I’m always a little sad when I get to the end of the book. The characters become my friends, and I want to know more about their lives and the rest of their story. In this last chapter of Acts, Paul and his 276 traveling companions arrive safely on an island called Malta, and after three months of waiting out the winter weather and witnessing miraculous healings, they continue their journey.
At last, Paul arrives in Rome! Many Christians warmly greet him, some even traveling great distances to do so – Christians who Paul wrote a letter to a few years earlier. Paul is permitted to live by himself chained to the soldier guarding him while he awaits his trial before Caesar.
Great numbers came to his place of house arrest to hear his message. From morning till evening he speaks to the Jews first about the Kingdom of God and persuading them concerning Jesus from Moses and the prophets. Some were convinced, but others disbelieved. A recurring theme.
Luke ends Acts as follows…” He [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”
Wait! I want more. He is finally in Rome…what happens? How did his trial before Caesar go? Why the abrupt ending?
The truth is, Acts wasn’t about Peter or Paul. Acts is about the charge of Jesus to, ” be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). It is about the Holy Spirit moving in the lives of believers to spread the Gospel. And this ending was just the beginning of those to follow. This ending is OUR beginning. The Gospel has yet to reach the ends of the earth…we still have work to do. We are part of God’s story, and our charge is every bit as important as Paul’s. What if instead of simply reading the Bible as an account of church history or instructions on how to live, we stepped into the story and became part of it? In our big or small spheres of influence, we too have a role and a Gospel to spread. Let us do so without hindrance and with the same faith, boldness, and determination of Paul. Acts 29, [insert your name]…
“So take heart, men, for I have faith in God...”
How does Paul have such strong faith after being rejected countless times, stoned nearly to death, beaten, in prison unjustly for over two years, and now stuck at sea in a storm without food for two weeks?
How can we keep going during our storms? When our minds are messing with us. When the depression is unbearable. When that prodigal child slips deeper and deeper into destruction. When the healing doesn’t come. When our circumstances never seem to change.
How can we, like Paul, have the peace of God and the assurance of His love, protection, provision when outwardly everything is a mess?
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” James 4:8
The only thing I know is to get as near to God as we can. To position ourselves to feel His presence. To crawl under His wings. And though things don’t necessarily get better or go away, we know we aren’t alone. We let Him carry our burdens and lighten our load. We just know He is near. And we beg Him to open our eyes to the doors He is opening for us to walk through in this season of our life and trials. We trust His direction and leading. And we obey. We do what He says. Because He alone is the source of all things good and whole. And with Him beside us, we will get through the fires of life.
This is Paul’s journey. His life was far from easy. His circumstances were more often unfavorable. He suffered immensely. But he always drew near to God, and he always knew God was near. He positioned himself to hear and feel and see God. And though sometimes afraid, knowing God was right beside him gave Paul what he needed for each next step.
When the pit of pain is so deep, and the light is so hard to see, we need to draw near to God. To pray that we feel God so very close; to physically feel His presence. Because there is so much power in KNOWING that the One who knows all, sees all, has all in the palm of His hand is with us.
God, I pray that anyone who is suffering today feels you so intimately close. That they so powerfully feel Your love and protection over them, even in the eye of the storm; that they experience peace – even in the trial – that only You can give. So they can stand up and say, “Take heart, soul, for I have faith in God…I know He is with me and He keeps His promises.”
Almost has to be one of the saddest words. Studies show that bronze medalists are significantly happier than silver medalists. Silver medalists almost won gold, where bronze medalists made it to the medal stand. Or almost getting the A, the promotion, the cure, the ring, the prayed for child, the thing.
Then Agrippa said unto Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” (Acts 26:28)
A little less than. Nearly. Short of the mark. Almost.
Paul makes his case to Agrippa. And though Agrippa is intrigued and likely even believes, he doesn’t go all the way. Instead, he walks away. The saddest almost of them all.
He who is almost persuaded is almost saved, and to be almost saved is to be entirely lost. Time and again we are told there are two sides, two paths, two gates and you can’t almost be on one. There is no third middle group. It is eternal life or eternal suffering. A sheep or a goat (Matthew 25).
Agrippa was almost persuaded, but he wanted to keep living his sinful life. Agrippa was almost persuaded, but he didn’t want to look the fool like Festus thought of Paul. Agrippa was almost persuaded, but he was too proud to submit. Agrippa was almost persuaded, but he saw his life in pomp and Paul’s in chains. Who knows what was keeping Agrippa from going from almost to heck yes. Life after death for Agrippa will lack pomp, freedom, joy, goodness, peace, love…because of almost.
And even at a micro level in our personal lives, “almost” makes us think we can do things on our own without God. We almost find that joy. We almost find that peace. We almost are content. We feel like we are getting so close; we can see it and taste it. But the line keeps moving. There is always that one more thing that keeps joy, peace, contentment at bay. The only way is full surrender. In this life and looking forward to the life to come.
I love when God gives gut check opportunities. Am I almost in or am I all in? Is Jesus almost the Lord of my life? Am I almost surrendered? Am I almost submitting? Am I almost witnessing to those God has consistently nudged me to witness to? God, give me the faith and courage to turn my almost into an absolutely all in!
Felix outed and replaced by Festus as the Roman leader over the Jewish provinces. Now Paul is Festus’ problem, and the Jewish leaders see a new opportunity. They request Paul be sent to Jerusalem for trial, but what they really want is that ambush planned over two years ago. I wonder how that fast is going (re: Acts 23:12)? It’s déjà vu as Festus insists they come to Caesarea where they make their weak case against Paul and Festus doesn’t buy it. He knows Paul isn’t guilty, but he desires to appease and please the Jews to keep the peace and keep his job.
Festus capitalizes on a welcome visit from King Agrippa to obtain Agrippa’s insights on Paul’s case. Paul has lawfully appealed to Caesar, and Festus needs to document the charges causing him to be sent to Rome. Not an easy task for an innocent prisoner.
Paul is given the opportunity to make his case – make the Gospel case – to King Herod Agrippa II and Bernice (his sister and also his lover according to most historians). Herod Agrippa II, whose father Herod Agrippa I had the apostle James murdered. Herod Agrippa II, whose grandfather, Herod Antipas, had John the Baptist beheaded. Herod Agrippa II, whose great-grandfather, Herod the Great, had all the baby boys in and around Jerusalem killed in an attempt to kill Jesus.
Agrippa and Bernice arrive with “great pomp” to question the prisoner Paul. Isn’t it interesting how from our vantage point we can clearly see the insignificance of the “great pomp” Agrippa was so proud to walk in? Earthy power is fleeting. The great-grandson of the one who tried to kill the infant Jesus is hearing of Jesus the Messiah, and Paul GETS to be the one to deliver it.
Though circumstances look bleak, God is sovereignly working to grant Paul an audience with the most influential Roman and Israelite leaders of the day to share the Gospel.
Steven Cole says, “Often the greatest opportunities for ministry that God gives us come disguised as frustrating or confusing circumstances where we seem to be restricted from reaching our goals. If we view those circumstances from the human perspective, as just so much ‘bad luck,’ we will grumble in discouragement and miss the opportunity for ministry. But if we submit to God’s mighty hand, He can use us in such a way that He alone gets the glory.”
What a reminder to me that I can grumble and pout about my circumstances and not being where I want or think I should be…or I can press into it, put my head down in prayer and my eyes up to the Master Orchestrator, and with expectation be used where He has me. And I’ve learned that there are great heart insights to be found in evaluating my reaction to my unfulfilled desires….am I upset because I am missing out on self-glory or am I okay with it because I am after God’s glory and trust in His steering and closed doors. I don’t want to ever miss God’s opportunities for me to join in His work because I am wallowing over my self-generated opportunities gone south. I trust Him enough to know His are always better.
The heartbeat of obedience over worldly tactics and success metrics continues. It was so important for God to preserve these stories for us, and it is so essential for us to pause and let them soak in. We tend to look at leaders of the faith as major success stories who just had things go right; go their way. That they had a clear mission and plan and executed it flawlessly. That they were extraordinarily gifted in all manner of leadership and communication. That they were given red carpet welcomes and sparkly open doors. But that is just not the case. The heroes of the faith were obedient. Period. They trusted God; they had faith; they did what He said. They were often in unfavorable circumstances. They usually waited a loooooooong time for things to develop…often not even seeing the end result. Whatever we see on the surface is a simply a breaking through of the steady root-building underground. If we want to be a disciple, THIS is what it really looks like. No more rose-colored glasses. But if we asked any of them now as they sit face to face with the one they love, my guess is they would say they wouldn’t change a thing. It was beautiful, and it was worth it.
For over two years Paul sits in prison because the one who knew he was innocent and had the power to set him free was a power-hungry, money-hungry coward. Yes, he afforded Paul freedoms and liberties in his imprisonment, and yes, he summoned him often to hear what he had to say, but for two years he deflected and delayed any action. Not only did he delay and reject the opportunity to free the one he knew had truth on his side, but he also delayed and rejected accepting the ultimate Truth for himself.
How many people like Felix do we know? He knew the truth. In fact, we are told he, “had an accurate knowledge of the Way.” But it didn’t change him. He hears a Gospel personal to him. Paul didn’t hold back. He didn’t preach a feel-good, inspiring, prosperity Gospel, he went right at what Felix and his wife needed to hear, just as Jesus did. He taught on righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come. And Felix was afraid. But fear doesn’t change us either. We can be scared of condemnation with no conviction toward repentance. Instead, Felix tells Paul to go away…that he doesn’t want to hear what he has to say…that he will send for him later. We are good at brushing off confronting truth. But then Felix sends for Paul often and converses with him. Frequent exposure doesn’t change his heart. Instead, he secretly hopes for bribes to release Paul. Love of stuff, fear of man, and preservation of status and power keep Felix blinded to the Gospel. And as Felix is outed from power and his esteemed position, he leaves unchanged and he leaves Paul in prison…one last attempt to appease the Jews and gain some favor.
Two years….of hearing the Gospel, of open-access to one who had been with Jesus, of hearing personal truths…and Felix chooses the things of the world. Every. Single. Time. But God’s plans are never derailed or unfruitful, even when we don’t see it. Paul remained protected in prison. Paul could welcome friends and visitors to teach and encourage. Some scholars even think this was the time Luke did his research for the Gospel of Luke. Progress, success, and even time look different through the eyes of God. Our job: remain obedient. Keep pressing on and leave the planning and heart-changing and timing to God.
Paul gets his big chance…the opportunity to speak before both the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Jewish religious leaders; the influencers. These two groups were typically bitterly divided – the “religious liberal” Sadducees and the “fundamentalist” Pharisees – uncommonly united over their disdain for Jesus and the Christian movement. And in the eyes of any metric-keeping bystander, Paul was an utter failure. No one converted, he barely got to speak. It got so bad the Roman commander had to remove Paul from the situation for his safety.
Alone Paul sits in the dusty dark barracks. “Is that how it is going to end?” he is likely wondering. In physical pain, doubting, afraid, disappointed, Paul sits alone. But not for long. Jesus comes and stands by him and says, “Take courage…” Not only does Jesus know precisely where Paul is physically, but He also knows where he is emotionally. He knows Paul is afraid and alone, and He comes to stand by him and provide encouragement.
Jesus continues, “…for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
According to all worldly metrics, Paul had been unsuccessful in this particular mission. But not according to Jesus who commends Paul’s testifying there about Him. And not only that, He tells him there is more work to do. If Paul thought this was the end, it is only the beginning of something new…new people, new territory, a new mission field to testify about Jesus, the Messiah.
No longer alone. No longer feeling unsuccessful or unusable. Paul has renewed power and a renewed hope. Somehow from the barracks in Caesarea – a place he didn’t think he would get out of alive -- he knows he will be going to Rome, a place he deeply desired to go. He doesn’t know how or under what circumstances, but the Lord told him he would testify there and he knows it to be so.
Where in other instances Paul was miraculously released from Prison, for this next mission Paul must remain in prison. And Jesus wasn’t any further away or uninvolved. In fact, this time Jesus came to him. Sometimes Jesus helps us escape from where we are, and sometimes He comes and joins us where we are. Either way, He promises to always be with us.
If you are frustrated with your current situation, feeling regret over past failures, or fearful about the future…Take courage. Jesus is with you. He isn’t looking for worldly success; He is after obedient steps; Kingdom success. And He isn’t finished with you yet. There is still work to do, no matter where you find yourself today. He can find you anywhere, and He always desires to be with you. You may feel like you are in a no-win situation, but that is where He works best. If you call on Him, He will rescue you if that is part of the plan, but if not, He will join you in it. He has extraordinary ways of getting you exactly where you need to be when you need to be there. Take courage.
Paul, granted permission to speak to the Jewish people by his Roman captors, stands on the steps, motions with his hands to the crowd, and takes a deep breath as the roars quiet to a hush. In Aramaic – Hebrew language; their language – he begins to speak.
He reminds them he is a Jew. Born in Tarsus. Brought up in the great city of Jerusalem. Taught by the beloved Gamaliel, one of the most prestigious and respected rabbis of the day. Zealous for God and the law. Persecutor of “The Way” – Christianity. Going so far as to request letters of permission to take all those belonging to it and bringing them back to Jerusalem for punishment.
But something happened on the way to Damascus. Something that changed the entire trajectory of his heart and his life. He met Jesus...and he did what Jesus said.
Paul is speaking to them Jew to Jew. He is basically saying, “I was just like you. I was once where you are right this very minute. I was attacking those against us. I know where you are coming from!” I imagine Paul silently continuing in his head, “…but I was wrong. We were wrong. Jesus is the Messiah we have been waiting on for so long. It you meet Him, like I met Him, you would see.”
Paul is telling a beautiful story of God’s pursuit of him, even while he was actively and viciously rejecting Him. That God continues to pursue the Jews that persecute His followers. That He continues to pursue us even when we reject Him.
In Paul’s account of his transformation we uncover another truth about how God often works: one step at a time. We like everything spelled out in detail and to completion. We want to know exactly what we will be doing and what the price will be. But God usually leads us one step at a time, not telling us what step two is until we take step one. A great light appeared to Paul and he heard Jesus’ speak. His only instructions: “Rise, and go into Damascus.” Blind, the strong-willed and independent Paul is led by others to Damascus. He could have thrown himself on the ground and wailed about his blindness, or continued in his rejection of Jesus, but instead he went. He was obedient in step one which opened the door to step two and hearing God speak to Paul through Ananias. Our life is not to be one of following a neatly tied up 80+ year project plan, it is a life of walking in obedience…one step at a time.
While we pray for God to show us His will, God says, “take step one.” I’m betting we all have some idea what our step one is. We’ve known it and heard it for some time now, but we are waiting for more. We want more details. We want to know how it will all work and what the result will look like. We want to know how we will possibly make it happen. But God continues to whisper, “step one is all you need for now”. Step one equips us for step two, which equips us for subsequent steps. If we saw the entire path without knowing the equipping along the way, we would reject it. We would fall to the ground and weep in our blindness instead of taking the hand of the one God put beside us in this moment and take step one. Praying for you step one today. For clarity about what it is and bravery to move that first foot.
I see him out of the corner of my eye entering Philip’s house. I didn’t make too much of it initially, as people have been coming ever since Paul arrived. They want one last chance to hear his voice or offer encouragement before he heads on to Jerusalem. But something is different about this man. He walks purposefully…on a mission…his face so serious. It is as if Paul is expecting him when he stands eye to eye with Paul. Without a word he reaches for Paul’s belt. Slowly and methodically he wraps it around his hands and his feet. Finally, he speaks, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
Silence only for a split second before choirs of voices chime in. We all do our best to convince Paul not to go to Jerusalem. We beg, we plead, we reason, we cry out. We can’t bear the thought of his suffering. He still has so much work to do here. We need him. Christianity needs him. But I know it is only my will seeking to overtake that of God’s. And Paul knows it too as he interrupts us all with these words, “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.” I bow my head, silently praying that God would give me the courage and faith of Paul. This life isn’t about avoiding suffering, it is about stepping into God’s plans and glorifying Him in our obedience. My head knows it, but my heart and emotions…that’s a different story.
Fast forward over 2,000 years, and we still try to avoid the suffering. And more so for those we love than even ourselves. We want to step in and make the bad all go away…to fix everything. Remember when Jesus told Peter of His impending suffering, Peter rebuked Jesus insistent that he would never let something like that happen. Jesus’ response: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” It is a hard thing to realize that trials and suffering are sometimes a necessary part of the plan; that they have beautiful purpose.
Oswald Chambers says, “Choosing to suffer means that there must be something wrong with you, but choosing God’s will— even if it means you will suffer— is something very different. No normal, healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he simply chooses God’s will, just as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not. And no saint should ever dare to interfere with the lesson of suffering being taught in another saint’s life…One of the hardest lessons to learn comes from our stubborn refusal to refrain from interfering in other people’s lives. It takes a long time to realize the danger of being an amateur providence, that is, interfering with God’s plan for others. You see someone suffering and say, ‘He will not suffer, and I will make sure that he doesn’t.’ You put your hand right in front of God’s permissive will to stop it, and then God says, ‘What is that to you?’”
Staying in God’s Word and in communication with Him via prayer gives us discernment to know when to speak up and what to say. Our job is to maintain alignment with God’s will, not to try to eliminate all suffering.
I see the determination, faith, and commitment of Paul – even in the midst of suffering – and I wonder how he does it. But his faith muscle grew every time…every small time…he submitted to God’s will. It is hard to imagine what we will do in any given situation. It is hard to know what is truly in our heart. It is hard to know what really takes first place in our long priority list. It is hard to know how obedient we will be faced with a given circumstance. Perhaps this is why trials are so often lauded as good things in Scripture. Only by going through something will we know, peeling away at layers of us we can’t even see yet. And as long as we stay insulated, safe, comfortable, smack in the middle of comfort zones, we will never know what we don’t know…it will only remain the weak faith of academia and hypotheticals. Assurance is built through the fire.
C.S. Lewis says, “We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities. We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. Pain is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
I’m praying today for anyone in a season of suffering. That God’s presence feels so near to you. That not one ounce of the suffering is not used in a mighty way. Whatever you are going through…God knows. God cares. God can use it. And God loves you.
Paul purposefully checks on the churches he planted. He doesn’t just want people added to his “saved list”; he wants disciples who love the Lord and keep the faith. He wants to personally pour into them and spend time with them. Paul knows his time with many of the people he has ministered to is coming to an end.
He leaves them with wisdom, teaching, encouragement, stories, truth. For so long he speaks at one location, a young boy with heavy eyes after hours of preaching and the fumes of oil lamps leans toward the fresh air of the open window and not only falls asleep but falls out the third-floor window. But no worries, with God’s power, Paul brings him back to life.
Paul breaks bread with his friends. Long slow meals paired with rich conversation. A staple in the early church life. One that is lost to some degree in our culture of over-scheduled rushing from one commitment to the next with barely time to catch our breath. I’m guilty for sure.
Among the beautiful words of Paul and the miraculous rescue from the third-floor fall, and though not the main point of the chapter, God has me planted at the supper table. The breaking of bread. The making quality time for fellowship. The gathering that opens doors for genuine sharing and deep discussion. For encouragement, support, advice, brainstorming, venting, laughing, crying. I know my introvert over-scheduled self needs to be more intentional here and my soul is telling me I need to do more than type about it. My plan is to schedule time with friends for a meal or even a cup of good coffee this summer. If you are in Jacksonville reading this, you just might be getting a message from me soon. 🧡
So, how do you do community? How do you pour into relationships? What are your hopes for community and relationships? Who would you like to sit down over coffee or tea with?
Following are some conversation starter questions I would love to discuss with friends over coffee. What questions would you add?
What’s your favorite part of your life right now?
A common scenario in Acts (as in much of the Gospels) begins with a group of people getting upset because their power base is being disrupted. They aren’t interested in truth, but only what will keep the power, esteem, and money rolling in. And since truth isn’t on their side, they resort to other efforts, finding new ways to generate buzz and stir up the crowds. If they can’t win with truth, they will win with the mobs. The crazy thing is, it is sooo easy to do. People love to follow. People blindly follow. People go to the loud voices craftily manipulating them.
The Jewish leaders did it against Jesus and again against the apostles. They won’t stand for someone coming in and messing with their status and status quo. In Acts 19 we meet a silversmith, Demetrius, whose way of life is being messed with and who has something to say about it. The gold, silver, and bronze idols they create are rolling in the dough. The worship of all these false gods must go on. But this Paul character and his friends are converting people to Christianity and persuading many that gods made with hands are not gods at all. Demetrius strategically gathers together the others in his trade and shares how their wealth is being threatened by Christianity. Naturally, the others are outraged and begin crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”
Others hear the chants and begin to whisper, begin to wonder what is going on. They lean into the chaos and confusion. They gather friends and rush to the theater to join the mob. As bystanders see the people run by, they too join in. They don’t want to miss something good, after all. “Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together” (Acts 19:32). All these people are rushing in and shouting, and most don’t even know why they are there. Yet for two hours they cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
And we live in a time where messages can flow and spread so far so fast. There are more tools to manipulate and stir up a mob mentality. People are so quick to rush into the metaphorical theater running high on emotion and low on facts and to begin shouting, even if they don’t even really know why they are there. It is such a wake-up call to understand what we are hearing, reading, seeing, following and to know how to bump it up against truth. The authority of truth is God’s word, and we need to know it ourselves. We should seek to follow Jesus, not just His followers and certainly not the misguided crowd.
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