Rev. Erik Veerman
To Jerusalem, Willing to Die
The events in Afghanistan over the last couple of weeks have burdened every one of us. One of the hardest things is knowing that persecution is happening, but that not much can be done about it, except to pray. Just a few days ago a report surfaced that an underground church in Kabul was attacked… and the Christian martyred. It’s hard to know what’s true and not and that story hasn’t been verified.
However, earlier last week I received an update email from some friends who live on the border. They know several Christians who live in Afghanistan, who are fearful but who have decided to stay. Despite the risks, despite the threats, to remain. One Afghan Christian said this “we are not leaving… and will continue God’s work.” But some would ask, why? If they could cross the border or take one of the transport planes to Europe or the US. Why stay? I mean, it would be safer, for sure. Maybe there would be long term benefits of a new home. But no, they’ve decided to remain so that they can be a faithful light in their country.
That is in essence what’s happening in these verses. The difference is that the apostle Paul is heading into danger. People are telling him, “don’t go.” Paul is in some way, caught in the middle. On one side he feels the leading of the Spirt to Jerusalem. He’s willing to die. But on the other side, the heart felt desires of Paul’s friends is that he not go. They want him to be safe. Decisions can hard enough. Yet, when your friends and family share their opinions (which of course is ok) it can be hard to know what to do. Just like in Paul’s heart, we can have a little tug-of war going on, as we try to navigate what to do.
One thing these verses teach us about is priorities in decisions. You may remember a few months ago Paul’s Macedonian call. This similar but different. We learned then that God loves to steer a moving ship. We need to allow God to direct and redirect us. Here we learn about Biblical priorities in decisions, especially in Gospel ministry.
Well, before we dive into what this means for us… in Gospel ministry and in decisions in general. We first need to understand what’s going on here.
Paul’s Travel Log
And let me start with Paul’s travel itinerary. Let’s set sail with Paul to Jerusalem. Then we’ll come back and work through why he felt compelled to go, despite what some were saying.
And by the way, it’s not just Paul here. He’s travelling with a group that included Luke. This is the third passage in Acts where Luke uses “we” to include himself.
If you remember from the end of chapter 20, Paul had just said goodbye to the Ephesian elders. It was an emotional farewell.
• Then Verses 1 through 3 here list where they stopped over the next few days. They first sailed along the Mediterranean coastline of Asia Minor – modern day Turkey.
• Next, they board a new ship, probably a larger ship… and they set sail on the open Mediterranean waters. They passed by the island of Cyprus
• ...and eventually they landed in Tyre. They were in southwest Syria, on the coast. Their boat stopped for 7 days. Good news! They found some Christians in Tyre and stayed with them. It was another emotional farewell. The church body gathered on the beach. They all knelt down and prayed with and for each other.
• Their next stop was Ptolemais. Another day of fellowship with some believers…
…and then they arrived in Caesarea. Caesarea by the sea. We’ve been here before. It’s the same place where Peter shared the Gospel with Cornelius and his household. And who should they meet there, but Philip. Phillip the Evangelist. One of the original 7 who were anointed to serve the tables… to take care of the needs of the people. It’s the same Philip who brought the Gospel to Samaria. The one who opened the Scriptures to the Ethiopian Eunuch. Do you remember Phillip? He was here at Tucker Pres back in February. Here at this pulpit in his red robe. He looked a little like pastor Chuck in a red bathrobe.
Well Phillip had settled in Caesarea with his family. We’re told he had 4 unmarried daughters who prophesied. It’s possible they prophesied in a similar way as Agabus – predicting the future, although we’re not told that they did that in this situation. Or Philips daughters could have been given the gift of prophecy in a general sense of the word – speaking the word of God through the Holy Spirit for exhortation and edification.
Well, Paul and Luke and the others stayed with Phillip and his family. This would have been the first time that Luke met Philip, and likely Luke would have heard first-hand about the early church, about Samaria, and about the Ethiopian, all of which Luke recorded for us.
Well, after a few days, they left Caesarea and pressed on to Jerusalem. Verse 15. It was about a 67 mile journey. It likely involved horses or camels – maybe wagons. A larger group now accompanied them. It included some disciples from Caesarea. Given the distance, it took them a couple days. They stayed with Mnason. He was originally from Cyprus; one of the early Christians. It’s possible Paul and Barnabas met Mnason a couple decades earlier on their first missionary journey. With his hospitality and help, the group finally arrived in Jerusalem. Right on schedule to celebrate Pentecost with the believers. They finally reached their goal. Incidentally, this ended Paul’s third and last missionary journey.
If we look back over these last couple of chapters – we see Paul’s determined drive to get to Jerusalem. They pressed on.
I met another pastor a few years ago. He didn’t like the phrase “take care.” You know, you’re talking to someone on the phone or in person. And when you’re done, you may say “take care.” This pastor didn’t like that, so he came up with a new phrase: “press on!” He would end all his conversations with “press on.” Like in “keep the faith” “strive for the goal in Christ.” Coincidentally, this pastor’s name is also Paul – we called him “press on Paul.”
And if there’s one thing you could say about the apostle Paul, it’s that he pressed on… in everything he did. Paul had this intentional drive to persevere with passion and conviction.
And the question that people have asked of this text is this: was Paul being stubborn? Was he pushing his agenda and not listening to these Christians?
It’s a legitimate question because there’s a tension here. For example, go up to verse 4. The second half of the verse says, “through the Spirit, they were telling him [Paul] not to go to Jerusalem.” Was the Holy Spirit directing them to tell Paul not to go to Jerusalem?
Then look down at verse 12. Several others, including Luke, urged him not to go. “When we heard this, we and the people urged him not to go.” In other words, when they heard from Agabus how Paul would be delivered to the Gentiles (meaning the Romans), Luke and the others tried to persuade Paul not to go.
Paul acutely feels this tension. They were “breaking his heart,” verse 13.
Think of a big decision in your life in the past or right now. You’re feeling drawn in a certain direction but the tension comes from friends and family. “don’t move” or “don’t go there” or “don’t take that job” “don’t date that person” Or “if you do that, you’re in financial risk.” Or other urgings. Have you been there?
Well, Let’s unpack what was going on… and then apply this to our own decisions.
Analyzing Paul’s Decision
Some pastors and commentators have suggested that Paul was in the wrong. That he was sinful in not heeding the warnings. However, I want to make a case that Paul was being faithful to the Spirit’s leading. In doing so, I’m not saying that Paul was not a sinner. Of course he was, he said he was the chief of sinners in Romans chapter 7.
Ok, let’s look back over the last couple of chapters. I think that will be helpful. Because in what Luke wrote, Paul was led by the Holy Spirit.
• First, in Acts 19, after the riot in Ephesus, it says this: “after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’” The Spirit was leading him to Jerusalem… and from there he would go to Rome.
• Second, this is confirmed in chapter 20. Paul was speaking to the Ephesian elders and said this in verse 22, “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.” You see, over and over, the Holy Spirit had been telling Paul to go to Jerusalem, even though he would be imprisoned.
• And then, in our verses today, 21:11 – Agabus prophesied that Paul would be delivered over to the Gentiles. Agabus never said “don’t go.” In fact, he’s a prophet, predicting what will happen.
The other important consideration is to look forward.
• In chapter 23, Paul was in Jerusalem. It’s then that Agabus’ prophecy comes true. Paul was forcibly bound by the Romans. And then that night, the Lord Jesus himself spoke to Paul (Acts 23:11) “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” The Lord affirmed to Paul that he had been faithful going to Jerusalem. The Lord also promised that Paul would testify about him in Rome.
• And finally in chapter 27 – the Lord affirmed to Paul that he would stand before Caesar.
So you see, the Spirit had been leading Paul to Jerusalem this whole time… and then the Lord confirmed his leading.
The big question is, how do we understand Acts 21:4? They were in Tyre and again it says “through the Spirit, they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” I think we should understand it this way:
• The Holy Spirit revealed to them that Paul would be imprisoned and afflicted in Jerusalem. Their human response was to tell Paul not to go.
• One commentator I read put it this way “The Spirit seems to have revealed what Paul would face, and the warning comes out of the resultant worry about Paul’s well-being.” The word translated “through” is the Greek word “dia.” That word can also be translated “on account of.” In other words, “on account of what the spirit revealed they urged him not to go.”
Of course they were worried! They loved Paul. They didn’t want to see him persecuted yet again.
That’s why, after their persistent urging, Paul told them “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.” Paul was headed to Jerusalem, willing to die.
Our emotions can sometimes cloud our thinking… or our friends and family’s thinking. In this case, the believers understood the risks. The risk to Paul was dire. He would be persecuted. And they didn’t want to see that.
I offer that as an analysis of Paul’s situation.
With that, let’s now transition to some application points. But first, let me say this: The situation with Paul was unique. It was part of God’s redemptive plan for the Gospel to go to the ends of the earth. That means we have to be careful. The Holy Spirit was leading Paul as an apostle. His persecution was part of God’s redemptive plan. Also, Luke was with Paul. Part of God plan included Luke meeting and interacting with the believers along the way and in Jerusalem for the writing of Acts.
Nonetheless, we can principally apply these verses. It first takes extrapolating the Biblical principles from them. Let me highlight 2 principles. The first one is directly connected to the risks of Gospel ministry, the second one is more broad.
The first one is this: Faithfulness to the Gospel will involve risks - the risk of persecution. As was Paul, we need to be willing to die for the Gospel. That’s a radical message in our culture. But that’s the decision that many Christians around the world face, today, like in Afghanistan. They are in great danger, there… last week, this week, next week. Staying may mean dying for the Gospel. To be sure, every specific situation is different. Some who decide to leave the country… may have a more explicit Gospel ministry with their fellow refugees who need Christ.
But think of Martin Luther. Earlier in our study of Acts I mentioned Luther’s famous speech at Worms. He stood in front of the Holy Roman Emperor and all the cardinals. Remember what he said, “I will not recant,” and then “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Four months ago was the 500th anniversary of Luther’s speech at Worms. I bring it up now because when Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms, he had to make a choice. He could have ignored the summons. Wittenberg, his home, was a long way from Rome and Luther was protected by the elector of his region – the governor of sorts.
But rather than ignore the call, Luther was willing to go… to take a stand and risk dying for the truth of God’s word. It was a real risk. 100 years earlier, Jan Huss of Bavaria was summoned to a similar counsel. Huss was promised safe passage. Yet when Huss stood up for the Gospel and faith alone in Christ, he was burned at the stake.
And do you know what? Many of Luther’s friends tried to dissuade him from going to Worms. And in good Martin Luther form, he replied to them… “If there are as many devils in Worms as tiles on the housetops, I will still go there.” In Worms, many of the houses had red clay tiles. And so Luther went, trusting in the Lord, willing to die.
To be sure, the dangerous choice is not always the right one. Paul had escaped several times. One time, being lowered in a basket. But this time, the Spirit led him to Jerusalem and he was willing to die.
For you and me, standing for the truth may not involve risking your life – like Paul or Luther. Nonetheless, we should be willing to die for it. But standing for the Gospel may involve losing your job, getting passed up for a promotion, being denied social services, or whatever. For me, I may get censored by social media or streaming services for preaching Biblical morality. We as a church may lose our tax exemption. But none of that should change our stance or willingness to be faithful to Christ. Be willing to die.
Let me offer you a second level of application – a broader one for decisions in your life. We have a tendency to evaluate decisions through cultural priorities – safety, comfort, financial stability. Those aren’t bad things, but they can become heart idols. If you remember from Acts 17, an idol is something we prioritize or worship either in place of God or alongside of Him, or more than the one true God.
When we prioritize safety or comfort or money over the Bible’s priorities… or when they replace an eternal perspective on life, then our decisions are based on the things of man and not God. Would that potential job consume all your time, leaving you no time for others or the church? Would buying that house stretch you so thin that you aren’t able to give? Would that car or that outfit distract you or others from God?
Several years ago, I was at a crossroads. My business IT career had taken off, but I had an opportunity to become a pastor. It was a big decision. I had finished seminary on the side a couple of years earlier. And yes, I was already serving in multiple ways in the church. To be sure, I have a high view of all callings. We need Christian teachers, and nurses, and social workers, and in the service industry… even lawyers (I can say that because Tim Townsend isn’t here). But for me, I couldn’t shake that internal desire to focus on teaching and preaching the Word and that sense of call to be a pastor. And so, I left my job.
There were a lot of people who I worked with who didn’t understand. For them, I was giving up so much for something that seemed so insignificant.
Again, we’re at a broader level here. I’m not saying these verses give us a formula to make decisions, but they certainly teach us to think through priorities in God’s Word that can be very different from a worldly mindset.
Jesus and Jerusalem
Well, let’s get back to the apostle Paul. Directed by the Spirit, he set his heart and mind toward Jerusalem. Despite the pleas not to go, nothing would stop him.
And do you know what comes to mind here? A very similar situation that happened 30 years earlier - a parallel situation that really underlies Luke’s narrative. You probably know where I’m going to go because we read this parallel account in Matthew 16.
After 3 years of his public ministry, Jesus turned his attention to Jerusalem. He knew what was to come, that the cross was before him. In Matthew 16:21, he pointed out to his disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and to suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And what did the apostle Peter say? He rebuked Jesus. Said to him “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”
Peter rebuked our Lord! And Jesus swiftly responded. Listen carefully to what Jesus said: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hinderance to me; for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man.” Peter had prioritized the mindset of man over the mindset of God. Of course, Peter’s heart would change. We know. And for Jesus, he would get to Jerusalem. He would be arrested, tried, mocked, scourged, and die on a cross. But as he predicted, he would rise again on the third day.
Back to the apostle Paul. As he was heading to Jerusalem, he knew the that the Jews hated Christianity. He’d been one of them! Paul was there at the martyrdom of Stephen, approving. He had pursued Christians to kill them or drag them off to jail. And when Paul was converted, Jesus had said to him that he would suffer many things on account of his name.
For Paul, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21
Paul’s willingness to suffer and die in Jerusalem comes from the suffering and death of his Savior. Christ had gone before him – had endured the pain, the trial, and death… but was raised. Of course, we know, Paul would not die in Jerusalem. But his willingness to die rested in the hope of his savior. The same hope that we can rest in, if we are willing to die.
Martin Luther said this: “It is a little matter to die for the Word, since this Word, which was made flesh for us, died himself, first.” Luther was speaking about Jesus. He went on, “We shall arise with him, if we die with him, and passing where he has gone before, we shall arrive where he has arrived, and abide with him through all eternity.”
May we have the willingness in Christ, through his Spirit, to die for our faith. And may we press on as the apostle Paul did, in all decisions in our lives. Setting our minds on the things of God. Press on.