God works all things for gospel good
GOD WORKS ALL THINGS FOR GOSPEL GOOD (ACTS 28)
Paul on the Island (1-10)
Paul at sea (11-16)
Paul in Rome (17-28)
Paul in Prison (30-31)
This morning we will cover the last chapter of Acts, Acts 28. For the last 7 chapters Luke has been tracing for us the 4th missionary journey, a journey which Paul had conceived of in the Spirit with gospel goals and intentions. A journey which would take him from Jerusalem to the center of the Roman empire so that he could reach out from there further to the West. But what becomes clear is that the itinerary for this missionary journey had been established by Jesus and it included a number of nights free in 1star accommodation with a hotel group called Prison… with single bed, 40 bed, and no bed rooms. Paul had rung up quite a few voyager miles over the last 3 missionary journeys, but all he could secure were economy class tickets along with other prisoners on the Titanic….and thrown in to this amazing package deal for missionaries only, was a 3 month beach holiday on a tropical island called Malta. That’s where we pick up the narrative in Acts 28, Paul’s Maldives vacation blog. Acts 28.
Paul has just been shipwrecked on the island of Malta on route from Jerusalem to Rome. The narrative of chapter 28 has four clear sections with 4 distinct settings or scenes. Paul on the island (1-10), Paul at sea (11-16), Paul at Rome (17-27) and Paul in prison (28-31). So well look at it under those.
Paul On the island (1-10)
So they make it through this terrible storm and find themselves shipwrecked on an unkown island which they later learn is Malta.
Now let’s just look at a map for a moment so we can get a visual picture of what has happened.
· The red line traces what I like to call, Paul’s 4th missionary journey.
· If we go back to the Acts 27:4-8. So the text has given us explicit details of the journey along with explanations why they sailed near the islands, to get some cover from the winds, and where they stopped.
· They are wanting to get to Rome, but the journey has taken too long, so they eventually decide against Paul’s advice, to try make it up to Phoenix and spend the winter there. Phoenix is just about 150km up the coast, but no sooner have they left when the wind seizes the boat as we saw in the text last week and carries it along irresistibly until eventually they run aground on Malta nearly 1000 km’s away.
· But if you look at the picture here, you see that God still took them in almost exactly the right direction, he just needed them to spend the winter on the island of Malta rather than the island of Crete.
Even when we’ve lost control of things, and even though we think God may have lost control of things - God hasn’t. God is working all things for gospel good.
The barbarians (2)
Luke tells us in vs 2 that the “native people” showed us unusual kindness. The Greek word there is “barbaroi” which might be translated barbarians and conjure up images of savage tribal people living on an uncivilized island. But the Greek word is used of people who spoke their own native language instead of Greek. The Romans had done much to spread Greek language and culture across their empire in order to facilitate trade and communication, but there were still pockets of people who stuck to their own culture and language. This might explain why there is nothing in the narrative about Paul preaching or teaching or evangelizing and no mention of a church being established. Communication may have been a real barrier to meaningful ministry of the word.
The locals make a big bonfire to help warm the soaked and exhausted passengers and while Paul lends a hand he gets bitten by a poisonous viper. Here we see that the locals are very superstitious. If evil has befallen this man, then he is obviously an evil man.
Application – Superstition. This same kind of superstition is still very evident all over Africa. When bad things happen, or someone gets sick or something goes wrong – then it must be some evil spirit, or angry ancestor, or bitter relative which has put a curse on me. The newspapers are full of adverts to consult some medicine man of one kind or another who can break these curses and deliver one from these evil forces. The worldview is one in which there are many gods and many spirits and many unseen forces determining the course of our lives and the goal of religion is to manipulate these forces for one’s own benefit.
Paul has received a direct word from Jesus that he will appear before Caesar in Rome and as he already told the sailors and soldiers – he believed that it would happen exactly as God has said. One way or another God’s will would prevail over every evil force be it natural or spiritual. So the Christian worldview is that God is sovereign over every other force or person or plan in this world and He is working all things for gospel good. As it turns out, God uses this bad event to improve Paul’s reputation on the island and give him gospel opportunities.
The word “justice” in vs 4 has been capitalized because this was the Greek name for the goddess of justice and revenge. The idea here is that although Paul had escaped the storm, he deserved to be punished and so justice found him out, the goddess of justice made sure he got what was coming to him.
Again this view of justice is still very prevalent in our world today. That somehow justice will prevail so I must just make sure that I’m on the right side of the scale, that my good works outweigh my bad, that I make up for the wrongs I’ve done. It’s a view that I’m justified or punished because of my works.
But Christians believe God’s justice has been satisfied through the death and resurrection of Christ. As it turns out, Paul was a murderer and he did deserve to die and be punished. But because of the gospel, Christians don’t live in fear of God’s justice and revenge. The God of all justice has declared us justified in Christ. Christ took on the punishment that we deserve.
The gospel gives us a whole new way of interpreting the world and what happens to us.
When Paul doesn’t get sick or die as they supposed, then obviously he must be a god himself to have such power over evil. Again the world is full of idolatry, of people making gods of other people, or places or things. The idea behind idolatry is that this god controls something that we can’t control, this god can give me something that I can’t get myself. So I must manipulate or appease or flatter or control this god in order to get the benefits that this god brings. That’s what idolatry is all about
We certainly see something of that dynamic developing in our narrative. Vs 7 tells us that they were well received and entertained by the chief man or the chief magistrate of the island. After Paul heals his father, the whole island is coming to Paul for healing.
To be clear – to honour the medicine man, or even the man of god and to believe he has power to heal and to flock to his services in order to receive our healing – is not the same as coming to Jesus with saving faith, to be forgiven of our sins… So many churches in Africa are full of so called Christians who are more like these unconverted islanders. They are controlled by superstition and fear, they believe that they will be justified or condemned by their works and they flock to the man of God simply to be healed and anointed and blessed. And like these islanders in vs10 they will lavish gifts on these men and show them great favour. And yet…
Nowhere are we told in this text that anyone was converted or any church established – because this is not the kind of faith that saves.
African churches are filled with this kind of paganism.
2: Paul at sea (11-16)
Read vs 11-16
In this paragraph Paul makes his way up to Rome and finally arrives. What stands out in this text is vs 14-15. The wonderful warm reception Paul receives. He doesn’t know these people from a bar of soap, many of them are from a vastly different culture and race to his own. Yet the gospel has gone ahead of Paul to this place and already made them brothers. We are told in vs 14 and 15 that Paul was warmly received as family. Many travelled as much as 50 km’s to come up to Rome to see him personally and we are told what effect this had on Paul in vs 15 “he thanked God and took courage.”
What an encouragement it is to see the fruit of the gospel in the lives of the saints. To see how this gospel message is at work even without us, converting people from every tribe and language and place and making us into one body in Christ. To meet fellow believers from far off places for the first time and sense the bond, the unity, the common faith and genuine love.
Illustration: Bible translation
We few years back we hosted a bible translation conference at our church and many families hosted many of the delegates from various parts of the world and that was the universal feedback we received – what a blessing to have these brothers in our homes and to experience that unity we have in Christ, to see how the gospel has the same impact wherever it goes and unites us into the same family.
There is a much bigger picture to what God is doing, a global picture in which the gospel is speeding along and even outstripping the best efforts of the churches first and greatest cross cultural missionary. Paul can just marvel and take courage in the work the gospel has been doing before he has even arrived on the scene.
3: Paul in Rome (17-28)
It is interesting that the first thing Paul does in Rome is to seek out the Jewish contingent. He has nothing against the Jews and wants to make it clear that the Jews at Jerusalem have no valid charge against Him. Here again in vs 17 and 21 we encounter this word “brothers” but now it’s being used in the sense of physical heritage, race and ethnicity. As Paul explains in his letter to the Romans, he has great concerns for his own countrymen that they too might receive the gospel and be saved so wherever he goes, he seeks out the Jews and tries to convince them of the gospel.
According to vs 20 its really the gospel that is the cause of his afflictions and imprisonment. But for Paul this gospel is actually the hope of Israel. Jesus is the messiah of the Jews who came to save God’s covenant people. He’s desperate that they understand that the gospel is not something foreign for foreigners but, as he explains in Romans 1:16 “The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, for the Jew first, but also for the Gentiles.” The gospel is first and foremost for the Jews.
But as the text goes on to show us – the Jews won’t believe it and receive it.
The gospel according to the Scriptures
Vs 23 tells us that from morning until evening he reasoned from the scriptures with them, trying to convince them from the law and the prophets, from the whole O.T that Jesus was in fact the hoped for messiah. Some he managed to persuade but others not….
So Paul closes with a warning from Is 6:9-10 which sums up the Jewish response to the gospel and its implications. Because the Jews would not receive the message it is being taken to the Gentiles.
We have encountered this exact pattern 3 times before in Acts. At Psidian Antioch in Acts 13, at Corinth in Act 18 and Ephesus in Acts 19. In all the major cities of the ancient world Christ had been proclaimed first and foremost to the Jews but he had been largely rejected. Now in the capital city of the world Luke again gives us written testimony against them and we can’t help but think that the door is closing on Israel even as its opening for the rest of the world….The text of Acts hints at what Paul makes more explicit in his letter to the Romans in chapter 9-11. The Jewish rejection of the gospel opens up a window of opportunity for the gospel to go to the Gentiles because God is always working everything for gospel good.
The text draws a contrast between hearing and understanding, seeing and perceiving. People need to hear the message of the gospel, but that is not enough, they also need to hear with understanding, to welcome the message with receptive hearts, to believe in it wholeheartedly. Vs 24 has been variously translated – they disbelieved, would not believe, or refused to believe because the verb is in the imperfect tense indicating a settled deliberate response. They hardened their hearts against the gospel which seems to be why Paul closes with this warning from Is 6 and what the implication is of vs 27 – that there is a hardening that sets in over time so that ignorance becomes apathy, apathy becomes rejection and rejection ultimately becomes a deliberate thrusting away of the gospel.
That is the warning which is applicable to us all. If we don’t heed God’s word today, now, we are less likely to heed it tomorrow….
Vs 28 God is now sending the gospel to the those who will listen. The Jews a a people have hardened their hearts and God turns his attention elsewhere, to other people groups.
Which leads us to the closing scene of the book of Acts…
Paul in Prison (30-31)
The book of Acts ends with Paul in prison but the gospel unleashed on the world. As Paul could explain in Phil 1 – his imprisonment has only served to advance the gospel – because that is what God is doing all the time – working all things together for gospel good.
That is what this book has been about all along….It’s never been about Peter or Paul or the Apostles – they are merely servants of the gospel. The bigger story is about what God is doing through the gospel.
The narrative a picture of the meta-narrative
So this journey from Jerusalem to Rome is a micro-narrative of the meta-narrative. Its details a journey which stretches across 7 chapters of Acts, nearly a quarter of the book. That is one of the ways a narrative highlights something important – is by slowing down the pace of the narrative and giving more details around particular events. So the gospel writers all do this, they devote nearly half of their gospel to the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ because the cross is the central event which helps us understand what the gospel is all about. So this journey to Rome helps us understand what the book of Acts is all about. It’s a small story which gives us insight into the bigger story – the journey of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the world.
Rome represents the center of the ancient world, the hub of first century civilization and culture. From here the gospel literally has highways going out in every direction along which it can spread to every corner of the Roman empire.
This is how the book of Acts started remember….Just before Jesus ascended into heaven he gave them instructions to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit had been given to them. Then he said, “You will be clothed with power form on high, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world.”
The power of God will carry the messenger of God to every tribe and language and place in order to accomplish the mission of God for the glory of God among the nations.
Or put another way, God is working all things together for gospel good. All things in your life make sense in the light of what God is doing in you and through you to take the gospel to all people and all places.
In Acts 19:21 Paul first conceived of this plan to make his way to Jerusalem and then on to Rome. He explains in Romans 15 that he wants to use Rome as a launching pad to reach out with the gospel to the western portions of the empire since the whole eastern portion had already been evangelized. But along the way he is met with opposition and persecution and beatings and imprisonments and false accusations and assassination plots and shipwrecks and sleepless nights and shipwrecks and hunger and thirst and snake bites. 7 chapters and 5 years later!...after all of this – he finally arrives at his destination but must remain in prison for another 2 years.
This has been part of the meta-narrative in Acts – the gospel is going out from Jerusalem despite opposition, and persecution and divisions in the church and assassination plots and dangers and difficulties…It is going out by the power of God according to the plans of God who works all things together for gospel good.
Those who are called to carry the torch of the gospel are called to take up their cross and carry it with perseverance and courage. To be a servant of the gospel is to be empowered to persevere through great suffering and overcome insurmountable obstacles so that the power of the gospel we preach is visibly manifest in us.
2 Cor 6:1-10
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says,
“In a favorable time I listened to you,
and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
So there has been this golden thread running through this narrative from the night when Paul was alone in prison and discouraged and Jesus stood by him and said, “Take courage” I have a gospel mission and it will be accomplished. So again when all hope had been lost in the ship the angel appeared and said “Take courage, Christ has a gospel plan” and when Paul saw the believers flocking out to greet him as he arrived in Rome he could see how God’s gospel plan was bearing fruit and he took courage. So this moring I want to say to you – take courage, press on – God is working all things together for gospel good and you will know His power, His provision and His protection so you can bear witness to Him through every storm. Take courage. God is working all things together for gospel good.