Scripture Reference: Acts 20:22, Acts 21
The Light Shines In JerusalemDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | August 2, 2009
Selected highlights from this sermon
Are we as passionate as Paul? Are we willing to do what is right even when harm is seemingly inevitable?
In this message about Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, we can learn how to become consumed with carrying out the desires of God.
We are here for one purpose during the next few moments, and that is to ask God to birth in us a passion for Him, because the question that is before us is this: What is God able to do through a person who is God-intoxicated, for whom only love for God and doing God’s will really matters? It’s the story of the Apostle Paul and it’s in Acts 21. Please turn to it in your Bibles because you’ve got to follow along the progression, and in the process we’re going to be discussing such issues as God’s will, and how you determine God’s will, not in detail of course. But sometimes overriding compulsion by the Spirit enables us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. And also we’re going to get right into the thick of the question of what the relationship is between Christianity and Judaism, and how far is it that we should go in being a witness to those who perhaps come from a different tradition, a different religion, or a different culture. We’re going to talk about all of that in the next few moments!
Acts 21 opens and the Apostle Paul is finished with all of his missionary journeys. He has only one desire left–actually two desires if we could put it that way–and that is for him to visit the city of Jerusalem one last time, and then go to Rome, and he’s going to do both despite the fact that there are those who advised him against it. So what we’re going to do is to take some cameo shots today of the Apostle Paul’s heart. You know there are many people who are interested in the Apostle Paul’s theology, but the problem is that these people who have his theology don’t necessarily have his heart. Today we’re going to see a glimmer into his passion, and what made him tick.
So in order to get the context, he’s on his way to Jerusalem and we’re going to notice first of all his absolute determination to go even against (catch this now) good advice. Normally I never tell anyone to go against good advice but the Apostle Paul did, but then on the other hand, I’ve never spoken to the Apostle Paul either.
Notice in chapter 21 they had come close to Cyprus, and then sailed to Tyre and verse 4 says, “And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” Through the Spirit–Paul don’t go! All right, with that as a background let’s look at verse 8: “On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.” Especially during the times of the New Testament the gift of prophesy was evident and it was not limited to men, and so we’re not sure what their prophesies were, but these young ladies were prophesying, and a prophet by the name of Agabus, who showed up earlier in the book of Acts, came, and it says in verse 11, “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.”’” Old Testament prophets frequently acted out their prophecies, and to make it vivid that’s just exactly what he did. Verse 12 says, “When we heard this….” And who are the “we”? Remember that the book of Acts was written by Luke. Timothy was there. Seven or eight other people mentioned in the previous chapter are there as well. Paul is taking them as a delegation to Jerusalem, and he’s determined to go to Jerusalem, and you’ll notice it says, “When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 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.’ And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, ‘Let the will of the Lord be done.’”
Paul was determined to go to Jerusalem because the Church was about to split. Furthermore, he had an offering that he was bringing from other churches that he wanted to bring to Jerusalem and he thought that this would heal the rift between Jew and Gentile. From the Gentiles he received money to give to the Jews who were going through a time of poverty in Jerusalem because of a famine, and so what he thought was, “I want to go there personally.”
Time out! Did Paul do what was right or not? Many commentators say no, he was just stubborn. Through the Spirit he was told, “Don’t go,” and then Agabus said, “This is going to happen to you.” All of the good advice was don’t do it, and Paul did it anyway. I’m going to argue that Paul did do the right thing even though when he got to Jerusalem it was like a spark in a can of kerosene. Everything blew up but Paul was determined. I think the warnings should be interpreted as warnings and not necessarily as prohibitions, because when he is speaking to the elders at Ephesus in Acts 20:22 he says, “And now, 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.”
Does the Holy Spirit contradict Himself and give one message to these people in the Spirit and then another message to Paul? I don’t think so. I think that they prophesied in the Spirit in the sense that they were warning Paul, and not necessarily prohibiting him. I’m going to give the Apostle Paul the benefit of the doubt even though there are some people who think he did the wrong thing, but we’re going to assume that he did the right thing, and I think it will become evident as we go through the text. But talk about determination! “You are warning me that I am not to go to Jerusalem? I am willing to be imprisoned and to die in Jerusalem for the sake of the faith.” Would that we had a thousand Apostle Pauls.
That’s his determination. What is his dilemma? What happens when he gets there to the city of Jerusalem? Well, he meets with James. Now James is the half-brother of Jesus, and I’m now reading verse 18 through 20 of chapter 21 where it says, “Now James went with us, and the elders were present. After greeting them, Paul related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry, and when they heard it they glorified God.” I love that because clearly Paul was not honoring himself here. What Paul was doing was talking about what God had done, and when the report was over they glorified God. That’s the way it should be after every missionary report.
After we find out what happened in Africa with Mary being there, and she comes back, we should end up giving God glory because it’s not about us. How clear God makes it that it is always about Him. So they give God the glory, but then (here it is now) a split is about to happen and Paul is about to exacerbate it. You’ll notice it says, “When they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the Law.’” Wow! Three thousand people were converted on the Day of Pentecost and they believed. A couple thousand more later mentioned in the book of Acts, and then you begin to think about twenty years after Pentecost of the thousands and the thousands of Jews that were converted in Jerusalem, but there was a problem that could have split the church and seemed as if it would. Here it was.
Now, put yourself in the sandals of a first century Jew. You have been taught that you should honor the feast days, you should honor the dietary laws, you should restrict your travel on the Sabbath Day (all of this is in the Old Testament), and you should bring sacrifices to the Temple in accordance with God’s prescriptions. You have all of these commands and you are an observant Jew and you want to keep all of them in honor of God, and that’s what many of the Jews were doing. Now along comes a man by the name of the Apostle Paul who says, “You know, you don’t have to do that because salvation is free through Jesus, and the Law has been done away with.” And what are they saying? They are saying, “Wait a moment now. Who are you to tell us that the Law has been done away with?”
So you have two groups of Jews. You have those who dig in their heels and say, “We will not change our view because God gave us these laws, and only God can take them away.” You have another group who is convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, and they say, “Yeah, God gave us these laws. That’s true, but Jesus is God and Jesus did do away with them, and taught us that the Old Testament laws were but a shadow of what was to come,” and they believed in Jesus, but they were still zealous for the Law. That’s what the Bible says. James says thousands believed but they were still zealous for the Law.
Now how does Paul get wrapped up in this? Notice it says in verse 21, “And they have been told about you (he’s speaking to Paul) that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.” You’re going to stir up a riot here in Jerusalem, Paul.
Now we have to pause here. We have to stop all the way along the line and say, “Is this a correct representation of what Paul taught?” Don’t keep the Law of Moses; don’t circumcise your children. All that is history. That’s Old Testament. A new dispensation and a new era have come. Is that really true to Paul? Not really, but you can understand how this rumor would get started and how it would be perpetuated because it’s very clear that Paul taught salvation by faith alone, and not the works of the Law, and so you don’t have to keep the laws of Moses-all those intricate laws regarding travel, regarding what you can eat. Everything now is clean, and so you can understand that people would say, “Paul, you are teaching this,” and it’s close to what Paul is teaching but not quite, because what the Apostle Paul taught is this. He taught that now that one is a believer, and now that he believes in Jesus, he could still keep some of the customs of the Old Testament. He could still circumcise his children, and as a matter of fact, Paul had Timothy circumcised. If he wants to take a Nazarite vow he can because Paul says that he did it, but it has an entirely different meaning.
The bottom line is you can still keep some of these customs if you do not think that they save you. But if you were to think that salvation comes through them, then you are wrong. That’s where Paul drew the line.
By the way, today there are observant Jews, and there are observant Jews who want to keep the Law, and we should respect them for that. Did you know that in Israel there are certain elevators in hotels (I’ve seen them) that, on the Sabbath Day, automatically stop at every floor so that no Jew has to press a button? Now that might seem strange to us but I’m telling you the truth, because they feel that if they have to press the button they are crossing a line and having to do some work. A number of years ago Rebecca and I bought a refrigerator from an observant Jew, and we went there on a Saturday to pick it up. I can’t remember whether or not he helped us put it in our truck, but I do remember that when I gave him the check he said, “I can’t touch it today. It’s the Shabbat.” He said, “You leave it on the kitchen counter and I’ll pick it up tomorrow.” So there are certain rules here that some of us don’t quite get and understand, but it’s an attempt to continue the rules of the Old Testament.
What Paul was saying was, “If you want to do these rules, that’s fine, as long as you don’t think that they are salvific.” What I mean by that is as long as you don’t think they save you.
Now, here’s what they do. They tell Paul something. I mean James is speaking here. Verse 23 says, “Do therefore what we tell you.” I’m thinking that’s a little strong for the Apostle Paul. You know, if he came here to Moody Church I wouldn’t say, “Well Paul, I’m here to tell you what you should do, so do what I’m going to tell you.” I think I’d couch it a little more diplomatically, but then it says in verse 24, “We have four men who are under a vow (it must be a Nazarite vow); take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the Law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter that they don’t have to keep the Law, but they should, of course, abstain from what is sacrificed to idols from blood and from immorality, and so forth.”
There’s no question about that. In Acts 15 there was a conference where they agreed that Gentiles do not have to keep the Law. They don’t have to be circumcised or anything in order to be saved. The question was, “What do we do with the Jews who are struggling with this issue?” And here they say, “Why don’t you join them in their vow. Pay their expenses.” This probably came about because Paul did bring an offering and it was customary in those days for a richer person to help a poorer person to fulfill his vow with all the sacrifices that attended to it. “You go through that, Paul, and that will show people that you are also observing the Law.”
Do you understand now why there are some people who think that Paul compromised here? I don’t think so. In 1 Corinthians he says this: “To the Jews I became as a Jew that I might win the Jews. To those who are under the Law I became like those who are under the Law to win those who are under the Law, and those who are outside the Law I became like they that I might be able to win those that are outside of the Law.” Paul, I think, is saying, “I can do all this as long as it is correctly interpreted and not a matter of compromising salvation.” So that was Paul’s stance.
So we’ve looked at his determination. We’ve also looked at his dilemma, and what is his defense? Well, he doesn’t fulfill the vow because a riot breaks out, and you’ll notice it says, for example, in verse 27, “When the seven days were almost completed (God kept Paul from having to offer sacrifices which were part of the Nazarite vow), the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him,” and they accused him of bringing Gentiles into the Temple area. Paul would never have done that. He had some Gentiles with him but he would have never brought them into the Temple area because he understood.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in Jerusalem but I remember going to the Temple Mound and there is still is a sign there that says, “Do not enter upon the pain of death owing to the sacredness of the place.” Gentiles were not supposed to go in the inner temple area, so there’s a warning sign there, which all of us respectfully ignore, and we go in anyway, and the Dome of the Rock today, of course, is a Muslim Shrine. But the point is this, my friend. The Apostle Paul would not have brought a Gentile into the inner sanctum because in those days that was a crime that resulted in death.
The bottom line is that Paul is arrested. He gives his defense, and you can go on and you can read what he has to say, and these events are actually going to turn out now in such a way that he does end up going to Rome, but I won’t tell you that story today. That will become more evident in the next message in this series. So Paul gets to Jerusalem and he also gets to Rome.
Here’s my point today. Think of what a man is willing to do when he has a passion for God. First of all, if you have a passion for God, you are committed to obedience. Obedience transcends everything. Hear the Apostle Paul against good advice, and hear me when I say that I never tell people to ignore good advice, but Paul did. He was constrained by the Spirit and the reason I think he did right was not only because of that phrase in chapter 20, but also because later on he says that when he was there in Jerusalem he had a vision from Jesus to give him courage to do what he needed to do. Sometimes God lays it on the hearts of people to do things that appear to be irrational, but they are operating in obedience to God, and obedience to God takes precedence over all human emotion. Do you remember what the Apostle Paul said in chapter 21? He said, “I am willing to die in Jerusalem.” Now they were urging him not to go up to Jerusalem. In verse 13 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.”
Sometimes you have to just ignore the tears. The tears are fine but you can’t go that way. I have two sisters, both of whom were missionaries, one in Africa for about thirty years, and one in Mexico for twenty-some years, and every time we said goodbye to them we always cried as a family. It always seemed so long and so many years and we never knew whether we would meet again, but there are times, you know, when you are doing the will of God, that you just need to say, “I have to set all that aside.” Cry your eyes out but be obedient to God if you have passion. Paul had that passion. He was willing to die and he was willing to be imprisoned. I wish I had that passion. I prayed yesterday that I would.
This passion for God that no matter what he asks me to do, no matter what he asks me to go through, I might say I love him so much that I don’t even count my life dear to myself, but I am willing to die for the faith. Would God birth a passion like that in the hearts of all those in the family of Moody Church? Could you imagine what we could do in the city of Chicago with that kind of passion and love for God?
So the first thing is obedience, and a second thing I notice in the Apostle Paul as we have this window into his heart is his humility. Here he is. He’s being told what to do and he does it. Maybe he had some misgivings, but you see he was interested in the unity of the Church. The Church was about to split and he would have been the cause of it because they were saying, “You just tell people to disregard Moses,” and he needed to show that in certain areas it was okay (as I mentioned earlier) as long as it didn’t confuse the issues of the Gospel. And that’s a reminder of the fact that when you go to the mission field, there is much in the culture where you find yourself that you can appreciate and that you can incorporate, but when it comes to the issue of the Gospel, the line must always be clear. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone, but I marvel at Paul’s humility.
You know, Paul was sailing on a ship, and having traversed some of the areas that the Apostle Paul traversed as we did when we were on that tour, I marveled at how long he had to travel. You know, I mean Caesarea to Jerusalem–what are we talking about-35 or 40 miles? You walk it and it takes several days. By horseback it takes a few less days. It’s difficult travel. It didn’t matter. God was to be glorified. As he said in the book of Philippians, “Whether it is by life or by death, God must be glorified.”
Yesterday, I just happened to take from my shelf a book I have perused before, as you might guess. It’s entitled Just As I Am by Billy Graham, and I just happened to reread the chapter on his London Crusade. Now many of you weren’t born during that time. That was 1954. Billy is 35 years old. My goodness, he’s just come in from the barn. He was a farm boy, and he goes to London, and because of a misunderstanding he gets all of the press. I won’t even tell you the story, but there is such a crush on him when he arrives in Waterloo Station that he needs help to proceed. They go to Harringay Arena. Yes, it only holds 12,000 to 14,000 but imagine this. They rent it for three months, and as the weeks go by the crowds get bigger and bigger until there are more people outside of the arena than there are in the arena to hear Billy preach. It was one of the most remarkable crusades. No wonder when he was finished he was fifteen pounds lighter. It almost killed him, but imagine his humility. Billy Graham today is one of the most humble unassuming men you’ll ever meet with a passion for God and always with humility.
Lorne Sanny asked the question, “How do you know whether or not you have the heart of a servant?” The answer is by the way in which you react when you are treated like one. That’s how you know whether you have the heart of a servant. All God-intoxicated people do because it doesn’t matter. It’s not about us. It’s a God thing.
Finally, there’s clarity. By clarity I mean the ability to be able to see exactly what the purpose of life is, and if you don’t have something that you are willing to die for, you aren’t fit to live. Paul says, “I am willing to die for the Gospel, and to go to Jerusalem.” Can you imagine living a life like that with something to die for that you know is eternal, and it has to do with the eternal God? God grant us that passion.
Now as I was thinking about this I was reminded of a man in whom I have more than just a passing interest. His name was Martin Luther who had a similar zeal and passion for God. I can’t give the background for lack of time but he’s on his way to Worms, Germany. “W” in German is pronounced like a “V.” It is “Vorms.” The Diet of Worms is the way some English speaking people talk about it. By the way, it’s a diet that works. That’s been proven. (laughter) There’s the Cubs diet, you know, that works. You eat only when the Cubs win (laughter), but there’s also the Diet of Worms. Both work.
Luther is told not to go. He’s told if you go to Worms you are going to be killed. Luther said, “I will go to Worms even if there are as many devils there as there are tiles on the roofs,” and I’ve been to Worms many times and I have pointed that out to people. I’ve said, “Let’s look at the tiles of the roofs.” He is asked to recant his writings. The first day he says, “Give me time to think about it.” They say, “Okay, come back the next day.” It was good that it happened that way because the next day (this was a big Diet) the Emperor, Charles V, the head of the Holy Roman Emperor, is there. All of the German princes are there and both the religious and the civil rulers of Europe show up. Luther is asked to recant, and you remember the famous line that I am sure I have mentioned to you many times. “My conscience is taken captive by the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant, so help me God,” but before he says that, he prays this prayer the evening before. When you hear it prayed, think of Paul praying as he goes to Jerusalem.
Luther expected to die. It was just a done deal but it didn’t happen because of some reasons, but it was like saying, “Here I am. Kill me.” Okay?
This is what he prays.
“Oh Almighty and Everlasting God, how terrible is this world. Behold it opens its mouth to swallow me up and I have so little trust in thee. How weak is the flesh. Satan, how strong. If it is only in the strength of this world that I might put my trust, all is over. My last hour has come. My condemnation has been pronounced. Oh God, oh God, do thou help me against all the wisdom of this world. Thou shouldest do this. I have nothing to do here, nothing to contend with for these great ones of the world. I should desire to see my days flow on peacefully and happily, but the cause is thine, and it is a righteous and an eternal cause. Oh Lord, help me. Faithful and unchangeable God, in no man do I place my trust. It would be vain. All that is of man is uncertain. All that cometh of man fails. Oh God, my God, hearest thou me not? My God, art thou dead? No, thou canst not die. Thou only hidest thyself. Thou hast chosen me for this work and I know it well. Act then, oh God. Stand at my side for the sake of thy well beloved Jesus Christ, who is my defense, my shield and my tower. Lord, where stayest thou? Oh my God, where art thou? Come. I am ready. I am ready to lay down my life for truth, patient as a lamb, for it is a cause that is just. It is thy cause. I will never separate myself from thee, neither now or through eternity, and all the world shall be filled with devils. Though my body which is still the work of thy hand should be slain, stretched out upon the pavement and be cut in pieces, reduced to ashes, my soul is thine. Yes, thy word is my assurance of it. My soul belongs to thee. It shall abide with thee forever. Amen. Amen. God help me. God help me. Amen.
Let us pray.
Father, we are so full of self, so filled with our aches and pains and our own desires and our own attempts to be successful that we’ve lost the vision of what it means to be holy and totally passionate for Thee. Whatever that means, Lord, in our vocations, and in our families and our futures, would You grant that to us, Lord. Thank you for Paul who said, “I’m willing to be imprisoned and to die in Jerusalem.” Give us, Father God, a double measure of that passion, the passion of Luther, who was willing to give his life for a just cause. Grant that, oh God, today.
And for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, may they see today that when they believe on Him, He cleanses them and receives them and welcomes them into everlasting habitations. We thank you in Jesus’ name. Amen.