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That was an ad in a recent women’s magazine. Just one of DOZENS. But not just the women’s mags. The NEWSPAPER classifieds are filled with them. And the INTERNET. They’ve even got their own section in the front of the telephone book.
But that’s just the START. You don’t have to go too far around the shopping centre before you come across someone who’ll read your palm, or the tarot cards, or tea leaves, or your horoscope. Or contact the for you. Because people just LOVE to know the future. The spiritual secrets going on behind the scenes.
Guidance and the voice of God
And many CHRISTIANS are no different. Because there’s something delicious and fascinating about knowing what God’s going to do for you TOMORROW. To know His plan for your life. It’s IRRESISTIBLE.
So when someone says they have what they call A WORD OF PROPHECY, or A WORD OF KNOWLEDGE. Suddenly everyone’s all ears. Because they reckon it’s MUCH MORE INTERESTING than a SERMON. Or a Bible-reading. Much more RELEVANT.
After all, don’t we ALL want a little help with decision-making? What God would have us do in THIS or THAT situation. To know GUIDANCE AND THE VOICE OF GOD.
What uni course to study. Who to marry. Whether to change jobs or not. Which house to buy. Or how many kids to have.
And there’s been plenty of BOOKS written on the topic to HELP US. Just a of them that I’ve got on MY bookshelves. “Decision-making and the will of God.” And “Guidance and the voice of God”.
And people have all sorts of OPINIONS about HOW YOU DISCERN WHAT GOD’S WILL IS.
– Pray and fast. Seek God’s face.
– Or do your own research. Use your brain.
– Or ask the opinion of others.
– Even roll a dice.
– Or a combination of the lot.
Others follow a BIBLICAL precedent. And set God little TESTS. Like Gideon. Putting out a fleece. “If the next car I see is a Ford, I’ll know you want me to buy a FORD”. “If that tall, blond, gorgeous woman asks me what the time is/ I’ll know that’s the one you want me to marry”.
Or people expect a little voice telling them what to do. I’ve had plenty of people say THIS sort of thing to me. “God told me that I should do THIS or THAT”. My Dad’s had people say to him “God’s told me that you should be doing THIS”. To which Dad replies. “Thank you. But he hasn’t told ME. When he tells me too, then I’ll do it.”
A friend of Caron’s family was sure that God was saying to her that her husband, who’d LEFT her, would RETURN. And their marriage would be REPAIRED. And for a while, she WAITED. But somewhere along the line, she found someone else, and got married again. I’m not sure what she says about God speaking to her.
Or maybe it’s just about FEELING COMFORTABLE with the decision. People talk about having A SENSE OF PEACE. Something that the Holy Spirit brings. Is THAT what we should be expecting? And how do you KNOW?
How DOES God guide today? SHOULD we be using these sorts of methods? OR is there SOMETHING ELSE? And are we even right to be EXPECTING God to give us clear direction for these sorts of decisions?
Background to Paul’s travel
These are the sorts of questions that come out of today’s passage.
Paul – making all sorts of DECISIONS. Travelling from here to there. Staying in one place. Or moving on quickly. Or bypassing a region ALTOGETHER. Getting closer to home instead of further away. Choosing to WALK instead of catching the boat. Moving east instead of west.
And, along the way, he receives a fair bit of guidance from God, as well as advice from all sorts of PEOPLE. And yet, at the same time, he’s very clear about what God’s will is for him.
We’re going to take up the story at v13 of Ch 20. But before we do, I need to give you a bit of background.
Back in Ch 19 v21, Paul’s in Ephesus, and he decides to head TO JERUSALEM.
21 After all this had happened, Paul DECIDED TO GO TO JERUSALEM, passing through MACEDONIA AND ACHAIA. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.” 22 He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer.
By the way, it LITERALLY says that Paul “resolved IN THE SPIRIT to go up to Jerusalem”. Which, I take it, means something like, “Paul decided, in DEPENDENCE on, and with the GUIDANCE or DIRECTION of, the Holy Spirit to go.” A cooperation between what PAUL had prayerfully decided, and the SPIRIT/ GUIDING him.
But why Jerusalem? We’re not told WHY. There are some HINTS here, though. Let me explain. In his letter to Romans/ which he wrote about the same time/ we find out the reason. Near the end. Ch 15 v25. (p805) Listen to what he says.
25 Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. 26 For MACEDONIA AND ACHAIA were pleased to MAKE A CONTRIBUTION FOR THE POOR among the saints in Jerusalem.
You see what he was doing? There was a famine in Jerusalem. And Christians there were starving. And Paul had made a commitment to collect money from the OTHER churches to help them. The churches in Europe. That’s why we read in Acts that Paul is heading back to Jerusalem VIA Macedonia and Achaia. (Which is the LONG, LONG way around). To collect the money they’ve put aside. And that’s why Timothy and Erastus go ahead – to make sure it’s ready when he arrives.
And if we jump forward to Acts Ch 20. v13. We see that’s what he’s done. He’s now made it back to Asia, heading for Jerusalem. But, in v16, he decides to bypass Ephesus because he’s in a hurry to make it before Pentecost.
What IS God’s Will?
Which is where the story gets interesting. As far as our theme of GUIDANCE goes. Because he wants a last word with the Ephesian elders. He hasn’t got time to visit the CITY, so he calls for the ELDERS to come to HIM.
And when they arrive he starts by reminding them of their shared experiences together. How Paul had served the Lord with great humility and tears. And how he’d declared the gospel to them for three years – that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in Jesus.
And have a look in v27 – how he hadn’t hesitated to proclaim to them THE WHOLE WILL OF GOD – which is an interesting phrase in the context of our discussion about GUIDANCE. Which seems to be what he just said his MESSAGE was. The WILL OF GOD is that people (v22) must turn to God in repentance, and have faith in Jesus. THAT’S what God wants for ALL people. It’s more important than ANY other decision. (So keep that in mind, we’ll come back to it later).
But in v22, he says this.
22 “And now, COMPELLED BY THE SPIRIT, I AM GOING TO JERUSALEM, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit WARNS me that prison and hardships are facing me.
We already know he’s DECIDED to go to Jerusalem IN THE SPIRIT – at the spirit’s guidance. And here he says he’s COMPELLED by the Spirit. In some way the Holy Spirit puts a strong coercion, or requirement on Paul.
But at the same time, he’s WARNED by the Spirit. PRISON AND HARDSHIPS are facing him.
But even WORSE than that. In v25, he says THIS – “I know that NONE OF YOU WILL EVER SEE ME AGAIN”. God’s given him the glimpse of the shadow of imminent . He can feel the dark cloud hanging over him. A message from God!
COMPELLED by the Spirit on the one hand. WARNED on the other. Seems a bit like mixed messages to me! What’s going on?
We’ll come back and look at the speech AGAIN. But before we do, flip over to Ch 21 to see a bit MORE about God’s guidance. They keep travelling. Getting closer to Jerusalem. They make it as far as TYRE. Then look what happens. v4. God starts using OTHER PEOPLE.
4 Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. THROUGH THE SPIRIT THEY URGED PAUL NOT TO GO ON TO JERUSALEM.
And then a bit further on. Down in v10. They’ve made it as far as Caesarea. Nearly to Jerusalem.
10 After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “THE HOLY SPIRIT SAYS, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.'”
12 When we heard this, we and the people there PLEADED with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.
Prophets with visual aids. People PLEADING. Urging through the Spirit. And yet, Paul’s been COMPELLED BY THE Spirit to GO.
So what’s going on? What IS God’s will?
Well, as some of you MIGHT have worked out, there’s no contradiction AT ALL. God DOES want Paul to go to Jerusalem. But he’s ALSO WARNING him about what’s going to happen there. Perhaps to get him ready. To make sure he can handle the pressure when it begins.
What God’s Will IS!
But here’s what it all means. Contrary to what we might sometimes think/ GOD’S WILL IS NOT THAT WE ALWAYS LIVE THE MOST COMFORTABLE LIFE. God’s will is NOT that we always live the most comfortable life.
Something Paul’s already experienced in his life. And that he’ll discover AGAIN in the next few chapters.
So let’s see what God’s will IS.
On the surface there’s the contradiction. All those warnings, but Paul’s confident he’s doing what God WANTS. Someone with weaker convictions might have GIVEN IN. Come up with plenty of excuses to go somewhere else.
But not Paul. Have a look at WHY he keeps pressing on. Back in Ch 20:24. He’s confident he knows what God’s will IS – DESPITE the warnings of danger.
23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 HOWEVER, I CONSIDER MY LIFE WORTH NOTHING TO ME, IF ONLY I MAY FINISH THE RACE AND COMPLETE THE TASK THE LORD JESUS HAS GIVEN ME-THE TASK OF TESTIFYING TO THE GOSPEL OF GOD’S GRACE.
Jesus has given him a TASK. And he’s going to SEE IT THROUGH. WHATEVER the consequences. That’s God’s will. Even though he KNOWS WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS, it doesn’t sway him from doing what he knows to be right.
We’ve seen it already – TESTIFYING TO THE GOSPEL is the most important thing God wants for any of us. It’s more important than what Uni course we do. More important than what car we drive. Or where we live. Or what job we take.
It’s more important than comfort, or possessions, or security, or career.
For Paul, it’s even more important than life itself! “I consider my life worth NOTHING compared to it” Let’s look at another declaration from Paul. This time into Ch 21 v13. The brothers have just heard the prophecy from Agabus.
12 When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 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.” 14 When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “THE LORD’S WILL BE DONE.”
He considers his life worth NOTHING. Ready to die. When it comes the balancing the scales of decision-making, his personal safety doesn’t even REGISTER. It’s not an issue.
What’s MORE important is THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS. His reputation. His honour. Which Paul will proclaim at any cost. Jesus is number one.
That’s what the Lord’s will is. To declare Jesus EVERYWHERE. Even Jerusalem. It might mean Paul is SPARED. It might mean Paul DIES.
Because God’s will is NOT that we always live the most comfortable life.
So, when you’re going through a difficult time. Problems with health, or money, or relationships. Or non-Christians making life tough. Difficulties that drag you down. Don’t assume that you’re NOT living in God’s will. Don’t assume that there’s something wrong. Or that you’ve DONE something wrong. That you’ve somehow missed the path of God’s perfect plan.
James 1 v2 says
2 Consider it PURE JOY, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be and complete, not lacking anything.
Because perhaps God’s will is that he’s USING these things to bring glory to Jesus through you. To honour his NAME. To TRAIN you. DISCIPLINE you. Because that’s what a loving Father does. Heb 12 v7
7 Endure hardship as DISCIPLINE; God is treating you as SONS. For what son is not disciplined by his father? … (10) God disciplines us FOR OUR GOOD, that WE MAY SHARE IN HIS HOLINESS. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but PAINFUL. Later on, however, it PRODUCES A HARVEST OF RIGHTEOUSNESS AND PEACE FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN TRAINED BY IT.
God’s will is / that WHATEVER our circumstances, we might honour the name of Jesus in all we do. That we would GROW to become like him. That we might declare his good news to those we meet.
And that’s why Paul heads to Jerusalem COMPELLED by the Spirit. But WARNED as well.
But it’s not that Paul’s got a wish. He’d LOVE to keep preaching. As Paul writes Romans, he’s thinking about heading to Jerusalem. And listen to what he asks for prayer for. Romans. Ch 15:30
30 I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. 31 Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, 32 so that BY GOD’S WILL I may come to you with joy AND TOGETHER WITH YOU BE REFRESHED.
He wants to make it BEYOND Jerusalem. TO ROME. So that he can encourage the brothers THERE. Which he eventually DOES – takes a few more years. And a few more twists. But that’s a story for another day.
And THAT’S God’s will TOO. That churches be ENCOURAGED and built up. It’s why I can say CONFIDENTLY that God’s will for you/ is that you be here in church each Sunday. To be built up. And to build OTHERS up. That we might ALL be refreshed.
And because Paul knows that’s God’s will, it’s the message he leaves with the Ephesian elders. The leaders of the church. Back in Ch 20. v28.
28 KEEP WATCH over yourselves and all the flock of which THE HOLY SPIRIT has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own . 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.
God APPOINTED the leaders of the church, through his Spirit. Because it’s his WILL that the sheep be protected from danger. They’re PRECIOUS. SO precious, they cost the of his only Son.
But even though Paul knows false teachers will come, he’s confident that the Christians in Ephesus will make it to the end. Why? Because it’s GOD’S will. And so, he’ll PRESERVE them. Look down to v32.
32 “Now I commit you TO GOD AND TO THE WORD OF HIS GRACE, which can build you up and GIVE YOU AN INHERITANCE AMONG ALL THOSE WHO ARE SANCTIFIED.
And, ultimately, THAT’S God’s will. That his children be found with him for eternity. That they receive the inheritance Jesus has won for them.
And so, every other decision we make/ needs to have THAT ONE BIG GOAL in mind. Of bringing God’s children into their inheritance.
And so, while we decide which job to take. Or what course to do. Or where to live. Think about which option can help BUILD UP GOD’S CHILDREN, and BRING THEM INTO THEIR INHERITANCE. Because God cares about that A LOT MORE than what colour CAR you drive, or whether you’re a lawyer or a garbage collector. Or whether you rent or buy.
And let me finish by with the prayer Paul prayed for the Ephesian elders. And it’s MY prayer for YOU. A goal that influences the decisions I make. A prayer for God to DO HIS WILL in your lives.
32 “Now I commit you TO GOD AND TO THE WORD OF HIS GRACE, which can BUILD YOU UP and GIVE YOU AN INHERITANCE AMONG ALL THOSE WHO ARE SANCTIFIED.