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To the End of the Earth (48): Let the Will of the Lord Be Done

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Jun 17, 2007

Acts 21:1-16

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The Lord's Day Evening

June 17, 2007

Acts 21:1-14

To the Ends of the Earth

Let the Will of the Lord Be Done

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me if you would to The Acts of The Apostles; and we find ourselves this evening in chapter 21, and we're about to read the first fourteen verses of Acts 21. We left the scene last Lord's Day evening. Paul has been speaking to the elders, the Ephesian elders whom he has called down to the port city of Miletus. He has finished speaking, and there is a heart-wrenching, emotional farewell that now takes place as Paul makes his way to a ship that will eventually take him the 400 mile journey to Syria, at the end of chapter 20 at verse 36:

“When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they were accompanying him to the ship.”

Now before we read the rest of the passage, let's look to God in prayer.

Father, we come again into Your holy presence. We need Your help. We need the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Help us as we read the Scripture to realize afresh that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine and reproof, and correction and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. Hear us, Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now Acts 21:1…

“And when it came about that we had parted from them and had set sail, we ran a straight course to Cos and the next day to Rhodes and from there to Patara; and having found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. And when we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we kept sailing to Syria and landed at Tyre; for there the ship was to unload its cargo. And after looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem. And when it came about that our days there were ended, we departed and started on our journey, while they all, with wives and children, escorted us until we were out of the city. And after kneeling down on the beach and praying, we said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home again.
“And when we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais; and after greeting the brethren, we stayed with them for a day. And on the next day we departed and came to Caesarea; and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. And as we were staying there for some days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul's belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, ‘This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’’ And when we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, ‘The will of the Lord be done!’”

Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

Well, we left last week with this heart-wrenching scene on the beach at Miletus, the port city of Miletus where Paul is about to catch a boat…one at least heading towards the coast of Asia Minor, further on down the coast, and then another ship heading the 400 miles eastward across the Mediterranean Sea to the direction of Syria. One translation of the first verse of chapter 21 puts it this way: “After we had torn ourselves away….” After we had torn ourselves away…and that gives us, I think, a little glimpse of the bonds of affection and companionship and friendship that Paul had evidently formed with the folk in Ephesus, and particularly among the eldership, particularly among the leaders of the church in Ephesus. He had been there of course for three years, but it was the word that Paul had said to them that they would see his face no more that had especially got to them.

The journey takes Paul now down to the island of Cos, and then another day's journey to Rhodes, and then another day's journey to the southwest coastline of Asia Minor through the port city of Patara. Now you would need to change ships at Patara to take one that would go all the way across the Mediterranean in an eastward direction to Syria.

Notice, by the way, the inclusion now of the first person plural pronoun “we”. Luke is evidently now with the apostle, and you get something of an eyewitness account. They spy, for example, Cyprus off the port side of the ship — off the left hand side of the ship. The southern coast of Cyprus is notoriously shallow. There are no real safe harbors for ships, particularly a ship of this kind carrying cargo (perhaps grain from Alexandria, it has been suggested) that would first of all go up to Asia and then eastward to the region of Syria…and then the way in which the unloading of the cargo at Tyre is noticed.

Paul spent seven days in Tyre. It's not his ultimate destination. His ultimate destination is Jerusalem, and he needs to make the 70 mile journey southwards to Caesarea. It took him a couple of days. He stops at Ptolemais. Having landed in Tyre, he does what Paul always now seems to be doing. He gathers the faithful, the church in Tyre, ministers to them; same thing at Ptolemais; same thing down in Caesarea. Paul is always concerned about the church. He's not a sight-seer. This is not a vacation trip. He's not taking in the sights. His principle concern is always the people of God and the progress of the gospel. And you notice at Caesarea (but also back in Miletus) there's this parting, this emotional parting; and Paul gets on his knees with a company of the faithful and prays. There's a sense here that Paul evidently senses that this would probably be the last occasion that he would see these folks at Miletus and Tyre and Ptolemais and Caesarea as he now inexorably heads towards Jerusalem.

Question: How do we know, and how does Paul know that he should be in Jerusalem? How do we know the Lord's will?

You notice (at the end of verse 14) Luke and the disciples at Caesarea eventually come to this conclusion: “The will of the Lord be done!” And what we see in this passage is an interesting example of how to discern the will of God, because in actual fact we have three groups of people discerning the will of God in different ways.

I. The disciples at Tyre - right knowledge — wrong conclusion.

In the first place, you have the disciples at Tyre. And we read in verse 4,
“After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days;
and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.”

There's no particular prophecy that is given in Tyre to these disciples about what would take place if Paul should go to Jerusalem. Maybe there was, and Luke doesn't tell us. Maybe what they’re doing is in a general way discerning what the likely outcome would be if the apostle should go to Jerusalem. The likely outcome of course is trouble. The likely outcome is trial and difficulty. Paul has already been given a glimpse of that in his missionary journeys. Back at Cenchrea, the port city nearest to Corinth, he had discovered a plot to kill him as he was then on his way to Jerusalem. That's why he's taken the land journey all the way up northward through Thessalonica and Philippi and then across down to Miletus, and now taking this journey to Tyre and Caesarea, and eventually to Jerusalem. There’d been a plot to kill him.

You can understand why the disciples at Tyre would come to the conclusion that life without the Apostle Paul was not one even to be contemplated. The church needs the Apostle Paul. There's so much more work for the Apostle Paul to do. He could go to North Africa. He could go to Persia. Imagine the difference in world history if Paul had gone to Persia, the gospel had spread to Persia. The face of the world would be different. The history of the world would be different. Imagine if Paul had gone northwards to what we now call Prussia. Imagine if Paul had traveled south through the continent of Africa, all the way down to central Africa. You can imagine these disciples in Tyre as they’re thinking of what the likely consequence of going to Jerusalem and the trouble that would ensue…that the church needs the Apostle Paul! It would be unthinkable; it would be unbearable to contemplate how the church could possibly survive without the Apostle Paul. And faced with this, they conclude — and you notice Luke says by the Spirit …through the Spirit… “They kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.”

Now there's a problem there, isn't there? Because if what they’re saying is genuinely of the Holy Spirit, Paul is disobeying the Spirit. If what the disciples in Tyre are saying (that Paul should not go to Jerusalem) is a revelation of the Spirit of God, and Paul nevertheless goes to Jerusalem, then he's disobeying the Spirit of God. There's a problem there, isn't there?

Now there are problems further on in the passage, too, but let me just at this point give a sort of explanation here that what in fact Luke seems to be saying to us is that, yes, they rightly discerned by the Holy Spirit that if Paul should go to Jerusalem, there would be trouble. To that extent they were absolutely right, and that was of the Spirit. But their conclusion that because trouble waited for Paul in Jerusalem that Paul should not go, their conclusion was not of the Spirit. They were rightly in possession of what the outcome would be, but they drew the wrong conclusion. And so these disciples in Tyre said to Paul, ‘Because trouble awaits you, you should not go.’ They discerned the will of God as being one in which you should take a course of action that would go in the opposite direction of trouble and trial and difficulty.

II. Luke and Paul's friends — right knowledge — wrong conclusion.

And then, secondly, seventy miles down the coast at Caesarea, we see another conclusion. We read in verse 12:

“And when we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go to Jerusalem.”

It's not just the disciples now in Caesarea, but Luke himself and maybe some others along with the party that are traveling with the Apostle Paul; they also are now persuaded, including Luke, that Paul should not go to Jerusalem. What has happened in Caesarea? What has happened in Caesarea is Agabus — Agabus the prophet.

We've met Agabus the prophet before, in chapter 11 of Acts. Agabus gave a prophecy in Acts 11 in Antioch, in the time when Peter was uppermost on the stage of The Acts of The Apostles, of a famine — a forthcoming famine that would spread throughout the then known world, as a consequence of which, and as a consequence of the accuracy of that prophecy the disciples in Antioch sent a gift to the church in Jerusalem. Agabus had already proven himself to be a prophet of God, a prophet who spoke by the Spirit of God. Now this time he takes Paul's belt and binds his own hands and feet, and says:

“This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”

Now commentators point out that there's a problem here. The fulfillment of this prophecy comes later on in this chapter. We’ll come to it either next week or the week after. Paul will indeed find himself in the temple in Jerusalem, and he will indeed be taken. But it's not as in this way, “…the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt.” The fulfillment of this prophecy, or at least so it seems, is that the general scope of this prophecy is fulfilled. The details of this prophecy (at least according to some) are not revealed precisely, and not fulfilled precisely as Agabus says it here. It was the Romans who actually bound him, and he wasn't, as it were, delivered into the hands of the Romans. It was in fact the Romans who rescued him from the Jews.

Now this has led some — and this is a notoriously cited passage to propound a view that what you have in the New Testament is two different kinds of prophecy. You have a prophecy that is always infallible and always inerrant, and then you have, as it were, a kind of second-tier prophecy, a prophecy that is true in general but the details of which are not necessarily true. Now, the reason why certain proponents want to advocate a view of two levels of prophecy is that one kind of prophecy, the kind of prophecy that is always infallible and always inerrant, has ceased. It was the kind of prophecy associated with the inspiration of Scripture. It was the kind of prophecy associated with the office of an apostle. But that there is another kind of prophecy that is extant, that is, it continues in the church, it is a gift of the Spirit that certain Christians say they have.

Now the problem with that view is that Agabus himself doesn't seem to be aware that there are two levels of prophecy. Agabus doesn't say ‘This is what the Spirit is saying, or at least this is what I think the Spirit is saying, but the details of it may be inaccurate. I mean, you can take generally what I'm saying to be true, but don't press me on the details.’ No, Agabus doesn't say that! And not only is Agabus unaware of it, but Luke seems to be unaware of it. And Paul seems to be unaware of it. What you have here is when Paul comes later in Acts 28 — and if you turn to Acts 28:17, you’ll find the Apostle Paul referring to the incident of his arrest in the temple, and he uses language in chapter 28:17 that is remarkably identical to the very prophecy that Agabus has given:

“And it happened that after three days he called together those who were the leading men of the Jews, and when they had come together, he began saying to them, ‘Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people, or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.”

And the language that he's using there is almost identical to the language, the very language, that Agabus is using in his prophecy. So here is Agabus saying if you go to Jerusalem, you will be bound. Yes, Luke doesn't tell us it was the Jews who bound him…maybe the Jews did bind him. Maybe they actually took Paul's belt and bound him as they dragged him out of the temple. And, yes, it was the Romans who sent centurions in to rescue the Apostle Paul; but from an overall perspective of providence in order that Paul would eventually get to Rome, he was delivered into the hands of the Romans. And Paul seems to be viewing it in the big picture now, that the very prophecy of Agabus did in fact come true.

What's interesting for us now this evening is that that prophecy that his going to Jerusalem would end in his arrest by the Romans meant for the disciples at Caesarea, but also for Luke, that Paul should not go. Just as at Tyre, so now at Caesarea the prospect of trouble and the prospect of arrest meant from the disciples a conclusion that Paul should not go to Jerusalem.

III. Paul's interpretation and correct understanding of God's will.

But what is Paul's conclusion? Same facts, same prophecies, but the opposite conclusion. He says to them, particularly in verse 13:

“What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

I was thinking this morning as Ligon was preaching that extraordinary sermon on Philippians 1:21 — “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Paul is writing that of course when he is under house arrest. He is writing that at the end of Acts 28, I think. I was contemplating this morning as I was listening to the sermon, how is it that Paul can face Jerusalem? What is it…knowing that when he gets to Jerusalem…he's just been given this prophecy that he's going to be bound and handed over, that he's going to be arrested by the Romans, by the Gentiles…and you understand what arrest by the Gentiles means. It means a trial, and it means probably death. Probably crucifixion. He's heading in the very same direction that his Lord and Savior went. The parallels are all there to be drawn. But what is it that gives the Apostle Paul such poise, such equanimity, such peace, such courage, such resoluteness? He's hearing the same facts, but he's saying ‘I must go; don't you understand that? It is the way the Master went; shall not the servant tread it still?’ I was thinking…[ah, the clock has beaten me, but I have five little points! Quick points! Eutychus, wake up now, because you can't fall asleep and drop to the floor!] Five quick points, and enjoin them all from Philippians from a perspective of Paul in prison, looking back now at why it is that he's in chains; why it is that he's been arrested and facing possible death.

And the first is that Jesus never asks us to do anything without promising His presence.

He writes to the Philippians in chapter 4 and verse 5: “The Lord is at hand.” The Lord is at hand. He's always there. He's right there in the midst of a trial and in the midst of a problem; in the midst of a dark passage, He's walked through before you. “Christ leads us through no darker rooms than He went through before,” Richard Baxter said. That's the first thing: Jesus never asks us to do anything without the assurance of His presence.

Second, at every stage of the Christian life, what are we asked to do? To bear the cross.

To bear the cross; to deny ourselves. What does he say to the Philippians?

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation.”

He went to the cross. It is the way the Master went; shall not the servant tread it still?

Thirdly, because the experience of suffering fulfills the law of harvest.

Do you remember what Jesus said? “Unless a grain of wheat die, it remains alone.” Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains alone.

Our experience of suffering always brings blessing to someone else. Do you remember what Paul says in Philippians? Ligon has just preached on it. What was the consequence of him being arrested and taken to Rome? There were some amongst the Praetorian Guard who had heard the gospel! It was worth it just for that! Just for that! The disciples at Tyre and Caesarea wanted Paul to remain with them, but God's will was otherwise, because there were those who needed to hear the gospel who would never hear the gospel unless Paul went to Jerusalem and unless he was arrested.

Fourth, no matter how hard, no matter how difficult, He will always give us the strength.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he says to the Philippians. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And five, Paul was ready to die. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

He was ready to die, do you see? He had no fear of death. He knew that if he were to die, he was going to be in the presence of his Savior; that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. That's why Paul is saying to these disciples, you see, you've got it all wrong, because I'm ready not just to suffer, I'm ready to die for Jesus Christ. I'm ready to give what I cannot keep, in order to gain what I cannot lose.

Let's pray together.

Father, our hearts are stirred by the resoluteness and courage of the Apostle Paul, but it was a Holy Spirit-given courage. And we pray, Lord, as we are ashamed as we think of the way we complain about so trivial matters in our own lives, make us, enable us by Your Spirit to so love the gospel and to so love Jesus Christ that we are ready to die for the gospel, and to die for Jesus Christ, just as there are brothers and sisters of ours in parts of the world tonight who are doing just that. Now bless this word to us, we pray for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand; receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

[Congregational Hymn: Take My Life, and Let It Be”]

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.