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          Today, as we begin to think about the present-day element of what God is doing in his global harvest field, I want to speak from a text that powerfully relates to one of the most important dynamics shaping our approach to present-day missions.  That is, as we have heard many times—the current unreached people groups are, almost without exception, the most difficult to penetrate with the gospel.  Remote locations, high language and cultural barriers and religious fundamentalism are only a few reasons why the remaining unreached people groups are the most resistant to the gospel.  That is a great challenge to present day missions and so this morning we want to explore Biblical truth that show us what is required to pray for, send missionaries and perhaps go as missionaries to fields that are very hard.  Or to say it another way, this morning we want to see from the Scripture how God’s grace is manifest among those who he uses to reach peoples that are very hostile to the gospel.  Or, if you are here and are not a missionary or not at present actively involved in missions, you can hear this through this lens—how is God’s grace manifest to me to enable me to do very hard things for Jesus?

          To do that, we go to the book of Acts where we see the apostle Paul preparing to leave for what was arguably his toughest assignment.  He was headed to a place where he knew beyond all doubt that he would confront hostile opposition, certain imprisonment and affliction.  This city was the home of his most committed and politically powerful opposition—a place where 40 men once took a vow not to eat or drink before they had killed him.  This was Jerusalem.  Though Jerusalem was hardly unreached, the picture Luke paints for us in Acts of this man as he, like Jesus before him, journeyed into a hostile Jerusalem, provides us with invaluable truth as to what the grace God looks like in those context where his people follow his will into very hostile places.

          Paul is nearing the end of his third missionary journey and along the way; he has been taking up a collection from the Gentile churches for the saints in Jerusalem.  There were at least two reasons for this.  First, there were poor believers in the Jerusalem church who needed help, but second, and perhaps more significant is—this gift was an important and much needed gesture from the Gentile churches.  There was within Israel at this time a growing tide of nationalism that caused the Jews who lived there to look with suspicion at the Gentile world that made up most of the Roman Empire.  The relationship between the uncircumcised Gentile churches and the Jewish mother church (which had never been very warm) was in this environment, growing increasingly tense.  Paul hoped that this collection from the Gentile churches would be used by God to solidify this strained relationship and prevent a split in the church along ethnic lines.  As a cross cultural missionary, Paul knew the glory of Christ’s church with multiple ethnic expressions and he wanted to do whatever he could to help others see that  church—Jew and Gentile—was one.  Paul believed that for him, the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, to deliver this gift personally would help preserve unity in the church.

          On his way back to Jerusalem, he stops in a number of cities, one of which was Miletus about 30 miles south of Ephesus.  While he was there for a few days, he calls the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet with him and he delivers a powerful farewell address to them.  In the midst of this address, he tells them of his impending journey to Jerusalem.  It’s on these verses here in Acts 20-21 that we want to focus because here God’s grace to Paul is powerfully put on display—the kind of grace we all need if we are to pray and send and especially to go into the shark infested waters that characterize most of  the unreached fields today. 

          Paul says to these Ephesian elders beginning with Acts 20:22, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there,  23except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.  24But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.  25And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again.” 

          From these verses, we see the first manifestation of the grace of God required of those who would venture into hostile territory.  That is—the intimate and overriding influence of the Holy Spirit.   In this chapter, we see Paul live out two expressions of the Spirit’s influence on Paul.  First, in verse 22 where Paul says, “…I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there.”  The word translated “constrained” is a very graphic one.  Most often it is translated in the New Testament as bound or bind—occasionally it is translated as “imprisoned.”  The idea is the Spirit has limited Paul’s options in such a way as there is only one thing to do—go to Jerusalem. 

The Spirit sets very narrow boundaries within which Paul could proceed.  The truth is illustrated in those iron-gated lanes you must stand in as you wait to go on one of the rides at Disney World.  You feel a bit like a cow in a long confinement stall as you are herded to your destination.  The Spirit has given Paul a narrow “tunnel” of sorts through which he must walk—there is no alternate course or destination.  He is hemmed in by the Spirit, constrained to go and minister in Jerusalem.  How the Spirit communicated this constraint to Paul we do not know.  It may have been through a prophet with his own spirit confirming the truth of the prophecy, or it could have been simply from his own strong internal sense of the Spirit’s very strong and focused leading.  God doesn’t tell us how this constraint was placed upon him because the means of grace isn’t what’s important. What’s important is—the grace of God was on Paul in such a way that he was able to very clearly sense this constraining ministry of the Spirit of God—not turning to the left or to the right…Jerusalem!  Whatever the opposition, whatever afflictions lay on the way…Jerusalem!

Why?  Why does the Spirit constrain Paul like this toward Jerusalem?  We have an advantage Paul did not have because we can look back and see why in God’s Providence it was absolutely essential for Paul to go to Jerusalem.  We don’t know how large an impact the offering he had collected made on the relationship between the Jewish and Gentile church, or even the level of relief it brought to the saints in Jerusalem.  Whatever impact the collection had, it’s safe to say that these were ultimately not as important to the kingdom as the reasons for getting Paul to Jerusalem about which he was probably completely oblivious.  Paul says in verse 22, “…not knowing what will happen to me there…” He doesn’t know the persecution that awaits him with any specificity and neither does he know how God will use his ministry there.  He simply knows that he must, at all costs, proceed to Jerusalem.  But we know from the rest of the book of Acts some other reasons why Paul had to go to Jerusalem.  When Saul of Tarsus was converted, Jesus spoke this prophecy to Ananias in 9:15, “…Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  Because Paul went to Jerusalem, he was arrested by the Roman officials.  Because he was arrested, we read in Acts 22 that he was able to preach the gospel to the children of Israel in the very shadow of the temple—he hadn’t done that before. 

We read in Acts 23 that on the next day his imprisonment enabled him to preach the Sanhedrin, the leaders of the Jews.  His arrest in Jerusalem also opened the doors for him to preach the gospel to the Roman governor Felix in chapter 24 and finally to King Agrippa in chapters 25-26 and from his Roman jail cell, he was able to preach the gospel to some Jews in Rome.  Paul’s visit to Jerusalem was not only very dangerous, it was also laden down with God’s had predetermined opportunities for the gospel.  The point for us is this—when God calls us to do hard things, its not simply because he wants to test our obedience, but often because he is going to do things for his Name and his fame that we could never imagine him doing.  If God is calling you to do something that is unspeakably hard, call on him for grace and do it—then, watch over the months and years (and perhaps eternity) to see the fruit he brings through your sacrifice.  God is an expert at bringing life out of death!  The rhythm of the Christian life is established by the Lord Jesus.  First, there is death, then comes new life.  When God calls you to die, don’t obsess over the pain of the death.  Take by faith that in this death to self God will bring life.  By faith, focus on the life God will bring from your death to self.

The Holy Spirit certainly doesn’t always or even consistently relate to us in this constraining way.  Sometimes he opens and closes doors—he did that for Paul as well.  The point for us today is that if we are to move into areas where there is both great danger and great opportunity as we carry out the Great Commission, we must be people who experience this grace of God seen in this constraining ministry of the Spirit.  It may not feel like grace when God has you constrained like this—it may feel like a straightjacket, but one day you’ll see it as grace and thank God for it.

We see a second element of the Spirit’s ministry to Paul in verse 23.  He says, “not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.”  Not only does the Spirit constrain Paul, he also braces Paul for what it to come.  In this verse we see that the Spirit regularly braced Paul for the suffering that would come his way.  This is perhaps why it was said of Paul that when he came to a new town the first inquiry he made of the believers there was to ask about the condition of the local jail because he knew he would end up there.  Not only did the Spirit give Paul this general warning of the imprisonments and afflictions in verse 23, in chapter 21 we read this unusual account of Agabus the prophet who had come from Judea.  Luke tells us this about this encounter with the Holy Spirit.  He says, “And coming to us, he (Agabus) 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.’”

When Luke and all those with Paul heard this, out of their love for Paul, they begged him not to proceed any further.  There is a lot of discussion surrounding this text, but the meaning seems clear.  That is—the Spirit of God clearly spoke through the prophet to tell Paul with specificity what was awaiting him.  This warning was perfectly consistent with what he had heard from the Spirit on a general level on many occasions.  This time however, it was acted out prophetically as the Old Testament prophets sometimes did. However, in this case, Paul’s friends wrongly interpreted the prophecy as a prohibition for Paul to go to Jerusalem.  This was no prohibition by the Spirit.  It was simply to help Paul—given his personality—to prepare and pray for more grace.  Perhaps to some people, this kind of warning would not be a blessing, (blissful ignorance is sometimes a good thing) but it was doubtless a blessing to Paul and Christ was made much of because of this.  Christ was glorified because through this warning and the reaction of his friends we see the grace of God operating in Paul.

How many missionaries who have had family and friends and loved ones begging them not to venture onto various missionary minefields has this text encouraged?  For those who have that experience, it is doubtless gut-wrenching, but it also provides a powerful opportunity for God’s glory.  When this happens to Paul or any missionary, Christ is glorified first, because of the grace he gives missionaries to decide to go into harm’s way for the kingdom.  But in these cases, Christ is doubly glorified because of the additional grace he gives the missionary go over the pleas of those they love most on this earth.  When missionaries go out in those circumstances, they are showing that Christ is worthy not only of their life, but of the heartbreak of their loved ones and the anguish they experience at seeing their heartbreak.  It’s not ultimately about what your family and friends say, it’s about how the Spirit of God is telling you to glorify Jesus.  One reason this text is difficult for some people in North America is because they wonder why the Spirit would possibly forecast Paul’s suffering for him.  That seems cruel to some. 

May I suggest that at least some of the fog laying over this text for many is the lie embedded in our comfort bound culture that says, “If something is hard, especially life-threatening, it must not come from God.  How many times do you hear people in our culture say in the middle of a difficult undertaking, “It’s just not supposed to be this hard…”  That may be true in some cases, but God doesn’t regulate his call on our lives based on how easy or how hard it is.  He is in the business or raising up an army who will testify to his supreme worth by charging head-long into the hardened, fortified strongholds of the enemy—an enemy who, from those fortifications is sniping at them and all who support them.  The testimony of Acts 20 is that in the midst of all of that, the Spirit of God will be there constraining us to move to the proper battle line and mercifully brace us for the suffering that will be ours.

A second manifestation of the grace of God in Paul seen in this text is in 20:24.  Paul says, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”  That was Paul’s response to the general warning of the Holy Spirit that “imprisonment and afflictions await me.”  We see a similar response to the Holy Spirit’s specific warning about what awaited him in Jerusalem and his friends’ pleas for him not to go.  He says in 21:13, “...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.”  Let’s look at the two statements together.  The reason he was willing to be imprisoned and die in Jerusalem, and the reason he was willing to overrule the heartfelt pleas of his beloved friends—which the text implies was far more heartbreaking to Paul—he far cared more about his friends’ feelings than he did his own life—The reason he was willing to do all that was because he did “not account his life of any value nor as precious to himself.”  That is a worthy goal, beloved.  What are we doing to get the grace of God in our life to have that value system?

The reason Paul had little concern for his own comfort or survival is simple.  The reason he had no concern about being bound in Jerusalem is because he was already bound by God.  The reason he had no concern about dying in Jerusalem is because he was already dead.  He was crucified with Christ—he no longer lived.  His life was hidden with Christ in the heavenlies.  His life in this world was of little consequence to him.  He says in Galatians 6:14, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  The second manifestation of the grace of God in Paul is a radically Christ-centered, gospel- driven, eternal perspective on his life and ministry.  This grace is intended for all of us God has called to himself, but it is absolutely essential in order to answer the call to the hardened fields of the unreached.  This grace is standard operating equipment among pioneer missionaries.

One of the better known accounts in this regard is the story of John G. Paton, missionary to the New Hebredes in the second half of the 19th century.  When told of Paton’s plans to go to this hostile place that had already seen two English missionaries killed and eaten by cannibals, “A Mr. Dickson exploded, "The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!" The memory of [these two former missionaries] was only 19 years old. But to this Paton responded: Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and 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 rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” 

          Countless stories like that could be told and they all ring the same tone because the same grace of God seen in Paul has been present with all those who have swum among the sharks in order to get out the gospel to the unreached.  Paul’s dual objective was to “finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus” and to “testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”  There is that Christ-centered, gospel-driven eternal perspective that comes only by the grace of God.  Whether you are a go-er or a sender, cry out for this—don’t let go of God until you get it.  When he points out those idols that keep you from that, surrender them to Jesus—die and trust him to bring life for you and others out of your dying.  He’s worth it and you’ll know joy because of it.


Page last modified on 1/18/2009

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