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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

An Appearance in Jerusalem


"The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done." Acts 21:33

I’m pretty sure you’ve all heard of TikTok - the video sharing app.  Anyone can upload a video.  Others can then watch it.  It’s so popular that over 1 billion videos are daily.  So, in an average week, on average, every person on this planet watches one video!  And the average length is around 15 seconds.  My conclusion? – human beings love a short visual demonstration!


In Acts 21 10-11, we meet Agabus again.  We first met him in Acts 11 where he prophesied about an upcoming famine.  Agabus was a prophet - he knew what others did not yet know.  Moved by the Holy Spirit, he was able to predict upcoming events.  And Agabus knew something else.  He may not have predicted the arrival of TikTok some 2000 years later.  But Agabus knew that humans love a short visual demo!  And that is what he gave them.


Agabus took Paul’s belt and tied himself up and predicted that ‘in this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt…’  Last time, we briefly considered the reaction. There was a split of opinion.  In verse 12, everyone else seemed to believe that this prophecy was given to prevent the prediction.  But Paul believed it was not to prevent but to prepare.


This is backed up by the wording in the original New Testament Greek.  When Agabus says that they ‘will bind’ Paul, the Greek word for this is deō. This word connects with the previous chapter (Acts 20 21-22) where Paul gave his goodbye speech to the Ephesus church leaders.  He told them, ‘and now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem.’ ‘Compelled’.  That word is deō.  In fact, some of the English bible versions translate this as ‘bound’.  Paul is saying that he was ‘bound by the Spirit to go’ where he was going.  This wasn’t Paul’s stubborn choice.  It was Paul’s obedience to God’s choice.


What happened when we were young children?  We didn’t get any say, did we?!  Perhaps a parent would place us in the car and put our seatbelt on.  Then they got in and drove.  Where did they drive to?  Not necessarily where we wanted to go.  But always where they’d decided to take us.  So, with Paul.  All the other Christians seem to be saying, ‘Don’t go down that road, Paul.  Can’t you see the warning signs?’  Paul’s answer seems to be – ‘I’m aware the road ahead is filled with danger.  I saw Agabus tie himself up with my belt.  But I was already bound and belted up, by the Spirit of my loving Lord, and ready for the journey ahead.  I’ve every confidence in my Heavenly Father driving the affairs of my life wherever he wants to take me.’  What an example for us?


Then we have another example in verse 14 which is so relevant to church life.  Those others still don’t agree with Paul’s decision.  What should we do in such circumstances?  We may think that the best course of action is to carry on debating until we all agree on everything.  But that’s not always possible.  Sometimes, we must agree to disagree, so that we can move forward together.  How will we do that?  Verse 14, I reckon - ‘when he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.’


Sometimes in church life things will go in a direction that we personally would not choose - perhaps shaped more by the conviction of others than ourselves.  Can we rest here? – ‘the Lord’s will’ will ‘be done’.  We don’t have control, but we know that he does.  Proverbs 16 9 says, ‘In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.’  These Christians could hold their own plans lightly because they grasped God’s plan.  They could forego what they thought best and submit to God’s unfolding future. 


And so, Verse 15 has this lovely conclusion – ‘After this, we started on our way’.  ‘Our way’. They carried on together.  And then, the moment we’ve all been waiting for… verse 17 has, ‘we arrived at Jerusalem’.  And ‘the brothers and sisters received us warmly.’  That is always how church should be.  That’s the Trip Advisor review I want for Riverside – ‘the brothers and sisters received us warmly’!


A while back I went on a walk.  The weather forecast predicted morning sunshine followed by afternoon cloudburst.  I decided to make the most of the morning.  It was so lovely that I decided that the afternoon forecast was wrong.  I was wrong!  As I headed towards home, my world turned into the children’s bible song - the rain came down and the floods came up!  Generally, I avoid walking in wet weather.  But my choices that day made it unavoidable.  I got wetter and colder as I headed towards home.  But I had a plan.  When I got home, I was going to run upstairs and run a bath like the greeting of the church in Jerusalem.  It was going to receive me warmly! 


That bath was so good!  Even months later I can replay that memory and feel cosy!  But that bath was essentially no different to any of the other baths I take, each year!  The water level was the same.  The warmth was the same.  It just felt better.  Because of the dampness and cold that preceded it.  And that is one of the reasons why church should be our warm place.


As believers, we live much of life away from church – away from others who truly love Christ Jesus as Lord.  Living in our world can be harsh.  Spiritually – it’s damp and cold.  Church should be a contrast - here we should feel the warmth of fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ.  We should.  But all too often it goes wrong - church life cools.  It’s something we must guard against.  We must keep watch over our own hearts.  And sometimes, when our spirit is not right, we may need others to gently nudge us and help us. 


Here it had gone wrong in Jerusalem?  People were pouring cold water on church life.  It starts so well.  There’s the warm greeting.  Then Paul’s mission report in verse 19.  He tells them, ‘in detail’, what God had done through him.  He takes them step by step through his Jesus mission showing them how the Lord had established his steps.  Consequently, in verse 20, ‘they praised God’ about this good news of all people-types brought to believe in Jesus.  And then they have news of their own – ‘many thousands of Jews have believed’.  It’s all good news, until we hear the bad news.


Last week, in Tim’s message, we looked at Mark 4.  Jesus says, ‘Consider carefully what you hear’ (v.24).  Here in Acts 21, it appears that ‘many’ hadn’t been careful or considerate.  They’d heard the good news about the saving power of Christ which comes through faith. But they hadn’t let go of their over-zeal for religious ritual!  This left them vulnerable - exposed to devilish deceit.  Verse 21 says, ‘they have been informed’.  They’d been misinformed.  This was Satan’s misinformation campaign.  They now believed that Paul was telling Jews to abandon all their old Jewish practices.  This was clearly untrue. 


In verse 22, the elders ask Paul, ‘What shall we do?’  The correct thing would have been a chat - If only that group of zealots had been willing just to sit down with Paul and ask him what he actually believed and his reasons why.  If only they’d been willing to listen and, in true obedience to Christ, consider carefully what they heard, this could’ve been quickly resolved.


There are several examples in Acts where Paul chooses to still do Jewish stuff.  In Acts 20 16, we read about Paul’s desire to get here.  ‘He was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.’  He rushes there to enjoy a Jewish festival.  But when he arrives, he’s accused of trying to end all Jewish practice.  It’s absurd!  It wasn’t Paul that needed correcting – it was those pointing the finger.  It’s true, Paul was telling Jews something about their system of religious ritual.  He wasn’t saying that it wasn’t right.  He was saying that it couldn’t save.  Paul wanted other Jews to fully embrace Christ, as he had.  Getting closer to Jerusalem for Pentecost wouldn’t get you any closer to heaven.  Only faith in Christ could do that.  Jesus alone was the way, and the truth, and the life!


It would have been wonderful for these people to hear this.  But they don’t because they’ve already decided.  And so, cold water was poured into church life by this frosty, ill-considered, prejudiced mindset.  And then it got worse.  The elders don’t stop at asking Paul what to do – they tell him their solution.  And it’s rubbish!  But they’re church elders - surely they’re not going to pour more cold water on this situation?  But they do.  It’s important that we see this.  When I said earlier that we need to keep watch over hearts and motives, I didn’t exclude myself and I hope you didn’t either.  The reality is this - church leaders have more control over the temperature of church life than most others.  Their hands are closer to the taps, if you like!  Just because I stand at the front and speak doesn’t mean that you don’t need to watch over me and help me.   If anything, it means that I need your watching, and I need your faithful prayers, at least as much as you do.


It’s the second time in this chapter that we’ve seen Paul being given bad advice by other Christians.  Good and well-intentioned people often get it very wrong.  Particularly, when it’s what someone else needs to do.  Earlier, Paul had been able to consider carefully and reject the advice given.  But here, he does as asked.  He sponsors these men who had taken a Jewish vow, to show that he does still approve of Jewish believers still doing Jewish stuff. 


Well, what’s wrong with that?  Because it’s to show – it’s just for show.  It’s being done for appearance.  What Paul does in sponsoring these men isn’t inherently right or wrong.  But the motive is to look right.  And that isn’t right.  Because Jesus said so.  In Matthew 6, Jesus gave instructions to his followers.  He talked about giving to the needy.  He mentioned prayer.  And Jesus highlighted that not only is it important what we do, but why we do it. When we give our money away, do we want others to be impressed with our generosity?  When we pray, do we want others to see our dedication, and love our wordy words!  If so, Jesus says we’re wrong.  We may gain the high opinion of others, but that’ll be our only reward.  Jesus tells us not to worry what others think.  Rather, value God’s opinion.  It is so easy to get this wrong. I’ll give you an example.


At work this week I was busy with something and didn’t stop at my usual lunch time.  If was a clear day and when I eventually took my break I sat on the south-facing fire escape steps to get the microgram of Vitamin-D that is available from the January Sun in England!  I had just read the portion of Matthew 6 that I’ve just mentioned.  Then I heard a work colleague using the nearby washbasins.  But he didn’t know I’d taken a late lunch – would he think I was just sat out there skiving?  So, I did something.  I carefully moved my cheese sandwich from my right side to my left, so that he would see it if he came outside.  It would be apparent that I was on lunch.  I did it purely for the sake of appearance immediately after reading Matthew 6.  I told you I needed watching! 


The elders’ proposal here is an epic fail.  Their plan for quiet ends in riot!   Verse 27 has some outsiders arriving – ‘Jews from the province of Asia’.  What’d been going on in the church had just been fed by the narrative of what was going on outside - in wider society.  Paul is accused of serious wrongdoing – taking a non-Jewish person into the holy grounds of the Jewish temple.  Of course, he hadn’t.  They just ‘assumed’.  That’s the word used in verse 29. 


Oh, the danger of assuming - adding 2 and 2 together and getting 47!  In verses 30-31, Paul is seized and dragged and is just steps from death.  Satan has the upper hand.  He’s firmly in control.  Except he isn’t.  The next step is one established by God.


Proverbs 21 1 says, ‘In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels towards all who please him.’  Here, in verses 31-32, the heart of the commander of the occupying army is channelled like a rushing river of rescue.  How awesome is our God?


Paul is rescued and then questioned in verse 34.  This is the question that others could and should have asked but didn’t – Paul was ‘asked who he was and what he had done’.  Better late than never!


This book of Acts has been teaching us about Paul – telling us who he was.  Paul had once been a deeply religious man who hated Christians and their wishy-washy faith stuff.   He trusted in his own devout way of life to make him right with God.  But then he realised this was as good as garbage.  He met with Christ and was made truly right with God by finding what others had already found.  Paul believed that Jesus was enough to make him right with God.  Paul, like all who believe, was given a new life in Christ and a renewed heart and mind. 


But what does that mean?  What is this new heart and new mind that Christians talk about?  You may even think, ‘Well where’s mine?’  What should I as a Christian expect from it?  Well don’t expect perfection here and now.  Acts shows us this with wonderful honesty.  It shows the church getting it wrong.  It shows church elders getting it wrong.  It shows the apostle as he was – prone to errors of judgement.  It’s almost like that new heart and mind needs constant renewing.  Because it does.


Until recently I had an old computer.  I used it to type up my stuff for church.  It was frustratingly slow - so restricting… so unproductive.  Then I was given a new one.  It’s so much more productive.  Now I can produce at around half the speed of a normal human –for me that’s lightning!  It’s been transforming!  But I know something.  I’ll need to keep on top of it.  Over time, the files inside will get broken up – fragmented, which slows everything down.  Also, computers are prone to getting bad stuff – like malware and viruses.  I’ll need to run programs to repair the broken-up stuff.  And to scan the entire system to search for corrupted stuff, and get rid.  Otherwise, this new machine will begin to perform like the old one.


So, with the Christian’s new heart for Christ.  Earlier I mentioned how we need to keep watch over our hearts.  We need to scan ourselves and check for things that have got into our new life that shouldn’t be there.  Because they will make us less productive for our Lord.  I said that we’ll need each other too.  But most of all, we’ll need the Lord.


I love David’s awesome prayer in Psalm 139.  He wants God to do a full system scan.  David says, ‘Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’  He wants God to renew the new again.  What has got broken he wants putting back together.  What has been corrupted he wants removing. 


David needed this.  He wasn’t alone.  In Acts, the church is often seen behaving imperfectly.  And even the apostle Paul doesn’t have his mistakes hidden from view.  The bible is so raw and honest about the life of faith.  It highlights not only our once need of saving faith in Jesus.  It also shows the ongoing need we have as Christians of taking refuge always in our Saviour. 


We are just so imperfect.  But as Psalm 18 30 says, ‘as for God, his way is perfect: the Lord’s word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him.’  Paul took refuge in the Lord.  Though he was as human as we are, and as imperfect as we are, he trusted God with his life.  And he trusted that God had a plan and a purpose for his life.  And he trusted that God was always in control come what may.


That is the real wonder of Acts.  It’s not so much about who Paul was and what he did.  It’s much more about who his perfect God was and what he was able to do even through imperfect people.  


If you aren’t yet a believer in Jesus but you’re troubled by your imperfections, then look to Jesus - God’s perfect Son and Saviour - ‘God shields all those who take refuge in him.’ And if you’re a believer, but you’re still troubled by your ongoing faults, then look to the same place. In Christ Jesus there is power and grace, and refuge ongoing, to cleanse you today, and tomorrow, and on ‘the way everlasting’.


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