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(Acts 21:15-36) Personal Suffering 101

(Acts 21:15-36) Personal Suffering 101

by Stephen Davey
Series: Sermons in Acts
Ref: Acts 21:15–36

Trials are a classroom for faith and suffering is the teacher. But what is it supposed to teach us?

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Personal Suffering 101

Acts 21:15-36

May I invite your attention to Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi - Philippians 3:10.  With great passion and pathos, Paul bares his soul as he writes, “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. . .”

In the New Testament there are several Greek cognates translated knowledge, or know, or knowing.   One of those words is oida, and it relates to intellectual or intuitive knowledge gained by means of propositional truth.  When you take a test on Bible doctrine and get an A+,  you know certain truths intellectually. 

There is another Greek word for knowledge; and it is the word ginosko, which is a word that relates to knowing something by means of personal experience. 

There is a comprehensive work in the Greek language called The Theological Dictionary of The New Testament (for you guys looking for something different for Father’s Day – this is it – all 10 volumes). 

This dictionary underscores that the Biblical Greek word ginosko implied a personal relationship between the knower and the known which ultimately involved the influence of the object of knowledge upon the one knowing. 

In other words, in Philippians 3:10 Paul says, “That I may know Him!”  Paul doesn’t use oida, knowledge gained by propositional truth.  In fact, Paul shouldn’t have used oida; because he already knew as truth that Christ was His personal Savior.  He used ginosko; Paul is in effect saying, “Oh that I might have such intimacy with Jesus Christ, such close relationship with Him, the object of my knowledge, that I ultimately am influenced by Him in every facet of my character."

If you look down at chapter 4 and verse 5 you have the same word used, this time by the world around you, “Let your forbearing spirit be known unto all men.”  The word for forbearing spirit means to have a humble, patient steadfastness, which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace and maltreatment without malice or hatred.

“Let your patience in the face of personal mistreatment be known unto all men.”  Known is a form of the same verb givosko.  Here’s the point – you have been so influenced by the Lord whom you are intimately involved in knowing that everybody around knows something has happened to make you so different that as they get to know you, they are ultimately influenced by you.

So when somebody says “I just want to know Christ.”  What do they mean?  What should they mean?  Well, properly interpreted it means to live so closely to Him, by being submissive to Him and transparent before Him and desirous to please Him that you begin to act like and sound like and respond like He did when He walked on planet earth.  Then you are “knowing Him, experientially.

Now, we all, for the most part know and love the first phrase of that verse in Philippians 3:10.  Trouble is, Paul isn’t finished; there’s the next little word “and.”  Go back and notice, “That I may know Him AND the power of His resurrection.” 

Remember, we’re still under the context of that controlling verb givosko – to know by means of experience.  Paul is not saying, “I want to intellectually know all the theological facts about the doctrine of the resurrection.  I want to make sure I pass the test.  That’s  good, you should know the facts about the resurrection; and Paul, for one, would score an A+ on the test.  He knows all the facts.  In fact, he’s seen the resurrected Christ.  He was given a tour of heaven. 

Then why is Paul wanting to know the power of the resurrection?

What does it mean to know by means of experience in your personal walk as a believer the power of His resurrection?  And how do you know if you’re really experiencing in your own life the power of His resurrection?  How do you know?  I’m not going to tell you, but I will tell you where you can find the answer – Ephesians chapter 3 and Colossians chapter 2.

I’ll give you a hint and you study it.  Colossians 3:2 says, “If then (third class condition), Since then you have been risen with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated  at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.”

Oh, so truly knowing experientially the resurrection of Christ means that you live your life in the opposite manner of a materialist.  Your affections are on the life to come, not this life.

Knowing personally the experience of the power of His resurrection means you’re walking to the beat of a different drummer.  So, do you know the power of His resurrection?

Now if you look back at Philippians 3:10, the latter part of the verse goes on to say, “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings.”

Paul wants to know by means of experience the sufferings of Christ!

If you took contemporary Christianity and compared it to this verse – 100% would sign up and agree to the first phrase – “That I may know Him/Christ!”  I like that!  The numbers dramatically drop on the next phrase “and the power of His resurrection.”  You mean instead of focusing on my kingdom, I’m supposed to focus on His?  How would that affect my financial portfolio?  Dramatically!   And then, “and the fellowship of His sufferings.”  When you get to the last part of the verse, how many would ever sign up for a personal experience in suffering the sufferings of Christ.”

But Paul wanted it all.

Paul was so desirous to know Christ, to be influenced by Christ, to be so intimate with Christ that he wanted to celebrate the power of the resurrection of Christ by living for heaven instead of earth; and he also wanted to suffer through the valley of the shadow of death where Christ walked.

Paul said, “Lord, I want to be like you so much that I’m willing to voluntarily sign up for a course called Personal Suffering 101.”

And I now invite your attention to where it finally begins to come true – in Acts 21.

Acts 21:15.

By the way, you remember that Paul has just left for Jerusalem in spite of all his friends and companions begging him not to.  In our last study we talked about following the will of God even though no one else agrees with you.

Now, with a heavy heart, Paul said, “A broken heart” he leaves for his beloved Jerusalem.

A Sweet Reunion

15 And after these days we got ready and started on our way up to Jerusalem. 16 And some of the disciples from Caesarea also came with us, taking us to Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple of long standing with whom we were to lodge.  17 And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.

Frankly, this is the only bright spot in the whole story of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem.

The heart of Paul has hungered for a return home – this is his beloved city – the city of the Apostles – and he is filled up to the brim with the story of God’s grace that has been revealed during his missionary journeys.

v. 17 says it all, “the brethren received us gladly”;  what a reunion it must have been with family and friends.

Introducing the Mission Team

Now v. 18 And now the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 And after he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

Evidently this is a more official meeting.  Luke writes that Paul went in with his entire missionary team before James, the leading elder/teacher.  James who, by the way, had already become rather well known for his best seller, a letter we call The Book of James, which had been circulating for some 10 years by now.

And all the elders were present.  Some believe that the church in Jerusalem which numbered in the thousands had translated the Sanhedrin’s structure into church polity by electing 70 elders.

No doubt the size of Jerusalem’s church required an expanded leadership, as is true in any New Testament church.  We are on the verge of perhaps tripling our existing elder body in order to keep pace with the myriad of decisions that must be made.

I was noticing this past week in our church directory that more than 1200 families and single adults consider Colonial their church.  We have an incredible responsibility before God.

You can only imagine the scene as Paul introduced to them his fellow missionaries.  Then, perhaps James introduced the elders to the missionaries.

Recounting the Miracle Timeline

Following these greetings, verse 19 tells us that Paul began detailing for them the events of his three missionary journeys.

Although Paul didn’t have a slide presentation, I imagine the men must have sat on the edge of their seats as Paul recounted stories of his missionary adventures:  narrow escapes from death, a midnight rescue from jail by an earthquake, the first convert in all of Europe, thousands of Gentiles saved by faith in the Redeemer, churches planted, miracles performed and magicians silenced . . . and on and on.

Wow!  This was an incredible report of God’s power and the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A Short-lived Celebration

20 And when they heard it they began glorifying God. . .as you can imagine.  I only wish there was an exclamation point there instead of the little word “and!”

There was so much to celebrate, but the celebration hardly had a chance to get off the ground!

and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law.

"Scuze" me . . . what we’re just talking about.  Weren’t we talking about the thousands of Gentiles that believed in Europe?  Weren’t we about to throw a celebration? 

Jewish prejudice and pride was still alive – so what about thousands of Gentiles coming to Christ?  Let us tell you about thousands of Jews who not only believe in Christ but are zealous for the holy law.  Now that’s something to get excited about.

You can almost hear the air going out of Paul’s balloon. 

But that’s not all - 21 and they (the thousands of Jewish converts) have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.

This simply wasn’t true; Paul had been misinterpreted and misunderstood.  He hadn’t  told Jews to stop their customs.  He simply declared that the rituals of Judaism were not necessary for salvation.

Paul had earlier in chapter 16 taken Timothy, a half Jew, to be circumcised so that the Jewish believers wouldn’t be offended.

Paul wasn’t against the law; he was simply for grace.  And did you notice the inflammatory nature of the rumor?  Notice verse 21 again – you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses.

This is simply not true!

But even though this rumor doesn’t have a leg to stand on, like all rumors it can still run incredibly fast.

Thousands of Jews in the Jerusalem church and surrounding regions have been poisoned against Paul.

But isn’t that the enemy's design for rumors and exaggerations?

Proverbs 16:28 says, “Slander separates close friends.”

In Chuck Swindoll’s commentary on this incident in Paul’s life he wrote this perceptive analogy.

The local church is one of Satan’s favorite seedbeds for growing a weedy crop of misunderstandings.  He tills our thoughts like soil, mixing in a shovel full of good intentions, a bag full of prejudice, and a few pellets of pride.  Then he scatters an accusing word here, and inflammatory comment there, and waits for them to germinate.

One of the characteristics of rumors and gossip is seen here in this passage; the person being talked about is never invited to the discussion.

                        The Strength of an Exacting Passion, Chuck Swindoll, Insight for Living, p. 79

Paul was miles away; and, without him even knowing it, his character and mission were being run into the ground by gossip.

And now he returns and the leaders say in unison, verse 22 “What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.”

“What then is to be done?!”

I can tell you this; I can tell you what can’t be done for Paul.  You can’t completely exonerate his character.  His motives have been questioned.  His leadership of the European missionary movement has been clouded with suspicion that Paul has led people astray.  You can’t take back the things that have been said or suggested or implied.

Kent Hughes told the legendary story of the peasant woman who repeated a bit of gossip about a neighbor and within a short time the whole town knew the story.  The slandered person was deeply hurt and unhappy.  But then the lady responsible for spreading the rumor learned that is was completely untrue, so she went to a wise old sage to find out what she could do to repair the damage.  After listening to her problem, he said, “Go to the marketplace, purchase a fowl, and have it killed.  Then on your way home pluck its feathers one by one and drop them in front of each home in the village!”  Though surprised by this unusual advice, the woman did as she was told.  The next day she informed the man that she had done as instructed.  “Now” he said, “go and collect all those feathers and bring them back to me.”  The woman retraced her footsteps, but to her dismay the wind had blown all the feathers away.  After searching all day long, she returned with only two or three in her hand.  “You see,” said the old wise man, “it is easy to drop your words, but impossible to bring them all back.”

                  Acts, by Kent Hughes, Crossway Books, p. 293             

Unfounded or not – these rumors were spreading – so much so that did you pick up the implication of the last part of  verse 22. – “They will certainly hear that you have come here.”

What are we supposed to do Paul?  These Jews will certainly hear that you have arrived, and that means trouble!”

In other words, “Listen, we like you, Paul, but we really wish you’d go on another missionary journey; make it a long one Paul.

They viewed Paul sort of like you saw little Pig-pen in every Charley Brown cartoon in which he ever made an appearance.  Everywhere he went he gathered dust and dirt.  They viewed Paul like that.  “Paul, you just seem to stir up trouble wherever you go.  The last time you left, we had a near split in the church over this Gentile/Jew issue.   Now you’re back again, and that means more trouble than ever before."

"What are we gonna do Paul?"

Right here is where I would expect to hear a sermon from Paul.  “What do you mean, what is to be done?!  Here is a wonderful opportunity for us all to take a giant step forward in the right direction by clearly delineating what we do believe about law and grace.

Furthermore, you men should know that these rumors are unfounded!  What do you mean, “they have been told I am teaching others to forsake Moses . . .”  Who told them – where’s the evidence – why wasn’t I contacted – and furthermore, I can’t believe you allowed these rumors to be propagated and my character maligned and my mission in Europe to be misinterpreted!  How could you allow this to go on?

But guess what?  No lecture – no self-defense – no pity party – nothing!

Why not?  Because Paul wanted to experience the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.  And, when Christ was misunderstood, misinterpreted and maligned, He refused to defend Himself.

That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings.

Paul provides for us A Model for Suffering Misunderstanding:

*He didn’t retaliate.

*He didn’t allow his emotions to blur his judgment.

*His attitude was not vindictive but loving.

*He didn’t run from his accusers but he faced them directly.

(most importantly) *He had a settled confidence that God was in control.   

ACTS, Chuch Swindoll, Insight for Living,  pg. 80

23. “Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow;  24.  take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses in order that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law.

Here’s the plan.  Four men from the church are fulfilling a Nazarite vow (a vow to abstain from meat, wine and not to cut their hair for thirty days).  So, Paul, you are to pick up the expenses for these men.  Pay for three animal offerings for each man, plus cereal and drink offerings.  And you also, Paul, go through a 7 day ritual of purification.

Now none of this violated the truth of the gospel.  During this period of transition, God patiently waited some forty years for the church to be divested of it’s Jewish customs.

Paul’s point was that none of these rituals were necessary for purification, but they could certainly be used as outward symbols of dedication to God.

So, Paul, you sponsor them; and this will show all the Jews that you really aren’t against Moses after all.

25.  “But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” 26.  Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple, giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.  27.  And when the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the multitude and laid hands on him,  28.  crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people, and the Law, and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”  29. For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.  30. And all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together; and taking hold of Paul, they dragged him out of the temple; and immediately the doors were shut.  31.  And while they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion.  32.  And at once he took along some soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them; and when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.  33. Then the commander came up and took hold of him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; and he began asking who he was and what he had done.  34.  But among the crowd some were shouting one thing and some another, and when he could not find out the facts on account of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.  35.  And when he got to the stairs, it so happened that he was carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob;  36. for the multitude of the people kept following behind, crying out, “Away with him!”

Those words, “Away with him” are the same Greek words used some 30 years earlier by most of this same crowd as Jesus Christ stood trial – “away with Him . . . away with him.”

Paul was indeed experiencing the sufferings of Christ.

How could this beaten, broken apostle do anything other than quit.  "That’s it, I’ve had enough!"

Can you imagine being Paul – your heart was already broken as you pursued God’s will in coming to Jerusalem. Then you arrived and discovered a conspiracy against you within the church.  Misunderstood, maligned and misinterpreted.

Paul,why not quit?

Because Paul had a passion for people, a love for his nation, a desire to speak the gospel even if it meant he was misunderstood, misinterpreted, hurt or even killed.  Ultimately, ladies and gentlemen, it was his passion and surrender to know Christ, the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings.

When Lou Little was the football coach at Georgetown University, a most remarkable event occurred.  On his team was a player of average ability who rarely got into the game.  Coach Little was fond of him and especially the fact that he had seen this young man walking across campus arm in arm with his father on several occasions.  One day, shortly before a huge game against a rival university, this young man’s mother called him with the news that his father had died that morning of a heart attack.  The student went home for the funeral and three days later was back and in Coach Little’s office pleading, “Coach, will you start me in the game tonight – I think that is what my father would have like most.”  After a moment’s hesitation, Little said, “Okay, but only for a couple of plays, then your back out.”  True to his word, he put the young man in – but never took him back out.  For 60 minutes, this athlete ran, blocked and tackled like an All-American.  After the game the coach said “Son, you have never played like that before.  What got into you?”   Well, you remember seeing how my father and I walked arm-in-arm?  You see, he was totally blind, and tonight was the first time he ever saw me play.”

Now, I don’t want to spark a debate on what people do in heaven and whether or not they even care to watch a game on earth.

What did happen was an ordinary player believed his father was watching him play for the first time and impassioned him like never before.

And I can tell you this . . . how you respond in the game of life – to those tough knock downs of misunderstanding – the relentless blows of gossiping rumors and those blind sided hits when someone misinterpreted your best of intentions . . . how you stay in that game                                           has everything to do with who you are playing your life out for – who you are trying to please.

Paul was willing to take every hit and even, if necessary, die for the sake of the audience he played to – you see, Paul played to the audience of One – his audience was Jesus Christ – and Christ alone!

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