Sunday, October 11, 2015

In defense of the gospel, Acts 22

Last time we looked at how Paul was bound for the sake of the gospel.  You will remember that he considered himself a prisoner of the Lord, first and foremost.  The chains of the Romans, being arrested by the Jews, being held in prison by the Romans, none of that superseded the fact that Paul first and foremost had given himself up to be bound by God.  He was the prisoner of the Lord.  He had renounced all that had been of benefit to him in the world, to become a bond servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.  So his physical bonds did not really faze him.  If that was God’s plan, then Paul was just fine with physical bonds, if it produced spiritual gains. 

And so Paul was content because he had committed himself to the Lord’s will.  He trusted the Lord’s will and plan for his life.  And in that respect he is an excellent role model for us.  As I said last week, the whole Christian life can be summed up in the idea of trusting in God’s plan for our lives. All rebellion, all sin is really just an attempt on our part to try to do it ourselves, to make our own decisions, to think that we can handle life on our own and do it on our own terms. Romans 14:23 says, “whatever is not from faith is sin.”  So the Christian life is coming to the point of surrendering to God’s plan and trusting that His plan is good, and we can rest in His wisdom and His purpose.  So Paul did not worry about imprisonment because he believed that it was in God’s plan.

Now as we noted in the last chapter, Paul has been arrested by the Romans, but that arrest actually served to deliver him from being beaten to death by the Jews.  But then Paul asked the commander in the Greek language if he could address the crowd, and he was surprised to find that Paul spoke Greek, because he had thought that he was an Egyptian revolutionary.  So he gives Paul permission to speak, and Paul addresses this riotous mob of Jews from the steps of the garrison.

Paul’s address here is a recounting of the events of his conversion and commission by God to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.  And we looked at that conversion experience in detail in chapter 9.  So I don’t think it’s necessary to go back over all of that again.  But what I would like to point out this morning is the fact that when most people would be relieved to be delivered from the mob, even if it meant being arrested, and would have been rushing to get out of there away from the murderous intent of the crowd, Paul wants to stop and preach to them.

Paul saw this as an opportunity.  As I said last week, God often uses adversity as a ministry opportunity.  We need to recognize that in difficult times, God has a purpose for us, and often that is so that we can be a testimony to others who are watching us in that adversity to see what we will do.  Everyone goes through adversity in this life sooner or later.  But our true character is revealed in tribulations.  How we deal with adversity as Christians is often our greatest testimony.  Our greatest witness to the world is not how many blessings we can claim as Christians, but how we live out our faith in the midst of adversity.

So Paul saw this persecution as an opportunity to preach the gospel.  Now that is really amazing when you think about it.  He was close to death, close to being beaten to death by this mob and had narrowly escaped by the hands of the Roman soldiers.  And now he asks the commander to stop retreating so he can turn back and address the Jews.  He reminds me of the heroic first responders during 9-11 that were running for the burning buildings when everyone else was running from them.

And why does Paul do this?  Does he have some sort of death wish?  No, but he has a burning desire in his heart for the salvation of his people, the Israelites.  He recognizes that he is not the one who is in danger here.  These Jews are the ones on the verge of catastrophe. In just a few more years, in 70AD the Jews in Jerusalem will be massacred.  Their temple will be destroyed by fire.  Paul knows that they are the ones who have form of religion and yet are unsaved.  They are condemned to die without Christ and face eternal judgment and the wrath of God.  And Paul’s love for his people far outweighs his concern for himself.  He is willing to give up his life for his friends, his countrymen. 

Please understand this principle; Christian love is not as the world’s concept of love.  Christian love is sacrificial love.  And I think we miss that far too often.  I think far too often our so called love is only in effect as long as it doesn’t interfere with our success, as long as it doesn’t cause our discomfort, as long as it doesn’t crack our thin veneer of respectability.  And so we stop short of truly loving others as Christ loved the church, because we are not willing to lay down our lives for the sake of others.   Well, you don’t see that sort of callousness illustrated by Paul.  You see him willing to sacrifice his life if necessary for the salvation of people who hated him and who were trying to kill him.

Now this is really the whole point of my message; to use Paul’s example for our own admonition to reach the lost, to reach family members, friends, colleagues, countrymen who are dying without Christ and are one day going to face the wrath of God without hope.

I’m afraid that we have lost sight of that fact, ladies and gentlemen.  We have lost sight of the fact that our family members and friends who are lost without Christ, will one day wake up in hell, in a fire which cannot be quenched.  Jesus portrayed what that looked like in his story of Lazarus and the rich man. Luke 16:22-24 "Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.”

Folks, I am afraid that the church doesn’t talk about hell any more.  And consequently the world doesn’t really believe that hell is a real place.  Furthermore, even most Christians do not really think about it as a real place, where our unsaved loved ones and friends will one day find themselves in eternal agony, in eternal flames.  It seems too bizarre to be real.  And unfortunately even our theology doesn’t endorse the possibility in view of what we think must constitute a loving God.  The former mega church pastor Rob Bell recently wrote a book called, “Love Wins”, in which he says that hell does not exist, because the concept of hell cannot be reconciled to his view of a loving God.  And I’m afraid that a large part of the contemporary church agrees with him.

But Paul knew that hell is a reality for the lost.  And he knew that even the ultra religious Jews who worshipped the One True God were going to find themselves separated from God by that awful chasm between Hades and Paradise unless someone told them about the gospel of Jesus Christ.  So Paul is running for the burning buildings, so to speak, in hopes that he might save some of them, even if it meant possibly losing his own life.

We need to remember the purpose of the gospel.  The purpose is not so that we can belong to a group of like minded people who share our interests, who are part of our social class, who have houses like ours in the better neighborhoods, and who share our values. But the purpose of the gospel is stated by Jesus in Luke 19:10 "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."  Not to save good people, even righteous people, or people of good social standing.  But Jesus came to seek out and save those who are lost, the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the drunkards, the sexually perverted, the God-haters, those without hope, those without prospects, without a future, those that are down and out.  And those are the ones we are told to go out into the highways and byways and compel to come in.

And yet I am afraid that often the contemporary church is at odds with Christ’s purpose.  I am afraid that we have lost sight of what it is that we are to be about.  And so we work at being successful in our jobs, we come to church for an hour or so once a week if we’re lucky, and we think that the purpose of the gospel is to benefit us, to bless us, to make our lives better, to enrich our lives and secure a better future for ourselves.  Meanwhile the world around us is dying and going to hell.  Everyday in Sussex County it seems someone is dying of a heroin overdose.  But it isn’t just drugs that are killing people.  Everyone is dying or in the process of dying, some are just on a faster track than others.  And so many do not know the Lord as their Savior.  But God has chosen you to proclaim the good news of His salvation.  God has put you in the path of hundreds of people every day who are dying without the Lord.  God has put you there to be a witness, a bold proclaimer of the good news, to run for the burning buildings and save those that are trapped there. Jude 1:22 says, “And have mercy on some, who are doubting;  save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.”

God has commissioned us to be the good Samaritans that will stop what you are doing, get down from our high horse and help the lost, the unfortunate, spending whatever time and money and resources necessary to bring them to the ultimate healing of salvation.

Now I want to look briefly at the way Paul goes about this and try to draw a couple of points out that we can apply to ourselves as we reach out to the lost.  I’m not going to exegete his testimony, per se.  As I said we have looked at his conversion experience in detail before and I think his testimony speaks for itself.  But I mainly want to focus on his introduction.  Because I think there are some principles there for us which could be helpful when we reach out to our families and friends with the gospel.

First of all, notice that when Paul addresses them, he spoke their language.  He had just finished speaking Greek with the Roman Commander, but when he turns to speak to the gathered Israelites, he spoke Hebrew.  And when he does, they grow quiet.  In verse 40 of the last chapter, it says there was a great hush on the crowd when he raised his hand to speak to them.  I think they were amazed by his courage, to turn and face his accusers, to face the mob that tried to tear him to pieces. 

I don’t know how many of you saw Netanyahu speak to the United Nations the other day.  But he accused all those nations of being silent about the atrocities perpetrated upon Israel by Iran and the fact that Iran had publicly declared it’s intention of wiping Israel from the face of the earth.  And so he stood there and stared at them in silence for about one full minute.  It was amazing.  It was uncomfortable.  And perhaps that is what it was like when Paul raised his hand and prepared to speak.  A great hush came over what had been a riotous mob.

However, I should point out the difference between animosity towards the Jewish nation and animosity towards Christianity.  In Israel’s case, their enemies are to be defended against, even to the point of war if necessary.  But in the church’s case, the enemies of the gospel are not our enemy, but our mission field.  They are who we seek and save.  And so we do not vilify the enemies of the gospel and justify or recommend harm coming to them, but if necessary we offer our own lives as a sacrifice for the sake of winning those that are lost.  That is what Jesus did, and that is what we do as His disciples.  And that is what we see Paul doing.  He is risking his life for the sake of possibly saving some Israelites.  That’s what he was saying in Romans 9:3 “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”  That should be our attitude as well, our concern for their salvation should outweigh our sense of self preservation.  It should outweigh our desire to live a comfortable, self centered life.  Our concern for the salvation of the lost should be paramount in our lives and our primary focus.

So back to our point, Paul speaks their language.  I think that a modern day application of that is our need to speak to people in a language that they can understand, whereby we can communicate effectively the gospel of Christ.  That means we may need to rethink theological terms that perhaps aren’t part of the daily language of the people.  I’m not talking about in church necessarily. For the most part, the church is for saints, for the edification of believers.  And in the church we need to use terminology that clearly delineates certain doctrines and theology.  But when we reach out to the lost, we should make sure that we are speaking their language.  Now that doesn’t mean coarse language.  We shouldn’t let any coarse or profane words proceed out of our mouths.  But we do need to talk to people in a language that they can understand.  That’s why tongues are unprofitable for the church or for those that are unsaved.  That’s why we don’t deliver homilies in Latin.  But even more to the point, when we are witnessing, we need to make sure we are speaking in a way that people can understand what we are talking about.  That’s pretty basic, but in a day when a lot of people have been brought up with no theology at all, we have to be careful not to talk above their heads.  We just can’t refer them to John 3:16 without telling them what John 3:16 says.  I’m amazed when I see these bumper stickers or billboards that just put scripture addresses on them as if the unsaved know what it says there.

Notice next, he addresses them as men, brethren and fathers.  In other words, Paul sought to show his kinship with the crowd, even with the enemies of the gospel.  Were it not for the grace of God, we would all be enemies of the gospel. Col 1:21-22  “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” 

The point to be made by this is not to proclaim the gospel in a condescending way, as if we are righteous and way up here, and unsaved people are despicable and way down there.  But to recognize the kinship we have to one another.  All men and women are of the same family of Adam.  Every race, every color and every creed shares with us a common ancestry.  None of us received mercy and grace because we somehow were better or more deserving than others. 

Paul didn’t see this angry, murderous crowd as his enemy, but as brothers and fathers, sharing a common ancestry. He saw them as bearing the likeness of God.  And so he loved them enough to reach out to them with the gospel, even if it meant risking his life.  Paul is looking for areas of commonality in this situation.  And he is not afraid to take advantage of it and use it to gain their attention. 

You know, I realize that speaking to family members about salvation can be very hard.  There can be years of misunderstandings, hard feelings, wounded pride and so forth to overcome.  But I would urge you that are mature to humble yourself and do what is necessary to repair that breech in your relationships with your family members so that you can witness to them about the gospel in hope that they might be saved.  I would encourage you to pray for them without ceasing in anticipation of the next time you will see them, and ask God to give you the opportunity to witness to them.  I should not have to tell you that it is a matter of eternity - of eternal life or eternal death in hell.   Your family should be your first priority in presenting the gospel.

Thirdly, Paul appealed to their common nationality.  He appealed to their common heritage as Jews, as a native of Jerusalem, of graduating from what we might consider the local university under the most well known teacher, Gamaliel.  I’m afraid that our heritage in this country is no longer popular as it once was.  There are a lot of history revisionists that want to play up our nation’s shortcomings and expound on all the supposed atrocities committed in our country.  Be that as it may, I am not advocating getting into politics here or expounding so called American values.  None of that is the gospel.  Hell doesn’t care if you are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, or American for that matter.  Politics are not helpful in winning the lost. 

But what we can take from this is finding areas that we have in common with the lost and using that to our advantage to gain an opportunity to present the gospel.  Maybe it’s the fact that you are both from Texas and that gives you an appreciative audience.  Maybe it’s just the opportunity afforded by being your neighbor in your development. Maybe it’s your common interest in golf, or surfing or motorcycles.  But whatever opportunity you can find to gain an audience, use it to maybe see their defenses drop a little, and then from there introduce them to the gospel. 

We may not find much results today by walking up to a stranger on the sidewalk and trying to take them through the Roman’s road in the first 3 minutes of conversation.  But if we take our salvation seriously, if we take the prophecies of scripture seriously, then we will start thinking strategically about how we can open up a conversation with people we know about the gospel.  And one way to do that is use a common interest to be able to open communication with them.

Finally, Paul appeals to a common theology.  He appeals to the God of their fathers, the law of Gamaliel, which was the respected law of the land.  And he says that he was zealous for God even as they were.  If you can believe statistics out there, then a majority of people in America believe in God, or so they say.  The difficulty is what kind of God they believe in.  Paul said in Rom. 10:2 “For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.”  And I’m afraid that is still true today, especially in the evangelical movement. But nevertheless, it is a point of agreement by which to start a conversation about eternity.  Most people don’t like to talk about God.  But as I pointed out last Wednesday evening, there will be some times in life when people will start talking about God, when they are more receptive to talk about matters concerning eternity. 

I think that is one of the things that happens in a national crisis.  It’s interesting that two weeks ago I said that it was unlikely that in your lifetime someone would ever point a gun at you and tell you to deny Christ or die.  I was suggesting that we often deny Christ for much less reason than that, sometimes simply because it may be uncomfortable to do so, or because of the fear of social rejection.  But just two Friday’s ago in Oregon, someone did stick a gun at people’s heads and ask them to declare if they were a Christian or not, and if they were he shot  and killed them.  So unfortunately, though I would still say that it is unlikely that you or I will have to face that question, I am afraid that it is happening with greater frequency as our society becomes ever more anti-Christ.  However, this national crisis presents an opportunity to discuss the gospel with unsaved people that we know.

Another opportunity that might present itself is the death of a friend or loved one or a serious illness.  Those are often times when people are more receptive to talk about God.  A good thing that happens as a result of such a crisis is that we often have an opportunity to talk to people about our faith in Christ, and they get a chance to see our faith lived out when we have a crisis of our own to deal with.

Paul even went so far as to identify with the crowd by saying that he also used to persecute the church, or the Way, as he refers to it.  And that simply goes back to the idea that all of us were at enmity with God before we became converted.  We all were held captive under Satan’s dominion, to do his will, to work against the gospel.  I think of some of the things I did before I got right with God.  People that I caused to go astray, people I hurt.  Things I did to promote sin and wickedness.  And I think if you were honest you would have to admit things you did as well that caused immense damage to the cause of Christ. 

I visit a man in prison every other week, and this guy is facing a life sentence in prison, but he is now a Christian.  So I try to be a light in his life in a very dark place where he has very little hope.  And he is doing pretty good.  He is growing in the Lord.  But one thing he has to live with is all the lives he helped ruin when he was a drug dealer for years in Baltimore. He knows that he caused ruin in hundreds of lives, hundreds of families.  And so he feels remorse over that.  He now knows he is forgiven, but it should serve as an impetus for him to serve Christ now with the same zeal that  he once served Satan. 

Yes, we thank God for His grace by which He saved us and forgave us.  But never forget that our sin didn’t just get blown away like some dandelion fluff in the wind.  But our horrible sins were put on Jesus’ scarred and shredded back, and he went to the cross and died a horribly painful death to pay for our sins.  And if we really are grateful for His sacrifice that we might receive eternal life, then surely we will sacrifice our temporal lives to live for Him and His glory. 

Well, let’s try to wrap this up.  The next thing Paul does is he tells the story of his conversion.  Listen, you may not know all the high doctrines of the church, you may not be a theologian, but if you are truly saved, then you have a story to tell.  You can tell how Jesus saved you and what He saved you from, and what He saved you for.   Paul was a master theologian.  He explained every doctrine of the church in His writings to the churches.  But when he speaks to this crowd, he doesn’t speak about the doctrine of predestination, or the doctrine of limited atonement.  No, he simply tells the story of how he was saved on the road to Damascus.  How God found him, and called him, and spoke to him.  And then he tells about his response to that call.  How he called upon the name of Christ for the remission of his sins, how he was baptized, and how God called him to be a witness to the Gentiles.

I would encourage you folks to do some homework this afternoon or tonight.  I would encourage you to write down your testimony, how you were saved.  When you were saved.  How you know you are saved.  I can’t help but wonder if someone might be afraid to do that because they don’t really know if they are truly saved. Perhaps you can’t really say how you were saved.  I would urge you to think carefully about your salvation.  As Paul said in 2Cor. 13:5 “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you--unless indeed you fail the test?”

Hopefully, you know well how you were saved.  You will never forget when you called upon the Lord and trusted in Him for forgiveness of sins.  And you have the testimony of the Holy Spirit living in you that convicts you and teaches you and helps you as you continue to follow after Christ.  And if that is your testimony, then I would encourage you to share it with as many people as you can.  Share your common ancestry, share your commonality as a sinner, talk to your friend or loved one in a way that they can understand, and tell them how you came to know the Lord and how He changed your life. 

I’ve said it at least a dozen times lately, there is no greater testimony than the testimony of a transformed life.  The life you live now should be ample evidence of the truth of the gospel and the power of the gospel.  And if you cannot say that about your life, then you really need to get down on your knees and get right with God, so that your walk matches your talk.  That is the testimony that God desires.

Well, one final caution.  I wish I could tell you that when Paul did all these things the result was that thousands of Jews became saved that afternoon.  But the sad fact is that they ended up shouting “away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!”  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world will reject the message of the gospel. The Jews revolted when Paul said that the Gentiles were now going to be the recipients of God’s grace.  They wanted to believe that they only were the chosen people of God.  They alone deserved God’s favor and blessing. 

The point of irritation which Paul stirred up was the idea that God would even consider going to the Gentiles and bring them into the same blessings the Jews had enjoyed. Their rejection of that idea was visceral. But what a twisting and distortion of God’s purposes.  The fact is that the nation Israel had been called of God to be the witness by which the nations of the world would be reached. But instead of obeying that call they had selfishly harbored God’s grace all to themselves and condemned the rest of the world as undeserving sinners by neglect. But the fact is that Christ came to save sinners.  And so we need to reach out to sinners.  The church is not a country club for respectable, religious people, but a mission of mercy to the lost and hopeless and helpless.

To a great degree we are guilty of  the same neglect as those Jews. We act as if God is not interested in the world, that he wants only us, that we are the favored people of God. We have gathered our robes of respectability about ourselves and withdrawn into our Christian country clubs and in effect are saying, "Let the world go to hell! We are the object of God's favor and blessing." And we have neglected and even resisted the chance to reach out to the lost, hopeless humanity around us. 

In closing, please understand an important principle.  God uses human instruments in divine intervention.  He has always used human instruments to perform His will.  And God has chosen us, as testaments of His grace, to be the human instruments by which the lost can know the truth of the gospel and be saved.  I pray that you will receive this commission from the Lord, and act in defense of the gospel even as Paul did, regardless of the cost to personal pride or even safety.  Let’s win the lost for the sake of our Lord. Let’s start with our families, and then our neighbors and coworkers, and then our communities.  Let’s run for the burning buildings, that we might by some means, save some, snatching them like brands from the burning.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bound for the sake of the gospel, Acts 21

Acts has 28 chapters. We are in chapter 21. The last one-fourth of the book is devoted to Paul’s imprisonment, the occasion of it and then the details of it, and, finally, the last chapter deals with his reaching the city of Rome.  These chapters, and chapter 21 in particular, are difficult to preach in that for the most part they present a narrative of the details of Paul’s imprisonment and travel to Rome and lack some of the doctrinal principles that are easier to form a message from. 

But in looking at this chapter as a whole, we see Paul move from the position of a free man, to a prisoner.  And the word that seems to come to my mind as a result of reading this chapter repeatedly is the word bound.  Paul is warned twice that he would be bound as a prisoner, and then in vs. 33 he is bound in chains, and from that time on as far as we know, Paul is a prisoner, bound in chains for the rest of his ministry.  So this is an important transition in the life of Paul, and the narrative  spends the remainder of the chapters detailing those final years of Paul’s imprisonment.

But I think it’s important that we establish something right off the bat as we look at this new chapter of Paul’s life.  In two of the epistles which Paul would write while in imprisonment, Ephesians and 2 Timothy, he referred to himself as the “prisoner of the Lord.”  And that is essential to understanding this passage and the subsequent chapters.  Paul does not consider himself a prisoner of Rome, but a prisoner of the Lord. 

Now that is significant, because if you don’t understand Paul’s mind set, then you may make the interpretative mistake of many theologians and Bible teachers, in claiming that Paul made a mistake in this chapter, and as such he caused his imprisonment, and though God worked through it, his imprisonment was not necessary.  And some theologians, emboldened by their declaration of Paul’s supposed error,  have  taken an even greater liberty and gone so far as to say his actions in the temple in regards to observing the vow and the feast are also a mistake and he was guilty of going against his own admonitions about not being under the law. 

So we have to be careful in how we look at this chapter, because though it may seem to be just a travelogue, a poor interpretation can lead to bad doctrine.  Personally, I think that Paul is exemplary in all that he does after his conversion.  And I believe his actions here are exemplary as well.  And I think realizing that Paul did not consider physical bonds as anything limiting his spiritual effectiveness is fundamental to understanding this passage correctly.  Paul already considered himself bound to the Lord, and as such the physical bonds could not hinder his ministry whatsoever.  In fact, he said in Philippians 1:12 that “my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.”  And he goes on to describe that progress as a result of his imprisonment.  So Paul’s imprisonment in my opinion is not a mistake.  But it was used by God for the greater progress of the gospel, even greater than he could achieve as a free man.

Now that is a great lesson in and of itself.  That sometimes, the trials that we find ourselves in can achieve more for the kingdom than times of peace and prosperity.  And when you come to recognize that, then when you find yourself in difficult, trying situations, rather than falling apart or having a pity party, perhaps you should consider it a ministry opportunity, and start looking around you at what God might want to accomplish through you as you go through your trial.  Contrary to the teachings of the prosperity gospel proponents, God uses adversity more than He uses prosperity to accomplish His purposes.

Now as I alluded to, this passage is difficult to build an expositional message from, and a more astute preacher than I might skip right over this one.  But I’m a little bit pig headed I guess, and I can’t help but think that there are some things here which are written for our instruction and admonition.  We just may have to dig a little deeper.  The late Dr. S. L. Johnson had the following to say about expositional preaching of such difficult passages.  He said, “In final analysis, it seems to me, that the point of preaching is not to preach to the problems of a particular congregation; but rather to preach the Word of God so that you may become knowledgeable in the Scriptures and thus able to apply the Scriptures yourself to your problems. In other words, to bring you to a certain maturity in the understanding of the Word of God.”  Now I think that is good and a worthy goal.  It is very popular today to preach messages such as 7 Steps to a Better Marriage, or 10 Characteristics of a Successful Church.  Those type of messages may propose a formula for you to emulate, but they can fail to give you a sound basis on which to be able to rightly discern the scriptures and correctly apply them to your daily lives.

Now before we delve into chapter 21, let’s set the context and at the same time dispel the idea that Paul was in error by continuing on to Jerusalem by referring back to the previous chapter, 20:22, 23; where Paul said to the elders at Ephesus, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me."  So he goes forward after being told by the Holy Spirit that imprisonment will await him as he goes towards Jerusalem, and then to Rome.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit didn’t show him all of that in some detail, so that he knew exactly what was going to happen.

So my title today is “Bound for the sake of the gospel,” and I have four points just to give us a little outline for our exposition, and they are bound in the Spirit, bound by fear, bound by love, and bound yet delivered. 

I’ve already alluded to the first point.  Paul considers himself even before his imprisonment as bound in the Spirit.  Throughout Paul’s writings, he refers to his ministry as being compelled, constrained to preach, saying woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.  Paul’s salvation was such a dramatic conversion, after having persecuted the church for years to becoming an apostle of the Lord to the church, that he considered himself bound to serve Christ and the church with everything he had to offer.  He would later say that I consider all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ.  Nothing else mattered.

The Bible says that before our salvation we are all bound to sin.  We served sin, and by extension, we served the devil. We served our flesh and our base passions.  But now that we are saved, we are to serve the Lord.  That is what it means to be bound in the Spirit.  Recognizing the depravity and hopelessness of our sinful condition, and grateful for the grace God has bestowed upon us, we now serve Him joyfully, obedient to the leading of the Spirit, forsaking all the pleasures and profits of this world, for the sake of our love for the Lord.

Then our second point is bound by fear.  So Paul is traveling towards Jerusalem, en route to Rome, and he is bringing an offering to the church at Jerusalem which he has gathered from the churches in Asia and Europe that he established. And I will spare you the geography lesson as we read of Paul’s travels by ship.  But as pertaining to our outline, he lands in Tyre and stays there 7 days. 

And while there Paul searches for any disciples that might be in Tyre.  And when he does, they warn him through the Spirit that he should not set foot in Jerusalem.  Now this is where supposedly Paul errs.  However, I would suggest that the Spirit is not forbidding Paul to go to Jerusalem.  I think that the Spirit was leading him to Jerusalem and had been for some time.  That is why Paul was resolved to go there.  What the Spirit was warning was to expect to be afflicted and imprisoned.  And these warnings were not meant to alarm Paul, but to prepare him.

I believe that is why the scriptures warn us of tribulation and trials as Christians.  Jesus warned us that if we follow Him then we will suffer.  Jesus certainly does not want us to not follow Him because we will suffer.  But He wants to warn us; forewarned is forearmed.  That is the purpose of much of the prophecy in scripture.  It’s not to give us a code that we spend inordinate amounts of time on, trying to figure out every detail and the day and time indicated.  But it is simply to forewarn us that we are going to experience tribulation in this world, even as Jesus said.  But take courage, for He has overcome the world.  He knows what is going to happen before it happens, and He lets us have a glimpse of it, so that we might be prepared.

Then further along in the chapter, we read that Paul leaves Tyre and travels to Caesarea.  And as he is there, a prophet named Agabus gives another warning to Paul.  This one is even more explicit.  He takes Paul’s belt, and in the style of the Old Testament prophets uses it to illustrate how the Jews will bind Paul and deliver him to the hands of the Gentiles which are the Romans.  Now as I said, all of this was not to discourage Paul, but to strengthen him, and even to corroborate the previous prophecy that Paul had concerning Jerusalem given by the Holy Spirit in Acts 20 which I read to you earlier.  And one important point in that is that prophecy needs to be corroborated.  If you come to me and say you have a word of prophecy by the Holy Spirit, I don’t care how spiritual you may sound, I don’t care how esteemed you may be in the church… I will not accept it on that basis alone.  It must be corroborated by scripture, or at the least by 2 or 3 witnesses.  Paul said test the spirits.  There are many deceiving spirits out there and even if an angel were to tell you something different than scripture you are not to accept it.  Everything has to be corroborated.  Now this was especially true in the early church when they did not have the finished scriptures such as we have.  Now that prophecy is complete, God is not giving new revelation.  His word is sufficient for all knowledge, for all instruction in righteousness.

But the main point is that we are not to be bound by fear.  We are told to trust the Lord, lean not on our own understanding, but in all our ways acknowledge Him and He will direct our paths.  Listen, the whole Christian life can be summed up in the idea of trusting in God’s plan for our lives.  All rebellion, all sin is really just an attempt on our part to try to do it ourselves, to make our own decisions, to think that we can handle life on our own and do it on our own terms. That is sin because it is not of faith. But the Christian life is coming to the point of surrendering to God’s plan and trusting that His plan is good, and we can rest in His wisdom and His plan.  That is what Romans 8:28 is talking about.  Trusting that God’s plan will work out for good to them that love God and are called according to His purposes. 

And we should not allow the fear of persecution or affliction to keep us from being witnesses of the gospel.  Paul said, “For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus."  I would that we all had that sort of courage for the Lord.  Not in some future, imaginary scene where we are asked to renounce Christ or face the firing squad.  But in our everyday, common lives, that we were so bold as to be a witness on our jobs, in our schools, to our neighbors, not fearing the condemnation or scorn or derision.  We don’t typically face death, ladies and gentlemen, for the sake of the gospel.  We just face society’s reproach, and that is enough to silence us.

Now there is a side issue in this section that I am need to address. It is one of those passages that have caused or added to the controversy about the gifts of the Spirit as well as the roles of ministry.  And so I will skip over that part.  No, not really.  But let me forewarn you that many controversial passages are such because there is not sufficient evidence to speak clearly on a subject.  And so you have what is called an argument of silence.  I would suggest that you do not build doctrine on an argument of silence.  One passage taken out of it’s context does not make for sound doctrine.  So let’s look at this, but realize that there is not sufficient evidence to be too dogmatic about what some might like to think they see here.

The difficult section is the one referring to Philip’s four virgin daughters who were prophetesses.  Now let’s consider what it says; first of all, it says they were prophetesses.  It does not say they were preachers.  It doesn’t say they were elders.  Luke never relates a prophecy given by these women.  Second it says they were Philip’s daughters, virgin daughters.  That means that they were under the legal authority and headship of Philip.  Now Philip is described as having two offices; the first is he was one of the seven.  One of the seven men appointed by the church of Jerusalem and the apostles to serve the church.  Second, he was an evangelist; that would be a preacher of the gospel, particularly associated with traveling to churches, going to far away areas to preach the gospel and establish the church.  So Philip has the office, and his 4 daughters have some sort of gift that is called prophecy.  My position is that they did not preach, because that would violate Paul’s instructions in 1Timothy 2:12 that he did not suffer a woman to teach, but to keep silent in the church.  So what purpose did these women serve?  I would suggest they served Philip and through him the church as a source of revelation from God, in a time in which there was not the written New Testament scriptures, and in a land where there was probably not even sufficient availability of Old Testament scriptures.  And so for practical matters God provided prophetic revelation through this evangelist’s daughters which he then gave to the church.  And the fact that there were four of them is important, because they would have fulfilled the command that every fact was to be confirmed by at least 2 or 3 witnesses.  See, there can be false prophets.  There can be false prophecy.  And in regards to new revelation, sometimes that cannot be immediately corroborated as coming from the Lord.  But in this case, the plurality of testimony could confirm revelation.  And so I think it was a unique gift to the early church, particularly in this church in Caesarea, in a remote area where they did not have adequate scriptural resources.   But note that when Paul comes, the 4 daughters were there, but they did not prophecy to Paul.  Paul was an apostle first of all.  He had direct revelation from Christ.  That is what the requirement of an apostle was that he had seen Christ and been taught by Christ.  And Paul had that by revelation.   But God brought a prophet named Agabus, a man to prophecy to Paul in the church.  So this is a perfect illustration of the principle that in the church women are not to hold a position of authority, which is in keeping with Paul’s letters.

The third point then is bound by love.  Paul finally arrives at Jerusalem.  I can’t imagine how he must have felt, anticipation, maybe some apprehension, even some anxiety.  But I think Paul most of all felt adrenalin.  He wanted to get it on.  Paul is like a combatant, like a prize fighter.  He wants to go to battle.  And he is biting at the bit to do it. 

But don’t forget in all that his motivation for going to Jerusalem.  And that is he loved the Jews.  He knew he was going to be afflicted and imprisoned.  And yet he loved them so much he was willing to suffer for them.  He said elsewhere, I would to God that I was accursed for the sake of my brethren, the Israelites.  That is an amazing thing to say.  That is like a parent saying, I would to God that He would take my life, for the sake of my child’s salvation.  And maybe some of you have said that.  That is love. 

And Paul proves his love for them by going out of his way to not offend them.  The elders come up with a plan to keep Paul from harm by taking these four young men who were taking the Nazarite vow and helping them fulfill that vow.  And this is where some have mistakenly criticized Paul again.  Because in this passage he is seen attending the feast of Pentecost which lasted 7 days, he purifies himself according to the Jewish law, he may have even shaved his head, the other guys certainly did, and he offers sacrifices in the temple!  Now at first glance that is like a Christian going to mass and confession.  But it’s even worse than that, because Paul rails against that sort of thing in Romans.  But we need to consider not what Paul did but why Paul did it. 

First of all, he did not do it to establish righteousness that he might be saved.  He knew that he was saved by grace, not works.  The reason he did it was so that he could preach to the Jews.  So that he could enter the temple and preach.  If he was defiled ceremoniously according to Jewish law, he could not enter the temple.  And during the feast, this would be his greatest opportunity to be a witness to the truth of the gospel. 

Now Paul explains that in 1 Corinthians 9:20, “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law: To them that are without law, as without law.”  He goes on to say that he becomes all things to all men that he might by all means save some.

Now that is an illustration of love. That is the love that Jesus had for us.  He became like us, a human.  He humbled Himself to receive spit and blows and rejection of men which He had created.  And that is exactly what we see Paul doing here.  That is why Paul could say be imitators of me, because he was an imitator of Christ.  And that is what we are to be; imitators of Christ.  That is how you become conformed to the image of Christ, by acting like Christ acted.

Now Paul understood freedom.  He is the one who declared the freedom we have from the law.  But true freedom is not only the freedom from the law, but the freedom to observe the law.  There are times when you may need to restrict your freedom for the sake of a brother in Christ who is weaker.  You may feel that you are free to have a glass of wine at dinner.  But there may be times when you restrict that freedom for the sake of a brother or sister that may be tempted to go back to the bondage of alcohol that they once suffered under, if they were to be eating with you.  That is why in the church, and at a church function, we will never allow alcohol.  Not because we are legalists, but because we love the brethren more than we love our freedom, and certainly more than we love alcohol.

Well, the last point is bound yet delivered.  In spite of the best laid plans, in spite of all the church’s precautions and in spite of Paul’s efforts not to be offensive, it turns out that some Jews from Asia, probably the same group that had caused a riot in Ephesus before, showed up near the end of the feast and they saw Paul in the temple.  And immediately they tried to start another riot, with the intention of blaming it on Paul and using it to have him arrested.  Their hatred for him and the gospel had not disippated.

So when they saw Paul, they started this riot on the assumption that he had brought a Gentile into the temple, when in fact Paul had gone out of his way to do the exact opposite thing to attempt to appease them.  And the whole city becomes involved in this riot, they dragged him out of the temple and started beating him to death.  But someone reported it to the Roman commander of the garrison, and he got some centurions and soldiers and ran down there and basically rescued Paul.  When they saw the Roman commander, they stopped beating Paul, and notice in vs. 33 it say that he bound Paul with chains. 

Now we read the story, so I don’t want to retell it.  But the fact is, that Paul was being murdered, and being arrested and put in chains is actually the means by which God delivered him from death.  Now that should be a lesson to us.  Sometimes, the thing which we are most afraid of, is the very thing God uses for our deliverance.  See, the Jews have been trying to kill Paul all along.  And we’re going to see in the coming chapters that they will continue to plot to kill Paul.  If Paul was not arrested, and held under Roman guard, then it would have only been a matter of time before he was murdered. 

But God wasn’t done with Paul yet.  And so God delivered him by having him arrested. God would end up using Paul  more in bonds than he did when he was free.  Paul would write most of the epistles from prison.  He would actually have the freedom to do that unhindered and unafraid of being secretly ambushed and murdered.  He would end up preaching to governors and kings and all of Caesar’s household.  And in the long run, the gospel would advance far more due to this ministry of Paul than it did when Paul personally went on three missionary journeys.  Now obviously, God used Paul’s missionary journey’s.  But I would suggest that Paul’s writings reached millions upon millions more people than he ever could have reached in person. 

So we see that God used bondage to accomplish deliverance.  And I think it comes full circle.  Because when you are in bondage to Christ, then nothing can come upon you that does not first come through the hand of God.  God will not allow you to be finished off until He is finished with you.  That is the promise of God for the person whose life is committed to the Lord. 

The crazy thing is Paul ends up being a prisoner for the next several years, and most of that time he was not charged with a crime.  In fact, King Agrippa says later that Paul would have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar.  But Paul only appealed to Caesar because a sorry governor who did not have a charge to hold him with wanted to turn him over to the Jews to judge him.  But God had a plan for Paul’s life, and Paul knew that he could trust God’s plan.  He knew that his usefulness and effectiveness depended on being in God’s plan, even when it seemed at odds with human reason.

Folks, I hope that you will consider being bound to Christ today.  I hope you will consider the baubles and trinkets of this life as worthless as compared to the surpassing knowledge of Christ and serving Christ no matter what the cost.  I hope you will not be bound by fear, but be courageous even as Paul was.  I hope that you will be bound by love, giving up your freedom, your liberty, your time, your resources, for the sake of the brethren.  I pray that your love for the church would prohibit you from putting any stumbling block in front of a another Christian.  And then I pray you will know the bondage that leads to deliverance.  There is no safer place than smack dab in the middle of God’s will.  Trying to do your will and yet appease God, or trying to keep up Christian appearances but live in the world are some of the most dangerous places you can be.  There is no better place, no safer place that fully committed to Christ.  You will never know true deliverance until you completely surrender to Him. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The power of the gospel is the life of the church, Acts 20

 Over the last couple of months, we have been looking at many characteristics concerning the power of the gospel.  I will not review all of those messages, but just to prod your memory I’ll remind you of some of the titles; the power of the gospel over demons, the power of the gospel over anxiety and depression, the power of the gospel over philosophy, the power of the gospel over lameness, and the power of the gospel to save.  And today is perhaps the last one; the power of the gospel is the life of the church.

Now if you have read ahead, you will probably suppose that I’m going to talk about the young man that fell to his death and use that somehow as an illustration or metaphor for the life of the church.  But I doubt that is an accurate way of exegeting the text.  Rather, I think I will let that example simply be a warning to some of you here today who may have already put your shades on and are planning on catching some z’s during the message.  I should warn you that if you fall asleep and if by some reason or another you die in your sleep here this morning, I do not have the apostolic gift of raising the dead such as the Apostle Peter or the Apostle Paul had.  So go ahead and sleep if you want, but consider yourself forewarned.

However, what I do think this passage illustrates is the power of the gospel in the life of the church.  This whole passage taken together shows a slice of the daily activity of the church, the way the church was conducted.  In fact, in verse 7 we see the first time that Sunday services are really described in the New Testament church.  Some people have claimed that Saturday services were not changed to Sunday services until much later during the rule of Constantine and by his decree.  But according to this scripture that is not true.  This text clearly describes what would have been a church service in Troas on Sunday.

Notice in vs. 7 it says on the first day of the week, when they were gathered together to break bread.  Now that is a reference to communion, to the Lord’s supper.  And many theologians believe that the Lord’s supper was a weekly part of the service in the early churches.  So you have here a description of a typical Sunday service at a typical New Testament Gentile church.

But just for the sake of clarification for anyone who is not a regular at our services, let me point out that when we talk about the church, or church life, we are not speaking of a building, nor a denomination, nor an organization nor a program.  Ekklesia, the Greek word for church, means the called out ones.  The assembly of believers.  It refers to the body of Christ.  And we are the body of Christ, if indeed the Spirit of Christ dwells in you.  Do you understand that?  We are the flesh and blood body of Christ, you and I, if we have the Spirit of Christ living in us, using us for His glory and His purposes.  That is the reason for the gospel; to make us righteous, so that we might be filled with His Spirit and do the things which He tells us to do.

That is the purpose of being saved.  Not just to escape hell, though that may be sufficient motivation.  Not just to be forgiven of our sins, though we should desire that.  But that we might do the works of God and so that we might have fellowship with God which was impossible when we were dead in our trespasses and sins.  Now that we are made righteous through the blood of Jesus Christ, we are made temples of the Holy Spirit, we offer up acceptable sacrifices unto God in our bodies which is simply by obedience to the Word of God.   We are now by the grace of God made a part of His body.

But listen, remember what Paul told the Corinthians; no part of the body can exist  without the support and connection to the other parts of the body.  No man is an island.  We were made part of the body, the church of God so that we might join one another in a local fellowship, in a local assembly.  And all the parts are made to work together, just like in your human body.  The hand, Paul said, cannot say “I don’t need the rest of the body. I just want to go off and do my own thing.”  But it finds it’s life in the body and usefulness and purpose in the body. So each of you are called to be part of a local body of believers.  And that is exactly what we see going on here in Troas.

Now there are several characteristics of this church presented here which should be emblematic of the church today.  And some of these I just want to mention in passing, and some we will spend a bit more time on.  But let’s follow the order in which they are presented.

First of all, there is the matter of giving.  Church life is revealed by their love for one another, and one major way is by giving to supply the needs of those who are in need.  And the church in Jerusalem was in dire need.  They were being persecuted by Jews and Romans alike, people could not hold a job because they were excommunicated from Jewish life,  there was no way to feed their familes, or support their families.  And so Paul in 1 Corinthians 16 says that he was collecting an offering from all the churches in Asia and in Europe as he traveled and his intention was to deliver it to Jerusalem by the feast of Pentecost. 1Cor. 16:2-3 “On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come. When I arrive, whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem.”  You might note in that passage a reference again to the practice of meeting on the first day of the week, Sunday.  So that is the day they would take up an offering.  And notice back in our text in vs. 4 that Paul is accompanied by various members of churches who will make up that delegation to Jerusalem.

Jesus said they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.  And love offerings are one tangible way that we show love for one another.  James said in chapter 2:16, if you say “’Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?”  So a characteristic of the body of Christ is that we will supply the needs of one another and give freely even as Christ gave Himself to the church.

Secondly, a characteristic of the church which we have already alluded to was that they met on the first day of the week.  Now that is not the only day that the church met.  In the last chapter, we saw that Paul was teaching daily in the school of Tyrannus and we have often read how they met in houses and were taught throughout the week.  But there is a definite description here of corporate worship on Sunday. Hebrews 10:25 tells us to be mindful of  “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” 

Listen, church is the assembly of believers.  I already went over that.  We are to be part of a local body.  Today in this age of technological advancements, there is a tendency among some to think that you can watch a TV show or download a message on the internet or something and accomplish church without having to get out of your bathrobe.  But folks, that is not church.  Church by it’s definition is a physical assembly of spiritually and physically connected parts of Christ’s body in a local congregation. 

Some pastor once said to me that if you do not have  membership then you do not have a church.  He was talking about being on the church rolls. Well, I beg to differ.  But I will say that if you are not deliberately participating in and regularly in the assembly of a local body, then you are probably not a part of the church of Christ.  Local church participation and fellowship is essential to the Christian life.  It is not optional.  In fact, if you want to become a backslider, if you want to fall away from the Lord, if you want to fall into temptation and the snare of the devil, simply stop going to church.  You will do so to your ruin.

Thirdly, we see the characteristic of the life of the church is communion, or breaking bread, or the Lord’s supper.  I would take issue with the idea that the Lord’s supper has to be taken every week, or even should be taken every week.  Jesus said on the night before His crucifixion, “As often as you do this, do it in remembrance of Me.”  And what were they doing?  They were celebrating the Passover.  And how often did they celebrate the Passover?  Once a year.  Now there is no prohibition against celebrating the Lord’s supper every week, but neither is there any command to do so.  There are commands however as to how it should be conducted. 

But more importantly than how often we do it is what it represents.  It is a physical reminder of the Lord’s death. 1Cor. 11:26 “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.”  So what does that mean then?  It provides us with an opportunity for introspection and repentance, for getting right with God.  Vs.29 “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” Then Vs.31 “But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.”  Now that introspection and repentance is the essence of the gospel, and it is illustrated in communion which is part of the life of the church. You can’t do that at home alone watching television by the way.

Fourthly, the life of the church is characterized by the preaching of the gospel in vs. 7.  Now I would love to camp out on this one.  But I won’t belabor it.  However, notice that Paul preaches until midnight. Modern Christianity cannot suffer a preacher to speak longer than about 20 minutes on average.  And even then, you better keep it interesting and tell lots of stories and jokes or you soon won’t have much of a congregation. 

1Cor. 1:18 says “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  You know, the preaching of the word of God is sort of like taking your spiritual temperature.  If you can’t really stand to hear the gospel preached, if you find it boring, or can’t understand it, or are disinterested, you should be as alarmed as if you have a 104 degree temperature.  Because if you have the Spirit of God in you, then you will appreciate the Word of God being preached.  It will be your food, your drink, your sustenance that will be life to your spirit and sustain you throughout the week. 

In fact, if you find it that boring and uninteresting, then perhaps you are like the young man sitting in the windowsill named Eutychus described in vs. 9 who fell asleep and fell down three floors and was dead on arrival.  Maybe you too are spiritually dead.  Maybe you need to be revived by the Spirit of the Lord.  Becoming spiritually alive is a supernatural event, ladies and gentlemen.  Eutychus is lying there dead, he cannot pick himself up by his bootstraps.  He cannot speak life to himself.  He needed the supernatural miracle of the Spirit of God to give him life.  And if you are unsaved today, if your body is not the temple of the Holy Spirit, then you must be born again by the Spirit of God.  That is not something  you can do by coming to church, or trying to be good, or by cleaning yourself up.  It can only occur by the power of the Holy Spirit as we are forgiven of our sins and given new life by the gift of God.

Well, in the interest of time let’s move on, I don’t want any of you perishing along the way.  Luke changes gears from the church at Troas to the church at Ephesus in vs. 17.  Paul has left Troas and is on his circuitous route to Jerusalem, and he stops in Miletus and sends for the elders, that is the pastors, of the church in Ephesus.  Now these probably were pastors from several churches in the city of Ephesus.  And Paul gives a message to these pastors.  We could easily spend a Sunday just studying this message of Paul’s. But for the moment I want to continue our train of thought concerning the characteristics of the life of the church as a result of the power of the gospel.  And there are some characteristics of the gospel presented here which I want to point out. 

The first thing of note in Paul’s message is he explains or describes the gospel that he has been faithfully preaching.  And Paul starts by saying that he has been serving the Lord and them even through tears, through trials and persecutions.  Nothing has deterred him from preaching the gospel.  That is his calling, his stewardship, and nothing would stop him from faithfully declaring the whole truth of the gospel. 

I find it kind of sad that Paul always seemed to have to be in defense mode about his ministry.  He sacrificed everything for the sake of the gospel. He says in vs. 24 that he gave his life for the church, for the sake of the gospel.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he died for the church, but it means he died to everything else in life for the sake of the church and the gospel.  And I believe that is a mark of a godly shepherd of the flock.  I find myself feeling jealous sometimes of these pastors that can take off for several Sunday’s a year for all kinds of reasons, conferences, sabbaticals, vacations, you name it.  I have a book at home that was given to me which is called “On Being a Pastor”, written by a couple of guys who I really respect, but I was floored when they talked about the time off that they expected to receive, and what many pastor’s routinely get as part of their benefits.  They talked about a month long sabbatical - goodness, I had to look up the word sabbatical to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  I don’t know, I guess that would be great.  I don’t want to start a pity party, but I haven’t missed a Sunday in 9 years of preaching.  And I think I have taught at least 50 Wednesday’s a year for I don’t know how long.  I don’t say that to make you feel sorry for me. I want to be here. But I do say that to make the point that a true shepherd willingly gives his life for his sheep.  I dare not leave my flock any more than I can possibly help, even if my flock is but a little one.  It is still my charge.  And I believe that is what Paul is saying in so many words.  He spent his life preaching and serving the church above all other considerations.  Acts tells us that Paul went on 3 different missionary journeys over the course of his life, lasting many years.  And coming up we will see that he spent the rest of his life in and out of prison.  But I will tell you something.  You will never read that Paul went on vacation.  Never happened.  Nothing wrong with a vacation.  I hear they are fun and quite relaxing.  But you don’t see Paul doing it.

And then notice the nature of the message Paul was preaching.  It’s one thing to say he preached the gospel, that we are saved by the power of the gospel.  But what is the gospel? And what makes it powerful? I would hope that those of you that have been faithful here this summer could answer that question.  But if not, Paul reiterates what I’ve been saying all summer; the gospel rests on two essential pillars – repentance and faith.  And that is the message that Paul was preaching.  He makes it very clear in vs. 21 , he was “solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  That is the gospel.  And that is the power of the gospel which gives life to the church.  That is the way to have life in Christ, to be supernaturally made part of His body, through repentance and faith.

Now please forgive me, but I cannot move too quickly from this point, because it is so essential.  I’m afraid that the gospel is being misrepresented today and as such it is robbed of it’s power to save.  And the way that it is being misrepresented is by an over emphasis on faith alone and neglecting to preach on repentance.  First of all, there is a reluctance to preach about sin at all in the modern church.  But if you preach on sin, then you must preach about repentance, in order to receive forgiveness of sin.  The great disconnect between faith and practice so often seen in contemporary Christianity hinges upon the lack of repentance.

The great English preacher Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “Repentance and faith must go together to complete each other. I compare them to a door and its post. Repentance is the door which shuts out sin, but faith is the post upon which its hinges are fixed. A door without a door-post to hang upon is not a door at all; while a door-post without the door hanging to it is of no value whatever. What God hath joined together let no man put asunder; and these two he has made inseparable—repentance and faith.”

Now let me try to define repentance briefly for you by saying what repentance is not.  Repentance is not merely feeling a sense of shame because your sins have become exposed.  Repentance is not merely grief because of the consequences of your sin.  Repentance is not simply a horror at the future prospects of punishment of sin. All of those may be felt at the exposure of your sin, but they are not necessarily repentance. 

Let me say clearly what repentance is.  Repentance is the realization that you have greatly offended God.  When David repented of his adultery and murder in Psalm 51, he said, “Against You and You only have I sinned.”  Sin is first and foremost a grievance against God.  It is recognizing our rebellion against our Creator. 

And to extrapolate on that idea, repentance is recognizing our neglect of God.  God designed us for His purposes, and instead we served our purposes, even when it caused our own destruction.  Though you may never have been convicted as a murderer or an adulterer, yet you are guilty of neglecting God all these years and serving yourselves.  You have robbed God of what was due Him as your Maker.

And we must not compare ourselves to one another and so excuse our sin as less than someone else’s.  Repentance requires that we compare ourselves to God’s standard of righteousness, which is no less than the spotless Lamb of God.

Furthermore, repentance is increased as your faith is matured.  Some people think that because they repented when they were converted, that they need not repent any more.  But the truth is that the greater the faith, the deeper the repentance.  That is why Paul said, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?”  As righteous as Paul was, he was ever more aware of his own weakness, and found himself doing the very things that he hated.

Repentance and faith will each grow  as the other grows: the more you know the weight of sin, the more will you lean upon Jesus, and the more will you know his power to uphold to you. Repentance is looking at the way you have been living - at fulfilling your fleshly desire, at your dependence upon the old nature - and changing your mind. That is what repentance means. To repent means to stop thinking and acting and living the way you have been. Instead, step out in faith. Trust the living Lord who is in you to operate through you, and walk in obedience.

The Bible tells us that when we are born again there are still two natures, the old man, and the new man.  Faith is choosing to live according to the new nature, and repentance is putting to death the old nature.

So, you see, there are the two basic steps, and you must take them over and over again. The way you begin the Christian life is to repent and believe. And that also constitutes your walk through the Christian life. A walk is more than a single step. When faced with a situation, you should take the first step and repent, think through the old way of life and say to yourself, "I've been going at this the wrong way." But that is not yet a walk. You must take the next step and believe, have faith in the Spirit of God who leads you through the Word. Then, on the next occasion that comes, you go through the same procedure over again -- you repent, and then believe -- repent and believe -- repent and believe -- and you are walking! That is what the Christian life is all about. In every circumstance, every situation, this is the two-fold way by which the Christian lives in the power of a living God: repent of the old way and act in faith in the new way.

Now that we are Christ’s body, our body is not our own, we are bought with a great price, the price of Jesus’ blood.  So we live from now on no longer to fulfill our desires of the old man, but to fulfill God’s desires as we live in the new man.  And we find the strength to do that by the Spirit who is within us, as we lean on Him and trust in Him.

There is one final aspect to Paul’s message that just bears mentioning for now, I will not go into great detail as it really needs very little explanation.  As Paul gets ready to depart from the elders of the church he expects that he will not see them again.  Some commentators say that he did in fact see them once more.  But at that moment, they were preparing for the worst.  And so Paul gives them a warning.  The first warning was to feed the flock. Vs. 28, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”  The Greek word used for shepherd the flock there is better understood as feeding the flock.  And pastors are to do that by preaching the word of God, the whole counsel of God, undiluted, unadulterated.  Not trying to please people, but telling them the truth, because only the truth can set you free.

And secondly, he tells them to guard the flock because savage wolves will come in to devour the church. Vs. 29-30 "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Jesus said that too.  He talked about wolves in sheep's clothing, unregenerate men and women who, talking and acting like Christians and perhaps even thinking they are Christians, but who are not born again, will come into the church. They will be religious but will deny the power of true faith, they will deny the fundamentals of the gospel, and they will disturb and try to ruin the church of God. They rob people of the truth, and so they deprive them of the salvation that comes from truth.

So he says, be on the alert.  The devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.  You know wolves tend to prowl around the edges of the flock, looking for stragglers, looking for ones who are weak, who are not within the safety of the flock.  That again emphasizes how essential it is to stay in fellowship in the church and not go off on your own. 

And then stay in the Word. "I commend you to the Word," he said. Everything you need is in the Word. It is the life of the church. It is able to build you up and complete you. It contains the power of the gospel which is able to give you life, life in Christ, the power to walk the walk.  It is able to convict you of sin.  It is able to lead you in righteousness.  And so Paul concludes with that emphasis, to preach the word, to stay in the word, and to obey the word.  That is the source of life in the church.  The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes.  I hope that you have that life in Christ.  If not, you can receive it through repentance from your sins and faith in what Jesus has done for you on the cross by paying the penalty for your sins so that you may be forgiven and made righteous.  Call on Him today and trust Him, and commit to live no longer for the flesh but for God by the power of Christ which is given for you.