Be Humble & Loving
Sermon Text: Acts 21:18-26
Sermon Theme: When dealing with opposition to your Christian character or the work of God, be willing to be humble and loving.
Paul ascribed all his success to God, and to God they gave the praise. God had honored him more than any of the apostles, yet they did not envy him; but on the contrary, glorified the Lord. They could not do more to encourage Paul to go on cheerfully in his work. James and the elders of the church at Jerusalem, asked Paul to gratify the believing Jews, by some compliance with the ceremonial law. They thought it was prudent in him to conform. It was great weakness to be so fond of the shadows, when the substance was come. The religion Paul preached, tended not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. He preached Christ, the end of the law for righteousness, and repentance and faith, in which we are to make great use of the law. The weakness and evil of the human heart strongly appear, when we consider how many, even of the disciples of Christ, had not due regard to the most eminent minister that even lived. Not the excellence of his character, nor the success with which God blessed his labors, could gain their esteem and affection, seeing that he did not render the same respect as themselves to mere ceremonial observances. How watchful should we be against prejudices! The apostles were not free from blame in all they did; and it would be hard to defend Paul from the charge of giving way too much in this matter. It is vain to attempt to court the favor of zealots, or bigots to a party. This compliance of Paul did not answer, for the very thing by which he hoped to pacify the Jews, provoked them, and brought him into trouble. But the all-wise God overruled both their advice and Paul’s compliance with it, to serve a better purpose than was intended. It was in vain to think of pleasing men who would be pleased with nothing but the rooting out of Christianity. Integrity and uprightness will be more likely to preserve us than insincere compliances. And it should warn us not to press men to doing what is contrary to their own judgment to oblige us.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- Here in Acts 21:19-20, Paul “began to relate one by one the things which God did among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it they began glorifying God.” Do you find it hard to rejoice for others when God’s grace blesses them? As a believer, do you think that you have missed out on some of His blessings? Is your heart lacking in joy for others who have received His mercy? It can be difficult at times to rejoice in someone else’s experience of grace while we continue to struggle. But we must remember that to glorify God is to honor Him with praise or worship for He has bought our inheritance with His blood. God is glorious; that is, He is great and magnificent — He is exceptionally grand in His nature and deeds. “Full of splendor and majesty is his work” (Psalm 111:3). When we glorify Him, we acknowledge and extol His attributes, praise His works, trust His name, and obey His Word. For the Most High God, is the possessor of all true majesty and resplendence. Glory is His by virtue of His nature, and He rightfully refuses to share it with others: “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8). By virtue of who God is, we have an obligation to glorify God at all times (1 Corinthians 10:31). Those who refuse to glorify God face severe judgment, as witnessed by the example of Herod usurping God’s glory in Acts 12:21–23. As John Piper rightly states, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Thus if we want to glorify God, which is the highest goal for the Christian, we must focus on finding joy in Him. Scripture commands us, “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together… O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:3, Psalm 34:8). “Praise the Lord” is not a nice suggestion — it’s a command!
- What values govern your behavior? Christians who value prayer go to prayer meeting or meet with other groups of Christians for informal prayer times. Christians who value the Scripture spend time reading their Bibles. Like Paul, Christians who value opportunities for witness go out of their way and even endure inconvenience and perhaps sacrifice to share the gospel with other people. Throughout this chapter Paul has moved through Jerusalem as a shining example of that courage. For Paul was convinced that he moved and ministered in the purpose and power of God. From that unshakable conviction came his indomitable courage. As Ben Gurion said: “Courage is a special kind of knowledge — the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.” For courage is always important in the Christian life, but never more important than when one thinks loyalty to the faith might lead to death. For a disciple of Jesus has to go and do what God commands, no matter the danger involved. Throughout Acts, we have seen what Paul valued and what he did not. He obviously did not value his own life, a fact he made clear to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:24. He also did not value his freedom, at least not to the extent of avoiding Jerusalem and the captivity he knew full well would wait for him there. He did value any opening to proclaim the gospel.
- What is the true freedom in Paul’s character that is shown throughout Acts that believers today can imitate? Paul knows the freedom he now has is because he is a child of God. For Paul exclaims in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Believers, however, can let freedom assume the status of an idol and, consequently, enslave themselves to freedom. We can easily entrench ourselves in our own freedom and thus paralyze our ability to serve others. True freedom, as Paul demonstrates, means we can dispense with our own preferences, wants, and needs. True freedom is a freedom from self. Freed from selfishness, Christians can lay down their own desires as a sacrifice on the altar of Christian love. Paul, though free from the law, made himself a servant of the law in order to love his brothers and sisters in Christ. That is true Christian liberty. But, if you have decided to be “all things to all men,” remember that commitment may lead you into unusual behavior, surely to be criticized by some and heralded by others.
- Can gossip and lies ever be totally forgotten and the harm undone? Consider that some believers in the Jerusalem church believed, mistakenly, that Paul was off-base in his teaching. The church had heard and propagated slanderous hearsay about Paul — misinformation — lies, whether intentional or unintentional. The consequences of gossip and lies can be seen in the story of a woman in an eastern land 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 most unhappy. But then the lady responsible for spreading the rumor learned that it 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 along the path!” 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 go and collect all those feathers and bring them back to me,” the sage said. The lady followed the same path, 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 hand. “You see,” said the old wise man, “it is easy to drop them, but impossible to bring them all back. Likewise, it does not take much to spread a false rumor, but you can never completely undo the wrong.” We Christians must take this to heart! [Preaching the Word Commentary]
- Did Paul have some doubts in the wisdom to comply with the Jerusalem elders’ plan? Were the thousands of Jews who believed and were zealous for the Law performing the self-works of salvation in the Law with its scarifies plus Jesus? Probably Paul was not too sanguine about the outcome of the plan; but to head off a confrontation, the Jerusalem elders suggested a compromise — not a sacrifice of truth for expediency but an act of self-sacrificial humility to promote unity and understanding. Displaying humility and a desire for unity, Paul agreed to the elders’ proposal. Doing so would not compromise biblical truth since, as Paul himself had written in Romans 14, such matters were issues of Christian liberty. Certainly, his motives cannot fairly be charged with compromising his own principles. But what do we learn from Paul’s experience? First, in our moments of highest spiritual motivation we need to especially beware of error or bad judgment. Second, we can be pressured toward questionable action by the errors or sins of others. Third, we need, like Paul, to have hearts that because of a passion for souls and for God’s glory are willing to run the risk of unwise decisions. Some hearts never risk anything. They strive neither for sin nor for sainthood. They desire a temperate zone free from the storms of sin and from the tempests that accompany a life of service. Never burn for the souls of others, and you will avoid rejection. Never suggest a plan to reach the community or the world, and you will never be criticized for it. Never give counsel to someone undergoing the pain of separation or divorce, and you will never give errant advice. But just think of all the heavenly rewards you will never receive for yourself or others. O Lord, give us each a heart like Paul’s!
- Why were so many believing Jews still clinging to the law of Moses? Had they not read Romans and Galatians? Probably not, and even if they had, old customs are difficult to change. In fact, one day God would have to send a special letter to the Jews, the epistle to the Hebrews, to explain the relationship between the old and new covenants. As Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse used to say, “The book of Hebrews was written to the Hebrews to tell them to stop being Hebrews!” It was not until the city and the temple were destroyed in AD 70 that traditional Jewish worship ceased. Paul did warn the Gentiles not to get involved in the old Jewish religion (Galatians 4:1-11), but nowhere did he tell the Jews that it was wrong for them to practice their customs, so long as they did not trust in ceremony or make their customs a test of fellowship (Romans 14:1-23). There was freedom to observe special days and diets, and believers were not to judge or condemn one another. The same grace that gave the Gentiles freedom to abstain also gave the Jews freedom to observe. All Paul yearned for was solidarity between the Jewish and Gentile churches. Paul’s desire for Christian solidarity reflected the heart-cry of Christ in His High-Priestly prayer (John 17:20-23): “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Paul had a massive vision of solidarity — a church of Jews and Gentiles, united, militant, taking the world by storm for Christ — not giving in to legalism like that of the Judaizers! Yet Paul went along with the elders’ compromising suggestion. Why? He loved his lost nation more than his own life, and he longed for the evangelistic power that God manifests through a church exhibiting solidarity in Christ. So, don’t second guess the sovereign working of God’s will in Paul’s life, but constantly examine our own lives to identify our sins and mistakes, including the mistake of not serving the Lord.
- Why should believers in Jesus Christ (whose blood cleanses us from all sin) go through a ritual of purification involving animal sacrifice under the priestly system that put the Savior to death? Some have argued that Paul’s actions may have clouded some crucial biblical truths. As the author of Hebrews argues, Christ is the sum of everything that the Jewish sacrificial system pointed forward to. Why go back to the old system when the veil in this very temple had been torn? It is one thing for Paul to set aside his freedom in Christ and to adopt some neutral Jewish customs that might be a hindrance to the gospel. But to participate in a Jewish sacrifice for purification at the temple was at the least to cause confusion on what Paul elsewhere plainly taught, that the decrees of the Law were removed by being nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:11-14). However, there is no indication in the text that Paul erred or sinned, and that he later states that he had always maintained a clear conscience. But in light of Paul’s epistles, Acts 21:20 may jar a sensitive reader of Scripture. Paul taught that the Law is our tutor to lead us to faith in Christ and that Christ is the end or fulfillment of the Law for righteousness to all who believe (Romans 10:4). Thus, the tutor is done away with (Galatians 3:24-26). He exhorts the Galatians, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” How the sum of Paul’s teaching about not being under the Law can be harmonized with a favorable view of being zealous for the Law appears to be incongruent. Granted, Paul’s motives were pure. But sincerity and pure motives do not protect us from making mistakes. We should agree that negative results are no basis for determining right or wrong. Sometimes we act in obedience and suffer terribly. Sometimes we disobey God and life seems to go well for a while. But the prophecies about Paul’s imprisonment say nothing about whether the actions that led to that imprisonment were right or wrong since God, who is sovereign over the details of our lives, intervened before Paul was able to offer the sacrifice in the temple and prevented him from doing it. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, Yahweh, the Creator of the ends of the earth… His understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28). “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). God’s infinite thoughts are far greater than our limited ability to comprehend them. The psalmist exclaimed, “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Psalm 139:17). God’s thoughts and His ways don’t always make sense to us, but we can rest in the knowledge that He is always good and everything He does is good (Psalm 13:6; Psalm 100:5).
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