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

Sermon by Derek Thomas on June 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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