The day that I asked Sarah to marry me was wintery. We walked around our favorite park (also the sight of the Battle of Tippecanoe). I had everything I wanted to say scripted, but the one thing I couldn’t plan was her response. As we neared the bridge overlooking Burnett Creek I stopped and tried to engage in some sweet talk, but all Sarah wanted to do was beeline to the car because she was cold. As she began to walk off the bridge I got down on one knee and said, “Sarah, I got one more thing I’d like to say.” As she turned around I said, “Would you marry me?” Her response was not the traditional “Yes!” but her one-word answer I will never forget. She said, “Absolutely!”
Why was Sarah so willing and eager to absolutely give herself to me? It is still a wonder to me (and for you married men too)! I have a similar wonder as I read about Paul’s absolute surrender to Jesus in Acts 21. Why is Paul so committed to walk into a life threatening situation? How can I have power and passion like that for ministry? The text will answer these questions among others today.
Serve On Purpose (vs.1-16)
To give a brief background, Paul is traveling from Ephesus back to the Big Apple, Jerusalem (500 miles). He is finishing his 3rd and final missionary journey. And Luke gives us Paul’s travelogue (vs.1-3). And you thought you had it bad with 2 connections and a 6-hour layover in Paris!
What was awaiting Paul in Jerusalem was no vacation or Sunday School picnic. According to Acts 20:22-23 Paul had some clue what awaited him, ”Behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, 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.”
It’s interesting that along his journey, Christians also “through the Spirit” advise Paul not to go to Jerusalem (vs.4-12). How does the Holy Spirit give information that seems so contradictory? Could it be the Holy Spirit gave both Paul and the Christians the same information, but the application of the information was different? I think so. Paul was willing to obey the Spirits directions, but the others likely did want to lose Paul or be responsible for his martyrdom. They also might have thought, “Who wants to go to prison or face afflictions? Certainly we can help him find an easier way.”
If you were in Paul’s sandals you would have family and friends steering you towards gentler meadows too. As hard as it is to accept God’s will or calling, it is still the harder for those who love you. Now it’s not wise to ignore sound advice from spiritual leaders or blow off the opinions of your teammates or scoff at your organizations safety and security policies. You are accountable and it just might protect you from a huge blind spot. However, like Job’s friends or Paul’s friends, could one limit the work of God by holding people back from going where God is at work, even if it is dangerous or unsafe? Just something to chew on.
What was Paul’s response to the advice not to return to Jerusalem? (v.13) It broke his heart. He was ready to be imprisoned, even die for the name of Jesus. Paul knew his ultimate end. God made it clear on the day of his own conversion (cf. Acts 9:15-16 “he must suffer for the sake of my name”). Paul knew his purpose and it was worthy of his life and death. Paul had zero leashes attaching him to this world. No earthly ambitions anchored him down. For early he said, “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.” (Acts 20:24) The first mark of absolute surrender is to serve God on purpose no matter the cost.
If you are married you probably remember your wedding day and the honeymoon bliss. Ours ended about 2-days after the honeymoon when Sarah and realized we couldn’t spend 24-hours a day together anymore. If you are in the ministry you probably went into the ministry because God did an amazing work in your life and you wanted other people to know Him too, no matter the cost. Then life happened. Honeymoon over. The daily routine became taxing on your time limiting ministry. Your team tasked you with doing certain projects that you did not enjoy or feel skilled to accomplish. You became so busy by the demands of people, and all sense of privacy was eliminated. Transition or conflict with colleagues was disheartening. And through the months and years your original calling and vision for ministry has weathered.
Doing ministry can often separate you from the reasons you went into ministry. As Mike Breen said so well, “We are so addicted to and obsessed with the work of the kingdom, with little to no idea on how to be with the King.” How can it be that you can serve God and spend yourself for Him yet become so tired, hallow, burnt, even distracted from your original call to ministry? It is good to come back to the reason you came to the field, to the One who called you, gifted you, sustains you, and gives you purpose to wake up each morning and walk out your gate.
Paul is very intentional and purposeful about what he does, he’s not dissuaded by the opinions of others, he has no limits on following Christ, and he serves on purpose for the sake of Jesus’ name. It took a bit of persuasion, but Luke and the others gave Paul over to the “will of God.” (v.14) And Paul continues his death march (v.15-16) enjoying one last night under a friendly roof.
Endure False Accusations (vs.17-36)
As Paul arrives in Jerusalem the first person he meets is pastor James, the half-brother of Jesus. Ah, missionary-to-pastor we all know where this conversation is going, but notice Paul doesn’t talk about numbers of converts or churches planted, he only spoke about the things the Lord had done (vs.17-20a).
James on the other hand talks numbers. He then introduces Paul to rumors related to his teachings or lack of teaching certain truths among the Gentiles (vs.20b). What is most striking in this passage is how Paul responds to rumors and false accusations upon his ministry. There is much you and I can learn from his example:
First, listen to the accusations (vs.21-22). Initially Paul says nothing. He keeps his lips zipped. Luke doesn’t record any immediate reaction from Paul. He simply listens to James and takes in all the details.
How do you handle it in the ministry when you are falsely accused? Are you quick to deny, defend, or devour? How do you respond when someone says something about you that is not true? Sometimes the biggest attackers to your ministry aren’t your neighbors, but your own brothers and sisters. Christians have a bad reputation for gunning down their own.
During my second year as an assistant pastor I was presenting a vision that the leaders had spent many months praying and fasting over. The desire was plant sister churches in our area. The idea was birthed from Scripture and we desired to be a church that not only reached our Jerusalem and uttermost parts of the world, but also our Judea and Samaria. Following my presentation a lady stood up and said, “Why should a church of 200 people think about planting another church when I have a hard time staffing our Sunday School classes. You are obviously a shepherd who doesn’t care about the sheep. You are leading our church astray.” She then proceeded to list every peeve she had about me as a young pastor which were many.
She might have made some valuable and helpful remarks, considering I was such a green leaf just out of Bible College with fresh ideas, but all her arguments were voided due to the character bombs she dropped. It was like she threw a grenade loaded with shrapnel aiming to shred my character, reputation, and ministry. Thankfully an elder also stood up and became a shield to my defense. She continued to spread rumors about my teachings and made many false accusations about my character. I was crushed and hurt. What was even more painful was her unwillingness to meet together or accept Matthew 18 counsel. The elders of our church prayerfully asked her to leave the fellowship.
Second, obey the advice of wise spiritual counselors (vs.23-26). When James asks Paul to cleanse himself he does as he is told. He doesn’t have to do what they are asking, but he goes the extra mile to help diffuse the situation. And it worked, but only for a few days.
Third, humble yourself (v.27-36). Can you hear the attacks and exaggerations given Paul? None of which are remotely true, yet despite the lies Paul responds with gentle and humble obedience to the authorities. There is no mistake that Paul’s response is similar to Jesus during his trial and crucifixion. What he is modeling is how the least of these can be the greatest of these. Humility displays the greater man and is one of the greatest defenses when under attack.
How do you respond when attacked? God never promises serving Him will be easy or that everyone will respond fairly, but he does promise to stand with you in the face of accusation. As you endure accusation with the gentleness and humility of God you mimic Jesus. And Jesus is glorified when you turn the other cheek for the sake of His name.
Testify in the face of opposition (vs.37-40)
Paul has more than a black eye and bloody lip. He was beaten within an inch of his life (vs.37-40). He doesn’t fight back with fists, but he really desires to use this as an opportunity to tell them about Jesus. He goes on to tell His testimony of how Jesus transformed his life (Acts 22:1-22); giving one of the great defenses of his life. Even in the face of opposition, Paul is eager to testify the name of His Savior (cf. Acts 23:11).
When ministry gets rough, go back to your conversion and call. Relish in returning to your story often. Fall in love with Jesus all over again. I came to Christ at the age of 12, I gave my life completely to Christ. When I reflect on my story I am floored by the miraculous grace of God. How God plucked me out of a dysfunctional family born to two teenage parents and plucked me out of a lifestyle addicted to self, lust, and people pleasing. Those who know me best see the life-transforming power. It’s a power I want others to know about too.
At the communion table in the upper room just hours before His crucifixion Jesus told His disciples what would happen to Him for the sake of their salvation. He broke bread and passed a cup of wine. Then he said, “Whenever you gather together do this in remembrance of Me until I comes back again.” And indeed, our Bride Groom will come for us, His Bride, may we with one voice say, I am yours “absolutely” now and forevermore (cf. Revelation 22:17-20).
Maybe it is time to keep on your knees once again. Raise your flag of surrender. Surrender all to your Love beginning with your life, family, children, and ministry.