Zealous for One Thing
ZEALOUS FOR ONE THING
From Acts 15 to Acts 16 …
If you have a Bible, and I hope you do, let me invite you to open to Acts 16, or actually, let’s start right at the end of Acts 15:36. I am so thankful for teachers of the Word all over this church. Last week Bart walked through Acts 15 and showed us the glory of the gospel and the danger of legalism. The question is, how do you go from Acts 15 to Acts 16?
We are only accepted before God by His grace.
So Acts 15 was this interlude—important, brief, theological, historical interlude—where we saw that we are only accepted before God by His grace. That’s the essence of salvation. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, not based on anything we do but based on everything He has done. So, we do not work, live, pray, study, worship in order to earn favor before God, in order to earn standing before God. We have favor before God, standing before God, solely based on faith in Christ. He is our righteousness.
Which begs the question then, why do we work? Why do we live, and why do we pray? Why do we study? Why do we worship? I’m glad you asked. The picture is, we do these things, not to earn favor, or increase in some way our standing before God. We are accepted before God by His grace, and as recipients of grace, our hearts long for Him to be glorified.
We are wholly abandoned to God for His glory.
So, we’re only accepted before God by His grace, and because of this, we are wholly abandoned to God for His glory. We are compelled, captivated by grace, consumed by grace to live for His glory. So, I’ve got a quote here from J.C. Ryle, a pastor and theologian in the 19th century. He once wrote on the topic of zeal, and I want to read this quote to you, and I want to let it set the stage for what we’re going to see in the Word. So, follow along, carefully, to what this pastor/theologian said.
J.C. Ryle said,
A zealous man in religion is preeminently a man of one thing. It is not enough to say he is earnest, hearty, uncompromising, wholehearted, fervent in spirit. He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God. Whether he lives, or whether he dies, whether he has health, or whether he has sickness, whether he is rich, or whether he is poor, whether he pleases man, or whether he gives offense, whether he is thought wise, or whether he is thought foolish, whether he gets blame, or whether he gets praise, whether he gets honor, or whether he gets shame, for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all. He burns for one thing; and that one thing is to please God, and to advance God’s glory. If he is consumed in the very burning, he cares not for it; he is content. He feels that, like a lamp, he is made to burn; and if consumed in burning, he has but done the work for which God appointed him.
So, the question I want to ask is, “What would happen if every member of the church was zealous for one thing like that?” That’s what I’m praying for. In the few moments we have, together, in God’s Word, that every single man, every single woman, every single student, teenager who knows Christ, that God would lodge deep in your heart, zeal. God implanted zeal for one thing that burns in you, that drives you, that compels everything about who you are...marriage, family, job, friends, possessions, plans, dreams...you’re compelled by a burning desire for one thing, and that is the advancement of the glory of God. Everything is abandoned to that one thing.
What I want us to see is I want us to see in Acts 16 and 17 and 18 a picture, an illustration, of that. Much like we did a couple weeks ago when we had a pretty good chunk of Scripture, we’re going to read through, and we’re going to pause along the way, trying to understand what we are seeing, and I want to pray together that God would give in us this kind of zeal for His glory. Sound good? Okay, here we go.
So, this is Paul’s second missionary journey. It took a couple years, and we’re going to cover it in a few minutes. So, maybe a little more than a few minutes but a matter of minutes, not a matter of years. So, we have a lot of ground to cover. So, we’re going to start at Acts 15:36. Remember the context. Acts 13, the first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas in Antioch. They’re sent out on the first missionary journey. Acts 13 and 14, we studied as we were fasting together, and we saw the first missionary journey.
At the end of that missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas came back to Antioch. It’s kind of their home base. Actually, after Acts 15, which we looked at last week...the council in Jerusalem...Paul and Barnabas go down to Jerusalem, handle this very important weighty theological matter and then come back up to Antioch. So, they are chilling in Antioch when we get to Acts 15:36. The Bible says, “After some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaim the word of the Lord, and see how they are.’ Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them.”
Some of your translations said, literally, “deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches.” Let’s keep going, a few more verses.
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observances the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
Zealous for the Glory of God …
We love the people of God.
All right, zealous for the glory of God. I want us to see a picture of this. What does it mean have zeal for the glory of God, burn for one thing? Well, it means, outset, we love the people of God. Zeal for the glory of God involves love for the people of God. So, Paul and Barnabas were sitting around in Antioch, Paul says to Barnabas, “Barnabas, we should go and strengthen the churches that we have been a part of planting.” Barnabas says, “Great idea.”
The only problem is Barnabas wants to take his cousin, John Mark. If you remember, when we read through Acts 13 and 14, there was a point where John Mark had traveled with Paul and Barnabas, but he left them, deserted them, withdrew from them. Now, there’s a lot of speculation over why John Mark left at that point. Some think he was homesick. Others think he had some kind of sickness. Some think that John Mark didn’t like Paul kind of ascending in leadership in a sense...in a higher position of leadership in this whole team over Barnabas. Others think that John Mark just couldn’t take life as a missionary.
Regardless, Paul didn’t want John Mark to come, and Barnabas wanted John Mark to come, and this led to a divide, a disagreement, sharp disagreement. Now, just picture it. Here are these two titans of the early church. Their relationship to one another...Paul owed more to Barnabas, in a sense, than any other human being; the affect that Barnabas had had on his life, and Barnabas...here’s Barnabas splitting from Paul, one of the greatest servants of Christ ever in Christianity, and they split over this disagreement. This was not good. In and of itself, this was not good.
There’s no point in this passage where...like we saw in Acts 15:28 when it said that they prayed, and it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us, so we make this decision...you don’t see Paul and Barnabas pray and say it is good to the Holy Spirit and to us that we part ways. No, this was a disagreement, a divide. This is not what Jesus prayed for. In John 17, Jesus prayed that they would be one as He and the Father are one, but Paul and Barnabas are not one. They are splitting, but what I want you to see is that, by God’s grace, God overcomes conflict that we create inside the church. We create it.
We are prone to disagree with one another. We are prone to divide from one another. It is a result of sin and imperfection among us. Let’s be honest, brothers and sisters, even in this room, we’re prone to disagree and divide from one another. How many supposed church plants are in reality church splits, right? That’s what we do. That’s part of church planting. It is not a God church planting strategy. Split...we’re going to go start Second Baptist and Third, Fourth and Fifth Baptist, and we’re going to go start New Harmony Baptist. It will not be harmony longer than two weeks because you're going to be there, and we are the problem, right? It’s sin in us that creates disagreement and divide.
There’s coming a day when we will not disagree, where we will be completely united when we are with Him, and we will see His face, and we will be one with one another. So, here’s the deal, we work toward that. The last thing we need to do from Acts 15 is take this as a license for disagreement and division in the church. “Well, Paul and Barnabas disagreed and divided, so we do the same.”
No, no. Ephesians 4, “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” That’s a command from the Scriptures. This is not license for disagreement, but the picture is, by God’s grace, He overcomes conflict that we create inside the church. What you find in the days to come is John Mark comes around under Barnabas’ tutelage and ends up writing a fairly good gospel account. It made it into our books. He was a great help to Peter in ministry, 1 Peter 5. Even Paul, at the end of his life in 2 Timothy, writes a letter to Timothy and said, “Bring Mark with you because he will be much help in ministry.” In 1 Corinthians, we see Paul and Barnabas have reconciled with one another as well.
So, by God’s grace, He overcomes conflict that we create inside the church and for His glory, God ordains persecution we face outside the church. Okay, so Acts 16, Paul comes to Lystra and there is a disciple there named Timothy. Most likely a teenager at this point, and we know Paul’s relationship with Timothy is going to be huge in the pages to come. Their companionship and partnership together in the gospel is going to be huge.
Now, a question I want to ask is, “How did Timothy come to faith in Christ?” We know his mother and grandmother had a huge influence on him, but I want you to step even deeper than that with me. Where is Timothy? Timothy’s in a city called Lystra. Do you remember what happened when Paul was in Lystra? Remember? Turn back to Acts 14:19. Paul is preaching in Lystra and listen to what happens.
“Jews came,” Acts 14:19, “from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.” He, of course, was not dead but stoned to the point where they thought he was dead. So, we don’t know if Timothy saw this or not. Certainly, he heard of it. We don’t know if his mother or grandmother saw this or heard of it, but the reality is, this picture of the sufferings of Christ on display in the life of Paul in Lystra, certainly, had at least some affect, some ripple effect in Timothy coming to Christ.
This is where I want you to just think about the pattern that we are seeing here in the book of Acts. Stephen is stoned, and who is standing there? Paul’s standing there. Saul was standing there while Stephen is stoned, and God uses even the stoning of Stephen, two chapters later, to bring about and lead to the conversion or salvation of Paul. Then, the stoning of Paul, eventually leading to, in some sense, connected with Timothy’s coming to faith in Christ and joining together in partnership.
I love this. Satan trying to attack the church from the inside and from the outside. Inside: conflict in the church. God said, “This is not good, this disagreement, divide,” but God will use it. So, what does God say? “Huh, not one mission team, now two going with the gospel. Take that Satan. Then, you’ll stone Paul? I will use this to lead Timothy to Christ, and make him a companion for Paul in ministry from here on out.” You cannot stop this God making His glory known. So, anyway we’ll get to that.
The picture is we love the people of God. It would make no sense to say, “I have zeal for the glory of God,” and not have love for the people of God. So, let us love one another. Let us lock arms together. Let us join with one another in unified zeal for one thing, love the people of God.
We follow the Spirit of God.
Second, we follow the Spirit of God. These next few verses that we’re about to read are huge. One writer said, “Truly authentic turning points in history are few, but surely among them is that of the Macedonian vision." What we’re about to read has implications for why we have the gospel here in Birmingham, Alabama.
Acts 16:6 says, “They went through,” now follow this. Just follow the line here.
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go on to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Now, you read that. I read that. It’s like a pinball machine, and Paul’s headed this way, then, the Lord says, “No, don’t preach the gospel there.” So, he goes this way, and the Spirit doesn’t allow him to go there. Gets checked there. He’s going back and forth.
Now, Paul probably had neat plans when he set out to strengthen the churches in these places. Now, the Spirit was redirecting here and here and here. Do you ever feel like that? You ever feel like, as you’re following God, and you're going in this direction, and then He says, “No, don’t go in that direction anymore.” You're like, “Okay; I’ll go in this direction,” and oh, clearly not that direction either. So, you're wondering what’s going on here.
This passage right here will throw totally into the air all of our cute sayings for how to discern the will of God. Throw them out the window. We don’t know how this is happening, but God is redirecting. I want you to see something here, an illustration, a picture of a reality we see all over Scripture.
First...so, how do we follow the Spirit of God? Well, first, we obey His commands. Paul is not just sitting around saying, “What do you want me to do God?” No, no there’s people that need the gospel. There are cities that need the gospel. There are churches that need strengthening. There is work that needs to be done. So, Paul’s not sitting back waiting on the will of God. We don’t sit back and wait on the will of God. We walk in the will of God. We have commands. We know flee sexual immorality. Pray, pray like this. Walk in the Word. Make disciples.
You go out and make disciples tomorrow, go out and share the gospel tomorrow, and you’re walking in the will of God. You don’t have to worry, “Is this okay?” Yeah, it’s okay for you to make disciples all week long, so you're freed up. You don’t have to wait for some tingly feeling to go down your spine to think, “Oh, yes, I need to make disciples now.” No, we have that.
That’s why Oswald Chambers said, “The Christian should never ask the question, ‘What is God’s will for my life?’” Should never even be asked. It’s one of our most common questions, right? Should never ask it. Oswald said, “You’re walking through a forest. When is the only time you ask where the path is? When you're off the path, when you’re lost.” So, he said, “Just stay on the path. Just walk in the will of God. You don’t have to ask where it is, just step, step, step in the will of God.”
Here’s the beauty: as you’re walking in the will of God, and as we obey His commands, He directs our steps. Paul had no idea what was coming that night. He couldn’t have organized it, planned it, foreseen it. He was obeying, and as He obeyed, God led him and, as a result, the gospel, for the first time, would go into Europe and to most of our ancestors here. He couldn’t have planned this. He was obeying and the Spirit led. Isn't this Proverbs 3:5-6? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways,” in your ways as you're walking, “acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” He will make them straight.
God is not up in heaven trying to keep His will hidden from you and trying to make it difficult on you. He wants His will to be accomplished in your life, Christian, so much that He has put His Spirit inside of you. He’s not even just going to give you directions. He’s going to say, “I’m going to live in you, and I’m going to change your thoughts and your desires, and I’m going to drive your steps. You walk in me. You abide in me. I will direct your steps.”
Now, it’s not always the most direct route. It’s not always this immediate...I mean, obviously, God could have given Paul this vision a few nights before he started to go this direction, but the Spirit somehow stopped him from there. In this direction, the Spirit could have given him this vision from the very beginning, He could have laid out the plans.
Ever wish God would do that in your life? All those questions, that, “Okay, walk in His will, but there are still so many things that are not in the Word. We don’t know for sure...like, who do I marry? Her name’s not in here. It might be, but I don't know which one; there are a lot of names. So, what job do I take or where do we live? What decision do I make here or there?” You're wrestling with this. You don’t have clarity in the Word on it, and so you're wrestling with it, and you're thinking, “Man, it’d be nice to have a little Macedonian vision and just all right, boom, there she is.” It would save a lot of dating stress if you could just have the vision, right? Like, the Macedonian woman or whatever. So, we want that. We want that, and the reality is God could have given it, but He didn’t. Maybe there’s something deeper here than just instructions on a place to get to. Maybe the destination is even deeper than Macedonia.
Maybe God Himself is the destination. Maybe knowledge of Him, or intimacy with Him and walking with Him...what if He’s the goal, even more than the answer to our questions? If we’re not careful, we can get so caught up in trying to get everything cleared up over here, that we miss the whole point. God is shaping and molding Paul as he went here and there.
Now, I don't know about you, but I have a tendency to grow impatient. I may be alone when it comes to trying to discern these things. Heather and I have been in the process of adoption for the last couple of years. A little over two years ago, we prayed, we sought the Lord, and we said Lord, “Do you want us to adopt? Where do you want us to adopt?” We clearly sensed him leading us to adopt. We put a map on the table. “Domestic, international, where?”
As we prayed, we clearly sensed the Lord leading us to Nepal. So, we began that process, and it was less than a year, max, they said. So, two years later, our paperwork is sitting in Nepal doing absolutely nothing, and the country is virtually closed down to adoptions from the United States. So, for two years, we have been praying for a little girl in Nepal, and nothing happened. Thinking, “We believe this is what you were leading us to do.”
So then, late last year ... August, September ... we figure out there’s a way we can start a parallel adoption process. We can keep paperwork in Nepal, and we can adopt from China as well, and so we started the process from China. We don’t know if Nepal will open back up. We don’t know how China will play out. We are certainly tempted to think at points, “If you’d have shown us China two years ago, we could have saved some time in the whole picture.” But the reality is, there’s an impatience in me and Heather that will begin to creep in, but I want to say to myself and to us that there is no need for us to be impatient with God. He can open up Nepal just like that, and we can get a call tomorrow. He can do the same in China. They could bring kids from all kinds of countries to us tomorrow, who knows. He can do it. It’s not that He doesn’t have the power, but what if the point is even deeper than a child from Nepal and/or a child from China? What if the point is knowing Him and trusting Him and enjoying Him and loving Him? So, be encouraged.
As we obey His commands, He will direct our steps. This is the way...all throughout history, this is what God does. Even similar pictures to this that...Caleb and I at night are reading David Livingston’s biography, Missionary to Africa. He had a huge impact on the gospel going to Africa, and we’re reading it. Livingston, when he set out, wanted to go to China. No idea at that moment what God would use him to do in Africa.
William Carey, father of modern missions, had a huge effect on India and started going to Polynesia. Adoniram Judson...congregations, churches all over Buddhist Myanmar today because of Adoniram Judson. He set out to go to India. It’s not that they all got it wrong at the beginning. It’s that God will direct our steps for our good and for His glory.
We trust the grace of God.
This leads to the fact, that as we love the people of God and trust and follow the Spirit of God, as we go, we trust the grace of God. So, now the gospel’s going to Europe. First Roman colony, Philippi...destination Philippi, Acts 16:11,
So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in the city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
Now, I want to pause here before we go on to the next couple stories here in Philippi, and just go ahead and set out what we’re about to see. We are about to see that regardless of our status, God gives us salvation. Every word there important, regardless of our status God gives us a salvation. First, God gives her salvation. God gives us salvation. The Lord opened her heart. Luke is intentional to show us that the Lord did this. All these people listening, the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to the gospel. God did this. So, the Lord opened the heart of an upper class Asiatic businesswoman. She was from Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, successful businesswoman, a seller of purple cloth, and that day the Lord opened her heart to Christ.
Next, keep going, the Lord would give salvation to a lower class Greek slave. So, the complete opposite end of the spectrum socioeconomically. A slave girl...successful businesswoman...slave girl. “As we were going to the place of prayer,” verse 16, “we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit if divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.” Literally, she was demonized and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She was, basically, a spiritual prostitute. “She followed Paul and us, crying out, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.’ And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.”
So, we don’t see that...she, necessarily, doesn’t say she trusted in Christ for salvation like we see with Lydia, and we’re about to see with the Philippian jailer but most scholars in this passage, putting these three stories together, draw the conclusion that she’s been delivered by the name of Christ and has probably come to faith in Christ and is now part of the church at Philippi. We don’t know that for sure, but we are pretty sure.
But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
So, we’ve seen two conversions so far...upper class Asiatic businesswoman, lower class Greek slave. Then, now, a middle class Roman jailer.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.
He would die if they escaped.
But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with is entire household that he had believed in God.
What a scene!
But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned men, who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
Oh, this is good. So, Philippi...the Roman Empire is introduced to its first gospel choir, and they flat out bring the house down. So, earthquake rumbling as they’re singing. So, they have hymns and earthquakes...singing and the Philippian...why? Why Paul and Silas shouldn’t have been thrown into prison, shouldn’t have been treated like this. Thrown into prison, lacerated backs, aching limbs, singing songs, earthquake, and all this to bring a Philippian jailer and his family to Christ.
When you hear these stories...Lydia, slave girl, jailer...is your mind and heart not drawn to think about all of the circumstances that God orchestrated in your life, all of the people He brought at this time and that time, so that you heard the gospel for that moment, that moment when the Lord opened your heart and drew you to Himself? He orchestrated all of these things, so that you might know Christ and believe in the Lord Jesus and be saved. Not based on anything we have done. We were running from Him, dead in our sin, unable to save ourselves, and God did all of that. He gives salvation to us. Regardless of our status, He gives salvation to us, and regardless of our circumstances, He gives us a song.
So, this is great news for a slave girl and Philippian jailer, but it was difficult for Paul and Silas...stripped, beaten, thrown into the middle of a Roman jail cell. Whatever happened to the safest place to be is in the middle of God’s will? Not a verse in the Bible. That’s the most dangerous place for them to be, in the middle of Macedonia heading west to Europe. This was dangerous for them, and yet, as they sat there in prison, they knew that they were not prisoners, ultimately, of Rome, they were prisoners of Christ.
He held their lives in His hands, and He was using all of this for their good, for other’s good, other’s salvation and for His glory. Know this: there’s not...obviously, none of us are in a Philippian jail cell right now with lacerated backs. At the same time, can I just remind you that no matter what circumstances you find yourself in now, no matter what circumstances you may find yourself in the future, no matter what dark circumstances, painful circumstances they might be, you will, Christian, you will never be without a song. You’ll never be without a song no matter how hard it is, no matter how difficult it is, no matter who you lose, who is gone, what happens, you’ll never be without a song because the Sovereign King holds your life in His hands, and He will...He promises He will use this for your good, for other’s good and for His glory, and that’s what we’re zealous for, right? More than even comfort in this life or ease, we’re zealous for His glory, so we trust the grace of God.
We proclaim the truth of God.
Which leads to, fourth, we proclaim the truth of God, zeal for the glory of God leading to Acts 17...what some have called the greatest missionary document in all the New Testament starts in Thessalonica, which was the capital of Macedonia. Verse 1 says,
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they’re all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there’s another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they had arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command from Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.
So, you have to see this. It’s what we see everywhere Paul goes. This is where it always starts. It starts with this Word being spoken; the Word is spoken. Everything in all these stories revolves around this, right? Paul goes to the synagogue, into the streets, wherever he can, and he’s speaking the Word. In verse 2, it says, “He reasoned with them from the Scriptures” in Thessalonica “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer to rise from the dead.” It’s why...and then they believed it. Some were persuaded. It’s why Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 1, says, “You received the word with joy, with much affliction, with the power of the Holy Spirit.” You received the Word.
He goes to Berea. Teaches the Scriptures there, and they receive it. They’re examining the Scriptures every day. It all revolves around the Word, reception of the Word of God and teaching of the Word of God. Now, obviously, not everybody is happy in the process. So, these Jews start to oppose them in Thessalonica and then did the same in Berea, but I want you to notice what they say in Thessalonica. They go to Jason, other brothers; they bring them from the city. What is going on? Listen to their words. Verse 6 says, “These men who have turned the world upside down.” I don't think he meant it that way, but this is a compliment. Paul and Silas...known for disrupting a pagan world. That’s good. I want to, and we want to be known for disrupting a pagan world. We want to be known for disrupting the powers of darkness.
Don’t you want your face on a wanted poster in hell? “He, she, they make trouble for us.” Yes. As this Word is spoken, this world is changed. This Word is good, brothers and sisters. This Word has the power to turn kingdoms on their head. So, they’re preaching, and they’re saying, “There’s another king besides Caesar.” Absolutely, there’s another king. There’s another kingdom that’s advancing, and as this Word is proclaimed, it disrupts and it changes hearts.
In the midst of idolatry, we long for God to be praised.
So, we proclaim the truth of God wherever we go, even in hostile areas. So, it leads us to Athens. Verse 16 says, “While Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked with them as he saw that the city was full of idols.” Pause...a little background on Athens. Athens was the cultural, philosophical center of Rome, kind of a tourist hot spot in some ways as well. This is where all the ideas, ideologies were debated and discussed, a city of beauty and brilliance, but Paul was not impressed, because he looked, and he saw idols everywhere. Historians say they were maybe 30,000 different gods and idols all around Athens. They were everywhere.
One historian said, “It’s easier to find a god in Athens than a man.” So, there in this tourist hot spot, Paul doesn’t say, “Oh, got a day where I can do Athens for a day and just enjoy this, take it all in.” No, Paul is provoked. What does that mean? It means he is inflamed with holy anger. Why? Because he sees a situation where this idol, and this idol, and this god, and this god are receiving praise and honor and devotion and offering, and Paul knows there is only one who is worthy of praise and honor and devotion and offering. So, in the midst of idolatry, this is zeal for one thing. In the midst of idolatry, we long for God to be praised.
So, Paul started talking to anybody he could find. Verse 17 says,
He reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” - because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus.
So now, synagogue streets...now, to the ruling philosophers...ideology debate, Mars Hill.
“‘May we know what this new teaching is that you're presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” Luke tells us what he thinks about Athens.
You get to verse 22 and Paul begins to speak. Now, before we get into what he says, I want us to just catch this real quick because this is huge. Paul is preaching. He’s going and talking to everybody he can find in Athens. That ends up leading him to this highest place in Athens. Why is he doing it? What’s his ultimate motivation?
What I want you to see is that his ultimate motivation was not duty. “Well, I’m supposed to preach. That’s what I'm supposed to do, so I’m going to do that.” Even obedience, it’s an okay motivation, but that’s not what’s driving him. His ultimate motivation is not compassion. The text doesn’t say, “Paul saw the needs of all these people around him.” Which there are needy people all around him, all of these idolaters all around him, who do not know Christ, who are separated from God, dead in their sin, darkened in their minds. He sees all that, but that’s not what drove him.
What drove Paul, his ultimate motivation, was zeal for this one thing: zeal for the glory of God. It’s Isaiah 42:8, when God says, “I will not share my glory with another and I will not share my worship with idols.” That’s God’s zeal; God’s got zeal, too, for His glory and His praise. What drove Paul, his ultimate motivation was the glory of God. So, I want to pause there, even pastorally, just to put that before us, because when it comes to going into Birmingham this week...okay, we’re not in Athens. We don’t see 30,000 idols sitting around in our city, but that does not mean that we are not surrounded by idolatry.
We’re just blind to our own idolatry, both in the community around us and a fear in our own lives. There are idols everywhere in this community. Money, and sex, position, power, pride, entertainment, sports and recreation, teams, possessions, all around our affections are pulled and our devotion is drawn away from the only one who is worthy of all affection and all devotion. So, in our own lives, let us be zealous to guard our affections and our devotion. Let us fight against anything, everything that would creep into our lives that would steal away affection and devotion for Him, and let us, when we see people around in Birmingham, let people in Birmingham and the nations see zeal.
Okay, we need to make disciples. I want to put that before us. Yes, we need to make disciples. That’s a command. So duty, obedience, yes, do that, and yes, I want to put before us pastorally; I want to put before us needs all around the world. Here in Birmingham and around the world there are 6,000 plus people groups unreached for the gospel. I want us to know those things, but what’s going to drive us is not compassion even for the need or obedience to duty and command. What’s going to drive us is hearts that are gripped with zeal for the glory of God.
That’s what drove him which is evident, when he gets the chance to speak in front of these guys, listen to what he says, “Men at Athens,” verse 22, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Starts buttering them up. “For as I pass along and observe the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
Here it is, verse 24, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.” We’re going to fly through this. He is the Creator of the universe. This is where Paul starts. Paul starts and says, “You think you can fashion a god? The reality is God has fashioned you and everything around you.” This is where the gospel starts. The gospel starts with God.
“Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” He is the Sustainer of life. God does not depend on you. You depend on God, Creator of the universe, the Sustainer of life. He’s the Ruler of the nations, and He made from one man every nation. “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place...” The Ruler of the nations and Savior of the needy.
Verse 27 says, “That they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” The Creator of the universe, Sustainer of life, Ruler of the nations, He is not far from you. He has come to you. He is the Father of each of us. “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”
He is Father of each of us and the King over all of us. “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the heart and imagination of man.” He is King over you. You don’t have authority over Him. He has authority over you, leading to the reality that He is the Judge of the world.
Verse 30 says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed the day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all about raising him from the dead.” “God,” Paul says, “will judge every single one of you by Jesus who has risen from the dead.” Not the most popular thing for him to say.
So, verse 32 says, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
May this anthem resound from our lips across this room, in this city, and among all nations. God is the Creator and Ruler and Sustainer and King. He is Father of each of us, King over all of us, and He will judge the world. This is what we proclaim. When we see idolatry, we long for the praise of God to be made known.
In the midst of immorality, we believe in the power of the gospel.
Finally, in the midst of immorality, we believe in the power of the gospel. So, Paul goes to Corinth next. “After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.” A commercial metropolitan center.
And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.
Pause here for a second. Corinth: cosmopolitan, huge city, multicultural, port city, filled with immorality. Aphrodite was the goddess of love, and a temple to Aphrodite was on a hill overlooking the whole city. A thousand temple prostitutes that lived in the temple and every night would come down into the city to practice their trade. Now, you see why, when we read 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul is saying, “Flee sexual immorality. Come out from them and be separate,” over and over. “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”
So, filled with rampant immorality, not an easy city to be in. The reality is, you think about it. You think about going into mega cities in our day, and Birmingham, obviously, is a good size city, but you go to New York City, you go to L.A., you go to Mumbai, you go to Delhi, you go to Mexico City, London, these cities filled with teeming masses, filled with godless immorality, and you start to think...you go into a city like that, you start to think, “What can I do?” It’s overwhelming.
So, Paul is in this city and, when he starts to preach, listen to what happens. “When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go on to the Gentiles.’” So, he’s facing again...it says there...when it says, “They opposed and reviled him,” literally, the picture is they set up battle array against him.
Now, you think about it, you put yourself in Paul’s shoes. You have to get tired at some point of this routine. We see...we’re about to see the struggling in Corinth and wondering whether or not he should even stay, and listen to what happened. Verse 7 says, “And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshipper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.”
Listen to this, “And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months,” a year and a half, “teaching the word of God among them.”
Now, here’s the deal, and this is where I want to draw everything to a close here. I know we should know that living with single-minded zeal for the glory of God will not make things easy in this life, will not make things easy at your work, will not make things easy in some of your homes, will not make things easy in your community, and will certainly not make things easy when we go into many different contexts in the world, but what I want you to see...now, we don’t have a vision from Christ to us. Maybe you’ll have one tonight, great, but we know what we’re seeing here reflects truths that God has given to His people all throughout Old Testament and New Testament alike.
So, I want to encourage you with this...and really, you know not even just you, because this last Wednesday night, I was preaching over at Shades Mountain Baptist Church for a Mission’s Conference for Pastor Danny Wood, great brother. We partner together in the gospel, and I was at this Mission’s Conference and afterwards, a man pulled me aside. He’s living in Western Europe, now, proclaiming the gospel, trying to proclaim the gospel in Western Europe. He is in a cold, hard area of Western Europe, and he pulled me aside and he said, “I just want to thank you, and I want to thank your church for making the Word and teaching from the Word available through podcasts and other means online, because we’re in a situation where there are no Christians around us, and we are starved, and we need the Word, and we are being fed by the church just on a daily basis. The Word is feeding a steady diet to my life and my family’s life. So, I just want to say thank you.”
I’ve talked with a variety of other people who are in that same context. So, if I could, I want to encourage, yes, the people that are here, but I’d also like to encourage, maybe, a brother or sister who might be living in some other context in the world right now, listening to this who is struggling and wondering whether or not they should stay. They might be wondering what to do in the middle of dark, cold hearts all around and difficult, overwhelming circumstances all around. So, I want to speak this. It’s what we see all over Scripture.
I want to remind us, first, remind us we are not afraid. Do not be afraid. This was God’s message to His people all throughout the Old Testament and New Testament. Do not be afraid. God has not given us a spirit of timidity or fear, but a spirit of power. I know we think, “I feel pretty timid when I’m about the share the gospel at work. Feel pretty timid when I’m about to share the gospel in this setting or that setting. I feel pretty timid of some people in other contexts of the world. I’m timid when I’m in this Muslim culture, this Hindu culture where there’s great cost. I’m pretty timid. How do I not fear?” That leads to the second reminder: we are not afraid because we are not alone.
“I am with you,” Jesus says. He’s not just saying it to Paul in a vision. He said it to us. “I’m with you always to the end of the age.” He is with you, child of God. You are never, ever alone. This is Paul in the middle of immoral Corinth, immorality everywhere, and Jesus says, “I’m right there with you.” Child of God, here and in other contexts around the world, you are not alone. You’re never, ever, ever alone.
He is with you, so do not be afraid. We’re not afraid, and we are not alone. As a result of that, we will not be silent. Keep on speaking. Keep on speaking even if it seems like no one is listening. So, when it seems like nobody is listening at home, or nobody is listening at your work, or nobody is listening in other contexts where you're doing ministry in the city here, when it seems like nobody is listening in that country in the Middle East or North Africa or Western Europe or Central Asia or East Asia, when it seems like nobody around you is listening, like it’s going nowhere, keep on speaking. Do not be silent. God will open hearts.
This gospel is good. It’s powerful. He will open hearts through the proclamation of this Word. He’s done it for 2,000 years, and He’s not about to stop now. They tried to stop Him here. They tried to stop Him, these Jews...jealous Jews...they rise up, and they bring Paul before the Roman Council, and they say, “Roman Council, stop Paul from preaching.” The Roman Council says, “No. We’re going to, actually, make it legal for Paul to keep preaching.” So, it backfired on them, and so now, the gospel is going forward.
God will take this gospel forward. Do not be silent. We will not be silent, and as a result, we will not be stopped, and disciples will be made, churches will be planted. So, here’s Paul, second missionary journey. You get to Acts 18:22, he comes back to Antioch, home base, and in his wake, he has just left a bunch of disciples and a bunch of churches, and that’s the goal. That’s the goal. In our wake, in the wake of your life and my life, in the wake of our church, as a faith family together, that in our wake, we would live with zeal, single-minded zeal, for the glory of God, and disciples will be made, and churches will be planted, and we will not be stopped.
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