Tonight as we carry on with our studies in the Acts of the Apostles we come to chapter 21 and our title is THE JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM. And my headings, are, after some words of introduction, first, ENJOYING THE PRESENT; second, BELIEVING IN GOD’S PROVIDENCE; third, SEEKING CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP and PRAYING TOGETHER; fourth, RESISTING TEMPTATION and, fifth, BEING ENCOURAGED.
But before looking at our passage we need to put it into context. Paul is at the end of his Third Missionary Journey. On these journeys he led two-or-more-person missionary teams that went around the Eastern Mediterranean and its hinterland (modern Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus).
Those people were planting churches and teaching that Christ who had died is now risen and reigning. And (as we heard last week from chapter 20 verse 21) they were teaching “repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
That means that in the strength and power of the Holy Spirit you recognise your need as someone who has disobeyed and failed God (which is what sin means). And then in faith you turn to the crucified and risen Saviour for forgiveness and new spiritual life. (Anyone needing to respond to that message tonight?)
However, we now pick up Paul’s story with Paul having just left Miletus in modern Turkey (then the Roman Province called “Asia”) where he met church leaders from Ephesus. But you must realise that Paul’s work of preaching, teaching and church planting had been tough.
You can read in chapter 20 that he had told these Ephesian church leaders it involved (verse 19) “tears and trials through the plots of the Jews.” And he wrote to his young friend Timothy (2 Tim 3.11) about his “persecutions and sufferings that happened to [him] at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra.” But he added: “which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.”
God had amazingly been protecting him and rescuing him from captivity and death. But all that is now going to change. He is facing a watershed in his life and ministry. He knew that dark clouds were ahead. He had said in chapter 20.22-23: “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” And you will see from the rest of Acts how true that was.
Paul is now not going to be rescued from all his persecutions. He is going to be arrested and imprisoned and end up in Rome awaiting trial before Caesar himself.
Who is in a situation like that? You feel you are at a watershed moment or already with a difficult future ahead. Perhaps you have suddenly experienced a bereavement and it seems the bottom has dropped out of your life. Or you’ve got an illness. Or you have failed to land a job you were expecting. Or you know there is a long hard struggle ahead in some other area of life. How are you reacting? How should you react?
Well, learn from Paul’s reaction from these verses at the beginning of chapter 21.
So, our first, heading, ENJOYING THE PRESENT (v1)
Look at verse 1:
“And when we had parted from them [the Ephesian leaders] and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara.” (21.1)
The first lesson is that Paul would have been living a day at a time and now enjoying the present. He tells us in a letter written probably while in prison in Rome: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound” (Phil 4.11-12). Paul would have enjoyed this lovely cruise from Miletus to Cos and on to Rhodes.
That coastline and those Greek islands are idyllic. I know. When there were direct flights from Newcastle to Cos, my wife and I used to go for summer holidays to Cos and then get a ferry to a smaller island.
Yes, Paul knew there was trouble facing him. But on a sunny day with a good sea he could enjoy the beauty of nature and God’s creation as he was sailing past those islands in those waters.
After I left the university I worked in Omdurman, one of the three cities at the division of the Nile into the Blue and White Niles in North Sudan. I was with a Christian mission society. During that time our mission school where I was teaching was attacked and destroyed (while I was teaching) by invading Muslim students. So also was our huge mission centre in the centre of Khartoum, with literally thousands attacking it. This was at the beginning of the troubles in the Sudan in the 1960s.
But one afternoon, in our school period for sports - I can remember the occasion so vividly - I found myself in a little sailing dinghy, in the middle of the Nile with the sun shining, the water so blue and the sky so blue and a cooling breeze and I thought – what a wonderful world. And I thought, how much there is to thank God for in life, in spite of all the troubles. I can imagine that was Paul’s attitude, as he was going by those Greek Islands on his way to Cos and Rhodes.
So when things seem bleak, count your blessings. Paul tells us he had learnt to do that. Learn to enjoy the present when there are dark clouds. This is a message of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. The writer says a man’s days “are full of sorrow”; but he then says, “there is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Eccl 2.23-25).
Therefore, enjoy the present when you can. But – and it is an important “but” - to be able to do that you really need to trust God and understand that he really is good and in control and wanting the best for you in spite of the circumstances. That brings us to our …
... second heading and BELIEVING IN GOD’S PROVIDENCE
Look at verse 2-3:
“And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo.” (21.2-3)
Perhaps the key words here are, verse 2, “having found”. Paul was desperate to get to Jerusalem for Pentecost. He was to hand over the gift of money he was collecting from the Gentile churches for the poorer Jewish Christians in Palestine. For the sake of unity, it was good Paul himself was present.
The presence of famous people on special occasions – and for the early Church Paul was a famous person and Pentecost in Jerusalem was a special occasion – speaks volumes. So President Obama’s refusal to attend or even send any member of his administration to Mrs Thatcher’s funeral was seen as a snub, according to UK newspapers. Paul, it seems, wanted to avoid all that for the sake of relations between the Jewish and Gentile churches.
So to get to Jerusalem in time, it was imperative he travel not by a little “coast hugging” boat, which (as a bonus) was good for seeing the islands, but a much bigger open-sea cargo boat. Even today connections by smaller Greek island-hopping-boats aren’t always reliable. But Paul and his party seemed to have arrived in Patara at just the right time for just the right boat. His timetable now allowed him more time for ministry with Jewish Christians in Palestine and especially in Caesarea before going on to Jerusalem.
Yes, God was (and is) in control even of the little details of life – like the catching of boats. It’s hard to believe how that is possible. But that is God’s Providence and it is for your good if you trust him. So he is in control as you go through your difficult time.
Remember the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt and, when Prime Minister and reunited with his treacherous brothers, saying of his earlier slavery: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50.12). I can thank God for a number of disappointments in my life which I now see were all for the good. They didn’t seem like it at the time.
Do you believe in the Providence of God? It is simply that our Creator God has not left his world but, after its creation, is still acting sovereignly in it. His hand may be hidden, but his control is, nevertheless, over everything.
It is a mystery how you can be, at one and the same time, free and responsible, yet somehow God is sovereign over all that happens. But it is true. As Paul says in Romans 8.28: “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
So remember, therefore, that God is able to take your difficult situation and bring good out of bad, for he is in control. He is the God of Providence as well as Creation.
The third essential in difficult times is that of SEEKING CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP and PRAYING TOGETHER
Look at verses 4-6:
“And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there [in Tyre] for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.” (21.4-6)
While the ship was unloading its cargo in Tyre, Paul and his friends spent time with other Christians. How essential it is at all times to meet with other Christians but especially when life is hard. That is why you need to keep Sunday special for Church. Also you need to be in a mid-week smaller group.
At a simple psychological level, for subjective certainty you need social support. So when you are being brain-washed by a progressively secular education and by a progressively secular media, how you need the counter-teaching and counter-culture of the Church and other Christians!
And you need to pray with others. How important that is. That is how change happens in dark days. To some extent we all are facing dark days with the attacks and destruction of marriage and the family, and the weakness of so much national and civic leadership. So will you join me in having a rule to pray, at least once a week, that by the end of 2018 we grow to 2000 (as I have written in the April Coloured Supplement in the Newsletter).
2000, of course, is a “pin-prick” compared with the needs of this city and conurbation. But God can bless the day of small things. And pray in the light of Ephesians 3.20 that says, God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” And then pray for the strength of the Holy Spirit to do what Christ commands.
And remember Paul had a big vision – so have a big vision! After Jerusalem Paul was wanting to go to Rome – so we are told in Acts 19.21 – and after that to go to Spain to plant churches – so we are told in Romans 15.24 and 28.
And some think he got to Spain and so was executed much later.But certainly as Paul had fellowship with other Christians and prayed with others and not just on his own, so God worked and certainly got him to Rome.
So in difficult times, enjoy the present, believe in God’s Providence; but also seek Christian fellowship and pray together with other Christians.
Then the fourth, essential is that of RESISTING TEMPTATION (vv 7-14)
Look at verses 7-14:
“When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. While we were staying for many days, a 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, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged 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 imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” (21.7-14)
The boat has now docked at Ptolemais. Note that Paul and company are still concerned to meet with other Christians just for one day. Then they moved on to Caesarea, now the Roman provincial capital of Judea. But as at Tyre the Christians in Caesarea were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.
A prophet Agabus (in the style of an Old Testament enacted prophecy) indicated that Paul would be bound and delivered to the Gentiles by the Jews. He was not quite right.
For as we learn later, Paul was delivered by the Gentiles from the Jews. To be fair on Agabus, he was only predicting trouble. He did not say Paul should abort his Jerusalem visit. But Paul’s own friends, including Luke, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, tried to stop him. Somehow the Holy Spirit had made God’s will clear for Paul, as we read in chapter 20 verse 22, that he must go to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen. And he expected trouble, as he tells us in chapter 20 verse 23.
So this pressure to give up told him nothing new and certainly wasn’t very helpful. Here were people with charismatic visions (possibly) and one prophecy (certainly) that led to wrong advice for Paul. That must have been a great temptation for him – to follow his friends easy way out.
So at hard times beware of the temptation that seems to solve your problems but involves disobeying God.
And beware of Christians that advise you to do what is wrong.
Sadly in the West this is happening more and more in ethical areas of sex and relationships, divorce and remarriage, abortion and embryo research and experimentation and not least homosexual marriage. But, thank God, Paul stood firm.
May we follow his example.
And a final essential we can see here is BEING ENCOURAGED
I must be brief. But look at verses 15-16:
“After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge.” (21.15-16)
There is a great danger in times of trouble being with people who are always grumbling and negative. They make you even more depressed, if you are a bit depressed already. So try to find encouragers.
Paul lodged with Philip and his four prophetic daughters. I don’t know what these daughters were like at breakfast time! However, it must have been encouraging being with Philip. He was a personal evangelist and one of the seven who formed the first church finance committee that you read about in Acts 6.
But most encouraging were, verse 16, “some of the disciples from Caesarea” who, Luke says, “went with us” to Jerusalem. They were willing to identify with Paul whatever the cost, including his readiness to die for the Lord if necessary. Paul was going to be opposed and attacked by the Jewish authorities. But these disciples wanted to stand alongside Paul in support.
How important to follow the example of those disciples today – at school, in the university, at work, wherever. Publicly support someone who is taking a stand for Jesus Christ. In a group, in a committee, in a meeting publicly speak up with them – don’t wait till afterwards to inform them of your support.
And then there was Mnason of Cyprus, probably a rich man with a big house. It was big enough to put up Paul’s party, while in Jerusalem. Mnason is described in verse 16 as an “early disciple” – one of the converts possibly from that first Day of Pentecost. Like Philip, he’s another older man, still firm in the faith, who is willing to back Paul – this time through providing his party hospitality.
May we all be, in so far as we can, encouragers and like those disciples from Caesarea and Mnason from Cyprus.
So in conclusion - when facing difficulties, try to enjoy the present; believe in God’s Providence; seek Christian fellowship and pray with others; resist the temptation to take the wrong easy way out of your difficulties; and try to find encouragers and not negative people.