One of the wonders of the internet is the way that we can now, with a click, zoom in and out of maps. Vivienne and I have just been to the west coast of Scotland for a few days. I recommend it. But we were in the middle of nowhere, and when we were planning our travel, it was extremely helpful to be able to zoom in and out.
One moment you’re down in street-view at ground level. The next, you’re way up with an overview of your whole journey from Tyneside to the Inner Hebrides. Up close, you might wonder why you could find yourself travelling north east when you want to go west. But with the overview of the whole map, it all makes sense, and you can see that the direct route is impossible because of the mountains and lochs in the way.
Well if you’ve been following these closing stages of our series through the Book of Acts, you’ll know that we’ve been down at street – or rather sea – level recently. We’ve been caught up in the passion of a storm and shipwreck. We’ve enjoyed the respite of an enforced staycation on Malta.
But this evening I want to zoom out, as it were, and get a bit of cool persective on where things are going. My title is “Arriving in Rome”. We’ve got to Acts 28.11-16.
And just to zoom right out even further for a moment, what we’re going to think about this evening in the light of this passage is God’s purpose and how it comes about. Because it seems to me that’s what this passage encourages us to do. Do you see that little phrase at the end of verse 14?
And so we came to Rome. (v14)
That’s what all this has been about ever since Paul was arrested in the Jerusalem temple years before, back in chapter 21. God’s purpose for Paul has been unfolding. So what is God’s big purpose? That brings me to my first heading on the outline.
Firstly, GOD’S PURPOSE IS TO TAKE THE GOSPEL TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH
If you keep zooming out on Googlemaps, you end up with a view of the whole globe. And let me take a moment to do that for Acts. If there’s one verse that gives you a global overview of Acts, it’s 1.8. There, the risen Jesus says to his astonished band of disciples:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1.8)
There they are in Jerusalem, just one small group, and Jesus says to them that their witness to him will be local, regional, cross-cultural and global. How can that be? Because they’ll be empowered by God himself in the person of his Spirit. The Holy Spirit will be at work through everything. And that’s precisely what we see happening as the events of the Book of Acts get laid out before our eyes.
Of course by the time we get to chapter 28 and the end of Acts, it’s not as if the gospel of Christ has yet gone all over the world. Its progress has been astonishing. But there’s a lot further to go. Where Acts ends is in Rome. Hence the end of verse 14:
And so we came to Rome. (28.14)
But that’s no random location.
Rome has massive symbolic and actual significance. That’s why, through this extraordinary sequence of events, it’s God who has been taking Paul there. That was made crystal clear by the angel who brought a message from God to the apostle Paul in the thick of the storm that nearly drowned him. This is 27.24. The angel said:
“Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar…” (27.24)
And to stand before Caesar, of course, you go to Rome. Rome was the seat of imperial power. And the Roman empire was the superpower of the age. So to carry the gospel of Christ to Rome, as Paul was doing, impelled by the Holy Spirit, was to carry it right into the heart of global political power. There it would lodge, and within three hundred years the emperor himself would be promoting the Christian faith around the Roman world.
What is more, Rome was the hub of a global network of communications and transport that reached even beyond the fringes of the civilised world to places like Britain. Injecting the gospel into Rome was like inserting it into the world’s heart so that it would be pumped around the global bloodstream.
Even more significantly, Rome was the symbol of the world’s rebellion against God. It was the new Babylon. Taking the gospel to Rome was taking it right into Satan’s lair.
Clearly human centres of population, culture and political power matter to God. The city matters to God. In the UK, loath as I am to admit it, that means London matters.
For our region, Newcastle matters. JPC is in a strategic location at the heart of this region. That is our calling and our responsibility. Our ministry to this city is, if you like, a distant extension of Paul’s Spirit-inspired mission to Rome, the megacity of his age.
We are caught up in God’s purpose to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Like Paul, we, too, are called to inject the good news of Jesus into the bloodstream of our culture. And like Paul and all those first disciples, we can only do that as we are swept up into the activity of the Holy Spirit. So how does the Spirit do this work?
Secondly, GOD USES MULTIPLE MEANS TO BRING ABOUT HIS PURPOSE
That’s what comes clear when we zoom out and get some perspective on these events, and when we remember that God is working through every aspect of what’s going on here to get Paul to Rome.
The process begins way back, and it begins in Paul’s mind and heart. God plants in the heart of Paul, his servant, his purpose that Paul should go to Rome. That’s clear from what Paul wrote.
A few years before this, he wrote to the young church in Rome. We have the letter, of course – Paul’s Letter to the Romans, here in the New Testament. And if you just turn over one page to the beginning of that letter, you can see what Paul was thinking. Take a look at Romans 1.9-11. This is Paul pouring out what’s on his heart:
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you … (Romans 1.9-11)
Do you see how God’s purpose has become Paul’s purpose? And that no doubt was key to why Paul, on trial for his life in Palestine, used his rights as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar. That would give him a free, if dangerous, ride, into the heart of the Roman empire.
What purpose is God cultivating in your heart? The Lord plants Godly desires in our hearts by his Spirit. We need to be discerning about what we want to accomplish for the cause of Christ. What you desire to do may well have been planted there by God, in line with how he wants to use you to fulfil his purpose. That’s why one of my favourite questions when I talk to Christians is: “What do you want to do? How do you want to serve?”
God plants his purpose in the heart of his servant. That gets us on side with his plans and moving in his direction. He also deploys supernatural power. We saw that two weeks ago with the angel’s intervention in the midst of that storm that looked like killing Paul. Last week we saw that supernatural power at work again through the healing miracles that took place through Paul. At times God works supernaturally. But at other times, or alongside the supernatural, God uses the natural.
One of his methods is evident in this account. He makes use of human culture. That includes skills that we might not think of as having a gospel purpose at all. It includes man-made technologies. It includes, in this context, pagan resources and economic activity. Take a look at verses 11-13:
After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead. Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. (14.11-13)
It’s easy to overlook that without the skills of the boatbuilders and the sailors, and the technology of shipping, and the trade and economic activity based at Alexandria that funded it all, Paul could not have undertaken this journey. God bent all of that to his ends.
So don’t despise such skills, technology and economic activity as somehow unspiritual. In God’s hands it’s profoundly spiritual. If you have the opportunity, get as skilled as you can, and look for ways to use your skills in the cause of the Kingdom.
Give thanks, for instance, for the audio and video technology that we’re able to use in this very building. God is directly involved in such things. All the hard work that goes into making and installing all this technology is gospel work, even if some of those doing the work aren’t aware of it.
The boat God used for Paul’s journey was even dedicated to pagan gods. There’s a certain delicious irony in fact that those twin gods Castor and Pollux were supposed to bring good luck in a storm. Paul didn’t need that kind of luck. God was in control. God was directing everything.
As believers we are not to disengage from the culture around us even if it’s dominated by unbelievers. We need Godly discretion. But we can and must use everything we can in the cause of the Kingdom of God. So, in our generation, don’t regard technologies like mobile phones, or the internet, or social media as either out of bounds or just nothing to do with Christ. Of course they can be used for evil. But God intends them for good.
God makes use of human culture. He also works through his people. Verse 14:
There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. (28.14)
The support that the church gives for missionary activity in all its forms is a vital part of God’s method of getting the gospel to the ends of the earth. In this case that support took the form of hospitality. They opened their homes. As Paul was under guard, that must have included his military escort. The kindness that the centurion Julius had shown Paul was being returned.
These things matter. Hospitality is a powerful tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit. It’s a spiritual gift that we need to pray for, cultivate and use.
So God uses multiple means to bring about his purpose. The Holy Spirit brings it all together so that everything is pulling in the same direction – God’s direction. And what is the result?
Thirdly, GOD’S PURPOSE IS BEING ACCOMPLISHED
When God purposes something – like getting Paul to Rome – and works by his Spirit to bring about that purpose, then nothing and nobody is going to get in his way. It’s going to happen.
From our point of view, the route to the fulfilment of God’s purpose can be a long and winding road. That’s certainly what it must have felt like to Paul. There’s just one little element of that there at the start of our passage, in verse 11:
After three months we set sail … (28.11)
Three months of going nowhere. No progress towards Rome at all. If you’re stuck somewhere for months, or caught in a storm, or locked up awaiting trial, as Paul has been during his long and winding road to Rome, it might seem as if you’re going nowhere fast. But God’s perspective is not ours. It’s like going north east along a narrow Scottish road when you’re wanting to go west. God knows what he’s doing.
The transition to being a rapidly growing multi-site church that we here are wanting feels like a long and winding road. We’re in a waiting phase in the development of St Joseph’s Benwell. But God gets us to where he wants us to be, in his own time and in his own way. Verse 14:
And so we came to Rome. (28.14)
God’s purpose is being accomplished. And look at the other indication of that down in verse 16:
And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier that guarded him. (28.16)
God provides his servant with sufficient freedom for ministry. Instead of being incarcerated in an isolated cell, Paul is put under house arrest. He has freedom to meet, preach and teach, as we shall see. God has bent the will and the decisions of the Roman empire to his purposes.
So when God decides to do something, it gets done. But that doesn’t mean that being a servant of God’s purpose to take the gospel to the ends of the earth is easy or comfortable. Far from it.
Fourthly, SERVING GOD’S PURPOSE IS HARD AND TAKES COURAGE
We mustn’t underestimate what Paul is going through here. Take a look at verse 15:
And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. (28.15)
The reality is that again and again Paul finds himself in genuinely frightening situations. And it’s not that Rome was a loud and intimidating megacity, no doubt bolder and brasher than anything he’d seen before. He knew that he might well have come to Rome to be executed. Not that this was the first such frightening situation that Paul had been through. Again and again he had faced the possibility of death. And that doesn’t make it any easier the next time.
Steven Gerrard, the England footballer, was saying the other day that the young England players going to the World Cup would have no fear. They wouldn’t be aware of the weight of pressure felt by the more experienced players. That pressure hardly compares with facing death. But the point remains. When you know how hard something is, that just makes it harder still.
How did Paul deal with this frightening situation? He sees God’s guiding hand. And he finds courage through fellowship with God and his people.
Some of the Christians from Rome had heard about Paul’s imminent arrival. They went out to meet him on the road to Rome. They travelled thirty or forty miles to do that – and not a car to be had. That simple act of kindness touched Paul in the midst of all he faced. And Paul thanked God for it. That is, he realised that yet again this was a sign that God was with him and would lead him through it all, whatever was to come. He could be at peace.
And Paul took courage. He drew strength from his grateful communion with God in Christ. And he drew strength from the love in Christ that was coming his way from brothers and sisters who he’d never even met before, but who cared for him and were looking out for him.
Let’s remember that there are no lone rangers in Christian life and ministry. If the apostle Paul needs the encouragement and strengthening of simple kindness from his fellow believers, how much more do we. Serving God’s purpose is hard. It takes courage. But God makes courageous service possible for each one of us, by the power of his Spirit at work in our hearts and through the love of his people.