I read in the papers last week some criticism of the BBC's coverage of the jubilee celebrations the argument being that they weren't sure whether to treat it as a celebration or as an historic event. One might argue that it was remarkable for being both; recognition of the Queen's unusually long reign and life of service and a chance for the nation to gather together and celebrate.
Now as we continue tonight in our series in Acts there isn't exactly a jubilee atmosphere. Paul is heading to Jerusalem knowing that he will face hardship and possibly death there. However these verses in chapter 21, 17-26 do provide an opportunity to both remember and to celebrate. We'll remember Paul's remarkable ministry and we'll celebrate the gospel of grace which has both enabled and inspired it. Two points tonight, the first being...
1. The elders praise God for Paul's remarkable ministry, v17-20a
Missionary journeys over, Paul will essentially spend rest of life either on trial or in prison. As Paul arrives inJerusalemchance to look back over his ministry.
V17 P greeted warmly by 'the brothers' probably Mnason etc
V18 More formal meeting with James and (70?) elders:
V19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail(one-by-one) what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
v20 When they heard this, they praised God.
First Paul reports in detail (he has Luke the footnoter with him to help) about what has happened over the last 10-12 years..
Since AD 46, Acts 13
- Thousands have gathered to hear the Gospel,in Antioch:'almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.'
- The Gospel reaches across Asia Minor and into Europe viaPhilippi.
- Churches are planted across the region and leaders trained and appointed.
- Prominent leaders like the procounsel of Paphos and the synagogue leader inCorinthbelieve.
- Paul escapes plots to kill him and from prison via a miraculous earthquake.
- The sick are healed and demons are cast out. In Troas Eutychus is raised from the dead.
By the time we reach chapter 19 it is recorded that; all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord
Paul's ministry has been remarkable except for one thing; it isn't Paul's ministry at all. Look how Paul describes the past 10 years or so in v19; he reported in detail what God had done through his ministry. Paul was a remarkable man but only a remarkable man. What had happened over the previous decade was the work of a remarkable and incredible God.
The elders understand this and so in v20 Paul's recounting of God's work amongst the Gentiles through him causes them to praise God. The elders recognise that Paul's ministry has been divinely orchestrated and blessed. In Acts 13 Barnabas and Paul were set apart by the Holy Spirit for the work to which God had called them. Who could've imagined what was to come!
Remembering is good
Remembering is a biblical principle; Israelites often commanded to remember what God had done for them. Here Paul recounts all that God had done through him but it's not the first time ref 14.27, 15.12 most recently 20.24. How do you remember?
- Write out your testimony.
- Keep a diary/journal; look back over your calendar/facebook timeline. Write a newsletter.
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Bringing glory to God is the goal
Neither Paul nor the elders are fooled into believing that Paul is responsible for the success of his ministry. They recognise that God has worked through Paul and so they rightly praise God for what has happened. They understand that as John Piper has written; 'Missions exist because worship doesn't' in other words Paul's missionary journeys weren't ends in themselves they existed in order that more people would hear the gospel of God's grace and so would repent, be forgiven and worship him.
Can we echo that goal for our own lives, as the mission for HTG? Or are we in danger of losing perspective, in getting caught up with our own abilities, concerns and ambitions that we forget that even the most remarkable personal ministry or church is only ever a door for people to glimpse God's glory through?
The elders and Paul remembers a remarkable ministry but they glory in a remarkable God.
2. Paul is flexible for and because of the Gospel, v20b-26
The rest of the passage is concerned with how Paul and the church inJerusalemwill deal with the rumours that Paul is leading Jewish Christians away from the teachings of Moses. In dealing with this situation we'll see how Paul is willing, for the sake of his fellow Jews, to be pragmatic and flexible so that the there will be minimal distraction from the Gospel.
The situation is laid out in v20-22:
v20 A very large number of Jews have believed in Jesus! But they remain zealous for the law meaning that they were attempting to stay true to the teachings of Moses despite the increasing influence of Greek and Roman culture on Judaism.
V21 Rumour has it that Paul is telling Jews who trust in Jesus to 'turn away' from Moses, literally to 'defect from' or become 'apostate to' the Law of Moses by telling them not to circumcise their children or follow Jewish customs.
V22 The growing number of Jewish believers will certainly hear about Paul's visit and so tensions are raised. What should the leaders of the church do?
The first thing to make clear is that the rumours are untrue. Certainly Paul is clear that the Law of Moses is not able to save; only Christ can. However, Paul doesn't reject the law nor does he demand that Jewish believers give up Jewish customs or practices. In chapter 26.22 Paul will defend himself before Agrippa saying:
22 But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen
Paul certainly isn't abandoning Moses, indeed Paul himself has whilst declaring himself free from the law already circumcised his protégé; Timothy ref 16.3 and has himself had his hair cut off because of a religious vow he had taken ref 18.18.
The elders know Paul is innocent of these accusations. In v24 they make clear that their suggestion that Paul pay for the ritual purification of four men and so publicly associate himself with the Law is only made in order that; 'everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you'.
Paul is not compromising on his soteriology. His doctrine isn't changing here. This is made clear by the re-assertion in v25 of the previous teaching given to the Gentiles that they were not bound by the Jewish Law but that they should respect the basic food laws for the sake of good relationship with their fellow Jewish believers.
The accusations are false and Paul has the support of the local church why then in v26 does he simply accept their suggestion to pay for these men's purification and to be purified himself? Why didn't Paul defend himself here as he will do later before Agrippa and Felix? I think there are two reasons:
Paul loves his fellow Jews
Paul's guiding motivation is what will allow as many people as possible to 'hear' the gospel of grace. He will not compromise on grace but he will compromise on custom for the sake of others. Paul knows that the law is powerless to save but he is happy to allow others to follow its customs and requirements as matters of conscience and will himself as we read this morning from 1 Corinthians 9.20 become like one under the law so as to win as many as possible.
Paul is being pragmatic but not merely pragmatic, he loves the Israelites and so he is desperate for them to know Jesus as he writes in his letter from prison to the Christians inRome, in chapter 10.1:
Brothers and sisters, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.
Paul wants his fellow Jews to know God's grace to them in Jesus. It has been his pattern to visit the synagogues in each city he has journeyed to and preach Jesus to the Jews first. So now when asked to put himself back under the law as it were for the sake of his brothers - he will gladly do it for their sakes. Paul puts love for others before his own personal freedom.
Paul has been transformed by the Gospel
The accusation that Paul was leading Jewish Christians to 'defect' from the Law of Moses must have hurt Paul. After all he was a Hebrew of Hebrews a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of Judaism, he had persecuted Christians for the sake of fidelity to the Law of Moses and now he was indicted as one who would destroy the law.
How can Paul not scream in defence? How can he think about what will benefit his Jewish brothers and the spread of the Gospel when he has been attacked so unfairly? The answer is that Paul was flexible not just for the sake of the Gospel but because of the way the Gospel had transformed him.
Back in chapter 20.24 told us that Paul considered his life worth nothing except in completing the task Jesus had given him; to testify to God's grace. That wasn't just rhetoric an inspiring phrase for the Ephesian Christians to hold on to, it was an accurate description of Paul's heart. Paul had met Jesus, he had recognised him as his redeemer and as his Lord. He had understood the beauty of God's grace to him, one who had persecuted God's church. Paul had grasped hold of the task that he had been given to proclaim God's grace to Jew and Gentile.
The thing that strikes me about Paul being willing to purify himself and these four other men is not just that he did it but that he did it so freely. For Paul everything aside from the Gospel was negotiable even when he was falsely accused, even when the Law of Moses the thing he held so dear previously was turned against him he could give them up freely, easily even. How? The answer must be that Paul had found something better, the gospel of grace and close relationship with Jesus was better than anything else to Paul. Not just better as a theological concept but as a personal reality he loved the Gospel more than his Jewish heritage, more than his slandered reputation, more than his life.
Tonight we've remembered Paul's remarkable ministry to the Gentiles but more than that we've remembered the gospel of grace which brought this murder to know and serve Jesus and which caused everything else in Paul's life to pale in comparison to it. We've seen Paul love his brothers by restricting his freedom for the sake of the Gospel's growth in them.
Paul is an example to us but we can only follow him if we follow his master; Jesus Christ. We can only hold our freedoms so lightly if we too have been captured by the gospel of grace which our remarkable God holds out to us.
So let's remember and praise our remarkable God for the work he has done through Paul and others who would hold out the hope of the Gospel and as we do so let's strive to know that gospel as our life's ultimate reality, pleasure and love.