Recently deceased U.S. Congressman John Lewis often talked about getting into “good trouble”, doing things you actually should do, but that bring you into dangerous situations. How can we follow Jesus into such good trouble? We have to do it with other Christians, and we have to be controlled by the will of the Lord.
Probably Notorious B.I.G.’s most famous album is entitled Ready to Die, which features a track by that title, in which he lays out all the dangers of his lifestyle, but proclaims that he is ready to die. We’re in a moment now where death has confronted the consciousness of many in an increased way, amidst a coronavirus pandemic and the increased visibility of racial violence, and of course, we’ve always lived in a world where death is a guarantee for every person. How do you deal with that though, especially when you realize that sometimes doing the right thing means increasing your chances of dying sooner, what the recently deceased U.S. Congressman John Lewis called “getting into good trouble”? In the passage at which we’re looking today, the main character, Paul, is constrained by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, who also has told Paul that imprisonment and afflictions await him there. That’s confirmed by a prophecy in the verses we’re looking at, and so two different groups of disciples in this passage urge Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Nonetheless, he goes, and like Notorious B.I.G., though for very different reasons, he proclaims that he is ready to die. What we’re going to learn from Paul, then, is how to keep following Jesus in the face of danger, and we’re going to learn two ways: We keep following Jesus in the face of danger by following Him with other Christians, and by being controlled by the will of the Lord.
With other Christians
Our passage starts with some travel details, and then in verse 3 when Paul and his team arrive at a landing spot in Tyre, we read in verse 4 that Paul sought out the disciples and stayed with them seven days. Throughout the passage as we read of Paul’s journey into the danger that awaited him in Jerusalem, we find him seeking out and spending time with other Christians. Why? Because no one, not even Paul, a travelling missionary, is meant to follow Jesus alone.
We don’t get a lot of insight into the specifics of what Paul and these other disciples are doing in their time together. Ostensibly they spent plenty of it hanging out over meals, and such things are no doubt helpful: They remind you that you are not alone, but verse 5 shows us their time together was marked by something more than just hanging out. There we read that they prayed together. We aren’t told exactly what they prayed for; it may have been protection for Paul in Jerusalem, it may have been boldness for Paul to keep speaking the gospel in the face of the opposition; we have examples of both in the Bible. But this is another function of Christian community, to pray together. When you’re facing danger, not only does that mean God is receiving more prayer on your behalf, but when you pray together, you also get to hear ways others pray for you that you may not have thought of, and get to hear their love for you as they appeal to God on your behalf.
Do your relationships with other Christians look like the relationships described in this passage? If you’re a member of Citylight, do your relationships with your fellow members look like this? A big part of the reason we have Citygroups at Citylight is to create a space for this sort of thing to happen. I talked to a woman who only more recently began attending services and a Citygroup at Citylight and is now interested in membership, and in the time since she’s begun coming she was in a car accident. When I asked her how she was doing one of the first things she mentioned was how supportive her Citygroup had been, from people visiting her in the hospital, reaching out to her, praying for her, and helping her with practical needs as she recovers. But she got to that place because for months before that she had been consistently attending and intentionally engaging with other Christians in her Citygroup.
One of the many tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is how difficult it has made this. As we saw, it is not good for man to be alone, and a lot of the wise response to COVID-19 involves intentionally staying alone. If that’s been hard for you, that makes total sense. If loneliness bothers you, that’s not because there’s something wrong with you; it’s because there’s something right with you. You’re feeling the hunger for relationship with which you were created. Under the stay-at-home order, even our Citygroups began meeting over Zoom, and some still are. Zoom can be a challenging platform for many, especially those of you who spend a lot of your day on it, but I’ve also been encouraged by how many of you have faithfully chosen to prioritize attending your Citygroup even over Zoom in order to continue following Jesus with other Christians.
Zoom is just one of the many challenges to following Jesus with other Christians, but here’s the question you have to consider if you actually want the kind of relationships we see described in this passage: Are you seeking it out? Remember in verse 4 Paul sought out the disciples in Tyre; he didn’t wait for them to come to him. We crave community, but we often put demands and constraints on it – we expect people to initiate towards us, re-arrange their schedules for us, do the things we enjoy doing when we are together. That is a recipe for isolation. Seek out other Christians, join a Citygroup, jump back in with the one you’re already in but haven’t been to in a while, start a discipleship group. And here’s a really simple, practical ingredient from this passage for what to do when you get together: Pray together. Zoom’s not perfect, but you can actually pray together over Zoom, or even over the phone. We’ve had numerous prayer meetings over Zoom during this pandemic, and I can tell you two things about each one of them I’ve gone to: I haven’t felt like going to them, and when they’re over, I’m glad I did. So the first way to keep following Jesus in the face of danger is to do it with other Christians. But, you also can’t be controlled by other Christians. The next way we’ll see to keep following Jesus in the face of danger is to be controlled by the will of the Lord.
Controlled by the will of the Lord
Beyond praying together, one of the other things we do see Christians doing together in this passage is counseling one another. That’s right and good; Paul never says, “Who are you tell me how to live my life?” Nonetheless, he is not be controlled by it. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit in them, but no Christian is infallible. So even though in verse 4 we read that the disciples in Tyre were telling him “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem, in verse 5 we read that he departed and continued toward Jerusalem. That phrase “through the Spirit” is a bit mysterious as it stands, but we get more insight into its likely meaning in the more detailed account of what happened at Caesarea. There we read in verse 11 the report of the prophet Agabus, that the Holy Spirit says the Jews at Jerusalem will bind Paul and hand him over to the Gentiles. He doesn’t report that the Holy Spirit says not to go to Jerusalem; it’s the other Christians with Paul who say that in verse 12. It’s most likely then, that what happened in verse 4 is something similar: The Holy Spirit reveals to the disciples in Tyre the danger that was ahead for Paul, and they infer that Paul should not go to Jerusalem. The prophecy was accurate, while the inference was not.
How did Paul know the inference was inaccurate? In Acts 20:22-23, Paul says, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” In other words, the Holy Spirit had already told Paul about the imprisonment and afflictions, but He’d also told Paul to go anyway. So he says in verse 13 of our passage: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Though the narrative depicts these other Christians in about the best possible light, as speaking through the Spirit even in verse 4, though they seem to be well intentioned, Paul was not controlled by them. In fact, their well-intentioned counsel to him was even a bit deflating; he describes it as breaking his heart. It is a really deflating thing when you have a clear sense from the Lord of something dangerous that He wants you to do and the response you get from other Christians is, “Hey maybe tone it down a bit.” Well intentioned as that may be, do not let yourself be controlled by that. Paul knew that though suffering awaited him in Jerusalem, Jerusalem was the place God sent him, and so he was controlled by the will of the Lord. And ultimately, in verse 14, the other Christians are open to the possibility that their inference may be wrong, so they stop trying to persuade Paul and agree that the will of the Lord is what should win out in the end.
Now I understand that when this passage brings up the will of the Lord, some of you may be wondering how we can know what the will of the Lord is. How did Paul know, for example, that he was being constrained by the Spirit, while the advice of the other Christians was wrong in this case? It’s not like Paul is just generally dismissive of the counsel of other Christians; in Acts 19 in fact there’s a time when Paul wants to enter into a crowd, the disciples urge him not to, and he doesn’t enter the crowd. Next week we’ll see him go through a purification ritual at the counsel of other Christians. The obvious difference is that in this case he was constrained by the Spirit; in the others, he wasn’t, but again, the question is: How did he know he was being constrained by the Spirit? Well, the text in Acts actually never explicitly tells us, but it does say that the Spirit testifies to him with words, that in every city imprisonment and afflictions await him, so it might be words, could be visions as we see those in Acts too, but never at any point does Paul seem unclear about it. Everyone involved here receives a clear revelation that imprisonment awaits Paul in Jerusalem; the debate is over the inference, the application, and in that, Paul received a clear revelation that the others did not, so he acted on it.
Ok, what does all that have to do with you and me? To be controlled by the will of the Lord we have to know it, so how can we know it? Well, what clear revelation do we all have from God? We all have the Bible, every word of which is breathed out by God, so we start there, and we pray, asking God to fill us with His Spirit so we understand His Word, desire His will above everything else, understand our situation, and how His Word applies to our situation. Sometimes God may give supernatural revelation about our situation like he does here through the prophet Agabus, and we share our sense of that through prophecy. Whether God does that or not, we then start making inferences, talking about it, and sometimes, as in Paul’s case, the Spirit may so constrain you to one particular application that you know it to be the will of the Lord. But there is no method to make Him do that, and in fact He often doesn’t, because any number of possible applications may be within the will of the Lord. In those cases, you’re free to just do any of them.
Many of you haven’t been constrained by the Spirit to go to a particular city or marry a particular person or take a particular job. That’s fine. Focus on the things you have been constrained by the Spirit to do, that you know are the will of the Lord, because they are in this book *hold up Bible*. If you really want to excel in knowing the will of the Lord, excel in knowing this book. If you do, you’ll find that not everyone is constrained by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, as Paul was. You’ll find other places in Acts even where Paul and others flee persecution rather than walking into it. But you’ll also find that Jesus says this in Scripture: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” – Luke 9:23-26
In other words, the location of Paul’s calling is unique, but the calling itself is not. This much of the will of the Lord is clear: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself…Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, meaning if you aren’t willing to be imprisoned and even die for my name, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes to judge the world.” The attitude of Paul, of readiness to be imprisoned and even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus, is an attitude Jesus says anyone who would come after Him must have. You can’t follow Jesus with conditions. You can’t say, “I’ll follow Jesus, as long as I don’t have to give up _____.” Jesus says you have to be ready to give up everything, even your own life, if it stands in the way of what He’s commanded you to do. As a different rapper from B.I.G., this one a Christian named This’l put it in one of his songs, he “signed up to die” when he signed up to follow Jesus.
I remember hearing Pastor Doug Logan, who used to be a pastor here in Philly, tell a story about a time a Muslim man in North Philly held a gun to his head and asked him if he believed in Jesus. Pastor Doug said yes, and the man didn’t shoot him, and I thought to myself, “Man, could I really do that?” Perhaps you’ve wondered that too, but fixating on it isn’t the best way to respond to it, because nobody does have a gun to your head right now. The more important question is, knowing that your faith in Christ could one day cost you your life, do you still want to follow him? Are you ready for things to just feel a bit uncomfortable for you as you try to share the gospel with that neighbor or co-worker who doesn’t yet believe it? Are you ready to be called a social justice warrior for promoting racial justice in Jesus’ name? Are you ready to be called a bigot for saying the same things about gender and sexuality that Jesus and Christians for thousands of years have said about it? Are you ready for it to cost you job opportunities and friendships? Knowing those potential dangers lie ahead, do you want to keep following Jesus? Paul said yes, because he was controlled by the will of the Lord. That will being done is what mattered to him, not his will, not his life. Jesus says if you want to follow me, it requires nothing less of you. The prayer not only of your mouth, but of your heart must be, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
Does that sound crazy to you? It is, unless you’re following Jesus. If you’re following Jesus, you’re following the one who already walked this path for you. Before Paul was ever constrained to go to Jerusalem, Jesus was constrained to Jerusalem, though he even had disciples telling him not to, knowing that not only imprisonment and possible death awaited Him there, but knowing that certain death did. Even as He got nearer to the cross, He felt the fear of facing the wrath of God and prayed that He should be released from this mission, yet He closed His prayer with “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” While Paul took a team with him to Jerusalem, Jesus went to the cross all alone, abandoned by even His closest companions, because ultimately, Isaiah tells us, “it was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10) for our sins, so that we who are so slow to deny ourselves, so attached to our own lives, so afraid to follow Jesus into danger, could be forgiven and emboldened, to follow Jesus even into death.
Because the path Jesus was on, and the path on which we follow Him now, didn’t end with death. Having offered the perfect sacrifice for our sins, God raised Him from the dead, and just as Paul always had a place to stay along his journey, Jesus has gone into heaven to prepare a place for us who follow Him. There is a welcome for you, a home for you, like really, there is, just as really as Christ has been risen, you too will be risen with Him. That’s why it’s not crazy to be ready to die for His name. What’s really crazy is living in a world in which you are guaranteed to die someday, and in some way, and still living for nothing bigger than yourself. What if you could look at all the possible causes of death you face and say, “I’m ready for it”? To the degree you are following Jesus, you will be. If God is for you in Him, who cares who is against you? Look to Jesus with your fellow Christians, and He will make you bold in the face of danger.