Do Hard Things

Acts 21:1-26

January 22, 2022 | Brian Bill

I finally came across a national church survey filled with good news from the pews!  Here’s the headline from Christianity Today: “9 in 10 Evangelicals Don’t Think Sermons are Too Long.”  This study also confirmed what I know to be true among the people of Edgewood: “They’d like to see more in-depth teaching… [and] they aren’t bothered by too many messages about giving.”

Last weekend we took an in-depth look at what God’s Word says about His creative work in the womb and declared this truth: Because everyone is made in the image of God, everyone is important to God.  We also spent time praying about the situation at an elementary school in the community and were reminded how Satan and his demons target children.

I mentioned one of the best ways to respond is to support and serve with gospel-centered groups like Good News Clubs, Quest Clubs, Young Life, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  

Another way to make a difference in the lives of children is to partner with Youth Hope, one of our Go Team partners.  For more than 85 years, Youth Hope has been bringing hope to youth through literacy programs, kids clubs, tutoring, and after-school programs.  Each day Youth Hope transports kids in Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline.  They have a creative arts program and offer life-changing weeks at Camp Summit in the summer.  In addition, they have a food pantry and a children’s book room.

Here’s a practical way for men to get involved.  Incredibly, Youth Hope has been asked by a school in the community to lead a four-month program for fourth grade boys at the Moline Center during the school day on Mondays.  They are looking for 25 men to meet with 25 boys one hour a month during the lunch hour on a Monday for a total of four meetings.  So far, 11 men have stepped up.  Would you consider shining the light of Christ in this way?

We’re continuing in our On Mission study from the Book of Acts.  Lord willing, we’ll finish this action-packed book the weekend before Easter.  We’ll pick up the pace a bit as we trace Paul’s final journey to Jerusalem and then to Rome.  The Book of Acts has no rival as it spans so many different lands, focuses on the Holy Spirit, and celebrates the rise of the multi-ethnic church.  Acts helps us know how to act as we live on mission by making disciples of our neighbors and the nations, all for the glory of God.

Please turn to Acts 21 where we’ll learn this truth: If you want to know God’s will, do the will of God you already know.

This chapter gives us three ways to live out the will of God.

1. Do what God wants you to do, even if it’s hard. 

By way of context, we’re joining Paul on his third missionary journey.  He’s just had a tearful goodbye with the Ephesian elders and is continuing his trip to Jerusalem.  Acts 21:1 gives us some of the specifics: “And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara.”  The phrase, “when we had parted from them” can be translated, “When we had torn ourselves away from them” and was used of Jesus leaving His disciples in Gethsemane. 

Our family has been on both sides of the pain of parting which often comes from following God’s will.  We experienced a tearing away when we left our family and friends to be missionaries in Mexico City.  We were on the other end of this pain when our daughter Emily left to serve as a missionary in the Dominican Republic.  It was also painful to leave the church we served in central Illinois for 14 years.

The next leg of their journey is described in verses 2-3: “And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail.  When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo.”  After taking a larger vessel for a longer voyage, they finally arrived at Tyre, on the coast of Israel.  We know from Acts 11:19 there were followers of Christ in that region: “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia…”

Notice how important it was for Paul to gather with God’s people.  Even though he didn’t have much time, and he was no doubt tired, he went out of his way to find fellowship according to verse 4: “And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days.”  

The word “sought” is emphatic and means, “to find by diligent seeking.”  This same phrase was used by the shepherds in Luke 2:16 when they “went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.”  Paul went out of his way and worked hard to find fellowship so he could gather with God’s people.  

I jotted down three thoughts.

  • If you unplug from church, the chances are high you’ll begin to unravel.
  • If you’re not able to gather in person, stay connected by engaging online until you can gather again with God’s people.
  • The danger of missing church is that soon you won’t miss it.

Some of you are in the process of searching for a church as you ache to hear God’s Word and gather with God’s people so you can grow, give, and go with the gospel!  I talked to two couples just this week who told me they have found what they were looking for at Edgewood!  I pray we would be the destination for many in their search for a gospel-centered and Scripture-saturated church so together we can reach even more disciples who intentionally make disciples for the glory of God!  Paul Washer gives some good advice in this regard: “Don’t look for the nearest church to your house.  Find the church closest to the Bible.”

As our culture continues to cave and society slides south spiritually, it will become increasingly more difficult for us to live out our biblical convictions, especially if we’re not connected to other Christians.  Check out Hebrews 3:12-13: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

If you want to know God’s will, do the will of God you already know.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s do what God wants us to do, even if it’s hard.  That leads to the next insight about doing the will of God

2. Stay steady even when others don’t understand. 

We see Paul’s connection with people in verses 5-6 when everyone came out on the beach to say farewell to him “and kneeling down on the beach, we prayed.”  This is a good reminder we’re to pray whenever and wherever we are.  Just this week I prayed with several people on the phone and with others in person.  Here’s an idea.  Instead of telling someone you’ll be sure to pray for them, stop right then and there and pray, no matter where you are.

In verse 7, again we see how Paul sought out believers: “When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for a day.”  In verse 8, Paul arrived in Caesarea and stayed with Philip and his four daughters.

As good as it is to be with other believers, have you ever noticed there are differences of opinion among us?  Sometimes these opinions can come across a bit forceful, almost like divine directives.  That’s what Paul faced when the prophet Agabus tried to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem.  He even spiritualized his opinion, which would never happen today, right?  

Listen to verse 11: “And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”  

Emboldened by the prophet, many other believers spoke strongly to Paul according to verse 12: “When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.”  This group included Luke as we see in the use of “we.”   The word “urge” means, “to beg.”  This is similar to what we read in the second half of verse 4: “And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.”  The tense indicates “they kept on telling.”  

This is challenging to interpret and commentors disagree on the meaning.  Some suggest Paul was in the wrong, but I don’t think so.  Let’s go back to Acts 20:22 where we see he was simply following the Spirit’s leading: “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there.”  In Acts 23:1, Paul declared, “I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.”

Let me caution you about listening to people who say something like this, “The Spirit told me to tell you.”  Or “I have a word from the Lord for you” if they don’t have chapter and verse.  There is some strange stuff out there in the spiritual world.  I saw a clip this week that was so gross and disturbing I could barely watch it.  To illustrate how “receiving God’s vision can sometimes be nasty,” a popular pastor from Tulsa coughed and spit into his hand and then smeared snot on a member’s face as he declared that this is “crazy faith.”  And we wonder why unbelievers are turned off by so-called Christians.

In verse 13 we see how Paul stayed steady, even when others didn’t understand: “Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’”  Paul saw suffering as a privilege, not a problem.  His determination reminds us of Luke 9:51 where we read these words about Jesus: “He set His face to go to Jerusalem.”

A couple months ago when we were visiting family in Virginia, I went out for a run and came across a check on the sidewalk.  I stopped to pick it up and saw it was a large payroll check from Dunkin Donuts made out to one of their employees.  When I turned it over, I saw that the person had endorsed the check by signing his name.  

I looked around and saw the Dunkin’ so I went in and asked for the manager.  The woman behind the counter hesitantly replied, “I’m the manager.”  I think she thought I had a complaint or something.  When I explained the situation and gave her the endorsed check, she was surprised I turned it in and thanked me.  She offered me a free cup of coffee.  I declined while looking longingly at the donuts, hoping she’d offer a chocolate long john instead.  She didn’t pick up what I was laying down.

Paul was committed to do the will of God no matter what it cost him.  It’s as if he had signed a blank check, giving God full permission to do whatever He wanted to do with his life.  Have you endorsed God’s work and are you surrendered to do His will?

After hearing Paul’s passion to follow God’s will, no matter how hard it is, verse 14 tells us how other believers responded: “And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, ‘Let the will of God be done.’”  We could say it like this: God’s will, WILL be done.  This is a good reminder for all of us.  Ultimately, what we want is for the will of God to be done.  

Whether I’m right or not, I want God’s will to be done

I try to keep this in mind when I give counsel or advice.  Whether I’m right or not, I want God’s will to be done.  I fully recognize I could be wrong or misread a situation.  Even if I’m right, it’s important to leave it in God’s hands, asking Him to do His will in His way, in his timing, according to His plan and purposes, for our good and His glory.

If you want to know God’s will, do the will of God you already know.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

  1. Do what God wants you to do, even if it’s hard.
  2. Stay steady, even when others don’t understand.

That’s leads to the third insight.

3. Recount what God has done and give Him glory. 

When Paul finally arrived in Jerusalem, he and his team stayed with a fellow follower of Christ, showing again how Paul went out of his way to find fellowship.  Look at verses 15-16: “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.”  

These Christians are called “disciples,” which shows they are followers and learners of the Lord.  Here’s how we define a disciple at Edgewood: “Someone who lovingly follows Jesus and intentionally helps others follow Him.”  As your brother and pastor, I implore you to become more intentional in your discipleship this year.  

Interestingly, Mnason is called an “early disciple.”  The KJV refers to him as an “old disciple.”  I guess I’d rather be called an early disciple than an ancient one!  This senior saint opened his home to a bunch of overnight guests, who probably hadn’t called ahead.  

Stay strong and courageous and live out your faith so you don’t bail on your commitments as you get older.

As I reflected on this, I don’t want to grow colder as I grow older.  I don’t want to suffer from “hardening of the categories,” but instead be filled with joy, celebrating what God is doing in the younger generation, being willing to give up my preferences for the sake of the gospel.  Nor do I want to be like Solomon in his old age when it was said of him in 1 Kings 11:4 that “his heart was not wholly devoted.”   Stay strong and courageous and live out your faith so you don’t bail on your commitments as you get older.

When the traveling team arrived in Jerusalem, verse 17 says, “the brothers received us gladly.”  After all this time, they were thrilled to reconnect with the missionaries.  We would do well to be excited whenever we reconnect with fellow Christ followers.  One of my favorite things to witness is how Christians greet one another, especially when they haven’t seen each other for a while.  That often happens here when people, who haven’t been able to gather for some time, decide to come in-person for services.  

Verse 18 says, Paul “went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.”  James, the half-brother of Jesus, was the pastor of the Jerusalem church.  The elders were the spiritual leaders.  Listen to verse 19: “After greeting them, he related one by one the things God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.”  The word for “greeting” is “embrace,” demonstrating another warm connection between these Christians.

Then Paul “related one by one the things God had done…”  To “relate” means, “to unfold, reveal, narrate, rehearse, and recount.”  It’s similar to the word “exegete,” which refers to making something clear.  To do it “one by one” indicates he took the time to celebrate every instance of God’s work.  Notice Paul is not bragging about what he had done but “the things God had done.”  

It was a regular practice for God’s people to rehearse and recount all that God had done.  

  • Acts 14:27: “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them…”
  • Acts 15:4: “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.”
  • Acts 15:12: “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” Paul celebrates two main things God had done.
  • God moved Gentile Christians hundreds of miles away to take up a large offering for the Jewish-background believers who were going through a famine.  Listen to Romans 15:25-27: “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints.  For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.  For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.”  Paul couldn’t wait to present this huge offering to the church at Jerusalem.
  • God moved in incredible ways in response to the preaching of the gospel as people were saved and set apart for service.

Drop down to Acts 21:20.  Because God did it all, God must get all the glory: “And when they heard it, they glorified God.”  Let’s make it a regular practice to celebrate what God has done in the past, what He is doing right now, and what He will do in the future.

If you want to know God’s will, do the will of God you already know.

One of the privileges of being one of your pastors is I get to hear what God is doing in the lives of people.  As a church family, I want to make sure you’re aware of some of these things as well.  In fact, my favorite way to lead is by celebrating what God is already doing.  I like what Henry Blackaby says: “Instead of just asking God to bless what you’re doing, find out where God is at work and join him there.”

Let’s take some time to give God the glory for the great things He is doing at Edgewood.  For the sake of time, I’ll just focus on a few key areas of ministry, knowing there are so many other ways God is working.  We’ll celebrate and then I’ll share some ways we believe God is leading us to recalibrate this year.  We’ll share more details at the annual meeting on February 6, but we thought it would be good to do some of that now.

Giving God Glory

I’m also humbled by what God has been doing for His glory through the generous giving of the members and friends of Edgewood this past year. 

It’s humbling to realize God has been doing His work for His glory through the people of Edgewood for 117 years!  We’re going to end our service by celebrating God’s work in each of our lives by singing the hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”

But first, let’s pray.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?