“After three months we set sail in an Alexandrian ship that had wintered at the island, with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead. Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed three days. From there, after making a circuit along the coast, we reached Rhegium. After one day a south wind sprang up, and the second day we came to Puteoli. There we found believers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. Now the believers from there had heard the news about us and had come to meet us as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns. When Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage. When we entered Rome, Paul was permitted to stay by himself with the soldier who guarded him. After three days he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had gathered he said to them: “Brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. After they examined me, they wanted to release me, since I had not committed a capital offense. Because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar; it was not as though I had any accusation against my nation. For this reason I’ve asked to see you and speak to you. In fact, it is for the hope of Israel that I’m wearing this chain.” Then they said to him, “We haven’t received any letters about you from Judea. None of the brothers has come and reported or spoken anything evil about you. But we would like to hear from you what you think. For concerning this sect, we are aware that it is spoken against everywhere.” (Acts 28:11-22 HCSB)
Hope. It’s a powerful word. Filled with anticipation. Always looking towards the future and never stuck in the pain of the present or even the failures of the past. For those without it, life is hard, often dreary and they generally struggle as they seek to find any semblance of joy in their day-to-day existence. In our culture, many believe that financial success can alleviate our fears and bring hope, but any hope that money brings is fleeting and empty. Others search for hope in personal achievement or fame but hope built on those things is vain and fickle and is quickly eclipsed by the next athlete or celebrity. Still others seek hope in knowledge or scientific advancements, but what we know is simply eclipsed by what we don’t know and our scientific achievements just seem to highlight the sheer immensity of what we’ve yet to conquer or even adequately understand.
For example, there’s a new documentary that just aired on ESPN about Michael Jordan and his incredible basketball career titled, “The Last Dance.” In his 2009 Hall of Fame speech, Jordan refers to the game of basketball as his “refuge,” the “place where I’ve gone when I needed to find comfort and peace.” Yet he laments the fact that peace (and hope, in my opinion) seem elusive as he states, “How can I find peace away from the game of basketball?” In other words, the hope and peace he desires for all of life seems elusive to him outside of his sports accomplishments. He has money, fame, achievement and success but a real sense of hope and peace of mind is, somehow, missing.
In a similar way, I’ve listened as newscast after newscast and pundit after pundit have expressed the hope that we will breathe a corporate sigh of relief when a safe, effective and proven COVID-19 vaccine is developed and then produced in sufficient quantity to alleviate our fears over this pandemic. While I hope that a vaccine is found soon, I know that when our present fears are alleviated, they will only be replaced by some future, yet to be identified, new fear or struggle. This coronavirus pandemic is just the source of our current fears and struggles. Others will come when this one is behind us.
My thoughts might make you think that I believe hope is elusive, or even non-existent or perhaps you think I might need to schedule a visit with a therapist. But nothing could be further from the truth. I have hope, just not hope built on my fleeting achievements or success or, for that matter, the achievements or success of any man or the next scientific breakthrough. My hope is built on the very character and nature of Almighty God and the love and grace He has shown us through His incarnation, Jesus the Christ. That very hope is the focus of today’s passage, and I’d like to help you get focused on that same hope. So, stay with me…
First, I want you to notice that our band of shipwrecked survivors have spent the winter on the island of Malta. Three months later, as spring begins, the Roman Centurion has secured passage on another large merchant ship that had wintered in the harbor and was preparing to complete the delivery of their cargo to Rome. The ship, sailing under the name and figurehead of The Twins (Castor and Pollux – also represented by the constellation of Pisces), carries a note of literary irony by Luke. The Twins are supposed to bring luck and safety to sailors and their ships, but Paul and his companions only found safety and salvation in the care of the one, true God of Israel and His will and purpose for the life of Paul. Luke seems to be telling us, true safety and salvation are never to be found in the false hopes and gods of men, but only in the purpose and plans of Almighty God.
Perhaps I need to restate that but, to do so, I’ll borrow the words of one of our great hymns of the Christian faith – “my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.” I find the words of the second verse very helpful, “When darkness seems to hide His face, I rest on his unchanging grace; in ev’ry high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.” The chorus states, “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground IS sinking sand.” So, I would caution you about placing your hope in the fleeting security of a vaccine or in any other achievement of man or his scientific achievements. Instead, place your hope only in the rock solid foundation of Jesus and faith in His will, purpose and love for you.
Next, notice that Paul and his entourage finally made their way to port at Puteoli, or Pozzuoli near modern day Naples, and encountered a group of Christian believers. Again, it seems that Paul’s excellent relationship with the Centurion, Julius, is sufficient to permit the group to spend 7 days of rest and recuperation under their care. Afterwards, they began the last leg of the journey to Rome on foot. As they trekked the 130 miles towards Rome and onto the Appian Way, they eventually reached the Forum of Appius (forty miles outside of Rome) and Three Taverns (thirty miles outside of Rome) they were greeted by two groups – one at each way point, possibly one of Jewish believers and the other of Gentile believers. When Paul encountered these groups, he “thanked God and took courage.”
Did you catch that? When Paul encountered these believers from Rome, he thanked God and took courage from their presence and faith. I don’t know about you, but I tend to regard Paul as a bit of a SUPER-Christian and seldom consider the emotional and spiritual struggles he must have struggled through. While God has given Paul assurance of His presence and direction, Paul took courage from the Roman Christians who traveled the 30 or 40 miles out of town to accompany him into Rome. Paul needed that encouragement and it lifted his spirits and gave him courage for what lay ahead.
Some of you may be reading these words and others might be listening to them via the live stream or the FB/YouTube recording of our service. Whichever way, the struggles we’ve all endured, in recent weeks and months, are very real. Some have struggled with the fears caused by the uncertainty and threat of a potentially deadly virus. Others have struggled with the uncertainty of economic turmoil, financial downturn or job loss. Still others have struggled with the loneliness, boredom or emotional pain of social isolation. Those struggles are very real and can have long lasting effects on our spiritual and emotional health. So, I want you to hear this very clearly… Struggling in the midst of this pandemic is not a sign of poor, weak faith, it is simply a sign of being human. We are not perfect and we do struggle, that’s why we need Christ and the hope He brings.
Just for a second, put yourself in Paul’s shoes. He had been imprisoned for over two years in Caesarea, and then spent months traveling towards Rome and then he survives a shipwreck. As he finally draws close to Rome, I’m sure he is both physically and emotionally drained. Did I mention, it is a 130 mile trek from Puteoli to Rome? But as he nears the Forum of Appius and, again, when he arrives at Three Taverns, there are groups of believers waiting on him. His sole desire is to see souls saved and believers strengthened in their faith and when he sees these brothers and hears their encouraging words, he thanks God and draws courage from them.
As I mentioned above, some of you are really struggling through this pandemic and the stay-at-home orders and you need to hear the encouragement of your brothers and sisters in the faith. Paul’s admonition of “greet one another with a holy kiss” is really beginning to take on new meaning for us these days. So, I want to encourage you… we will be gathering, soon. The tedious steps of our journey are slowly slipping behind us and we will see one another, very soon. Our plan is to begin meeting on June 6, but we will continue to stream live and post our videos each week for those who are unable to physically join us or are at high-risk of infection. By the way, if you need help and encouragement before that day arrives, please call me or contact someone in the church. Let’s pray together and encourage one another.
Finally, I want you to notice that, upon Paul’s arrival in Rome, he immediately sends word for the leaders from the Jewish Synagogues to come see him. He wants them to hear, directly from his own lips, the truth regarding his bonds and his hope. He tells them, “it is for the hope of Israel that I’m wearing these bonds.” The hope of Israel… just what is the hope of Israel? It is the fulfillment of the promises of God through the Messiah, the Christ, or the Promised One. Paul wants them to know that his faith in the fulfillment of God’s promise is the very cause for his bonds. They assure him that they have not heard anything negative regarding Paul or his conflict with the Jewish religious leadership. But, their next statement is very telling… “we’d like to hear from you what you think, concerning this sect, for we are aware that it is spoken against EVERYWHERE!” (emphasis mine)
They hadn’t heard anything negative about Paul, but they had certainly heard negative things about this sect (The Way, Christ followers, or the Christians). At this point, these Christ followers were simply a “sect” of Judaism. Jesus had told the Apostles to expect this kind of reaction; “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 15:21 HCSB) The hardest and most offensive part of Jesus’ message was that those who claimed to know so much about God, didn’t really know God, at all. Ouch! If they truly knew God then they would know the Son of God and recognize God’s words in Him and God’s work through Him. The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah tell of those who “have ears to hear, but don’t hear” and those who “have eyes to see, but are blind.” (see Isaiah 6:9-10; Jeremiah 5:21) They are capable of seeing and hearing but they refuse to hear and see.
The implications of these words cut deep and each of us should hear them, we must hear them. We MUST not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear towards God’s commands and demands. If we fail to heed the commands of our Lord then we are no less guilty than the Jewish leadership who refused to listen to Christ. We can claim to know God but the truth of our claim is measured by our obedience to God’s commands. Does that mean salvation is based on our obedience or our deeds? God forbid! Our salvation is based solely on our faith in the righteousness, obedience, sacrifice and person of Christ. But our claim to faith IS measured by our obedience. Obedience doesn’t produce faith, faith produces obedience. We must not only have ears, we MUST hear and obey. We cannot just have eyes, we MUST see and follow. Your claim to faith must be lived out in your daily actions. Don’t just tell me you have faith, show me.
Why would faith in Christ be “spoken against everywhere?” For the very same reason it is “spoken against” today. Because it challenges our “personal” beliefs, it supersedes our individual “rights,” it overwhelms our self “identity,” and it exercises authority over our “perceived” autonomy. Go back and read that statement, again. Think I’m making too much of this? Well, consider Paul’s words:
“Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 HCSB)
So, will you continue to turn a deaf ear to God and to His Word? Are you going to be blind to the glory of God’s purpose for your life? God’s Word may lead you into challenges and difficulties as you seek to obey Him, and His purposes might put you in the chains for Christ but in the midst of these things you will find peace and He will send encouragement in various forms – sometimes the very people you worship with each week. Of course, it is also possible that He will use you to make that 30 or 40 mile trek just to offer a word of encouragement to a battle weary saint. Whatever He calls you to do, do it with your ear in His Word and your eye on the cross. Stay faithful…
Lastly, if you are like Michael Jordan and are seeking peace through personal success or achievement, I pray that God will open your deaf ears and blind eyes to the truth of His Word and to faith in Jesus, the Christ. I’d love to hear from you. Comment on this post, or click here to register a prayer request.