One part of my keen interest in Civil War history has to do with continually seeking to understand the values and commitments that would make a man walk across an open field and into the face of a 12-pounder Napoleon Model 1857 cannon loaded with canister (about 75 metal balls packed into a sort of tin can). Looking straight into that barrel, watching the enemy artillerists ramming home the powder charge and the projectile, knowing life was down to a few final seconds … thousands continued to walk forward toward that fate. Were they too stubborn to turn and flee? Or were they that committed to their convictions?
The Apostle Paul was a man of conviction – that is certain. In today’s reading, we see him journeying onward to Jerusalem. Everywhere he goes – at every stop – he is warned that difficulties, persecution, and imprisonment await him. Yet he continues on toward that goal, convinced that the Lord wanted him to do that.
What is success in ministry? Is it always visible? Is it always quantifiable? By 21st century standards, the day of Pentecost was a success – 3,000 saved in one day! That is the blessing of God. Here and there we read of “many who believed and were baptized” after a sermon of Paul. Amen! But now (as we will see over these final two weeks of readings) Paul walks into the face of certain imprisonment. Everywhere, people warned him to stay away – come on Paul, change your methods and stop being so antagonistic! Surely you can reach more people by staying out of jail and the courts! Are you just stubborn or what? Get over yourself!
But Paul had a divine appointment that he knew included imprisonments and suffering. And this would involve gaining the attention of (and gospel proclamation to) a mob in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, two Roman governors, King Agrippa, and the praetorian guard in Rome.
Again, the road of taking up one’s cross to follow Christ is difficult. It is filled with obstacles, opposition, pain and disappointment. There is brokenness on the journey, no matter what the modern fired-up purveyors of the gospel of success say and appear to always enjoy. As Paul said to Timothy, sometimes ministry is “in season” and sometimes it is “out of season.” The command is to be faithful in each – being convinced of the calling of the Lord.
This is not a popular message. Sorry about that! Sometimes the calling is to set your face toward Jerusalem and walk that road into the face of great difficulty and opposition. Paul did it … and so did another guy before him, who began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
So what is success? What does the pathway of conviction and calling look like in our lives? Sometimes it looks and feels like walking toward a loaded cannon.
On to Jerusalem – Acts 21:1-26
21 After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Kos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. 2 We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. 3 After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. 4 We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.5 When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. 6 After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home.
7 We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. 8 Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.
10 After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
12 When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”
15 After this, we started on our way up to Jerusalem. 16 Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples.
Paul’s Arrival at Jerusalem
17 When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow.24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
26 The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.
Additional note: I know this final section today almost looks like Paul was honoring the Jewish sacrificial system as if the cross was not sufficient. Paul certainly did not see it this way… he was not doing this to promote a method of salvation – for that was in Christ alone. But he saw no conflict in honoring these Jewish traditions related to vows of commitment and things of that sort. His action here would work toward the unifying of the Jews and Gentiles in the universal church. Perhaps this passage from the epistles would put it into context:
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.