MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 16, 2011 FROM ACTS 21:1-16
Read: Acts 21:1-16
This week, we return to our study of the New Testament book of Acts. Last time, we examined Paul’s parting message to the elders of the Ephesian church. He met with them in Miletus, about 30 miles south of Ephesus. In the first five verses we heard read earlier, Luke gives us what amounts to a travelogue as he traces the course of Paul’s journey from Miletus to Jerusalem. The ship carrying Paul first stopped at the small island of Cos—a stop-over, as are the next two destinations, Rhodes and Patara. The next ship Paul and his companions board traveled 400 miles across the Mediterranean to Syria where they landed at Tyre—passing the island of Cyprus on their left. They made very good time and that enabled them to stay in Tyre for seven days with the church there. From Tyre, it was on to Ptolemais where they stayed with the brothers one day. Next came Caesarea—their last stop before heading on to Jerusalem. Their arrival in Jerusalem marks the end of Paul’s third missionary journey.
When we read this we might very well wonder why the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to record these seemingly mundane details. Nothing of any significance is recorded at these stops before Caesarea and in certain cases Paul and the others probably never even left the ship. This hardly seems pertinent to Luke’s over-all purpose of recording the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem out to the uttermost parts of the earth. Why does the Holy Spirit want us to know this information? Let’s look at two reasons this morning. One reason this is included is because it reinforces our trust in the accuracy of the Scriptures. Anytime a Biblical author mentions a date, the name of a ruler, an ancient city or in this case--an ancient maritime travel route, those details are historically verifiable from sources outside the Bible. The cities and islands where ancient sailing vessels stopped along the Mediterranean Sea are well documented and they line up precisely with what Luke records. Nelson Glueck (a respected Jewish Reformed scholar and archaeologist), in defense of the historical accuracy of the Bible states, "To date no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a single, properly understood biblical statement." This aspect of the Bible separates it from documents like the Koran or the Book of Mormon, both of which are rife with historical inaccuracies.
A second reason for the account of these stops is it shows the sovereign purposefulness of the spread of the gospel. As we reflect on this third missionary journey we now see why his reaching Jerusalem could not have been prevented because—unbeknownst to Paul or anyone else, it was in Jerusalem that Paul was arrested and placed into the judicial system of the Roman Empire. During his defense against criminal charges leveled by the Jews, he appeared first before the Roman Tribune before being sent to the Roman governor Felix and after two years under his house arrest, he appeared before Caesar—the Roman Emperor where his case was finally thrown out of court. In those appearances before ranking officials in the empire—Paul preached the gospel to them. That fulfilled the words of Jesus at Paul’s conversion where he told Ananias, “…he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel.” Though these men must have felt very much like things were spinning out of control and they were being driven much more by their circumstances than the hand of God, The Lord was providentially working out his plan in the midst of the messy situations that characterized Paul’s ministry.
Some of you are there this morning. Your life seems to be absolutely up for grabs—seemingly driven completely by events--disorder reigns in your home, family, workplace, your personal life. But if you are seeking after God, the messiness in your life is a part of the sovereign working out of his plan for you. He does not work in spite of the dirty, messy situations we confront—he works through the mess to accomplish his will. Though you can perhaps make little sense of your life now—why things have shaken out the way they have in your circumstances, be assured that, just as God was providentially working in the midst of the mess that was Paul’s life, he is just as purposefully working in your life. The fact that you don’t understand how in the world he could be working in the midst of what you are facing is not relevant. He is-- and you can take confidence in that. The old song says, “When you can’t trace his hand, trust his heart.” If you’re his child—his heart is FOR you and part of how he expresses his love for you is by allowing you to go through precisely what you are confronting now—even though you can’t imagine how what is now happening now could be in your best interest.
As Paul gets close to Jerusalem, he stays in Caesarea at the home of Philip the evangelist who we last saw in Caesarea about 20 years earlier in chapter eight. By this time he is married and has four unmarried daughters. Verse nine says, “He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.” Again, why does Luke make a point of mentioning these four women? They play absolutely no role in this account and we never hear of them again in the Bible. Why would the Holy Spirit mention them here? We know it wasn’t simply to round out the narrative. The purpose isn’t literary—it’s driven by truth, not style. Again, although there may be more than one reason, one reason Luke mentions these women here is because: it demonstrates the crucial role of women in spreading the gospel.
This is an important truth for us to remember for a number of reasons. One is that the Bible is a book that, although has some very important female figures, most of the main characters are male. The Bible comes out of a patriarchal society and that’s reflected in its pages. Also, because our church has a more traditional view of the role of women in ministry, it’s easy to forget the crucial role women have had and continue to have in spreading the gospel. Throughout Acts, Luke is faithful to reveal some of the important roles women played in the early church. There were the women who, with the apostles were sequestered away, praying for the promised Holy Spirit in chapter two. There was Dorcas in chapter nine—an exemplary woman whose life was filled with good deeds. The gentile woman named Lydia hosted Paul’s team in chapter 16. Priscilla was the more prominent of the husband and wife team of Aquila and Priscilla in chapter 18 and supported Paul’s ministry in various ways for many years. Now, here in chapter 21 Luke mentions these four unmarried daughters of Philip who prophesied.
It shouldn’t surprise us that women were and are given this spiritual gift of prophetically speaking truth and encouragement into the church. At Pentecost, as Peter was interpreting the supernatural manifestations that appeared, he quotes the prophet Joel saying, “17 “ ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” The Holy Spirit does not restrict the gift of prophecy to men. In First Corinthians chapter 11, Paul assumes women will be praying and prophesying in church and he calls them to show a culturally appropriate sign of submission to their husbands while they minister.
Women had a very important role in the early church. Their prophetic gift was restricted in one way, however. In First Corinthians chapter 14, Paul is speaking about the practice of this prophetic gift in church and says in verse 29, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.” 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. …33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” It’s important for us to understand the nature of New Testament prophecy as differentiated from Old Testament prophecy and this text helps us with that. By the gift of prophecy, I mean—a spontaneous, Spirit-driven message given for the encouragement or building up of the church. It’s not on the same level of authority as the Scripture—not even close. No prophetic word from God will ever contradict the teachings of the Bible. Notice in verse 29, Paul says that after two or three prophets speak, others must “weigh” what is said. The word is “diakrino” and it means “to sift.” To sift something is to separate the undesirable from the desirable. A woman is looking for her car keys and says, “Let me just sift through my purse.” She is separating out all the non-car key items in order to locate her keys.
When a prophecy in the church is uttered, Paul says that others should sift out what is from God and what is not from God—but it’s from the flesh. As we will see demonstrated later, New Testament prophecy differs from Old Testament prophecy in that when an authentic Old Testament prophet spoke from God, it was the Word of God—with the same authority as if God himself were speaking. When Isaiah or Jeremiah or Hosea uttered a prophecy, no one was standing around “sifting” what was from God and what wasn’t. This role of sifting helps explain the remaining and difficult verses in First Corinthians chapter 14. Immediately on the heels of that sifting discussion, Paul says in verse 33, “…As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law says.” One reason this text is so difficult is because in chapter 11, Paul clearly assumes that women will publicly pray and prophesy in church. Yet here, he forbids women to speak in church. How do we reconcile that?
is everything here. Women
are certainly allowed to exercise their spiritual gifts in church—in this case, prophecy. But
remember, it’s in the context of those who weigh or sit in judgment on the prophecies that women are told to remain
silent, but instead are to be “in
submission as the Law says.” The point is that—though women can
prophecy in church, they are not allowed to sit in judgment on the prophecies of others. That
would be more than simply exercising a spiritual gift, but would be considered teaching the men in church because
it calls for the person to make an authoritative determination for the entire church as to what is a word from
And women teaching
or having authority over men in church is forbidden in First Timothy chapter two. “11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I
do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and
Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
It is appropriate for a woman to exercise her spiritual gift of prophecy that is then submitted to male leaders. That is consistent with First Corinthians 11 where women are to prophecy with their heads covered—a first century cultural sign of submission. What is forbidden and where women “must keep silent in churches” in is in the role of weighing or sifting the prophetic gift and thus exercising authority God has not given them. Also, just as last week we saw the high expectation Paul has for teenage and young men, here the emphasis is on young women. The word Paul uses to describe these daughters is “parthenos” which can also be translated “virgins.” This word was most commonly used for young ladies ages 13-16. These young, unmarried prophetesses were probably teenagers and perhaps young teenagers at that. The early church used young teenage women to publicly encourage and speak truth into the church.
Again, teens—don’t miss God’s expectations for you—male or female, implied in the Bible. Young men, as we saw last week you are expected to be models of self-control and maturity. And young ladies—girls your age were speaking publicly in the church gatherings from their prophetic gifts. These were not only believers; they were living and ministering in the church in ways that today we would almost never expect from teenagers. These young women remind us of another teenage young woman who Luke, more than any other gospel writer, reveals to us—the Virgin Mary. Most of the young teenagers I have known in the church have been at best immature believers, much less role models and effective public messengers within the church. Luke reminds teenagers by the example of these young prophetesses that teenagers are not fundamentally in church to have fun or be entertained, but to be an important and functioning part of Christ’s body here.
The most dramatic part of this account begins with verse 10. Luke writes, “10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” 15 After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem.”
Luke anticipates these verses back in verse four when, describing the response of the believers in Tyre he says, “And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” As we see again in verse 12, those closest to Paul beg and plead with him not to go to Jerusalem in response to this prophecy by Agabus. Luke has mentioned Agabus before. Back in chapter 11, it was Agabus who came down from Antioch to Jerusalem and prophesied that a great famine would sweep over all the world—a famine which did in fact later occur. Agabus dramatically acts out this prophecy using Paul’s belt to graphically demonstrate how Paul would be bound by the Jews in Jerusalem. This text also raises some questions. First, how can Paul go on to Jerusalem if believers through the Spirit were telling him NOT to go to Jerusalem as verse four indicates? What does it mean that believers were speaking “through the Spirit?” Why did Paul not listen to the prophecies or the pleading of his close friends? Is this apostolic disobedience?
As we unpack this, let’s first go back to what has been said in previous chapters about Paul and his future in Jerusalem. After the occultists in Ephesus are converted and burn their magic books, Luke records in 19:21, “21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome” When Luke says here that Paul “resolved in the Spirit,” he is saying that the Spirit told Paul to go to Jerusalem and he was in agreement—resolving in the Spirit. A chapter later in Acts 20:22 in Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders, Paul says, “22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there“23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” Paul literally says here that he is bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem.
The net impact of those verses is that the Spirit had already, repeatedly commanded Paul to go to Jerusalem! This was not his independent plan and though he did not know what would happen there, he had a pretty good idea because the Spirit—(almost certainly through the prophetic gift) told him that “imprisonment and afflictions await me in every city.” That means that when Agabus tells Paul he would be bound in Jerusalem and handed over to the Gentiles, it would not have come as a great surprise to him. Also, notice that Agabus does NOT tell Paul to stay away from Jerusalem. He tells him only what will happen to him there. So what are we to make of verse four where we read that the disciples of Tyre told Paul by the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem?
Perhaps you’ve already discerned this from what we said earlier about New Testament prophecy. Here’s what almost certainly happened. The prophets in Tyre rightly hear from God that unpleasant thing will happen to Paul in Jerusalem but they--independent of God—wrongly conflate the prophecy with their interpretation of it. Namely, Paul shouldn’t go to Jerusalem. Luke demonstrates how this can happen when he himself hears that Paul will be bound and handed over in Jerusalem and HE urges him not to go. The point is this—the prophecy of these Tyrian prophets was accurate—up to a point. If these prophesies had been “sifted” or weighed by someone like Agabus, it would have been revealed that these Tyrian prophets were adding their interpretation to the prophecy, wrongly concluding that IT was also from God. Paul has already been told at least twice before he even arrived in Tyre that he must go to Jerusalem and that it was likely there would be persecution. All Agabus and the others were doing was detailing what form that Jerusalem persecution would take--imprisonment.
This text is important because: it tells us that God’s warnings of persecution related to spreading the gospel should not be interpreted as prohibitions. As we saw earlier, God was in complete control here and when the Jews turned him over to the Roman authorities, it opened a door to speak the gospel to Caesar and many others who would not otherwise have been able to hear it. Paul’s response is definitive. He says in verse 13, “13 “…What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Paul was not blessed by these concerns for his welfare—they broke his heart because they reminded him of the grief his imprisonment would cause them. But Paul ends the discussion when he tells them he is prepared for more than a Roman prison—he is “willing to die in Jerusalem for the sake of the Lord Jesus.”
We too can be guilty of taking the Lord’s warnings in the Bible about persecution as prohibitions in relation to our sharing the gospel—not because we don’t understand the difference between a warning and a prohibition, but because the warnings have the practical effect of being prohibitions because they shut us up. We can reason like Luke and the others. If I preach the gospel, I will be persecuted—therefore, I won’t preach the gospel. How do we overcome that paralyzing fear of man? By maintaining the same two Biblical perspectives Paul had. First, we must remind ourselves that persecution should not be alien to us as believers. He tells Timothy in Second Timothy 3:21, “12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” As we read the warnings of Scripture it will help us to remember that persecution is simply our lot as believers. “Yes, I’ll take the discipleship without persecution.” It’s not on the menu! For the believer, there is no option--NOT to be persecuted. The world hates Jesus—we are united with Jesus and are called to live like Jesus—ergo, the world will hate us. And when the world hates you, they will eventually persecute you. If you have not been persecuted by the world, then you do not very closely resemble Jesus or live much like he did.
The other perspective of Paul that can keep us from wrongly transforming the warnings of Scripture into prohibitions is to remind ourselves who we are as disciples. Paul said to those who would keep him from Jerusalem, “I am willing to die in Jerusalem—so these warnings of my imprisonment don’t scare me.” It reminds us of the story of John Paton, missionary to New Hebrides around the time of our Civil War. When he told one Englishman of his plans to go to these Southern Pacific Islands, the man responded, “You’ll be eaten by cannibals.” Paton’s response is classic. He told the man, “Your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” Or, like another missionary who was told by a fellow passenger on a ship headed for Africa, that he would die if we went into the jungle. The missionary responded saying, “I was dead when I got on this ship.” He’d already died to the fear of dying.
A second element of this Biblical perspective is knowing that as followers of Christ we have already commitment to much more than a willingness to suffer persecution for Jesus. If we are genuine disciples of Jesus and understand who we are as disciples, then the warnings of persecution should not paralyze us because like Paul we are charged “not only to be imprisoned, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.” This is nothing more or less than the commitment of any disciple according to Jesus. He says in Luke 14, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” A disciple of Jesus is a person who has already embraced the instrument of their death—their cross--when they became a follower of Christ. That enables us to say with Paul when warned about persecution, “My commitment to Christ includes not only a willingness to be persecuted, but also to die for his name.” When we remember those truths, it places the prospect of persecution in its proper perspective.
How are we doing as disciples? Do
we live and share the gospel as people who see suffering for Jesus as inevitable? Or,
do we live with the unspoken hope that maybe we can be faithful to Jesus and not be persecuted? It’s not possible. Do we regularly think about the fact
that discipleship at its core means a willingness to die for Christ? And are we so saturated with the gospel—so
filled with a trust in God’s unfailing, sacrificial love demonstrated for us at Calvary--that
we would consider dying for him a privilege to be treasured, not a curse to be borne? May
God give us the grace to have a Biblical perspective on who
we are as disciples so that we will not take the Biblical warnings about sharing Jesus as prohibitions—for his
glory and our joy.
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