Mission and Ministry Depend Entirely Upon God (Sermon)
Most of you recognize the name, William Carey. William Carey was an English missionary to India—where he served from 1793-1834. I want you to hear what John Piper wrote about Carey: “For his first two years in India William Carey got no mail. During his first seven years he got no converts. After nineteen years of labor a fire destroyed his precious [translation work]—including his manuscripts of a polyglot dictionary, a Sikh and Telugu grammar and ten versions of the Bible. He then had an accident and was lame to the end of his life. He lost two wives in death. And he never went home—for 41 years.”
So, friends—what kept him going? Why would he continue to persevere through such great difficulty? Well, this is what Carey wrote: “When I left England, my hope of India's conversion was very strong; but amongst so many obstacles, it would die, unless upheld by God. Well, I have God, and His Word is true. Though the superstitions of the heathen were a thousand times stronger than they are, the example of the Europeans a thousand times worse; though I were deserted by all and persecuted by all, yet my faith, fixed on that sure Word, would rise above all obstacles and overcome every trial. God's cause will triumph.”
Brothers and sisters, couldn’t we use Carey’s words as a means of perfectly summarizing the book of Acts so far? God’s cause will triumph. I want you to keep this in mind as we work through our text this morning: God’s cause will triumph.
Let me offer you three observations about mission and ministry this morning—all taken from Acts 21:17-36.
1. The conversion of sinners is wrought by the power of God (v.17-20a)
We’ve known for quite some time now that Paul’s destination is Jerusalem—and finally he arrives. It’s impossible for us to come to this point in the book of Acts, without pausing to consider where this all started—and to see how God has sovereignly spread his gospel.
(Acts 1:8) But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (ESV)
After that time when the promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled, we have watched—through Luke’s inspired account—as the gospel has spread. It began in Jerusalem in chs. 3, 4, and 5—then it moved into Judea and Samaria in chs. 6-12. But it didn’t stop there, did it? In fact, from the very beginning of ch. 13 through the end of this book, we will see the gospel continue to spread to Rome—the good news of Jesus is beginning to reach the ends of the earth—a glorious movement outward that is continuing even to this present day.
So now, Luke records Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem, where he and his team are warmly received by their brothers in Christ, most notably James.
(Acts 21:17-20a) When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God.
As Paul and James and other church leaders begin to catch up with each other, the topic of their conversation—at least as far as the text indicates—focuses on God’s glorious work of drawing sinners to himself and making them new in Jesus Christ. Paul focuses on what God has been doing among the Gentiles, and then we’ll see in a little bit how James affirms also on what God has been doing among the Jews.
Now, I want to point something out to you—something very important in the text—many of you probably noticed it already.
(v.19) After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry…
Paul related what God had done through his ministry. Brothers and sisters, anything of any eternal value that is ever accomplished in anyone’s life will be because God did it. Now to be clear, God uses people—ordinary, everyday people—filled with the Holy Spirit—gifted in various ways. God graciously uses people like you and me, but apart from him we can do nothing. In fact, Paul expounds on this very idea when he writes to the Corinthians:
(1 Corinthians 3:5-7) What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
Paul and Apollos, like all believers, are simply servants of the living God. Again, we are all called and gifted by God to serve in different ways, but not one of us can transform a sinner—not one of us can cane make another person holy. We can plant and we can water, but only God can give growth.
Brothers and sisters, this reality should be profoundly encouraging. It should be encouraging to students here as you try to share the gospel with your unbelieving friends. This should be encouraging to parents and grandparents as you continue to pray for your unbelieving family members This should be encouraging to every person here who has any desire to see people truly change. God will use you—He will use your ministry—as part of his sovereign and miraculous work of radically transforming sinners by his gospel.
Paul related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry, and what is the response to Paul’s missionary report?
(vs. 20) And when they heard it, they glorified God…
They didn’t glorify Paul because it wasn’t work of Paul’s hand. They were grateful for Paul, but they glorified God. Friends, as you go throughout your life and God leads you to different churches, or you encounter various Christian ministries, if you ever see the reverse of what Luke records here in our text, if you see a church or ministry that’s growing and the crowds are grateful to God but they’re giving glory to a man, then here’s my advice: run the other way as fast as you can.
Friends, the thousands upon thousands that have been saved so far in the book of Acts, the churches that have been planted, the godly men and women that have been identified, the miraculous healings we’ve encountered, all of it—every bit of it—God has done. You know, the same is true here—at Redeemer—no good thing that has ever happened in this church has ever been the result of the charisma or gifting of any man or woman. No, this church is a testimony to the grace and goodness of God, and so we will and we must glorify God!
2. The clarity of the gospel requires the wisdom of God (v. 20b-26)
After Paul reported on his missionary work—and together they praised God for his goodness, midway through vs. 20, James and the Jerusalem elders respond.
(v. 20-22) And they said to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done?
As the church has grown and a diverse people has been gathered together by power of God—through the proclamation of his gospel—a problem has surfaced. It’s not an entirely new problem. In fact, it will sound familiar to you if you’ve been with us throughout our study of Acts. As Paul has been traveling and primarily reaching Gentiles for Christ, many Jews have also come to faith in the Lord Jesus. As we’ve so many times before, unbelieving Jews are misrepresenting the teaching of Paul to these newly converted Jews. F.F. Bruce points out that “there has been no indication in Acts so far that Paul was explicitly encouraging Jewish converts to abandon their law or their customs… he treats these matters as neither necessary for salvation nor binding on the conscience.”
Friends, as Jews were coming to faith in Christ, they were not immediately abandoning all their Jewish practices. There would need to be a process of spiritual growth, and as they matured, they would understand more fully their identity and freedom in Christ. This tension is what the Jerusalem council wrestled with back in ch. 15. It’s what we find here again, and it’s similar to what Paul dresses in Romans 14, where he uses the terminology of weaker and stronger Christians.
Here the simple reality of what was happening. The gospel was making too much progress, and so unbelieving Jews distort Paul’s actual teaching in order to stir up opposition against him. Hoping ultimately, of course, to impede the progress of the gospel. Look now at vs. 22—James asks:
(Acts 21:22-26) What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality." Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them
The elders in Jerusalem propose an idea aimed at counteracting the falsehood that’s being spread about Paul. Here’s what they suggest: there are four men who have taken a Nazarite vow, and Paul is encouraged to join with them as they complete their vow. Now, what’s the point of all this? Why couldn’t Paul just hunker down and do ministry the way he knew was right, and let the chips fall wherever they would?
Listen to how John Stott explain this interaction between James and Paul—he really gets to the heart of what’s motivating both men—he writes, “We can only thank God for the generosity of spirit displayed by both James and Paul. They were already agreed doctrinally (that salvation was by grace in Christ through faith) and ethically (that Christians must obey the moral law). The issue between them concerned culture, ceremony, and tradition. The solution to which they came was not a compromise, in the sense of sacrificing a doctrinal or moral principle, but a concession in the area of practice.”
Brothers and sisters, as the gospel is spreading to new areas and new people—something extraordinary is happening—Jews and Gentiles are being brought together by sovereign grace, and they are being joined together into a new family in Jesus Christ. But of course, this wasn’t going to happen without any difficulty or confusion, and yet here is another account of godly church leaders submitting themselves to God, relying—not on their own ingenuity and ability—but they are totally dependent upon divine wisdom.
What a challenge this would have been—to maintain gospel clarity—while navigating increasing diversity. Friends, the challenge of cultivating unity in the midst of diversity will always bring the temptation to compromise some aspect of the gospel. But if the gospel is compromised, then the source of true unity is lost.
As I was considering the challenge of the early church—the challenge of diversity—I was reminded that this is God’s place for his bride. It’s supposed to be this way, which is why Mark Dever writes, “So, gather a group of men and women, young and old, black and white, Asian and African, rich and poor, uneducated and educated, with all their diverse talents and gifts and offerings. Just make sure all of them know they’re sick, sinful, and saved by grace alone. What do you have? You have the makings of a church!”
The church always has and always will face challenges, sometimes they will resemble what we see in our text and other times they will be very different. But if we ever think we can do this on our own—that we possess everything we need to navigate all the various challenges a growing church will face—oh brothers and sisters, if we begin to think this way, may God deal severely with us. May he remind us that we are desperate for him, and we need divine wisdom at every turn and for everything.
3. The confidence of Christians rests in the providence of God (v. 27-36)
Even though Paul walked in wisdom and followed James advice, it didn’t placate those who opposed him:
(Acts 21:27-36) When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, "Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place." For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, for the mob of the people followed, crying out, "Away with him!"
By following the advice of James and the Ephesian elders, Paul put himself in a very visible and dangerous situation. Those who opposed him, seized him, dragged him out of the temple, and planned to beat him to death. The text tells us that the mob was stopped by a Roman military commander who arrested Paul and put him in chains. Because the crowd was in such a frenzy, Paul had to be taken away.
Friends, what strikes me about this account is the undeniable presence of divine providence. Though the scene Luke paints seems absolutely out of control, we see God’s hand at work. God is working in and through every detail of this chaotic scene to accomplish his good purpose.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us that “God's providence is his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing of all his creatures, and all their actions.” O brothers and sisters, we need to be reminded of God’s Providence. In the midst of a chaotic world where things in our families and marriages and relationships and jobs may seem like their spinning out of control, we need to be reminded of the providence of God.
Listen to the words of J.I. Packer, and you’ve got to think that this is something of what Paul must have been thinking while he was being dragged out of the temple, screamed at, and beaten. Packer writes, “The doctrine of providence teaches Christians that they are never in the grip of blind forces (fortune, chance, luck, fate); all that happens to them is divinely planned, and each event comes as a new summons to trust, obey, and rejoice, knowing that all is for one's spiritual and eternal good (Rom. 8:28).”
Friend, this is what sustains believers and gives them hope even in the most difficult and discouraging of times, whether it’s the seemingly fruitless labors and deep personal suffering of William Carey or the physical pain and anguish of the Apostle Paul. Whatever you are facing, you can rest in the providence of God.
Again, remember the words of William Carey. During his darkest hour he simply said, “Well, I have God, and his Word is true. God’s cause will triumph.”