In his 2005 song by the same name, Bon Jovi asks the question:
“Who says you can’t go home?
Who says you can’t go back?
I been all around the world and as a matter of fact
There’s only one place left I wanna go
Who says you can’t go home?”
Well, actually many people have said it through the years.
Probably what most people think of, is the title of a novel written by Thomas Wolfe, that simply says, “You can’t go home again.”
John Steinbeck expanded on that when he wrote, “You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”
Lauren Oliver explains, “The reason you can never go home again isn’t necessarily that places change, but people do. So nothing ever looks the same.”
And according to Aleksandar Hemon that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, “If you can’t go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world-indeed, nowhere is the world.”
One of my
favourite songs is one I discovered while living in Australia and the lyrics go
I’ve been around the world
A couple of times or maybe more
I’ve seen the sights, I’ve had delights
On every foreign shore
But when my mates all ask me
The place that I adore
I tell them right away
Give me a home among the gumtrees
With lots of plum trees
A sheep or two, a k-kangaroo
A clothesline out the back
Verandah out the front
And an old rocking chair
And I’m sure that Paul kind of felt that way, well maybe not with the Kangaroos, but about going home.
This summer our preaching theme has been: Asking For a Friend. And the staff has take the time to answer questions that the Cornerstone family submitted anonymously online.
This morning the question we are going to take a stab at is: How did Paul justify his insistence on continuing on toward Jerusalem, in Acts 20 and 21, despite continual warnings by the Holy Spirit of what he would face when he got there — including a very graphic Old-Testament style warning by Agabus in Chapter 21?
Paul had been all over the known world on what are often referred to as his missionary journeys and now the time has come to return to Jerusalem. And he seems fairly passionate about going home.
We read in Acts 20:16 For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia; he was eager to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.
When we first hear about Paul’s desire to be in Jerusalem for Passover he is in the city of Miletus, which, 2000 years ago was considered a Greek city but is actually located in what we know call Turkey. And it was a little over 1800 kms from Jerusalem if you were to travel by land, but Paul chose to go by water, he had obviously remembered from school that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.
So, if we pull up one of our trusty maps, this is where Paul’s journey home begins, in Miletus, and we are told that they boarded a ship and sailed to Syria. It was there that they stayed in the city of Tyre for seven days with other believers.
When we travelled in Australia as a family, we usually stayed with other Christians that we knew, some of those folks we only knew casually and sometimes we even stayed with folks that we only knew through their family. But I digress.
It is here that we read the first warning that Paul receives about his trip to Jerusalem. Acts 21:4 We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. However the warning doesn’t seem to make much of an impact on Paul because in the very next verse we read. Acts 21:5 When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey;. . .
It was as Paul continues on his journey to Jerusalem that he ends up in the community of Caesarea and there that he meets a prophet by the name of Agabus. And it’s here the story takes a bizarre turn, let’s pick things us in Acts 21:10-12 While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.'” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.
So, here we are at the crux of the question: How did Paul justify his insistence on continuing on toward Jerusalem, in Acts 20 and 21, despite continual warnings by the Holy Spirit of what he would face when he got there — including a very graphic old-testament style warning by Agabus in Chapter 21?
As we look at the story, as it spans across Acts chapter 20 and 21, we see the three characters who are mentioned in the question. And hopefully as we look at these three personalities the answer will become clearer.
Let’s begin, First There was the Spirit: To be clear this is the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity that we are speaking of here. And the story begins with the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
And so this chapter is Paul’s life begins with this note in Acts 19:21 Afterward Paul felt compelled by the Spirit to go over to Macedonia and Achaia before going to Jerusalem. “And after that,” he said, “I must go on to Rome!”
Here we see Jerusalem as part of the overall plan for Paul’s ministry. He is to go to Jerusalem and ultimately to Rome. It’s always good to have a plan. Remember the old adage, “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.” And it’s even better to have God as part of that plan.
Jesus’ brother, James, tells us in the letter he wrote: James 4:13-16 Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil.
But it would appear that Paul had taken that into account and his plans weren’t his own but were Spirit directed. That shows up again when he says in Acts 20:22-23 “And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead.
And that is all well and good.
Until we keep reading in the story and discover these two warnings that Paul is given. First by the believers in Tyre and then by Agabus.
So, on one hand we have the Holy Spirit pushing Paul toward Jerusalem, and then the same Holy Spirit warning Paul about going to Jerusalem. What’s with that?
When I was thinking about this, two memories came to mind. In 1985 we received a call to pastor the Wesleyan Church in Truro. My first pastor, Jack McKenzie had pastored that church and was very familiar with it, and he cautioned us about accepting the call. He said the church had issues and there were difficult personalities in the church, especially for a young pastor. Angela and I felt strongly that Truro was where God wanted us, and yet here was Jack, a Godly man who I held in high regard as my spiritual mentor who was warning us about taking the church, for various reasons.
25 years ago, while we were still in Australia, Angela and I were in communication with the Atlantic District about returning to plant a new church in Bedford. And after we had firmed everything up, Ray Barnwell the District Superintendent told me, “I just want to warn you, this will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.”
He was my spiritual leader, he recruited me, and now he was warning me?
I don’t see a contradiction in what was happening with the Holy Spirit with Paul, and certainly feel like both Jack and Ray spoke God’s words into my life.
Because I feel that there are times that God will lead us into difficult situations, but he doesn’t want to deceive us about it. Jesus warned those who chose to follow him in John 15:18-19 “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t follow him.
So the first person was the Holy Spirit Then there was Agabus The firsttime we see Agabus is in Acts 11:27-28 During this time some prophets traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up in one of the meetings and predicted by the Spirit that a great famine was coming upon the entire Roman world. (This was fulfilled during the reign of Claudius.)
And now he does this entire interpretive dance routine with Paul’s belt warning him about returning to Jerusalem.
So, we know that Agabus was a prophet. Now to be clear a prophet is not a fortune teller; they are people God has given the gift of discernment to and they speak to that. In the Old Testament they were often “Turn or Burn” type people. And they weren’t always popular because of that.
Today they often exercise that gift of prophecy and discernment by saying, “If you continue to do this, this will be the result.” And they aren’t always popular.
And the prophet’s responsibility is to tell what they know. It’s not their responsibility to act on that information or insist that someone else act on it. That’s the hearer’s obligation.
Last week I was in Montreal at our national conference. The speaker at the conference was a well-known personality who has held a few high-profile positions in the Canadian evangelical community and presently serves as the Global Ambassador of the World Evangelical Alliance.
In the first session he made a humorous and slighting demeaning comment about Dr. H.C. Wilson, our former district superintendent. Who happens to be a good friend of mine.
I didn’t say anything, those things happen, sometimes the filter doesn’t always work. But I could see that HC wasn’t comfortable and there were others in the room who weren’t either.
That evening in the second rally the speaker went for laughs with the same reference, only slightly embellished. I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling uncomfortable. HC Wilson is not only the former District Superintendent of the Atlantic District, he was the first National Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church of Canada, he is the former Director of Global partners which represents the Wesleyan Work around the world. And a former General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church Globally.
And so afterwards I approached the speaker, who in his position represents 600,000,000 evangelicals around the world, slightly larger than Cornerstone, even on a good Sunday. And I told him, “The most highly respected person in this room is H.C. Wilson, and every time you make that comment you erect a barrier that some people have to climb over before they begin to hear your message.” “Really” he replied, “I didn’t mean anything offensive by it.”
To which I replied, “Brian, I’ll call him Brian because that’s his name, you can do what you want with what I’ve told you.”
I had done what I felt I was to do. The next morning, the speaker began his session by apologizing for his remarks. It’s interesting that different people commented on how they enjoyed his last session the most.
Agabus had no dog in the fight, so to speak, but he felt compelled to tell Paul what lay ahead of him in Jerusalem. What Paul did with what Agabus told him wasn’t Agabus’ responsibility.
Which brings us to the main player in the game, Finally There was Paul
If you are familiar with the book of Acts then you know that Paul’s name had originally been Saul, and his mission had been to destroy the early church. But though a dramatic conversion experience, which you can read about in Acts chapter 9, Saul became Paul and went from being the Church’s greatest enemy to being the church’s greatest champion.
And for twenty-five years Paul has travelled the known world establishing new churches. He’s now in his early fifties and we read in Acts 19:21 Now after these things had been accomplished, Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, “After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.”
Two thousand years ago, Rome was the epicentre of the known world, much like Grand Manan Island is today. And it was Paul’s final destination, but only after he returned to Jerusalem.
Now, let’s pull up another map, this shows the Mediterranean Sea. Paul was in Ephesus when he made the decision to go to Rome, via Jerusalem. So here is Ephesus, from there he goes to Troas and from there he heads to Jerusalem, and to his final destination which was Rome. Looks like a route my GPS has taken me on from time to time.
And Paul isn’t going into the trip wearing rose coloured glasses. If we keep reading in the book of Acts, we read, Acts 20:22-23 And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.
Phil Bence comments on this in the Wesleyan Bible
Commentary, “Whatever unknowns lay in his
future, Paul now recognized that a change was coming. Earlier in his
ministry, he took persecution as the signal to move on to a new site of church
work. Now he chose to follow Jesus right into the face of suffering.”
So, what was up with this? Did Paul have a death wish? I don’t think so, but neither do I think Paul feared death.
He understood that as long as there was work to be done, he needed to do it, regardless of the consequences.
Philippians 1:20 For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honour to Christ, whether I live or die.
He then goes on to write, Philippians 1:21-25 For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith.
You might be more familiar with Philippians 1:21 from the King James version where it says, Philippians 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
There is a story told that during the Spanish Civil War a surrounded garrison was encouraged to surrender, and one soldier responded, “I would rather die on my feet then live on my knees.”
In Paul’s case he had a mission and he was determined to fulfil it, regardless of the cost. Paul would rather die being obedient then live being disobedient.
And maybe he shared the philosophy of John Wesley Who has been quoted as saying, “Until my work on this earth is done, I am immortal. But when my work for Christ is done … I go to be with Jesus!”
If you know the story, Paul eventually arrives in Jerusalem, and as predicted things don’t go well. Even within the church there was controversy over what some perceived he had been teaching. Then some of the Jews in Jerusalem began to accuse Paul of blasphemy, a riot breaks out and the mob intends to kill Paul.
He is only saved by the intervention of the commander of the local Roman regiment, who immediately has Paul arrested and orders him to be flogged, kind of out of the frying pan into the fire type thing. I wonder at that point if Paul was reconsidering ignoring Agabus’ warning?
And it’s here that Paul plays his trump card, let’s pick up the story in Acts 22:25 When they tied Paul down to lash him, Paul said to the officer standing there, “Is it legal for you to whip a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been tried?” Oops!
But the Romans don’t know what to do with Paul and while he is still in Prison he gets an unexpected visitor, Acts 23:11 That night the Lord appeared to Paul and said, “Be encouraged, Paul. Just as you have been a witness to me here in Jerusalem, you must preach the Good News in Rome as well.”
Over the next several chapters we see Paul moved up the chain of command within the Roman authorities, until finally he ends up in the city of Caesarea in front of the Roman governor, a man named Festus. The governor, attempting to placate the Jews, tells Paul he’s going to send him back to Jerusalem and have him stand trial for the charges the Jews had brought against him.
And Paul responds by saying, Acts 25:10-11 “No! This is the official Roman court, so I ought to be tried right here. You know very well I am not guilty of harming the Jews. If I have done something worthy of death, I don’t refuse to die. But if I am innocent, no one has a right to turn me over to these men to kill me. I appeal to Caesar!”
Well Festus just wanted Paul out of his hair and so the story continues in Acts 25:12 Festus conferred with his advisers and then replied, “Very well! You have appealed to Caesar, and to Caesar you will go!” And you know where Caesar was, right? Yeah in Rome.
And it wasn’t an easy trip to Rome, there were storm and ship wrecks but finally in the last chapter of the book of Acts we read, Acts 28:11-14 It was three months after the shipwreck that we set sail on another ship that had wintered at the island—an Alexandrian ship with the twin gods as its figurehead. Our first stop was Syracuse, where we stayed three days. From there we sailed across to Rhegium. A day later a south wind began blowing, so the following day we sailed up the coast to Puteoli. There we found some believers, who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome.
That was a long way to answer the question. The Spirit warned Paul because it was only right that Paul would know what he was getting into. Agabus warned Paul because that’s what prophets do; they warn people of the consequences of their actions. Even if those actions are right, there can be consequences. And Paul continued on his journey to Jerusalem because he convinced that he was in the centre of God’s will, regardless of the circumstances that he found himself in.
So understand, that they may be times when we just have to keep the faith and believe in the mission, regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in.