritual insight into what will happen in Jerusalem and they respond by begging Paul to avoid the situation.

The natural response to circumstances which involve “chains and afflictions” is to avoid them but Paul had a very different response. I think our response today would still be to avoid these difficult and painful circumstances. But is that the correct response? Is that the response that parallels the Holy Spirit’s desire for us? Many in our culture would view this idea of suffering for Christ’s sake as crazy. Why would you do that? Why would anyone willingly suffer for something so inconsequential as a religious belief or an ancient religious figure? If we were talking about just a religious belief or some ancient religious figurehead, I would agree. However, everything points to Jesus being so much more than just another ancient religious figurehead. He’s the very Son of God and our faith in Him is not just religious belief, it is absolutely transformative. Life Changing! In fact, it is LIFE itself.

In fact, Paul believes the very same thing… that Jesus is life and that he must pursue Him with every ounce of energy and every fiber of his being. “My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death,” (Philippians 3:10 HCSB) In fact, the entire 8th chapter of Romans is about this topic. If you’ve never read it in that context or understanding, go read the entire 8th chapter now. It will only take a few minutes. See what I mean. Since Jesus is life then it only makes sense that you would be willing do whatever He asks in the pursuit of Him.

Have you ever heard of Jim Elliot? Jim was a Christian who believed that God wanted to use him to take the gospel to a tribe of Ecuadorian people called Huaorani who were known to be violent towards outsiders. Jim and four other missionary men (Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Nate Saint) made initial contact with the tribe and reported a positive reception. His journal entry for October 28, 1949 (several years before his encounter with the Huaorani tribe), expresses his belief that work dedicated to Jesus was more important than his life. He wrote, “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Jim and the others began planning additional encounters with the tribe, but those plans were preempted when a group of 10 Huaorani warriors came to them and feigned interest in riding in their airplane. The bodies of all five men were later found slain along the river.

Some would respond, “what a waste.” Yet, his wife (Elizabeth Elliot) returned and continued his work in trying to reach this indigenous tribe with the gospel. She not only survived, but her husband’s sacrifice and her willingness to return and continue his efforts resulted in an amazing work of God’s grace. The Huaorani tribe, best known for their murderous ways towards outsiders, was transformed by the gospel and became known for their faith in Jesus Christ.

So, it appears that the warning from the Holy Spirit was NOT intended to dissuade Paul from Jerusalem but, if not to dissuade him, what was the Spirit’s intent? We can get a clue from the words of Christ in His last words to the disciples before the cross…

“If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you… Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours. But they will do all these things to you on account of My name, because they don’t know the One who sent Me.” (John 15:18, 20-21 HCSB)

Jesus had just informed the disciples of His impending death and the struggle they would face following the cross. Then he says, “I have told you these things to keep you from stumbling.” (John 16:1 HCSB) To keep you from stumbling… we stumble when something is in our direct path that we didn’t see or anticipate. However, if we see it or can anticipate it then we are prepared to handle it and we won’t stumble over it. Jesus wants us to recognize and understand that these things will come. We will encounter challenges to our faith. We can expect resistance to and even outright rejection of the gospel. In fact, we can even anticipate “chains and afflictions” in our journey towards absolute obedience to Christ but we are now informed so that we won’t stumble over these things.

I think that stumbling over these things is exactly what we observe in Luke’s account of this story. Paul is fully aware of the Holy Spirit’s warnings regarding the situation in Jerusalem and that warning has enabled him to avoid stumbling over the situation. But the others seem to stumble over the warning. Like us, these Christian brothers and sisters hear the dire warning from the Holy Spirit and their reaction is to turn away from and avoid the situation in Jerusalem. They urge Paul to avoid Jerusalem, but Paul knows the words of our Lord and is undaunted by these “chains and afflictions” and doesn’t stumble over the warning from the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps these thoughts are calming his spirit:

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? …Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 8:31, 35, 37-39 HCSB)

What do we need to learn from this story? What is Luke’s intent? I believe he wants us to recognize and address the tension between our natural tendency to avoid pain and suffering and Paul’s willingness to embrace God’s journey into “chains and afflictions.” Luke seems to recognize this tension and is guiding us, gently but firmly, towards the realization that God’s will is seldom the “safe” choice. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that God would never put us in a risky situation and that’s simply not true. Jesus specifically said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35 HCSB)

What are you willing to lose in order to gain life? Are you willing to hear Christ’s words regarding your own “chains and afflictions” and, thus, to avoid stumbling over them when they come? Christ has not called us to a life of safety and risk avoidance, but to a life of sacrifice and adventure. Are you ready to go?

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