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Is it God's Will or Just a Good Idea?

Date: Jul. 13, 2014

Author: Bob Henkins

Acts 21:1-16

Key Verse: Acts 21:14

“The Lord’s will be done.”

When facing a difficult decision, how can we tell the difference between what’s God’s will or just a thoughtful suggestion from a loved one? This is maybe one of the hardest difficulties we can face. Sure people are ready to give you their advice, but it may or may not be God’s will for you. How can we tell if it’s God’s will or not? To know what is right, we need discernment and spiritual wisdom to know what to do. In today’s passage, Paul gives us a good example on how to discern between God’s will and helpful suggestions from caring friends. Paul knew that sincerity wasn’t enough to help him decide to go to Jerusalem or not. Just because someone’s sincere doesn’t mean they’re right, they can be sincerely wrong. So let’s see what we can learn from Paul’s example about discerning God’s will for our decisions.

Take a look at verse 1. “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.” It wasn’t easy for Paul or the Ephesian elders to say good-bye. Luke describes it as “tearing themselves away.” Their love for one another was so deep and genuine. These types of relationships don’t’ come along very often. So when you find one, you should cherish it like a treasure because they are rare. However the clock was ticking and Paul had to go, so with much difficulty they departed. Paul and company sailed straight to Cos, then to Rhodes. Rhodes was famous for the “The Colossus of Rhodes,” which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was a 98 ft. high bronze statue of the Greek god Helios that stood 50 ft. high white marble pedestal at the entrance to the harbor. The Statue of Liberty is 111 ft. tall and did you know that there is a plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty that is inscribed with a sonnet called ‘The New Colossus,’ which includes the following reference to the Colossus of Rhodes: ‘Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame.’ After Rhodes they went on to Patara. Once underway, there was no hesitation or delay in Paul. Come what may, he took the most direct route to Jerusalem. They found a ship sailing for Phoenicia (2). It seems to have been an uncomfortable cargo ship. But with no thought to comfort, only to speed, they went on board and set sail. Soon, they sighted Cyprus and passed to the south of it (3). At last, they landed at Tyre (4), putting their feet on Palestinian soil. While the ship unloaded its cargo, Paul and his companions found the disciples of Jesus. Take a look at verses 4-5. “We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 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.” I’m not sure if Paul knew these Christians or not, one commentary I read said that the word used here for sought was used only one other place in the Bible and that is when the shepherds heard the angel’s message about the baby Jesus and they went and sought him out. The meaning is to really search for something valuable. So this reveals what Paul thought about these Christians in Tyre. To Paul they were important, they were like his spiritual family and he loved and wanted to see them.

Verse 4b says, “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” At first this was a little confusing to me. All along the Holy Spirit had been compelling Paul to go to Jerusalem (20:22) but now was the Holy Spirit telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem? It’s easy to think that, but that’s not what’s going on here. Rather, the Christians in Tyre were expressing their deep compassion and love for Paul. The Holy Spirit had been revealing what was waiting for Paul at Jerusalem and naturally they didn’t want him to suffer, so they urged him not to go. Paul was touched by their love. However, when the time came, he went on his way. Paul didn’t waver in his course. Realizing this, all the disciples in Tyre, together with their wives and children cried and prayed together with Paul on the beach. To me this is a beautiful sight, seeing the families serving God together with the parents and children all there. I believe that this shows a healthy ministry.

Look at verse 8. They came to Caesarea, the home of Philip the evangelist. He was one of the original seven deacons (Ac 6:5). According to Acts 8, Philip had preached the gospel powerfully in Samaria and then, led by the Spirit, evangelized the Ethiopian eunuch by teaching him who Jesus is based on Isaiah chapter 53. Then Philip went to Caesarea, where he must have lived since (Ac 8:40). Now he had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. While other teenage girls talked about clothes, shopping and boys, Philip’s daughters spoke about what God was going to do in the future. Philip’s home must of had a unique atmosphere. You know the stereotype of how talkative women are, now throw in the fact that they were prophesying - wow?!! I’m just kidding, I think their home had a wonderful atmosphere and it was a good place for Paul to spend time in prayer. Being so close to Jerusalem, he must have been praying about his decision to obey God’s will. He was probably even asking for strength and wisdom to carry it out. Maybe he was helping his Gentile coworkers get accustomed to Jewish life. It was a good time of spiritual preparation and it seems that even the careful historian Luke lost track of time, for he does not say specifically how long they stayed. But this stay could not be permanent. It was the calm before the storm.

Look at verse 10. A prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. This is his second appearance in the book of Acts. At Antioch, Agabus had prophesied that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. The church members believed this and sent a relief offering to the Christians in Jerusalem. And indeed, it happened just as Agabus had prophesied (Ac 11:28). Now Agabus came up to Paul, took his belt and tied his own hands and feet with it. Then he 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.’” (11). There are a couple of things that I find strange here. First how in the world did Agabus tie himself up? And second, when Paul was staying with the four prophesying women, none of them said anything about Paul. A prophet had to come from another place and tell them. Isn’t that weird? Anyway evidently Agabus’ prophetic words struck their hearts. Everyone realized what this meant. Not only would Paul would be arrested and handed over to the Gentiles in Jerusalem, but he probably would be killed. This was serious. How did Paul’s company react? Look at verse 12. “When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.” Notice that this is not coming from Agabus. This is important because it’s not coming from the Holy Spirit but rather from Paul’s traveling companions and the others there. This is an emotional plea where they were literally begging Paul not to go. Why so earnest now? Maybe it was because Agabus’ prophecy was so convincing. Maybe it was because they were close to Jerusalem and the reality of the danger was upon them. In any case, their inner thoughts were revealed and they didn’t want Paul to suffer and die. They were so grieved at the thought of his trials in Jerusalem that they wept profusely. It’s understandable, but it wasn’t helpful. They made it much more difficult for Paul to obey God’s will, from which he knew that couldn’t deviate.

It’s at this point I’d like to ask the question, how does Paul know which way to go? How does he discern between what is God’s will and what’s a thoughtful suggestion? Now what I’m not talking about is the everyday decisions that we have to make. Like what school we should go to, or what job we should take. Don’t get me wrong, these are important questions but I don’t think that God really cares about WHAT we decide but more of WHY we decide to do it. Just as 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” because honestly, we can make the same decision for multiple reasons. (for personal reasons or for God) Also can’t forget that God is much bigger than us and He can redeem even our bad decisions for his good purpose. Our decisions won’t throw off God’s plans; he is too big and powerful for that. What I’m talking about are big life decisions like what Paul is going through here.

However what we can’t have is indecision – no decision. Sometimes the decision to do nothing is wise. But you can’t make a career of doing nothing. Recently I heard a story about Freddie Fulcrum (from The Wall Street Journal) who weighed everything too carefully. He would say, “On the one hand... but then, on the other hand,” and his arguments weighed out so evenly he never did anything. When Freddie died, they carved a big zero on his tombstone because he could never make a decision. There is a saying, “You have to decide to fish or cut bait.” One thing is clear, if you can’t decide you’re definitely not going to have fish for dinner. Harvard Professor Harvey Cox once said, “Not to decide, is to decide not to.” We have to make decisions all the time but if we’re afraid to make the wrong ones, we will never learn faith. We won’t learn from our failures. We won’t grow spiritually.

How did Paul respond? Look at verse 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.”” Notice that Paul had an answer for them. No doubt his heart was aching. How could he ignore the tears and pleading of his beloved coworkers? Nevertheless, Paul stated clearly, “I am ready to die in Jerusalem for the name of Jesus.” Although Paul’s heart was breaking, he was steadfast in his obedience to the will of God. Paul had prayerfully decided to submit his will to God and his surrender was complete. Paul was no longer living according to his will, but God’s. He said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20).

When Paul told his friends, “I am ready to die,” he didn’t have a death wish. It simply revealed his level of commitment to God’s will. When a person is totally committed to doing the will of God, they will gain the peace of God that will direct their heart to what is best. Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will they will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” (John 7:17) Only when people are completely yielded to God’s will can they discern all that God wants them to do. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice then you will be able to know what is the good, acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Rom. 12:1,2) People who fail to know the will of God have something lacking in their obedience to God and His word. For the more we obey God, the more He will reveal His will to us. A.B. Simpson - the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance thought, “Agabus’ appearance was simply a test that brought out the truth of Paul’s full commitment to God.” Sometimes the Lord allows us to be tested in order to sharpen our commitment to Him and clarify our course.

Another way to know we are following God’s will is that we have a calling, where the Spirit of God draws us to his will. A calling is what gives us direction. It’s like the rudder of a ship. Each of us needs a personal calling given to us by God. Sometimes that calling is simply being made aware of something. The things we see may be what God has called us to do. When Moses saw how his people were being treated, he went out and did something about it. He killed an Egyptian that was beating one of his people. Granted it was the wrong thing to do, but it revealed his desire to help his people. It revealed his calling and God used his calling to deliver the Israelites from the bonds of slavery. We believe that our ministry is called to serve college students. It’s our hope that God will raise spiritual leaders who can spread the gospel and bring healing to wounded young souls. That God will raise people who will transform our society into one that reveals his glory in the world. That God will raise missionaries who are willing to go to all nations to spread the gospel of salvation in a dying world.

Along with a calling, another way to know we are following God’s will is that we have the ability and desire to serve in the call of God. And by ability, I don’t necessarily mean success, but I talking about the ability to endure and accomplish what God has called you to do. Paul’s only desire was to serve God and he found satisfaction only when he was doing the will of God. Everything short of 100% of the will of God seemed empty to the apostle. Paul was able to say, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:22-24) When we are so wrapped up in doing God’s work we will find nothing else will come close to satisfying us. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.” (John 4:34) Real satisfaction comes only from hungering and thirsting after righteousness. (Matt 5:8) 

Another way to know we are following God’s will is that our conscience is clear. Paul always sought to have a clear conscience. He wrote, “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.” (Act 24:16) Paul made sure that his conscience was spotless so he did not have any lingering doubts, uncertain feelings or regrets.

One thing that we have to understand is that when someone has made a decision to follow God’s will, (to die for Jesus to fulfill his mission) there will be resistance, sometimes even from close coworkers. However like Paul, in the final analysis, we must obey God, even when our hearts are breaking because of our loved ones. What made Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. great was his decision to obey the will of God at the cost of his life. He realized that challenging the racism and elitism of American society was dangerous. Yet, just before his assassination, he said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. followed in Paul’s footsteps who followed in Jesus’ footsteps. One person who decides to obey God’s will at the cost of his life is like a spark that can start a fire.

Every day people do their best not to suffer trying to save and extend their lives, but Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mk 8:35). May God help each of us to struggle daily in prayer until we can decide to obey God’s will for us. This requires a personal decision that each of us must make; no one can make it for us. May God strengthen you in daily struggle until you can say like Paul, “I am ready to be bound; ready to die for Jesus.” May God help each of us to follow the example of Paul and give our lives for Jesus and the gospel. Then we can please God and be courageous and victorious in this life and gain eternal life in the age to come.

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Daily Bread

Seek Righteousness, Seek Humility

Zephaniah 2:1-15

Key Verse: 2:3

  Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land,
    who do his just commands;
  seek righteousness; seek humility;
    perhaps you may be hidden
    on the day of the anger of the LORD.

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