Summary: How do we find guidance from the Spirit in life’s confusing dilemma’s? Follow the difficult road that Jesus took.
Discerning the Spirit’s Voice
- sermon on Acts 21:1-14 -
Paul the apostle is becoming an older man. When we meet him in this story, he is coming back from his third mission-journey. Maybe his hair got more grey, perhaps he cannot walk so fast as in the old days, but… look at his face! Look at his eyes! They shine and twinkle, they are full of desire to preach the gospel of His Lord.
Paul himself knows he is older. He knows that he has more years behind him than in front of him. And he is sad. Not because he is older and might die soon. No. He is sad because everywhere he comes he has to say goodbye to his brothers and sisters. But what keeps him happy and glad, what keeps his face with such a strong will and desire, what keeps his eyes shiny and twinkling… it is that he still has a mission! Even two! He wants to go to Jerusalem, and then to Rome. First Jerusalem. The old mother church from where the worldwide mission started. He wants to give them the big bag with money that he is carrying with him. Because this was the promise that he had made. We can read this in the last two verses of Acts 11.
29The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Paul.
And he has kept his promise. A lot of churches in Greece and Turkey have given money to the church in Jerusalem and Judea. After a long and probably tiring trip, Paul and his friends, among which also Luke, the narrator of the story, arrive in Caesarea where they stay at the house of Philip the evangelist. Probably you still remember this Philip from the story with the Ethiopian minister of finance. Philip, once an itinerant missionary, also has grey hair now, and has settled down. You could say he was a “retired missionary”.
And in the house of Philip, Paul receives a sign of the Holy Spirit. By a prophet we hardly know. In fact there is only one other text in the whole Bible where this prophet is mentioned, and that is Acts 11. There it says that Agabus predicted a severe famine over the entire Roman world. When this actually happened during the reign of emperor Claudius, the name and fame of this unknown prophet Agabus was spread in all the Christian world. They might have even compared him to the great prophets from the Old Testament.
If we want to know why, we have to take a closer look at what he does. He wraps the message of the Holy Spirit in a small play of theatre. Not to make a funny comic show, but to show how serious the situation is. Words are not enough to express what he has to say! We can observe the same thing with some Old Testament prophets. You might remember that the prophet Ahijah tore Jerobeam’s new cloak in twelve pieces (1 Kings 11:29-39). And that Isaiah walked three years completely naked through Israël (Isaiah 20:1-6). We might find these prophets’ methods strange, even amusing or embarrassing. But in this way they conveyed a very special message from heaven. A divine message in human form.
Also our Agabus. He lived somewhere in the countryside, in a small village. There he received a special vision from God. As soon as he can he takes the first camel to Caesarea, jumps off and runs to the house of the old Philip, where Paul is staying as well. With a red head from excitement and exhaustion he arrives in front of Paul. He takes Paul’s belt, sits down on the ground, and then ties his own hands and feet with it. And then, when Paul and his friends become silent, the Holy Spirit begins to speak:
11bIn this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt, and will hand him over to the Gentiles.
Again it is silent. Terribly silent. But suddenly everybody starts shouting: “Paul! Did you hear that? You shouldn’t go to Jerusalem. Don’t go please, they will surely put you in prison!”
Paul is receiving a chrystal-clear sign from God. Superobvious, unambiguous. He must not go to Jerusalem. It is irresponsibly dangerous. A mission impossible. Paul’s great dream seems to be torn to pieces by a ten minutes theatre play. All his fund raising has been in vain. Jerusalem… and Rome. He has to put it out of his head. Why? Because for the Jews he is state enemy number one. First playing that your the most pious and faithful rabbi, and then overnight turning into the founder of christianity in the whole pagan world. That means high-treachery to Judaism. And if there is one person who knows this extremely well, it must be Paul himself. But the strange thing is, that he is not at all impressed by their warnings. He says: