Fortified for suffering
FORTIFIED FOR SUFFERING (ACTS 21:1-19)
Sources of Suffering (21:1-7)
Sovereignty in Suffering (21:8-14)
Strengthened for Suffering (21:15-19)
FORTIFIED FOR SUFFERING (ACTS 21:1-16)
Read Acts 21:1-16
THE PURPOSE OF THE TEXT IN CONTEXT
Obviously the first question we need to ask of this text is, why is it here? Why did God inspire Luke to include this portion of Paul’s testimony?
What is the main theme of this text? The suffering that awaits Paul in Jerusalem. The text clarifies beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God knows what is about to take place in Jerusalem, Paul knows, and many of the disciples know because the Spirit has revealed it to them.
For the last part of Luke, he is going to trace the arrest, trials and imprisonment of Paul and in fact, his inspired account ends with Paul being in prison in Rome awaiting trial. He devotes 8 chapters to this topic, nearly a 1/3 of his writing is devoted to this issue.
Again, there is something happening in Paul’s life and ministry which parallels the life and ministry of Jesus....Luke tells us in Lk 9:51 that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and then traces this journey in great detail for the next 25 chapters of Luke. In fact all the gospel writers devote nearly half their gospel to the events surrounding Jerusalem, the trials and the execution there.
This was a major stumbling block to the Jews accepting the gospel message – how could the promised messiah be condemned as a criminal and crucified. There were, of course, plenty rumours being spread about Jesus being nothing more than a demon-possessed criminal and the furthest thing from God’s appointed messiah.
So the gospel writers are inspired to record in much greater detail the events surrounding the cross because they were so controversial and so misunderstood and so essential to understanding and defending and confirming the gospel – Jesus had to suffer and die to be a sacrifice for sin according to God’s plan.
In Luke prologue he tells us why he wrote Luke-Acts – to give his Gentile readers confidence concerning the gospel they had heard. There were plenty of rumours flying around concerning Paul not being a true Apostle and not representing Christ and the true gospel – and him being nothing more than a criminal and a trouble maker and an enemy of Rome. This was a major stumbling block to Gentiles accepting the gospel. If Paul was Jesus’ Apostle, how could he suffer and be imprisoned as a criminal?
• So obviously when Luke is inspired to write his gospel and early church history primarily for Gentiles, what is he going to have? Much more detail concerning the sufferings of Paul, his trials and imprisonment. He wants to assure his readers that these sufferings, much like the sufferings of Christ, are righteous sufferings, as part of God’s plan for the salvation of His elect and the glory of His name.
He wants to put the sufferings of Paul in their right gospel context. The gospel, rightly understood, calls us not only to embrace Jesus’ suffering and Paul’s suffering, but our own suffering for the glory of Christ.
Just as Paul fortified himself for suffering, so we should fortify ourselves for suffering, and this text will give us some pointers as to how.
So the Title of this message: Fortified for suffering
1. Sources of Suffering (21:1-4)
2. Sovereignty in Suffering (21:5-14)
3. Strengthened for Suffering (21:15-19)
1: SOURCES OF SUFFERING (21:1-4)
Let’s consider for a moment the sources of Paul’s hardships as we see them in the text.
Luke continues from chapter 20, to map out the places Paul visited. Paul has set his face to Jerusalem and he is heading there at a pace. He’s constantly travelling. He’s a man on the move, a man with a mission.
Travel in those days was dangerous, difficult and costly.
Paul wasn’t traveling for leasure, but for the sake of the mission.
He doesn’t get to stay long at any one place and he is just putting down
roots and then he has to move on.
Wherever he goes he is evangelizing, planting a church or seeking out a
church if one already exists, strengthening the church and then moving
on to take the gospel to the unreached.
With the relentless travel, comes the constant reality of painful
goodbyes. 20:38; 21:5-6 they came out with their families to pray with him and bid him farewell, believers he had only known for a week. 21:8 stayed at Ptolemais one day and then departed; 13 Paul can speak of them wheeping and breaking his heart as they were urging him not to go to Jerusalem.
Chapter 20 ended with Paul reminding the Ephesian elders how he had labored among them with his own hands. Chapter 21 continues with its depiction of Paul’s relentless serving.
3-4 The Ship they were on had to unload its cargo. Paul doesn’t sit back and say – let’s take a long weekend. We’ve been labouring relentlessly, let’s take some time to recover, or tour the town.
Vs 4 they seek out the disciples. The word indicates that they didn’t know them, or where they met, but had to go to considerable effort to find them so that he might encourage them.
Wherever he goes, whatever he’s doing, he’s seeking to serve God’s people and going to great effort and making great sacrifices to serve them.
Then, of course, we have the constant threat of persecution. Luke has been tracing Paul’s persecutions since the beginning. In almost every place it seems beating and persecution awaited Paul. Here, as he makes his way to Jerusalem, it is obvious that persecution awaits him, and he is constantly warned of it. VS 13 Paul can say – I’ve embraced this suffering wholeheartedly – I’m willing to suffer, to be imprisoned and if need be, to die for the sake of this gospel mission, for the glory of Christ.
He was a man surrendered to the reality of suffering....
Luke often accompanied Paul on these journey’s as you can see by the “we” pronouns in the text. He was well acquainted with what caused Paul grief. Paul explains it to the Corinthians in
2 COR 11:23-29
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman— with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
There you have those same elements described – frequent journeys, shipwrecks, dangers from robbers, dangers from sea. Labours, hardships, toiling and constant physical persecution, beaten with rods, whipped, imprisoned.
The sufferings of the Christian life are not singular....these 3, are a constant theme in the life of every believer
The suffering of exile, the suffering of service, the suffering of persecution from the world – these 3 are our constant companion as well.
One of the realities of the Christian life is that this world is not our home. As Peter puts it, we are “strangers and sojourners” (1 Pet 2:11), elect exiles (1 Pet 1:1). We long for heaven, we long for home, we long to settle down and establish ourselves in peace and security – but this world is not our home.
We long to be able to enjoy each other and the good things God has provided, to rest, to relax, to savour a little. But there is so much work to be done....the duty of service to others is relentless.
We live constantly behind enemy lines where people resist us and our ideas, they don’t understand us, often scoff at us or try to entice us away from our faith to serve their gods. We can never relax, sin is always lurking, the devil is always prowling. We are always swimming upstream.
This is the testimony of Jesus, of Peter, of Paul, indeed of every faithful follower of Christ. It was not without reason that Jesus framed the call to discipleship like this, “If anyone would come after me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me...for whosoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will find true life.”
We like Paul, need to be fortified for suffering, ready to suffer and if need be to die for the cause of Christ. Ready each day to put off our longing for heaven and serve God here and now.
2: SOVEREIGNTY IN SUFFERING (21:5-14)
Suffering is planned and purposed by God
We don’t always understand why
It’s better to ask how I can glorify God in my suffering than why I am suffering
SUFFERING IS PLANNED AND PURPOSED BY GOD
The major truth, the major doctrine that should fortify or strengthen us for suffering is this – God is sovereign over, and in and through all our suffering.
We don’t suffer for no reason – but according to the plan and purpose of God.
Hundreds of years before Jesus was even born, God planned that the purpose of his life would necessarily involve suffering. In passage like Is 53 we are told that the messiah would be bruised for our iniquity, crushed for our sins. He would be despised and rejected, as one from whom men hide their faces, he would be beaten beyond recognition.
So when Jesus came to earth – He knew He was coming to suffer and die. He came on a mission to suffer in order to become sacrifice for our sins.
When He called Paul back in Acts 9, He told Annanias – “He is a chosen instrument of mine to bear by name before Gentile and Kings and I will show him how much he must suffer for my sake.” So Paul understood from the very beginning that his mission involved suffering for the sake of Christ.
Acts 20:22-23 – The Spirit is leading and directing Paul to go to Jerusalem and he is not sure what awaits except this one element – suffering.
Though God doesn’t always provide a detailed explanation of what is happening and why – He always provides enough light for us to walk in the path that He has laid out for us.
WE DON’T ALWAYS UNDERSTAND WHY
In 20:23 Paul explains how in every city, the Holy Spirit warns him that suffering awaits him and then in chapter 21 we get a more detailed account of what that looked like.
In 21:4 at Tyre they warn him. In Caesarea Agabus warns him
The focus of these warnings was to tell him that suffering awaited.
Agabus follows the O.T pattern where sometimes the prophets would
enact their prophesies.
The message is clear, but the disciples misunderstand the purpose. They think God is warning Paul that suffering awaits him in Jerusalem so that Paul can avoid it. Aren’t we all like that? We assume that suffering and difficulty is not God’s plan.
This is so hard, this can’t be God’s will.
This isn’t working out as I planned, this can’t be God’s will
This involves a lot of pain and suffering, this can’t be God’s will.
We tend to define God’s will by what will make life easy and me
happy in the short-term....
Paul understands that God is telling him beforehand so that he can prepare for it, not that he can avoid it.
Notice the resolution they come to in vs 14. Let the will of the Lord be done. If this is God’s will – let it be.
This was the same resolution Jesus reached in the garden of Gethsemane – not my will but thine be done.
If you have planned for me to serve you through suffering – then bring on the suffering.
PROPHESY ASSURES US – SO WE CAN EMBRACE IT
Prophesy performs the same function in this text as it does in the rest of the Scripture. It assures us that God knows and God is in control.
The crucifixion didn’t take Jesus or God by surprise. His life and ministry didn’t come to an untimely end because of the cunning of the Jews and the cruelty of the Gentiles.
As Acts 4:27 put it, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
They were merely carrying out God’s plans. While they were planning evil, God had purposed that good would come of it.
Likewise, in a few days when Paul would be arrested by the Jews and then ultimately handed over the Gentiles and unjustly accused – his ministry was not being brought to an untimely end – but was following the path that God had planned for him.
The book of Revelation is a whole book of future prophesy. Telling us how God’s final judgment will come upon the world, in great detail. So that when it happens – believers will know that even those terrible catastrophise are taking place according to the plan and purpose of God.
This is the major way we fortify ourselves for suffering – by recognising that God is sovereign in and through and over all our suffering. No suffering comes our way by chance. Behind the evil schemes of man, lies the sovereign purposes of an all knowing, all good God.
If we should suffer, it is according to God’s will. The nature, timing, extent and purpose of our suffering has been determined by God.
The only question is, will we willingly glorify God with and in and through our suffering or not?
Though it has nothing to do with the major point of the text, I should point out that there has been a great deal of debate about this text in recent years because theologians like Wayne Grudem and DA Carson have used it to argue for fallible New Testament prophesy.
God’s Word spoken through the prophets is authoritative, you must obey it. God will hold us accountable for how we respond to His Word. We know a true prophet in that they called God’s people to obedience to His Word
We know a true prophet of God, from a false prophet of God by the fact that God’s prophets accurately foretell the future. If they ever get a prophecy wrong – then they are not from God.
With the revival of the charismatic movement in modern times, prophesy again became prominent in the church, but the problem is that much of it didn’t call people to obedience, didn’t speak about future suffering but future blessing, and much of it didn’t come to pass much of the time.
So how could the church continue to listen to these prophets, though the quality and accuracy of their prophesy didn’t match the O.T standards?
Well respected scholars like Wayne Grudem, D A Carson, John Piper came up with a solution – N.T prophetic gift is not the same as the Old
Testament office of prophet. N.T prophets are fallible. They speak in
God’s name, but they sometimes get their prophecies wrong.
That would give N.T believers are reason to ignore certain aspects of a
prophets message, ignore some of the errors in a prophecies predictions and listen to whatever parts aligned with their own convictions.
But where would they find Biblical support for such a view given how different it is to the Old Testament teaching?
This text was and is used to support this view.
Here Paul rejects the prophesies and chooses to go to Jerusalem anyway. That hardly seems like Paul submitting to an authoritative message from God.
They argue that the prophesies were inaccurate – technically it was the Gentiles who bound Paul, not the Jews later in the chapter. Agabus got it wrong, or Paul got it wrong. Someone got it wrong because Paul is urge by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and yet we find these prophets urging him through the Spirit not to go.
But those arguments are missing the wood for the trees, they are ignoring the whole purpose of this passage in context. Luke writes to show us that Paul’s suffering, and trumped up trials and imprisonment, no less than Jesus’ own suffering, was planned and purposed by God. God knew and Jesus knew and Paul knew what awaited and they embraced it wholeheartedly because it was indeed God’s will.
The disciples urging Paul not to go to Jerusalem here, parallel the disciples urging Jesus not to go to Jerusalem when they learned from him that the suffering of the cross awaited him there.
It’s not that the prophecies are untrue – they are completely true. It’s not that they are not authoritative – but God was revealing to Paul what awaited him, not so that he could avoid the suffering, but to fortify him to face them in a way that would glorify God. Paul was not rejecting the truthfulness of the prophecies, but the disciples interpretation of their significance. He was disagreeing about what they meant in terms of how he should respond.
The disciples finally get it at the end, in vs 14 – May God’s will be done.
To make this passage support non-authoritative, fallible New Testament prophecy defeats the whole purpose of this passage in context. It tries to make Luke say the opposite of what he in fact intended to say – God knows everything that is about to take place, even this unexpected turn of events, this catastrophe which seems to strike Paul at the peak of his ministry – is according to God’s plan and purpose for the redemption of a people for the glory of His name.....
We don’t always know why, we just have to understand how to glorify God in our suffering.
3.STRENGTHENED FOR SUFFERING (21:15-17)
Finally, let’s consider how Paul is strengthened or prepared to glorify God with his suffering.
We’ve already looked at how God tells him what lies ahead. The knowledge of God’s sovereignty over suffering, comforts and strengthens him.
The other thing we keep seeing coming up in this text, is the fellowship of the saints. It started with Paul weeping with the Ephesian elders and it ends with the saints and elders at Jerusalem welcoming him. And at every point along the way we see Paul enjoying the fellowship of the saints, their concern for him and encouragement. Because God knows the reality of suffering in this world, He has provided the church for the encouragement of the saints. Because this world is not our home and we may even be rejected by family and friends, God has provided a spiritual family and friends in Christ. The relationships we form in the church should give us the strength to keep going, when we feel like giving up. Those of you who have opened your lives to fellow believers know this to be true....
The knowledge of God’s sovereignty, the fellowship of the saints, the prayers of the saints. That’s another thing that keeps coming up. They don’t just fellowship, they pray together and presumably even after Paul is gone, they continue to pray for him, even as he prays for them. 20:36; 21:5. Paul opens all his letters to the churches by reminding them of how unceasingly he prayers for them and he closes many of them by asking for prayer. This is what the church does – we ask for God’s strengthening grace on behalf of
one another – and God delights to answer those kind of selfless, compassionate prayers.
The final things we see here, which Paul draws upon to fortify himself for the suffering to come – is the worth of the one for whom he is suffering 21:13 – he is willing to suffer and indeed die – because this is for the Lord Jesus. This is for the one who suffered and died for him. He is worthy of the offering up of our lives. He is worthy of any sacrifice we could make.
Suffering in this world is not some random thing that overtakes us and is to be avoided at all costs – it lies at the heart of the gospel and the call to follow Christ. We suffer in order to give substance to our gospel message – that Jesus and Jess alone is King and He is worthy.
In the word of Paul himself in Phil 3 “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, what is more I have suffered the loss of all things in order that I may gain Christ.”
Or the worlds of Ignatius of Antioch “May nothing entice me till I happily make my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire and cross and grapplings with wild beasts, cuttings and manglings and wrenching of bones, hacking of limbs, crushing of my whole body, come cruel tortures of the devil to assail me. Only be it mine to attain unto Jesus Christ.”