Always on Mission

I. Introduction

We are finishing our study of Acts this week, and Paul is visiting with the Jews of Rome and pleading with them to open their hearts to the good news of Christ. Which is interesting to me because many of these same Jews have been trying to kill Paul for years.

II. Acts 20-25: Ephesus to Jerusalem to Caesarea

To understand Paul’s final words in Acts 28, we have to back up a long way. When I last taught from Acts 20, Paul is saying his goodbyes. He knows his time is short, and we talked about what it meant to live a good life. The Holy Spirit has compelled Paul to return to Jerusalem before Pentecost, Acts 20:16,Slide2.JPG

For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.

As Paul sails past Ephesus, he calls the church elders from Ephesus to him, and in Acts 20:22-25, Paul tells them that he has been bound by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and the same Holy Spirit tells Paul that trials and tribulations await, and that despite the fact that the church elders will never see Paul’s face again, Paul is still preaching the good news and finishing his life’s race with joy.Slide3.JPG

“And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face.”

But then the trials and tribulations prophesied by the Holy Spirit catch up to Paul. Paul makes it to Jerusalem and begins to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Good News of Christ to the Jews.

The Jews hate this message and want to kill Paul. But the Jews couldn’t kill Paul themselves because Israel was under control of the Romans. Only the Romans could put Paul to death legally. It’s the same conundrum the Jews had when they wanted to kill Jesus; they had to use political and devious methods to convince the Romans to crucify Jesus. Now the Jews are hearing the gospel from Paul and they think Paul should die for blasphemy.

The Jews in Jerusalem accuse Paul of defiling the temple with his words, and they seize him and begin to beat him, and Acts 21:31 says the Jews were trying to beat Paul to death, but then the Romans hear about the uproar and show up. You might remember Jim’s awesome retelling of this uproar and how Paul spoke Aramaic to the crowd and the crowd became silent. Paul begins telling them that he used to be Saul and persecuted Christians zealously, but then he met Jesus and now wants to tell everyone that salvation is at hand. The Jews listen for a while but then the uproar begins again.

The Roman commander tries to find out what started the fight, but the roar of the crowd was so loud, the Romans couldn’t get to the truth. All the Roman commander knows at this point is that Paul is somehow involved, so he arrests Paul and takes him to the Roman barracks.

And here’s one of those thought processes I don’t understand in Acts 22:24,Slide4

the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way.

We don’t know why they’re mad at you, so we’re going to rip your skin off and see if that helps us find the truth. Fortunately for Paul, the Romans find out he’s a Roman citizen and release him. But then the Jews go into an uproar again, and the Romans arrest Paul again in Acts 23. In the Jerusalem Roman barracks, Paul hears from the Lord, Acts 23:11,Slide5

But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.”

Paul is in Jerusalem, but now he knows he’s headed to Rome. How wonderful to know your final destination. I know mine; you can know yours, too.

The Jews now try a different tactic; their plan is to request the Romans bring Paul to the Jewish council, and the Jews will try to ambush Paul when he’s out in the open.

But the Romans have had enough of the Jewish shenanigans, so under heavy guard they escort Paul to Caesarea and present him to the governor there named Felix.

Now Governor Felix holds some private discussions with Paul, and of course Paul shares the gospel with Governor Felix. Acts 24:24-26a,Slide6

But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.” At the same time too, he was hoping that money would be given him by Paul.

In other words, Felix says the bible sounds scary, but if you give me some money, I’ll let you go. How long did this last? Acts 24:27,

But after two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, and wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned.

Two years this goes on, with Paul witnessing to Felix the whole time. Then Felix is replaced by Festus, and the Jews petition the new governor Festus to execute Paul. When that doesn’t work, they ask Festus to bring Paul back from Caesarea to Jerusalem, and the Jews plan that same ambush along the way to kill Paul. Paul’s been imprisoned in Caesarea for 2 years, but this ambush plot to kill Paul is still alive and well.

Festus asks Paul if that’s a good idea, to send Paul back to Jerusalem. Paul answers for probably the millionth time that he’s done nothing wrong except preach the gospel, but if the Romans think there’s a problem with Paul, then the Romans ought to send Paul to Caesar himself in Rome. Festus thinks this is a great idea, he can wash his hands of this whole mess, he’ll send Paul to Rome to stand trial. The only trouble with this plan is that Governor Festus doesn’t even know what Paul should be charged with. When King Agrippa, the High Priest from Jerusalem, comes to visit Festus, and Festus tries to get an understanding why this man has been in prison for two years. Acts 25:24-27,

Festus said, “King Agrippa, and all you gentlemen here present with us, you see this man about whom all the people of the Jews appealed to me, both at Jerusalem and here, loudly declaring that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death; and since he himself appealed to the Emperor, I decided to send him. Yet I have nothing definite about him to write to my lord. Therefore, I have brought him before you all and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after the investigation has taken place, I may have something to write. For it seems absurd to me in sending a prisoner, not to indicate also the charges against him.”

What is this an opportunity for Paul to do? Share the gospel, of course. All of Acts 26 is Paul’s explanation of the resurrection of Jesus, and the High Priest King Agrippa listens carefully to Paul quoting from the scriptures, and then in Acts 26:28,

Agrippa replied to Paul, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.”

Agrippa actually agrees that Paul shouldn’t be in prison. Festus doesn’t know why Paul is being held or what the charges should be, but he seems eager to get this mess behind him and decides to send Paul to Rome anyway, thus unknowingly fulfilling the scripture we read about a moment ago in Acts 23 when the Lord told Paul he would go to Rome. And besides, just releasing Paul would cause all sort of problems with those same Jews that have been trying to ambush and kill him for the last 2 years. Instead, Paul gets an all expense paid trip to Rome.

This was no small journey; Rome was a long way away, and the Holy Spirit had already told Paul this trip would be full of trials and tribulations. Here’s a map showing the distance.

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Winter is approaching, and the optimum time to sail has already passed. Paul tries to warn them in Acts 27:9, but the captain and the Roman centurion were set on leaving anyway. What could possibly go wrong, except the shipwreck in Acts 27:14? And being bit by a snake in Acts 28:3? The ship ran aground on the shore of some uncharted desert isle, with Gilligan… the skipper, too. All the while, Paul sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. It was three months before they were rescued and finally made their way to Rome, thus fulfilling the Lord’s promise that Paul should share the message of Christ with the gentiles of Rome.

Which brings us to our actual verses of study today in Acts 28, the final chapter of Acts. Paul is under house arrest, a single soldier guarding him, and who does Paul send for?

III. Acts 28:17 Love Your Enemies

Paul sends for the local Jewish leaders to tell them about the good news of Christ Jesus. Of course he does. Paul tells them starting in Acts 28 verse 17 that Paul is preaching the good news of the gospel to all Jews, despite the fact the Jews he speaks to all seem to want to kill him. And he’s headed for Rome, and being a Roman citizen, it won’t be Paul on trial, it will be Israel because Paul is a Roman citizen. But Paul has no plans to accuse Israel. Paul wants to save Israel. And the only way to salvation is through Christ Jesus.

Do you see the pattern in Paul’s life? Paul’s mission in life as given to him by the Holy Spirit is to preach the good news to the lost sheep of Israel, to let them know that the Messiah has come, to repent of their sins and accept the sacrifice of the Messiah. And that message is met not just with hostility, but the people he’s speaking to want to kill him. And yet, Paul isn’t mad, he doesn’t take revenge on his enemies, he doesn’t retaliate, nor does he shy away or run from his enemies. He stands his ground and repeats the Good News for all who will listen: the Messiah has come, the Messiah has died, the Messiah is risen and is seated at the right hand of the Father. In other words, Paul is showing us with his very life what it means to love your enemies. Jesus once said to His disciples in Matthew 5:43-48,Slide11.JPG

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I wondered as I studied this how well I was doing in my evangelism. I have a field to work in, provided by God, to share the good news. Do I share the message with those who will be openly hostile to the good news? I don’t think I do. I think I share the Good News with just those that are friendly to me. I have opportunities, at work, when I travel. And I know I often mention my faith when somebody asks, “so, what did you do this weekend?” But I wait to hear a friendly response before I share what it means to have eternal life. I’m much more likely to discuss, say, how many Olympic gold medals the USA curling team has won.

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I’m reminded of the great Billy Graham that went to be with the Lord this week at the ripe old age of 99. During his life, people would ask him why he didn’t do more for, say, racial justice. His answer? That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to spread the gospel. “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” He was friends with Richard Nixon after Nixon resigned, and people pressured him to stop appearing publicly with Nixon. Graham would respond, I’m sharing the good news of salvation.  For a while, there was a movement for Billy Graham to run for Senate. His response? That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to spread the gospel. Billy Graham never wavered from his message, the only message that ultimately matters.

Paul is bold. I like that. And it’s almost as though he completely ignores any animosity toward him as though it’s unimportant. And he’s right – compared to eternal life, well, sticks and stones my break my bones, but Jesus gives life forever. The Good News is not the most important thing: it’s the only thing.

IV. Acts 28:24 Not All Who Hear Then Perceive

When we ask, “what is our purpose for life?”, we should ask first if God has a plan for our life. And He does. Each one of us has a unique story only we can tell, unique abilities only we can fulfill, unique passions God has given to us individually. That’s why some are engineers, some are grandmothers, some are teachers, some are Olympic athletes.
But despite our individual uniqueness and our individual passions, there’s a plan for each of us that we all have in common.

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Our purpose in life is to know God and to make God known. But our job stops there; we share what we know about God. The job of actually convicting somebody of their sin, leading them to repentance, and giving their life to Jesus Christ is not our job. That job belongs to the Holy Spirit.

And I think too many times we tell people what we think the bible says, and not what it actually says. We give them our opinion of what they’re doing wrong in their life and what they must do to be a Christian, when instead we should be sharing the love of Christ with them, encouraging them to read for themselves what God will say to them.
I find it interesting that should one accept the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, all the glory goes to God for the salvation of a soul. But rejecting the Word, the fault lies solely on the sinner.

Paul was a terrific evangelist. He shared the gospel with everybody, with all his friends, acquaintances, and even his enemies. Frequently he shared the gospel with people trying to kill him. Paul shared the gospel with anybody who would listen. Acts 28:24,

 

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Some were being persuaded by the things spoken, but others would not believe.

Again I say, It’s our job to share the gospel, but it’s not our job to convict. That’s above our pay grade. It’s the other person’s choice whether to believe or not, whether to respond to the Holy Spirit telling Him there’s a purpose for him in this life and the next.

There are many reasons why a person will not respond to the good news. Stubbornness. Selfishness. Even intellect, some feel they are too smart to believe and never understand the irony that they are finite beings that do not understand an infinite God, so they chose not to believe what they cannot understand rather that admit they are not all-knowing. All the excuses, though, come down to pride. In our sinful hearts, we want to do things our own way. But 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 puts it this way –

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And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Paul was 100% successful in sharing the gospel, but he did not have a 100% conversion rate. And neither will we. Of course, if we don’t share the gospel at all, we will have a 0% conversion rate. But we are to share the good news and leave the results up to God. He is capable. He is more than capable.

V. Acts 28:25-27 Quoting Isaiah

Paul knows that not everyone will believe. Some people are bound and determined to go to Hell and they’re not about to stop and ask for directions.

When some of the people turn away from Paul, Paul tells them that God knew in advance that many would reject God and turn away. As they turn away, Paul says to them,

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“The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers, saying,
‘Go to this people and say,
“You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
For the heart of this people has become dull,
And with their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes;
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.”’

Paul quotes from the book of Isaiah, chapter 6 beginning in verse 9. This Old Testament scripture is quoted five times in the New Testament; it’s quoted by all four gospel writes, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, then it’s quoted by Paul. God is saying in this verse that His grace and healing is available to everyone, but many have closed their eyes and ears to the Gospel.

What do we do with such people? Exactly what Paul does. We tell them that Jesus loves them and gave His life so that they may have eternal life with Him. The Holy Spirit will compel them, but some people have become quite proficient at ignoring God’s call. But we go on sharing the love of Christ anyway.

VI. Conclusion

There is nothing more important than sharing the Word of God. Everything else in this life – houses, cars, spouses and children, money or power – is only temporary. We are only temporary stewards of what God has created. Only our eternity is eternal. Psalm 73:25-26,

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Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

We live in a lost world where many have closed their eyes and closed their ears, but the message we share saves eternal lives. Every person that is not yet reconciled with God remains an enemy of God. And every person reconciled is a cause for rejoicing in Heaven.

We are to know God and to make God known. We start first by reading the bible. That’s how we get to know God. The excitement of sharing the gospel comes from knowing God. If we barely know God, why would we want to talk about Him? So get to know God by reading His word.

Paul is an excellent example of sharing the gospel at all times with all people, friends and strangers and even enemies. That’s our job, too. Our earthly task is to know God and to make God known every day.

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To God be the glory. Amen.

A Life Well-Lived

I. Introduction

What does it mean to live a good life?

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I know what the world shows us. It shows us we should look good and feel good. Nothing more important than being rich. We should have it all. A successful life is defined as having as many toys and as much money as possible. But only if you’re also good looking and have good hair.

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Or success is defined as defeating everybody else, being stronger or more powerful and winning more than anybody else. Even if you have to cheat to get there.

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And I also think it’s interesting that the same things the world teaches us that we should desire are the same things the world uses to bring us down. The world’s richest people have their mansions and their yachts, but then the Occupiers of Wall Street demonstrating against the 1% that have mansions and yachts at the expense of the underprivileged. Or winning a Super Bowl one year, but if you can’t win it again the next year, you’re a loser.

Do handsome actors and pretty actresses define a life well-lived? Does having a super yacht define a life well-lived? Does winning the Super Bowl define a life well-lived? Or is there something else worth living for?

II. Testimonials

The bible is consistent in teaching us more. In Luke 12:16-21,

And [Jesus] told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

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The rich man was primarily worried about providing for his body in this life instead of providing for his soul in the next life. There was a famous French statesman named Tallyrand, appointed to the position of Foreign Minister by Napoleon in 1799, who said this near the end of his life,

“Eighty-three years have passed! I am not sure I am pleased when I think back over how those years were spent. How many useless uproars there were; how many failures; how many outrageous complications; how much wasted emotion and energy, and how much wasted ability! Hatreds have been aroused, illusions lost, tastes jaded. And with what result? Moral and physical exhaustion, complete discouragement with respect to the future, deep disgust with respect to the past.”

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I think it’s sad to spend a life quarreling for table scraps and shiny trinkets that get tossed in the casket with the death of the body, when we could celebrate a life filled with purpose that serves God’s eternal plans instead of our own. God’s plans are so much better than our own.

I think of my stepfather who passed away last year. When he married my mother, he treated my brother and sister and me as though we were his own. We were already adults and too old to be adopted, but you would have never guessed we were not his biological children. He introduced me as his son. And as part of his family, he showed me greater love than I was ever able to return. While he enjoyed his job, the only time he would talk about money was to mention his goal of making sure my mother was well cared for. In return, we loved and appreciated all he did for his family. He was a rich man, and it had nothing to do with money.

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And I think of my grandfather who passed away thirty something years ago. He was a tremendous model of peace and joy and love no matter what was going on around him. He took me fishing on his boat when I wasn’t even 5 years old and spent the day with me, and for years later that event defined to ma what family love is. He taught bible study at his local church, I’m told, for over 35 years, and in every way I ever saw, he modeled a Christian life. He was a rich man, and it had nothing to do with money.

You probably have somebody in your life that modeled a life well-lived. When you think of a great role model and a positive influence in your life, who do you think of?

I have a letter to share from a Godly woman from my wife’s church; she has been a missionary in an unfriendly communist country, sharing God’s Word, and writing back to supporting churches telling them that the Good News was being received eagerly in dangerous places. She was diagnosed with cancer some time ago. She wrote this just 2 weeks ago, and I’d like to share it in whole, omitting the names because of her missionary work overseas –

Dear Friends,

The Lord gave us a wonderful Christmas! Thank you so much for praying. I have attached a picture of me with our 8 granddaughters. As good as the picture is, it doesn’t convey how special Christmas Eve with the whole family was, and how much fun! Although I could not stand longer than a couple of minutes because of weakness, I was able to participate in the full 3 ½ hour celebration of our Savior’s birth.

This will probably be the last time that I am writing to you. Starting after New Year’s I began to go downhill again, and signs of the beginning of organ failure are quite evident. The Lord is gracious in that the pain is still manageable, and although for about a week nausea was a real problem, that is now managed as well. We are grateful to the Lord for His care for me.

How can I give you all thanks for the decades of care and support for my husband and me? Way back in 1976 when I was a college student studying English in communist Poland, I met Campus Crusade staff members for the first time, translating for them at our “Oasis” camp deep in the Polish mountains. I was so impressed with their ministry that even before I had committed my life to Christ I asked them if I could do what they were doing, i.e. telling others about Jesus. Over the next 4 years I committed my life to Christ, came on staff (not openly, obviously) and married my husband. And, for the past 37 years, thanks to your prayers and support, I have been able to focus my time and energy on that very thing: telling others the gospel of Jesus Christ. After a couple years of experience and training, I began to help others share their faith as well. I could not have followed God’s call on my life without you. I thank you with all my heart and pray God’s greatest blessings upon you.

According to hospice, in about a couple of weeks (although, only God knows) I will lay down this temporal body. I look forward to that. I cannot claim to understand all of God’s ways with me. In the end, God has given me the grace to walk by faith with many of my questions unanswered. He is good, and He is sufficient. With this knowledge I am at peace.

“Now to our God and Father be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Phil.4:20

Your sister in Christ

This Godly woman passed away earlier this week. I can read her letter of goodbye that had not one bit of regret in it, full of joy and peace. And I know she had a life well-lived.

III. A Life Well-Lived

We’re studying the book of Acts and we’re in Acts 20 this week and Paul is reflecting on the life he’s lived and saying goodbye for he knows the time he has left in this world is coming to an end. And like everything Paul wrote, even his goodbye is organized and with purpose. There are three parts to his goodbye; first he reviews the past, then he discusses the present, and then the future. He concludes that his past, present and future has enabled Paul to live his life in such a way that he may finish his race with joy.

I reflected on this message from Paul, how he plans to finish his race with joy, and wonder if I planned my life that way. I think a great many of us make plans, but they’re short term plans, maybe with a goal. I’m going to get through high school or college. I’m going to get married. I’m going to buy a house. Those are all things, sure, that we work for, but I don’t think that just because I bought a house means I lived my life well.

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I think if you’re going to run a race that ends in joy, Paul’s messages of past present and future reflect the stages of the race. One doesn’t simply wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, I think I’ll run a marathon today.” No, a race requires training, endurance, and a strong finish.

IV. Acts 20:18-21 Training for the Race

First comes the training. If you’re going to run a race and finish with joy, you have to begin with purpose. Paul is talking to the elders of the church of Ephesus in Acts 20:18-21,

And when they [the elders] had come to him [Paul], he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s giving us his autobiography and telling us that his life was filled with purpose. He wasn’t an “accidental” that happened to be at church. Paul says “from the first day” Paul was devoted to his work.

Have you ever heard the phrase “ambassador for Christ?” I think the phrase is applicable, for we are all to be ambassadors for Christ. But too often we forget we have a purpose. Ambassadors have a purpose. Ambassadors know who sent them and why. Ambassadors take that purpose to a place or a people and represent the will of the one who sent them.

But ambassadors work out of a large building, an embassy, that’s also full of diplomats. Diplomats push the paper around and talk out of both sides of their mouths, so they do not offend anyone. Diplomats and ambassadors may share a building, but the ambassador has a purpose. Some people attend church as a diplomat and collect what they believe is a spiritual paycheck. Others attend church out of love and purpose, eager to see how God will use them today. Paul wasn’t a diplomat, he was an ambassador for Christ.

And Paul’s motive, his goal, is also in verse 21, his goal was to serve the Lord. While Paul ministered to people, he served the Lord. Paul lived a life unashamed of the gospel, never shying away because he was worried he’d upset somebody or offend them. The gospel is what it is, the good news of Jesus Christ.

And while we know Paul was unashamed of the Gospel, he shared the good news with “all humility.” He wasn’t a religious celebrity, he was a man who understood that Paul could do nothing on his own, he owed it all to Jesus Christ.

This is how Paul trained for the race. He shared the gospel with purpose to all from the first day. Paul recognized that a life worth living begins with training with a purpose, using the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit for the purposes of the Holy Spirit, never being ashamed and always with humility, knowing that it is the power of the cross that provides salvation, and nothing Paul or you and I do under our own power.

Using these gifts are sometimes met with failure. Paul did all this even through the failures, “with many tears and trials,” because he knew that the message was worth sharing no matter the cost to himself. All to share the message, publicly and from house to house to all those who would listen, that all should repent and believe in Jesus for there is no other means of salvation. Getting back up after failure builds our endurance. And endurance will be needed to run the race and finish the race with joy.

V. Acts 20:22-24a Running the Race

After Paul tells us about how he trained for the race, he shifts now to today and running the race. Acts 20:22-23,

And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself.

Paul shifts from past to present with “And see, now,” or “And now, behold.” Paul makes up his mind with purpose to accomplish today what the Holy Spirit asks him to do. In Paul’s case, he is called to get to Jerusalem before Pentacost, but also told by the Holy Spirit that the trip won’t be easy. Trials and tribulations await. But rather than just gritting his teeth and bearing what inflictions lay ahead, Paul sets his course with purpose. Instead of running away from difficult times, he gets into the boat and sails into the hurricane.

Because of the endurance he has developed, though, from his past exercise of his faith, Paul sets his sights on Jerusalem. Knowing the persecution that our brothers and sisters endure in other countries, I wonder if we are more faithful under persecution. Knowing they are about to die at the hands of extremists, story after story is told of our brothers and sisters proclaiming the good news. Yet, we, who are so comfortable in front of our television with our iPhone by our side keep our knowledge of the good news to ourselves so as not to make others uncomfortable.

Because of Paul’s endurance from His past devotion, Paul has commitment and energy to run the race today, despite the trials and tribulations that are always in front of every true believer. The devil is furious with Christians and sure to inflict trials. I once heard it said that if you’re not experiencing trials, perhaps the devil is comfortable with your faith.

But Paul does not shy away from confrontation; he says he does not count his life dear to himself. He uses an accounting term when he says he doesn’t count his life dear to himself; it’s as though he’s balancing the books, examining his assets and liabilities, and decided that Jesus Christ outweighs everything Paul has to offer. In Philippians 3:12-14, Paul puts it this way:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

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I heard a story while studying this about a man who decides to dedicate his life and his business to the Lord. Since it all came from God anyway, he was going to dedicate every bit of it back to God. And the next week, one his factories catches fire. As it burns to the ground, the man stands outside, watching it, with his son by his side. And his son asks, “aren’t you upset? Is this your reward? You give everything to God and it all burns up?” And the man answers, “It all belongs to the Lord. If God wants to burn it all up, that’s His choice.”

VI. Acts 20:24b Finishing the Race with Joy

Once we accept the eternal salvation offered by Jesus, we can just sit at the starting line and watch the other runners. We still get to hang a number on a piece of paper around our necks, we can still claim to have entered the marathon.

Jesus calls us to do more. Jesus wants us to enter the race, run the race, and finish the race. He wants us to acknowledge that we have received a precious gift that cost the son of God His very life. To decline this gift is eternal damnation. In Matthew 13:45-46, Jesus describes the goal at the end of the race like this:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Slide18

We have each been offered a pearl of great price, our eternal salvation and life ever after. Are we willing to give up everything to achieve that prize? Or do we hold something back, something we are not willing to risk? What keeps us from celebrating the Good New daily? What keeps us from sharing the Good News daily so others may receive that same gift? Paul tallies up his balance sheet and the score is Jesus: 100, Me: 0. Apart from Jesus, I have nothing. In Acts 20:24, Paul is looking forward to the end of the race. He’s trained for it, he wakes up daily ready to run, and he sees the finish line.
But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

VII. Conclusion

I think a live worth living requires living a life with purpose, not just being a diplomat at the Church of Disgruntled Attendees. Whatever our past has given to us is fuel for the race, it has equipped us in a way that is unique to us. And fully-fueled, to live a life well-lived means greeting each day with purpose to accomplish the unique goal that the Holy Spirit has set before each one of us. And despite the trials ahead and the failures behind, recognizing that we are building endurance for the race ahead. And as we see the finish line approaching, finish it with joy. In 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul says his goal was to run the race well and finish well:

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Slide20

We can sit at the starting line with a number hung around our neck and claim we entered a marathon. We can go to a lukewarm church and be lukewarm diplomats for Christ and hope we do not offend anybody.

Or we can run the race with joy and purpose, we can be ambassadors for Christ with joy and purpose. On that day when we face our creator, we can in all humility look forward to that crown of righteousness. How much joy will be in our hearts when we hear our Savior say,

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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To God be the glory. Amen.

Jews & Gentiles, Legalism & Antinomianism

I.      Introduction

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of teaching from my assignment in Leviticus 26.  In that lesson, we discussed about the Lord’s promises to provide blessings to Israel if they put they followed God’s will, and the Lord’s promises of curses that follow if Israel turned away from the path God had set before them.

And then we discussed how Jesus Christ bore those curses on Himself and fulfilled the Old Testament Law so that we would be free of legalism and free to live a life that honors our savior. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but this week’s assignment is Acts 15 and I’m pretty sure it’s the exact same message from a different point of view.  Leviticus looked at God’s plan for us from the Old Testament point of view, and Acts 15 will make an argument against legalism but this time from a New Testament point of view.

II.      Acts 15 The Jerusalem Council

Let’s put ourselves in history and see who is talking to who and when they’re doing the talking.  It’s the year 50 A.D, and Paul has been preaching the gospel for 13 years.  Acts 15:1 begins with,

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

Slide2.JPGThis event is commonly known as The Jerusalem Council, and it’s an important part of the early church.  See, the early church wasn’t full of Baptists or Catholics.  The early church was full of Jews who had spent their entire faithful lives as pious Jews, observing the law.  The Holy Spirit was getting ready to work in the church leadership to establish the identity of the church.  Was the new church just a new sect of Judaism?  Or was this new church something completely new?  Were the converted Jews to abandon their centuries of following hundreds of daily rules in favor of this newfound freedom in Christ, or were new believers to become Jews and adhere to the Old Testament Laws?

       III.      Jews and Gentiles

So in this struggle between Jews and Gentiles, it’s helpful to understand who Gentiles are and what it means.  Let’s start in Genesis – of course – this time in Genesis 12.  Abram is living in a world filled with pagan worshippers and idolatry, and God separates Abram in order to establish a covenant, to raise a great nation of those who would follow the Lord.  Genesis 12:1-3 says that when Abram was 75 years old, the Lord said to him,

Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
 
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
 
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Slide3Abram was to live apart for the Lord’s purposes.  Remember that God never changes; these promises are forever.  And Abraham’s descendants proclaimed the one true God to the world.  Those that did not descend from Abraham were allowed to stay if they worshipped the Lord or keep traveling through.  Strong’s definitions says the word “gentile” comes from this word: 

gôwy, go’-ee; rarely (shortened) גֹּי gôy; apparently from the same root as H1465 (in the sense of massing); a foreign nation; hence, a Gentile; also (figuratively) a troop of animals, or a flight of locusts:—Gentile, heathen, nation, people.

Slide4.JPGNow, the word refers to any non-Jew that cannot trace his lineage to Abraham.  Or a locust.

God’s plan was to separate Abraham into a great nation to demonstrate the Lord’s power and glory.  But the gentiles aren’t forgotten; it’s just that God directed His plan through Abraham as His chosen people, and gentiles would see the glory of God through the nation of Israel and be blessed.  The verse we just read, Genesis 12:3 ended with this:

And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Not just the Jews would be blessed by Abraham’s obedience, but all the earth.  Sometimes God doesn’t want to leave scripture open to interpretation, so He repeats it with a definition just to make sure we get it.  So this line is repeated in Galatians 3:8,

The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.”

Slide6.JPGGod’s eternal plan has always had a special role for the Jews, a plan in the past and still a plan for the future.  That’s the purpose of Romans chapter 11, to clarify to the Gentiles what God is doing with Israel.  The first 6 verses of Romans 11 says that God is still disciplining Israel; if God had rejected Israel, there is no reason for discipline.  God is still fulfilling His covenant with Abraham.  Then Paul tells us in Romans 11 verses 11-24 that us gentiles shouldn’t become conceited just because the Jews are being discipline; our faith grafts us to the olive tree of Israel.   We gentiles owe the Jews a great deal.  From the Jews, we received the bible, our savior, and the path to our salvation.  In return, Paul tells us that we should show the Jews mercy so that they will receive God’s mercy.

What’s God’s plan for the nation of Israel?  Romans 11:25-26,

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;  and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, 

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
“This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”

Slide8.JPGToday, Israel has still rejected their Messiah, and the purpose of the gentiles is to demonstrate that God’s mercy has come to all on the basis of faith.

          IV.      Old Testament for the Jews

So 13 years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity, Paul is preaching that we are saved by faith alone, not by the Law.  Orthodox Jews who believe in Christ are saying that, even with faith, obedience to the Law is still necessary, so if you want salvation, you have to follow the Law.  These orthodox Jews run into Paul and Barnabas and a big argument breaks out.  Acts 15:1-2 says these Orthodox Jews required Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem so that the church could straighten them out.

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.  Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.

You might think that the church is summoning Paul to give him a stern talking to, but in reality, it’s the Holy Spirit living in Paul that sends him to Jerusalem to straighten the church out.

Paul and Barnabas set out on their way to Jerusalem.  I like this verse 3 above; Paul and Barnabas are not worried about this meeting with the church; on the contrary, they’re happily spreading the good news to the gentiles along the way that they are free from the Law. 

The church had some stern words for Paul when he arrived in verses 4-5,

When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.  But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”

The orthodox Jews, the Pharisees, required the gentiles to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses.  And this became a stumbling block to the gentiles.  In other words, the same Law that the Jews were unable to fulfill for centuries before Christ the savior came was now being imposed on the gentiles.

             V.      New Testament for Everyone

Two of the Apostles stood up to speak.  The first is Peter, who appealed to the Jews on behalf of logic and a vision Peter received.  The vision we briefly touched on last week in Acts 11.  In that vision of a great sheet being lowered from heaven, he is told to get up, kill, and eat, even though Leviticus has strict dietary rules.  When Peter objects because the animals are unclean, God says in Acts 11:9,

But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’

Slide11And at first, Peter understands the Law has been fulfilled through Christ, so the Leviticus dietary restrictions are no longer necessary, but then he realized that Christ sacrifice did a lot more than allowing Peter to eat shrimp and grits.  It cleansed the believer, and what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.  Later in Acts 11:16-18,

And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”  When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

So Peter understand that if Christ truly fulfilled the Law, then the Law doesn’t save us.  The Law only tells us where we fall short, and our shortcomings are already paid for by Christ Jesus.  So what possible reason could the church have for insisting on circumcision for the gentiles?  They are already cleansed by God.  So now Peter tells the church in Acts 15:7-11,

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.  And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;  and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

Why put a heavy yoke of burden on the gentiles, when Christ Jesus tells us that His yoke is easy and his burden is light?  Jesus Himself made this statement in Matthew 11:28-30,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Slide14The yoke of the Pharisees was heavy and burdensome.  The yoke of the Pharisees was legalism and self-righteousness. The yoke of the Pharisees was not intended for the Pharisees, but for the Pharisees to impose upon the people.  And Jesus rejected all of that, saying that a saving faith in Christ Jesus was easy.

The burden of legalism was carried by Christ.  Christ perfectly fulfilled the Old Testament Law in active obedience.  He carries our burden for us and then became the sacrifice for us because He knows our sins are too heavy for us to bear.  As believers in Christ, our burden is light.  Romans 12:1-2 tells us what our burden is,

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

In other words, love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.  And we do not do this alone, for the Holy Spirit indwells all believers and constantly encourages us to be Christ.  This yoke of faith is light, it’s easy to bear, and where we stumble, we are constantly encouraged and forgiven. 

But the heavy yoke of self-righteousness and legalism says Jesus’ sacrifice was insufficient.  A heavy yoke says we must continually strive to make ourselves acceptable to God through works.  Don’t get me wrong; God loves our works.  But our works do not save us or make us acceptable.  It is the sacrifice of Jesus, alone, that makes us acceptable to God.

The other apostle to stand up and speak is James in Acts 15:13-18,

After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me.  Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.  With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
 
‘After these things I will return,
And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen,
And I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will restore it,
So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
And all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’
Says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.’ 

James is pointing out to the Jews that Christ came for all.  God’s plan was to work through His people of Israel, but when God sent His son, the sacrifice of God Himself was too big to be limited to a chosen few.  The sacrifice of Jesus saved all who would come to Him.  Moreover, James is saying that the sacrifice of Jesus for all people is not something Christ changed; it is prophecy that Christ fulfilled.  God knew from the fall of Adam that mankind would need a savior, and that savior would be Christ Himself for all mankind.

I find it interesting that Peter and James both reach the same conclusion from opposite points of view.  Peter says, why go back to the Law and impose the Law on the gentiles?  Close your bible, Christ has fulfilled the Law.  James on the other hand says, “Open your bible.  See how Christ has fulfilled the Law.”

Slide17.JPGYou and I should do the same.  Open our bibles to the Old Testament and understand everything that Christ fulfilled.  The Law convicts us of our sin, but Christ frees us from the burden of the law.  And then close our bibles when the urge to impose a heavy yoke of legalism says we must still work our way to heaven.  Christ already fulfilled the Law, and the yoke of Christ is far lighter than any yoke of obedience.

          VI.      Balance Obedience and Freedom

So, if Christ frees us from the Law, are we free to do anything we want?  Well, yes.  And no.

One argument that could be made is that Christ died for our sins, then I should go on sinning.  The more I sin, the more it’s apparent how big Christ’s sacrifice was, right?

Slide18.JPGThere’s actually a term for this.  Two Greek words, “anti”, meaning “against”, and “nomos”, meaning “law.”  Antinomianism takes the biblical teaching of the freedom of Christ to an unbiblical conclusion that there is no low, not even moral law, that Christians should obey.  Paul talks about this heresy in Romans 6:1-2,

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?  May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?

 There is still a purpose to Old Testament Law.  Romans 7 tells us it convicts us of our sin.  The Law illuminates God’s moral code and how we ought to live our life.  It shows us how far we have fallen.  But obedience to the Law cannot save us. 

But if obedience cannot save us, then disobedience certainly cannot save us.  If we know we are saved from our sins and take the attitude that we now have permission to go on sinning, it’s like crucifying Christ all over again.  Living in sin enslaves us, defiles us, shames us, and it spreads death and corruption in our lives.  It keeps us from the abundant life that Christ promises.  To avoid sin, we follow the Law.

Here’s the balance each of us must learn.  If we love Christ and are saved from our sins, then we obey the Law.  But if we obey the Law, then we must obey the whole Law.  If we obey the whole Law, then what was the purpose of Christ sacrifice to fulfill the Law?

Balance legalism and antinomianism.  Antinomianism leads to living in sin and never knowing the abundant life.  Following the Law, on the other hand, leads to legalism and judgmentalism that so corrupted the Pharisees.  So do we obey the Law, or don’t obey the Law?

And that’s how Acts 15 wraps up in verses 19 and 20.  After listening to Peter and James, James and the church agreed like this:

Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.

There are things we do as Christians that can demonstrate the love of Christ within us, especially when we are obedient to Christ’s teachings.  But there are also things that, even though permitted, can lead people away from Christ.  James asks the gentiles to abstain from things that make us a bad witness. 

This applies to a great many things that we should or shouldn’t do.  We must open our bibles and follow the Law.  We must close our bibles and follow our hearts.  We must do both if we are to strike a balance between legalism and antinomianism.  We are free indeed in Christ, but we are not to so indulge in that freedom that we become a stumbling block to others that are seeking to grow closer to the Lord.

So in your daily walk with Christ, remember your freedom.  Christ came to us, born of a virgin, to become a perfect sacrifice, because the sacrifice of God himself covers both Jew and Gentile, all who seek the Lord.  Balance our lives between being a between legalistic Jew that must follow all of the Old Testament Law and free-loving gentile who is free from the Law because of Christ’s sacrifice for us.  Balance our lives between being a judgmental Pharisee and a wild, uncivilized antimomialist.  Follow the law, and remember that you are also free of the law.

And if you don’t get that balance exactly right?  It doesn’t matter because God knows your heart.  That’s the best Christmas present ever. 

Slide21.JPG

To God be the glory.  Amen.