If there is a God, what is he doing in the world today?
That was one of the big questions in my mind before I became a Christian. As I child I believed in God. It seemed impossible to me that the ordered universe came about by chance. As a child I heard some teaching about Jesus, who he was and that he came to earth 2000 years ago, died and rose again. But my problem was that I thought God was knowledgeable and absent.
He was absent, because he lived in heaven and I lived on earth and why would he take any interest in me?
He was absent, because it didn't look like he was doinganything at all in the 1990s. He had created the world. He then put in a special appearance 2000 years ago. But now he was absent. But when I heard the gospel as a teenager, I converted from being a deist to being a Christian. I discovered that God I could know God through Jesus Christ – and relate to him now – he was not absent. I discovered the he was active and doing things in the world – like changing my character – like helping me to tell others about Jesus.
In short, I had discovered the doctrine of God's providence. He is knowable and active in his world – fulfilling his purposes.
Ephesians 1:11 says:
God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
Romans 8:28 says:
And we know that in all things God worksfor the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
And, as we'll see in Acts 28, God's providence is an enormous encouragement to us to share our faith.
This evening, I want to show you how God made Jesus known through Paul. I want to encourage you that God is making Jesus known – through us. I want to challenge you to follow Paul's example – to be confident, ambitious and persistent in making Jesus known.
And to do that, we are simply going to walk through the four steps in the narrative of Acts 28, then we'll pause at the end and consider how this doctrine of God's providence encourages us in our evangelism today in Gateshead 2013.
1. Paul travels to Rome (v.11-15)
The first step in our narrative today is that Paul travels to Rome. Verses 11-16. Paul travels to Rome.
If you were a little bit confused about all the place names in v.11-16, don't worry – I have some maps to help us!
But before I get onto that, let me just answer two quick questions about the background to Paul's arrival in Rome.
Firstly, why did Paul go to Rome?
The first answer we're given in Acts is in chapter 19:21, when Paul was in Ephesus. After Paul has visited Jerusalem he says he "must visit Rome also." He wanted to go there.
The second answer we're given comes when Paul is in Jerusalem. He has just been mobbed by the Jews. We read of the Lord speaking to Paul:
Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome. (Acts 23:11)
God's providential hand is guiding Paul to Rome, so he can preach the gospel there. So from Acts 23 onwards, the narrative is all 'Destination Rome'. It's building up to the point when Paul finally arrives in Rome.
Second question. How did Paul travel to Rome?
He took a pretty indirect route!
In chapter 23, he's before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. In chapter 24, he's before Felix in Caesarea and is stuck there for two years.
Then he comes before Festus (chapter 25), where he appeals to Caesar.
Then he appears before Agrippa (chapter 26) …
Then he eventually sets sail for Rome(chapter 27)
Then he gets caught in a violent storm…
Then he gets shipwrecked on Malta….
And by chapter 28, you wonder if he's ever going to make it to Rome!
But he does! God's providential hand makes sure he gets there. Because God wants Paul to preach the good news about Jesus in Rome.
On the screens is a map of the route he takes verses 11-16.
Or rather this is the Google maps route – not dissimilar to the route Paul took!
Point A – is Malta
Point B –Syracuse(Siracusa)
Point C – Rhegium (Reggio)
Point D – Puteoli (Pozzuoli– near Naples) – where Paul spends a week with some Christians
Point E –Rome
There are four legs to the journey.
The first three journeys are by boat. But from Puteoli to Rome, Paul took a famous walking route called the Appian Way
But on route, he was met by a delegation of these Roman Christians. Verse 14:
And so we came to Rome. The brothers there had heard the we were coming, and they travelled as far as the Forum Appius (43 miles South of Rome) and the Three Taverns (33 miles South of Rome) to meet us.
The Roman Christians were thrilled to welcome Paul at last! They travelled for several days on foot to meet him at Forum Appius, and then the Three Taverns. The Gateshead equivalent would a party of five men at HTG taking a week off work to walk to Darlington to welcome some Australian Bible students you have never met before for your mission in March.
Thank God for aeroplanes and cars!
Verse 15 says:
At the sight of these men, Paul thanked God and was encouraged.
Paul was not some kind of spiritual iron-man! With a treacherous, long sea journey behind him – and a painful trial ahead of him – he was encouraged to meet these Christians. He needed their encouragement to prepare him to preach the good news of Jesus in Rome. So Rome at last! Paul travels to Rome!God enables it all to happen. He is working through Paul to make Jesus known.
2. Paul testifies to the Jews (v.16-24)
The second step in the narrative is from v.16-27. Paul testifies to the Jews.
As is his usual practice when he arrives in a new place, Paul focuses firstly on the Jews. As you read through Acts, it seems like it's almost a reflex for him – like when a man and woman arrive at a closed door at the same time and the gentleman says: "Ladies first". Paul was a "Jews first" person. When he arrived in a new place, he always took the gospel first to the Jews.
However in Rome, Paul couldn't follow his usual pattern of going to the synagogue, because he was under house arrest. So instead he invited a group of Jewish leaders round to see him. Here's what he says to them:
My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death.But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar--not that I had any charge to bring against my own people. For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.
What is striking here is that Paul doesn't launch straight into a full gospel exposition. In Antioch, Iconium and Thessalonica Paul uses the Scriptures to proclaim Jesus as the Christ. But not here. Here he seems a bit more timid. Has he lost some of his boldness?
By no means!
What Paul is doing here to clear the ground for a proper hearing. He could hardly turn up as a prisoner in Rome under house arrest and start preaching about Christ right away….People would not take him seriously. They would assume that he was a common criminal and wouldn't listen to his message. So Paul wisely arranges a kind of preliminary hearing to speak with the Jewish leaders.
And his speech is carefully crafted.
He firstly identifies with the Jews – notice how he speaks to them as my brothersand how he speaks about our peopleand our ancestors– he is building common ground with them. Secondly, he proves his innocence – verse 17 – he has done nothing against the Jewish people – verse 18 – he has done nothing against Roman Law. Thirdly, he then explains why he is in chains:
It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.
To say too much too soon would have blown a great opportunity. Paul is wise and patiently waits for the best moment to share the Gospel.
This is important when we share the gospel too. When speaking with someone you don't know well, it can be better to ask permission to speak: "Could I share with you a little about what I believe?"… Or if you're speaking with a friend/ family member, you could say: "Would you ever be up for talking about spiritual things?" rather than sharing the gospel straight away. And surely enough, God works through this gentle approach. The Jews are intrigued by Paul's speech and reply:
We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of the brothers who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you.
(This is remarkable, as less then 3 years ago Paul's arrest and trial was front-page headlines in Jerusalem)
… But we want to hear what your views are…
Permission granted! And Paul needs no second invitation! God has opened wide a door to share the gospel!
Second time round there's a larger crowd and Paul heads straight for the Gospel message. Verse 23:
From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.
Notice what Paul talked about. Jesus. Jesus was the centre of all he talked about. He didn't get side-tracked into trivialities. He presented Christ to them, using the Old Testament Scriptures to show that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.So when you share the gospel, don't be vague.
If someone asks you, "What do you Christians believe?" be direct. Make sure your friend understands that the Gospel is good news about Jesusfor them. It's about how can have peace with God through his death and resurrection. This may sound an obvious point, but it's amazing how easy it is to forget to talk about Jesus when you share the gospel. Notice also how Paul spoke with the Jews. He didn't present the gospel as a take-it or leave-it option – like whether/not to go out to the cinema with some friends – he actively tried to convince them to place their trust in Christ. If we are persuaded that the gospel is true – not just for us, but for everyone, we will try to persuade others that is true.
Finally, notice from v.24 that there was a mixed response to the gospel. Some were convinced, but others weren't. Our responsibility is to share the gospel faithfully and persuasively. The results are in God's hands. In verses 16-25, God is making Jesus known through Paul – in clearing the ground for him to preach, in bringing along a large crowd of hearers – in enabling Paul to preach the gospel.
And God is working through us today to make Jesus known.
Paul testifies to the Jews.
3. Paul turns to the Gentiles (v.25-28)
Now onto the third step in the narrative – Paul turns to the Gentiles.
Now, I don't know if there has been a mass walk-out at one of Rod's evangelistic sermons at HTG?
But that's exactly what happens to Paul here. Verse 25 to 27.
They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: "The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet: " 'Go to this people and say, "You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving." For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.
Paul's point is this. Just as the Jewish people rejected God's message in Isaiah's day, so the Jewish people are now rejecting Paul's message. Hard-hearted then, hard-hearted now. Stubborn then, stubborn now. Unwilling to listen then, unwilling to listen now.
Listen to how Paul applies Isaiah 6 to the Jews in Rome. Verse 28:
Therefore I want you to know that God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!
Why were the Jews so offended by this message? Because the Jews were taught from birth that they were God's chosen people – and that Gentiles were spiritually inferior to them.
So why does Paul deliberately offend the Jews by saying he'll turn to the Gentiles? Certainly it is not because Paul doesn't love them. Here's what he writes in Romans 10:1:
Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.
No. Paul loves the Jews very much and he longs for them to be saved. The key to understanding why Paul so publicly states that he will turn to the Gentiles – when speaking to Jews – is found in Romans 11:
13 I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry 14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.
Paul has not shut the door in the face of the Jews, because God hasn't. The plan is this: As Paul takes the gospel to the Gentiles, some of them will believe. As the Jews see the Gentiles responding to Jesus, some of them will become jealous, then turn to Christ and be saved. Paul turns to the Gentiles.
Through Gentile conversion and Jewish jealousy, God is working through Paul to make Jesus known – both to the Jews and to the Gentiles.
4. Paul teaches about the Lord Jesus (v.30-31)
The fourth step in the narrative is this. Paul teaches about the Lord Jesus.
The book of Acts ends simply with these words:
30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ
God had enabled Paul to travel to Rome.God now gave Paul a platform for the gospel, where he preached the gospel boldly and without hindrance from the Roman authorities.
Certainly, this leaves us lots of unanswered questions:
- Did Paul make it to Spain as he said he was planning to in Romans 15?
- Was Paul tried before Caesar?
- Was he released? Or did he die in Rome?
…But Luke's purpose in ending Acts in this way is to show us what really matters:
Acts is all about God's providential work in orchestrating the spread of the gospel. God is working through Paul to make Jesus known in Rome. And fast-forward two thousand years – God is making Jesus known – through us in Gateshead.
Application – individuals and as a church
…But do you really believe that God is working today?
I think sometimes we are overly pessimistic! We read negative reports about the Church in the media, we find it difficult to share our faith – and we conclude that God is not working.
But I want to say that that simply is not true! God isworking!
For example, it isamazing to observe what God is going in China at the moment. According to Operation World, in 1960 0.2% of the population were evangelical Christian. Now it's 5.7%! But God is not at work only China! I don't have time to share all the statistics of each country of the world with you – (if you want them look up Operation World on-line!!!) – but the big picture is very positive. God is working in South America and Africa. The church is exploding there! God is working in Islamic countries too. Gradually, but definitely. God is at work in European countries too. In secular France, immediately after the second world war there were 50,000 evangelical Christians – now it's ten times that – about ½ million. The Church in Spain has seen similar growth.
Yes – God is working – even in Europe!
And God is at work in the UK too! People say the Church in the UK is declining… Well, I don't think so! I have been part of five different church families in different parts of the UK. In each one message about Jesus has been taught faithfully. And in each one I have seen both numerical and spiritual growth.
God is working!
God is not absent. He is not distant from his world. By the Holy Spirit's work, he is constantly working to bring more people into his Kingdom. He was doing that in Paul's day. He's doing it today. How should we respond to this truth? Be confident in making Jesus known. If you are Christian, God can and wants to use you where you are. He wants to help you make Jesus known. You don't need to be a natural evangelist. I don't think anyone is! I know it's not easy to speak about Jesus – particularly with those we're close to. I've recently read an excellent book called: 'Take the Gospel Home' by Randy Newman. Really helpful. Be ambitious in making Jesus known. Do you have any dreams about where you'd love to see Jesus known? How about among the Jews in Gateshead? If Paul was here in Gateshead, that would be his number one priority. What about the students at Gateshead College? Or the athletics community at Gateshead Stadium? Or those in your workplace? Or your neighbours? Or is God calling you to move to another part of the UK for the sake of the gospel? Or how about moving overseas? Maybe you want to leave Gateshead and take the gospel to Turkey? Be ambitious! God is faithful. He opens doors for us to advance the gospel. Be persistent in making Jesus known. No-one is saying it's easy to make Jesus known. We face opposition. We often find it discouraging. But God isat work – and results will come in God's time. Don't give up!
We started tonight with a question:
What is God doingin the world today?
The answer is: God is working to make Jesus known through us today.
So let's follow Paul's example. Let's be confident, ambitious and persistent in making Jesus known – knowing that God isworking through us.
Ben Cadoux-Hudson from Jesmond Parish Church concludes our series, preaching from Acts 28.11-31.