The Joy & Costs of Serving in God's Mission
Topic: Persecution Passage: Acts 21:15–36
Monday was MLK Day, signed into law under President Reagan. The purpose was to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and remember his non-violent advocacy to end racial segregation. As all leaders do, King certainly had his own character flaws. He even rejected some teachings about Christ that are central to the gospel. But on what King got right—that we ought to judge a person not based on the color of their skin but on the content of their character—we’d do well as Christians to give honor where honor is due.
I bring this up, however, not to go on about King himself, but to highlight a point about slander. For some time, I’ve watched even Christians slander one another when it comes to MLK. From one side, to say anything positive about Mr. King means you must’ve drank the Leftist Kool-Aid and are a borderline Communist. From the other side, to criticize anything of Mr. King’s character or doctrine means you’re either a racist or someone who lost touch with their roots.
Barring the most extreme exceptions, these knee-jerk reactions illustrate what the Bible calls slander. Both sides make a false assumption based on something unstated when they have no grounds to do so. Then they take that false assumption and smear the other person before others. The result not only misrepresents the person; it spreads falsehood, cultivates fear, and divides relationships.
In our passage today, the Apostle Paul finds himself facing a similar kind of slander. Folks heard him saying that faith in Christ alone marked God’s covenant people; that circumcision wasn’t necessary for Gentiles. Then they make the false assumption that Paul must also oppose circumcision for Jews and teach against Jewishness and the Law and the temple and so on. They slander him; and it presents a fairly sticky situation for the church. What do they decide? How do they handle it? What lessons might we learn from the situation about serving in God’s mission?
Paul Heads to Jerusalem & Rome
It’s been a couple months since we’ve been in Acts. The risen Jesus is advancing his kingdom through his Spirit-empowered people. They’re spreading the gospel to all nations. It began in Jerusalem. It spread to Judea and Samaria. And since chapter 13, we’ve watched the gospel spread to the ends of the earth—Syria, Cyprus, Pamphylia, Pisidia, Galatia, Phrygia, Macedonia, Achaia, Ephesus, and so forth. Ten years and three missionary journeys later, after many bow the knee to King Jesus, Paul finds himself constrained by the Spirit to return to Jerusalem and then head to Rome.
That marks the final shift in the book of Acts. From this point forward, Paul heads into Jerusalem, then makes his way to Rome in a not so pleasant manner. Five different occasions Paul must give a defense before various rulers. Part of Luke’s point is to exalt Christ through it all. Jesus is sovereign ruler over all that happens; he puts his messenger right where he wants him. Any person in power can read Acts and see that Jesus is the true Lord; nothing happens apart from his say.
Luke also wants to vindicate Paul. He’s innocent. Any pagan leader could read Acts and see that Christianity was no direct threat to Rome. It was actually just to let Christians continue preaching the gospel without fear of government intrusion. But in the process, Luke also presents an example in Paul when governments do interfere. He shows what it means to defend the faith, to strengthen the church, to live peaceably before pagan authorities. In short, the example equips the church to serve in God’s mission. At least three lessons emerge from Paul’s missionary work in this next section…
1. Missionary work finds its significance not in what we do for God but in what God does through us.
The first lesson comes in verses 15-20. Missionary work finds its significance not in what we do for God but in what God does through us. Verse 15,
After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge. When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God.
Notice first the church’s glad reception of Paul. Every once and a while, you’ll find someone reading into this passage all kinds of tension between Paul and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. For them, the tension serves as backdrop to the problem James will mention in a moment. But from the outset, Luke couldn’t be clearer. The church’s disposition toward Paul is one of warmth and unity. Mnason shows them great hospitality. “The brothers received us gladly,” it adds.
That’s no small statement within Acts. It stresses the abiding joy and unity between those devoted primarily to Jewish evangelism and those devoted primarily to Gentile evangelism. The Lord has one mission to reach both groups with the same gospel. They support each other’s efforts. They’re eager to hear the Lord’s work through them.
Which brings us to Paul’s God-centered report. In verse 19, Paul relates “one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.” Notice, it’s not all the things we had done but all the things God had done. That’s the pattern of Paul’s reports. In Acts 14:27, they “gathered the church and declared all that God had done with them…how [God] had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” In Romans 15:18 Paul says, “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience…” 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
Missions is not first the work of the church or any particular leader in the church; it’s first the work of God. To lose sight of this leads to all kinds of problems, much like we observe in 1 Corinthians—people boasting in their favorite preacher instead of the Lord. Or today it’s not uncommon to hear someone share how much a church is growing, and the first question is, “What’d you do?” Meaning, “What what formula did you create, what programs did you employ, what methods did you embrace, what media did you advertise with, to produce this increase?” Then some publisher learns of it, prints a book on how to make your church grow in seven easy steps, all the while ignoring God.
Salvation is of the Lord, beloved. Yes, we work hard and we strategize and find new ways to reach more people. But in the end, God is the chief missionary. God is on a mission to save a people for himself from all nations. We’re but privileged participants in his mission. Sinful though we are, weak as we are, timid as we are, jars of clay as we are—how amazing that God includes us in what he’s doing! That by grace he puts this treasure called the gospel in us and says, “Go! Share it with others!”
When we recognize the God-centered nature of our mission, not only will it kill man-centered boasting. Not only will it undercut celebrity cultures. It will cultivate a God-glorifying response. That’s what happens next. When the church hears about God’s work among the Gentiles, they glorify God. They recognize his greatness. It’s a joyful occasion, much like when we hear reports of others coming to faith in Christ, or we hear testimonies at members meetings of how God saved us. We glorify God for that.
We deserved nothing except God’s wrath, and yet we find ourselves by his grace adopted through Christ. Glorify God, church! Sing praises to his name! Tell of his greatness from day to day! For he has done great things for us and we are glad! Find your joy in glorifying God—that’s the point of the mission.
2. Missionary work requires great humility and wisdom to dispel slander, preserve unity, and spread the gospel.
Second lesson: missionary work requires great humility and wisdom to dispel slander, preserve unity, and spread the gospel. The Lord saved many Gentiles through Paul’s ministry abroad. But the Lord also saved many Jews in Jerusalem. Verse 20 indicates many thousands. But as we’ve witnessed elsewhere, wherever the gospel spreads, opposition won’t be far behind. In verses 20-26, James presents a problem facing the church and how they work toward solving it. Verse 20…
They said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They’re all zealous for the law, and they’ve been told about you 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’ve come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a 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’s nothing in what they’ve been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we’ve sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.
To understand the nature of this problem, it’s best to see it in light of Acts 15. In fact, James mentions in verse 25 a letter they sent to the Gentiles. We have that letter in chapter 15. Chapter 15 also explains why that letter happened. Jews wondered what bearing the Law of Moses had on Gentiles since the coming of Christ. Some Jewish false teachers were saying Gentiles must keep the Law to be saved.[i] It was legalism with a capital L. But there were also some Jewish Christians wrestling with whether Gentiles must keep the Law after they’re saved. It was legalism with a lower case l, so to speak.
The apostles, including Paul and James, dealt with both. They protected the church by distancing themselves from the false teachers: nobody gets into the kingdom by circumcision and law-keeping; salvation is by faith in Christ alone. Then they also nurtured the church by clarifying that Gentile Christians don’t have to be circumcised or keep the Law. Circumcision and other customs like that were a matter of indifference.[ii] That’s what the letter was about—to say, “Hey, if you’re a Gentile, don’t worry about circumcision. But do pursue holiness. Abstain from idolatry and immorality.”
Well, Paul agrees. He goes about his business, preaching the gospel to other cities, teaching Gentiles not to worry about circumcision. Here’s where the Jews of chapter 21, likely false teachers again, make a wrong assumption and start the rumor mill. They assume (wrongly) that if Paul teaches it’s unnecessary that Gentiles be circumcised and follow Jewish customs, Paul must also oppose any Jews doing the same.
But that wasn’t true. Paul never teaches that Jews shouldn’t get circumcised; he just taught it’s a matter of indifference when it came to salvation. Making something a matter of indifference isn’t the same as saying you shouldn’t do it at all. Moreover, saying Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised doesn’t mean Jews shouldn’t be circumcised or practice their customs. Paul actually lives just the opposite. He chooses to circumcise Timothy, who is half Jewish, in 16:3. He shaves his head after being under a vow in 18:18. Paul isn’t opposed to Jewish customs, just so long as nobody elevates them in ways that undermine the gospel and justification by faith alone.
Regardless, though, some were slandering Paul by spreading these false assumptions among Jews in the church. It’s not hard to imagine what sort of worry, even division, such a rumor might cause in a church filled primarily with Jewish Christians zealous about their Jewish customs. So what’s the solution?
The solution is one that will dispel the slander and also preserve the church’s unity. James lays out the plan: “We have four men who are under a 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’s nothing in what they’ve been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”
To be clear, this isn’t about how someone gets saved. They all agree in chapter 15 that salvation is through faith in Christ alone. It’s also not to criticize what Paul teaches Gentiles. Again, James agrees with Paul in 15:19 and he still agrees with Paul by mentioning the letter here in v. 25. Also, the concern isn’t the moral principles within the Law and reapplied by the apostles. James’ proposal simply addresses Jewish customs like circumcision and vows and so forth; and he views this as an opportunity for Paul to dispel the slander and preserve the unity.
It’s basically a way to say, “Show them, Paul, these rumors are groundless.” So Paul does so in verse 26. Think about that. After all Paul had done for the church in Jerusalem, why bother? For months he’s been traveling from church to church collecting money for Jews who are poor in Jerusalem. He’s finally there. He delivers the collection (Acts 24:17 mentions this). Wasn’t that enough? Why do something so petty like pay for these guys’ haircuts. Paul could’ve said, “No! Haven’t I done enough?! Let’s sit these slanderers down and I’ll tell them a thing or two.”
But that’s not his disposition. Instead, he humbly agrees to participate. What Paul exemplifies here is the principle we find in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. “For though I am free from all, I’ve made myself a servant to all that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law…I’ve become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
Paul didn’t have to do this. But he willingly chose to do it. He doesn’t become a Jew in every respect—as if to resort back to the law as his covenant master. No! But he does become a Jew in some ways, that by all means he might save some. The saving, there, not only has to do with winning new converts but also the preservation of those converts already inside the church. What wisdom illustrated here! What earnest care these leaders show to preserve the church’s unity! What humility we see in Paul’s willingness to flex in this way to save God’s people!
Beloved, we can learn from this, can’t we? It’s not Luke’s point here. But the passage certainly illustrates why we should be careful with our assumptions about others. Some made false assumptions about Paul and then used slander to trouble and divide the church. Beloved, we must not participate in slander. Be slow to speak—or, in our day, slow to Re-Post, Retweet, Meme, etc. Do your homework. Hold out charity to others when something is unclear. Beloved, wolves divide the sheep with falsehood and slander.
But we do find great wisdom in the way James and Paul handle the situation; and that gets us closer to Luke’s point. James and Paul stick to the truth of the gospel, which they both agreed to in chapter 15. Then they found ways to serve their Jewish neighbors instead of reviling them. They put together a plan that was committed to the gospel, sensitive to Jewish customs, and helpful to the church’s unity.
We also see in Paul a humble servant. In the face of slander, he willingly serves his Jewish friends in ways that will spread the gospel without subverting the gospel. Using his words, he became a servant to all that he might win all the more. Imitate his service—but not just because Paul is a moral man. Imitate him, because in this act we see the risen Christ at work in Paul (cf. 1 Cor 11:1). The Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Not only does Christ’s path set the example. His death also liberates us to walk in it. In the face of slander—and there’s a lot of it today, especially on social media—let’s respond with humility and wisdom that will help dispel slander, preserve unity, and spread the gospel. That’s the goal: to have God use us to build up the church and spread the gospel.
3. Missionary work includes following in the footsteps of Jesus, who suffered even though he was innocent.
Lesson number three: missionary work includes following in the footsteps of Jesus, who suffered even though he was innocent. Sometimes Christians do all the right things, and others respond positively. But many times, Christians can do all the right things, and others hate them even more. Paul gets hated more. Look at verse 27…
When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he couldn’t learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!”
Notice how the slander increases. They falsely accuse him of teaching against “the people and the law and this place.” Stephen was accused of the same in 6:13. Paul was among those accusing Stephen and among those who went on to stone Stephen. God has radically changed this man in Christ. Paul preaches what Stephen once preached; and now they level the same charges against Paul. But anybody reading Acts knows the facts.
It’s exactly the opposite. Paul isn’t teaching against the people. If he was teaching against the people, why’d he have Timothy circumcised? Why’d he bring money for the poor in Jerusalem? Why’d he willingly practice the Jewish customs? Above all, why’d he labor to teach them about their Messiah and how Jesus came to save them? He’s not against them. He’s for them in the greatest of ways.
He also doesn’t teach against the law, or against the temple. Like Stephen, Paul shows how the law and the temple have reached their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ—we find this in Paul’s teachings elsewhere. Notice how Luke also points out that Paul didn’t actually bring Trophimus into the temple. Verse 29—they only supposed that Paul brought him into the temple.
In other words, Paul is innocent of these charges by the Jews. But consider the scene a bit more. Here’s a man traveling around, preaching the gospel of the kingdom. He now comes to Jerusalem. The Jews accuse him of being against the law and against the temple. But he is innocent. Then they try to kill him. Roman authorities have to get involved. The crowd turns violent and shouts, “Away with him!”
Does the scene remind you of anyone else? In Luke 23, Pilate said to the chief priests and the rulers and the people, “…Behold, I didn’t find this [Jesus] guilty of any of your charges against him…I’ll therefore punish and release him…But they all cried out together, ‘Away with this man…’” Paul is following in the footsteps of Jesus. Paul’s sufferings are not redemptive like Jesus’ sufferings were. But Jesus’ sufferings freed Paul to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus on the same road.
Here we see the risen Lord Jesus living in Paul and compelling Paul to walk the same path of love, even when that path leads to suffering unjustly. It was the Spirit of Jesus who led Paul to Jerusalem in the first place. 1 Peter 2:19-24 says this.
…this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
Because Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross, we can die to sin and live to righteousness. What does that righteousness look like? It looks like the life we find in Paul. As an apostle and pioneering church planter, as someone for whom the Lord revealed a very specific mission to Jerusalem and then Rome, Paul certainly had a unique ministry that’s unlike what the majority of ours will look like. But his pattern of life is worthy of imitation. He willingly serves his neighbor in the face of slander. He willingly suffers in the face of injustice—all to get the gospel into the lives of others, to see the church strengthened, and to see the risen Lord Jesus magnified.
Brothers and sisters, let’s pray for the Lord to help us take up the same cross, when the world slanders us. Let’s pray for the Lord to give us the same humility to serve, when we feel that our reputation has been slandered. Let’s pray for the Lord to give us wisdom when outsiders respond to the gospel with hostility. Let’s ask for a grace to endure evil with patience, and give ourselves to the Lord’s will even when that means we suffer for his name’s sake.
Let’s also take courage from Paul’s life, just like other churches had done in Paul’s day. He says in Philippians 1:14 that most of the brothers and sisters, when they saw Paul’s imprisonment for the gospel, became much bolder to speak the word without fear. That’s my hope for us. That’s a prayer for myself. I too want to take courage from Paul’s sufferings. I too want to see the work of Christ in and through Paul. Then I too, no matter what comes, want to share the word without fear. Let’s come to the Lord now, confessing where we’ve lost sight of this mission; and then ask his forgiveness and help.
[i]The group in verse 1 is vaguely identified as some who came down from Judea. But the group in verse 5 is specifically identified as some believers. Also, the group in verse 1 is saying that circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses are necessary for salvation. But that language disappears with the group in verse 5. They seem to be asking whether it’s necessary for Gentiles to keep the Law once they’re in. Also, the group in verse 5 eventually agrees with the decision of the apostles on the basis of salvation by faith alone. They then unite with the whole church in separating themselves from those in verse 1. In fact, look at verse 24. The same group of verse 1 is again described this way: “we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions.”
[ii]See 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; 6:15.
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