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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Unchained Melody


"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.’" Acts 21:13

Paul had recently ended his three-year ministry stint in Ephesus.  He’d met the church elders and said a final goodbye.  Last time we witnessed the tears of grief shed at that parting.  In verse 1 today, we’re reminded of this tearful tearing – ‘after we had torn ourselves away from them…’  Things do end and sometimes that brings pain.  But the end of one thing is often the start of something else.  We must press on.  Paul tells us how in Philippians 3 13-14. He says, ‘forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.’  What a way to live!


We now have the start of something else - ‘Is it good?’  If you like prison – it’s great!  In verse 33 of this chapter, Paul will be ‘arrested… and… bound with two chains.’  He’s been arrested and imprisoned before.  But not like this.  Paul is going to be held captive for the remaining eight chapters of Acts!


Oh no!  Paul has been spreading the good news about Christ.  Now this huge restriction is going to be placed on his life.  No more good news!  Perhaps we should end Acts and start something else!  No!  Paul may be in chains, but the good news of Jesus won’t be.  Because it can’t be!  Paul tells us so in 2 Timothy 2 8-9.  He reminds Timothy of the most important thing that any Christian can ever be reminded of.  He says, ‘Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained.’


Last time we saw Paul living life lightly.  He was so ready to give up so much, to gain Christ and to make gains for Christ’s Kingdom.  What price do we put on our freedom?  Paul could even let that go.  This is powerful stuff!  But then, the grace of God in this man’s life was powerful stuff – and powerfully effective!


The author of this Acts account is Luke.  The rest of what he tells us in verses 1-3 is just nautical detail.  It’s the same in Acts 20 14-15.  In two chapters we have 5 verses that tell us little else other than stuff about ships stopping and starting.  It’s evident that Luke loves boats like I love buses!  I get excited about things!  If I went to the FA Cup final, I’d return home and excitedly give you all the details… about the bus journey there!  Here, Acts reminds us how God’s word has been brought to us.


In 2 Peter 1 19-21, Peter says this about the ‘prophecy of Scripture’ – ‘prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’  There is a sense in which we can apply this to the whole bible.  God has spoken through humans.  Yet their humanness isn’t erased from God’s writing.  As God carried Luke along, this real person spoke about real people living the reality of the Christian life.  Luke’s passion is lit up.  But ‘Hallelujah!’ - it’s God’s love that shines most brightly!


In verse 4, Paul and company reach Tyre – in second place!  God’s love in Christ Jesus has got there first.  A church is there.  Paul and the others stay for a week while their ship is unloaded and reloaded.  Tyre was an important commercial centre and an all-round impressive place.  Songs were written about its beauty.  If I had a week there, my instinct would be to sight-see – to explore the history - learn about famous past battles - then look at its art and explore its landscape.  Paul does this but in a different way.


Verse 4 says they ‘sought out the disciples there and stayed with them several days.’  What better sight to see than the miracle of grace that believers in Christ are!  You want art?  What about a heart once just a block of stone. Now sculpted in the image of God’s Son.  Landscape?  A believer is one whose life’s ruined landscape has been regenerated.  History? A mighty conquest once took place here.  Satan’s rule was overthrown by the power of the cross.  Every disciple once had a horrible history.  Now they have a renewed and restored and everlasting future.


These Christians in Tyre worked tirelessly to stop Paul pressing on.  ‘Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem’.  Such is the wording here that there are Christian commentators who believe that Paul was wrong - that God was warning Paul to stop, and Paul was ignoring God.  Admittedly, on first hearing it does sound like those who ‘urged Paul not to go’ were on God’s side of the argument!  But we must be careful to cut through the noise.


Recently, I heard a rumble of thunder and rushed to the window.  It turned out it was a lorry!  What I heard was not what I heard!  So, how do I ‘hear’ verse 4?  I think it’s linked to verse 11, which we haven’t got to yet.  So, I’ll tell you later!  Cos it’s ‘time to leave’.


That’s how verse 5 starts.  And then we have a very similar scene to what we saw in the previous chapter but in different circumstances.  In Acts 20, the Ephesus elders accompanied Paul until the very last minute.  Here, the whole wider church group do the same.  What a picture at the end of verse 5!  ‘There on the beach we knelt to pray’ – Imagine that… on our next church outing to Sandsend!


It's easy to see why the Ephesus lot behaved the way they did.  They had lived with Paul for three whole years.  This Tyre lot had only known him a week!  Yet they behave like they’ve known him forever – like he’s family.  What is all this blood-is-thicker-than-water stuff going on?   It’s because he is family!  They all belong to God’s new household.  They’re all in the family of believers.  They may have only recently met, and they may not share familial DNA, but they are bonded together.  Do we have that sense with our brothers and sisters in Christ?  We may not have close genetic links from the blood in our veins.  But the blood of Christ which runs through our lives makes us family!


In verse 7, Paul’s group land in Ptolemais for a single day and we see a familiar pattern of behaviour.  Less time… but enough time.  Then in verse 8 we reach Caesarea Maritima.  It seems like just another verse that gives a little detail of these travellers’ schedule.  But it’s so much more.  Hidden within in it is something so beautiful that I’ve cried more about this verse than any other in Acts.  Let me tell you why!


We meet Philip.  He is the only person in the New Testament that is described like this – ‘Philip… the evangelist’.  What a job role!  What a gift!  What an honour!  ‘Hi Phil, what do you do?’  ‘I tell people about my Saviour – Jesus Christ the Lord’.  But now, Luke forces us to look back.  He presses the rewind button on the Acts Boxset and takes us straight back to episode 6 – otherwise known as chapter 6!  He tells us that Philip was ‘one of the Seven’.


In Acts 6, the church faced an issue that was serious.  It needed wisdom to resolve it and the church resolved to find wisdom.  The twelve disciples of Jesus advised the infant church in Jerusalem how to proceed.  They said, ‘Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.’  Philip had those qualities and was chosen.  But now, over twenty years have passed since that happened.  Why does Luke rewind us - and remind us?  We need to re-visit those past events and then fast forward to the here and now of Acts 21.  So, let’s do it. 


Only two of those specially selected seven servants appear again in Acts.  The other one is Stephen.  He gave that awesome speech in Acts 7 to the unbelieving ruling religious council in Jerusalem.  He told them that their ancestors had always resisted God’s Spirit – had always persecuted the prophets who brought God’s word of promise to them.  Their ancestors had even murdered some prophets to stop God’s word.  Stephen told them they’d now done the same.  God’s promised ‘Righteous One’, his Son Jesus, had arrived, and he’d been murdered too.  In Stephen’s brave monologue the curtain was brought down on Israel’s rebellious past.  So incensed was his audience that they brought the curtain down on Stephen’s life by stoning him to death.  And, at the start of Acts 8, we read that ‘Saul approved’ of this hateful, hate crime.  That Saul was our apostle Paul before his conversion to Christ.  We should go back there and weep.  Because ‘on that day a great persecution broke out against the church.’ 


Saul/Paul was emboldened by that event.  He saw and seized the opportunity.  It had been easy to stop Stephen talking his Jesus talk.  Paul believed that he could wipe Jesus talk from the face of the earth.  He ‘began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.’  The Christians must have dreaded that knock at the door.  Consequently, most of them fled and were ‘scattered throughout Judea and Samaria’.  The church was completely uprooted.  The end looked in sight.  Then something happened – the message about Christ’s resurrection rose again!  ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’ - ‘The word.’  Even before Paul’s own conversion, he found out that ‘God’s word is not chained.’  Acts 8 tells us about Philip.  Philip ‘went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there’.  That sowing of the seed of God’s word fell on good ground.  The effect?  ‘There was great joy in that city.’


Then later in Acts 8 we had the account of Philip bringing the gospel to a man from another continent – God’s word was unstoppable!  Philip preached to the Ethiopian Eunuch.  And Acts 8 ended with the end of the story of Philip for us, until today.  Acts 8 40 says, ‘Philip… travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.’  In Acts 21 8 he is still in Caesarea, living with his family.  Now, finally, two decades on, Philip gets that once dreaded knock at his door from this man Paul.  Oh, what a day!


I’ve read recently about something turning up years later than expected, in 2023.  It was a postcard sent from Sydney, Australia to Margate in Kent, in 1981.  It had been lost in the depths of the postal system for years but then had been found.  As you would expect, though it was delayed, its contents hadn’t altered.  The words written on it were unchanged by the passing of time.  Not so with Paul.  His life’s story had been re-written in the events recorded in Acts 9, where he met with Jesus.  He was never the same again.  His postcard was now penned in the new, bright red letters of the blood of Christ, crucified for all his rebellion against God.


I imagine Philip later that day.  He looks across his garden at Paul in animated conversation with Philip’s believing daughters, about Christ.  Philip tries to find the words - but the only thing that comes close is what he recalls from Numbers 23 23.  Looking upwards, he exclaims in awe, ‘See what God has done!’


Two decades earlier Philip had feared this man arriving at his front door.  Paul was the sworn enemy of Philip and everyone else who believed in Jesus.  Now, he arrives as a friend.  More than a friend – a brother in Christ – two righteous brothers together.  Hatred has been overtaken by love – ‘the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ Romans 8 39.  This man, lost in the depths of Satan’s system, had been found.  Perhaps you feel like Paul was.  Have you rejected Jesus your whole life?  Do you ask the question, ‘What can God’s word do for me now?’  In Christ? – Exactly this!


Then we have this prophecy in verses 10 onwards.  I love buses.  And I really love this AgaBUS!  Agabus returns to the Acts account with this ‘Spirit’ word and his wonderful, TikTok style, short demo.  He ties his hands and feet with Paul’s belt and says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’  It’s powerful.  People are moved.  Verse 12 has them all united in trying to persuade Paul ‘not to go.’


Paul was as human then as we are now.  His response in verse 13, seems so modern!  It’s as if he’s transported from Caesarea and dropped into an episode of Corrie… or Eastenders.  He cries, ‘Ya brakin me haart!’  I love it!


After hearing the prophecy everyone else believes that Paul should abandon his plans.  It’s very similar to verse 4, where the believers heard a revelation ‘through the Spirit’ and urged Paul to stop.  Why does Paul believe the opposite – that he should press on?  The answer is that both sides have different views on the why – why is God telling them what he is telling them?  The others believe that they are being informed about this prospect… to prevent it.  But Paul believes that he is being told so as to prepare him for it.


Paul is best placed to make this judgement.  For many of the others this was a new experience, and they didn’t have the experience.  Paul did.  He’d already told the Ephesians elders in Acts 20 23, that ‘in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me’ – ‘are facing me’ – it was certain!  The Lord was not telling him to change his career path and get a fresh diary.  The Lord was telling Paul about the pre-scheduled appointments that He’d already made, so that Paul would be prepped!


So much Old Testament prophecy was given to prepare.  We read Isaiah predicting the sufferings of Christ.  Was this so that Israel could prevent it?  No, it was to prepare Israel for it.  John the Baptist pointed Jesus out as ‘the Lamb of God’, showing them that Jesus would be God’s ultimate sin sacrifice.  Was it so that they could stop it?  No, John was preparing the way for the Lord (as Mark 1 3).


There are parallels between Paul’s experience of going to Jerusalem to suffer for the name of Jesus, and Jesus going there to suffer for sin.  In Matthew 16 21-28, Jesus himself explained that ‘he must go to Jerusalem and suffer’.  Peter’s response was ‘Never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!’  Peter thought he should stop it!  Jesus responded with great seriousness.  Then he explained why Peter was thinking that way.  Jesus said, ‘you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’  I believe that the same thinking is seen in Acts 21 – it was human centred and human sighted.  But Paul had vision for God.  He knew that continuing would bring personal hardship and personal chains.  But he knew that God’s word is not chained.   Not then.  Not now.  Not ever.


In John 1 1-18, we are told this.  ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’  ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’  Jesus Christ our Saviour is that Word from God.  He could not be kept chained.  Humankind, filled with devilish motive, tried it.  They nailed him to a cross and left him to die.  God’s word tells us that Christ died for the sin of others.  But ‘it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him’ (Acts 2 24).  Even the strong hold of death could not hold Christ!  Jesus rose again - in victory over sin and death.  Not for himself but for us.  All our lifetime we were chained – held captive by our sin and facing its consequence.  But now, through faith in Jesus the Word of God, we are set free - unchained by Christ our Lord and Saviour.


God’s word assures us that Jesus is coming back.  Why? - so that we can try to prevent it?  No! – so that we can be prepared - ready and waiting.  Hebrews 9 28 says that ‘Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.’


What shall we do to pass the time while we wait for Jesus to wrap up time?  Let’s take one final instruction from the ‘prisoner for the Lord’.  That’s what Paul calls himself in Ephesians 4. – ‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.’  Is it possible that we can live this type of life?


Yes - if we are built up by the unchained word of God’s grace. Yes - if the unchained melody of God’s love-in-Christ plays in our hearts and sounds in our lives. Yes, we can! Yes, we will!


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