God on the Move: “Heed the Call” – Acts 21

bobdylan1I doubt if anyone was thinking that a movement was going to be fostered by the ballad songs of a baby boy born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota – but that is what would happen some eighteen years later… as Robert Allen Zimmerman entered the stage as Bob Dylan. One of the popular lyric writers of the 1960’s he penned these words:

“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.”

A platform favorite of demonstrators was the plea to “heed the call” of the masses. In Christian circles, we used the terms “heed the call” to refer not to political movements – but the movement within the follower of Jesus by God’s Spirit to the place of ministry. Believers are called by God and placed in service by that call.

As we continue walking the Roman roads with the Apostle Paul through the Christian Scriptures, (New Testament) we have come to see Paul as a seasoned shepherd of the early church, a well-recognized author of Holy Scripture, and a bold and zealous witness for Jesus across his known western world. Looking up close, no one who examines the record of accomplishments of the Apostle Paul’s life would doubt that he was a man who was “called” by God to accomplish great things. Few Christians would argue that as believers we don’t follow a call of God to be saved, and even to serve God. Yet, we don’t spend much time describing what the call of God DOES to daily decision making…a “how it works in practical life” view, if you will.

We do repeat some truths about the call of God to believers often enough that they are well known, partly because they are easy to establish from the Word. For instance, God called you to Himself for the purpose of life-changing transformation. The people that are “the called according to God’s purpose” of Romans 8 were the same believers that were “made alive by God” in Ephesians 2, “brought out of death into life”. God’s call was evident, and God bought you to place you on a mission. That call refers to God’s choice of you – to bring you to Himself. It is not the only way we use the term, however.

A second use of “call” is related to your service for the Lord as a believer – as in: “What ministry were you CALLED to do in the body?” In that case, we often note that a believer’s call is usually indicated by the spiritual gifts God bestowed on your life at the time of your salvation. Your “call” often follows your expressed passion and normally works within your personality – as Moses who early in his life burned with a sense of injustice was called to set the Hebrews free later in his life. In addition to these ideas, every believer who has observed Scripture carefully can tell you that a believer’s call must lead them only to works that are in harmony with the values of God’s Word.

The call for service is real, and important. Yet we don’t often point out how it works its way out in daily life. In this lesson we want to look past the simple truths of the call, and peer into the functioning or the call to serve while we see how it worked in Paul’s life – on the way to instructing our own walk. Watch Paul, and you will observe some valuable traits that are the outgrowth of following the call of God – perhaps even some that are less known and harder to grasp – especially as a young believer. It all begins with the singular observation…

Key Principle: God’s call in my life should show in the choices of my life.

Let’s look through the story of Acts 21, the rough and tumble of the Prophetic warnings of incarceration to Paul into the actual arrest of Paul, where we will see “seven truths about God’s call” that may not be clear to growing believers – but are essential lessons.

Because I have God’s call – I must weigh all of the other directions that come my way (Acts 21:1-4).

When God calls a man or woman from service, it doesn’t mean there won’t be other voices calling them to do something else…

Acts 21:1 When we had parted from them and had set sail, we ran a straight course to Cos and the next day to Rhodes and from there to Patara; 2 and having found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we came in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we kept sailing to Syria and landed at Tyre; for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.

You are led by the Spirit, and you will grow to know God’s call for you – but not every believer will understand what He is telling you to do – even some who are following God wholly and love Him deeply. When God is at work in you, every spiritual “word” or “piece of advice” given to you must be measured through His call. Others may mean well and be thoroughly convinced of “God’s will for your life”, but they only know the part that God impressed upon them about their call – not your whole plan. We must learn to follow God’s direction, and cannot be so easily dissuaded by those who love God, but may not see all He told us about the situation.

I have seen this often, but it requires some explanation.

Years ago I worked in Elkhart, Indiana for a time, building robots on a shop floor in a manufacturing unit. During that time, the company I worked for was led by a nominal Christian man, who had a son in Seminary at a good school. The company owner knew I was a believer, and pulled me aside one day to lament that his son was making the decision to take his new bride and move overseas to Africa on a mission endeavor. He complained, “Don’t you people know how many people live in the US that needed God? Why in the world do you insist on traveling far from home in places like this to preach, when we have churches to preach from right here?” I tried to explain that his son wasn’t choosing where to go – only WHO to follow. If God told him to go – obedience was demanded.

It wasn’t hard to see that my boss was lamenting “losing” time with his son and future grandchildren. I understand that pain – but he didn’t understand the choice – because he didn’t grasp how a call to service works. God called the play – his son was just being obedient. His son knew what Jesus wanted.

Not to be overly personal, but this has happened many times in ministry through my life. When I came to Sebring, Florida, I got the amazing opportunity to serve in the church beside some fabulous men and women. Several of them are with Jesus now. One in particular stayed with our ministry and NEVER shared his thoughts about my teaching and preaching (out of loyalty) with anyone else but me. Would it surprise you to learn that not all the senior men who stood by my side truly agreed I was handling the pulpit properly? I am not saying that they thought I wasn’t preaching the Word. I am saying they weren’t happy with the diet as I planned it from the Word. One in particular believed that I wasn’t open to topical preaching, and he made it clear on a dozen occasions that his ministry was built on holiday preaching and hot topics. He told me many times I was “off the mark” preaching through books. I loved him, and still do –but I knew what God wanted me to do – and that was cover as many chapters as I could in the year. I began a second service and didn’t do what anyone else did – and heard repeatedly how I should repeat messages.

Stop for a second and hear what I am saying. I am not hurt, and those memories are not painful at all. I am not bringing this up to put down someone or elevate me – I am making a point. I knew God’s call for me. Others weighed in, and had I not been certain of God’s direction, I would have changed what I was doing – as I have countless times after consulting with our leaders on issues in which God hadn’t given me a specific direction. The point is this: even good people led by God will weigh in on some things that you must stick to because of what God told you to do. Paul understood that. They told him –nudged by the Spirit of God – that Jerusalem was a costly choice– and he booked a boat anyway.

Because I have God’s call – I cannot allow emotional attachments to stop me from following a walk of obedience (Acts 21:5-14).

Related to the first truth, but a bit different is the recognition that emotions cannot drive decision making when it comes to God’s will. Take a look at the following verses…

Acts 21:5 When our days there were ended, we left and started on our journey, while they all, with wives and children, escorted us until [we were] out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach and praying, we said farewell to one another. 6 Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home again. 7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and after greeting the brethren, we stayed with them for a day. 8 On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him. 9 Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. 10 As we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'” 12 When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents [began] begging him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, “The will of the Lord be done!”

Other prophetic words were handed down by God’s people, and they all sounded like: “Danger ahead!” Agabus dropped by to offer a graphic picture of Paul’s coming days… and it was not going to be any picnic! I am not making light of the issue. It was clear that it broke Paul’s heart to think that he would be taken from the other believers, and not see their faces again. Paul knew the stakes; but Paul knew God’s leading. If arrival in Jerusalem was the instruction from God for Paul, failure to arrive was disobedience. He couldn’t shirk his responsibilities for the sake of more time with loved ones. What foreign called missionary couldn’t say they understand Paul’s feelings and his tears?

The call of God to accomplish an area of ministry doesn’t mean you DON’T feel what anyone else feels – it means you trust God to care for your needs, and you know what He told you to do. The choice comes down to following Him or not – and you care more about His will than your feelings. As our culture continues to exalt one’s personal feelings above all else – this is fast becoming a foreign concept to people – to deny ourselves and follow God. The words of Jesus must still ring true in His people:

Mark 8:34: “And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”

Notice how Paul responded when people pressed him about the future in verses thirteen and fourteen. First, he instructed the people that he felt as they did. Second, he made the point that he was following a path and was ready to do so. It appears to me from the narrative that did NOT stop the people from pressing him – but he would not be persuaded. Even in the first century believers were unsure about how the call of God worked in overruling the emotions – but Paul knew what he needed to do.

Because I have God’s call – I cannot allow rumor and misinformation to drive my path unless it will confuse the Gospel (Acts 21:15-25).

Finally arriving in Jerusalem, Paul was not finished demonstrating how God’s call worked in his life. Luke recorded:

Acts 21:15 After these days we got ready and started on our way up to Jerusalem. 16 [Some] of the disciples from Caesarea also came with us, taking us to Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple of long standing with whom we were to lodge. 17 After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After he had greeted them, he [began] to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it they [began] glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 “What, then, is [to be done]? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 “Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. 25 “But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”

Paul eased into the Jerusalem scene along with some friends and travel companions. He was “gladly received”, so we should picture some hugging, sharing and maybe even a few tears as God’s people joined together. He sat for a time with Jerusalem’s Pastor (James) and some of the other elders of the church and reported to them all that God was doing in and through him, and something remarkable happened in the room… An entire group of kosher believers began to praise God and celebrate the work of God among the Gentiles! They may not have had great experiences with these God was transforming, but they were excited that God was at work calling people to Himself!

After a time of praise, the leaders presented to Paul a local issue that needed to be dealt with – that of his reputation among Jewish believers. The words of Paul were, in some cases, misunderstood. The letter to the Galatian believers still is largely misunderstood by many as an antinomian rant – when it is nothing of the sort. Add to the uncertainty from Paul’s friends the blatant lies and deliberate rumors of his foes to Jerusalem’s leadership in the Temple – and it was no wonder that Paul was maligned in Jerusalem. The elders were excited that so many Jews knew Jesus and also kept the laws that God told them never to set aside. Jesus didn’t cancel the command for Jews to keep Sabbath – it was a forever command. Jesus didn’t cancel circumcision for Jewish infant boys – it was a forever symbol of the covenant God had with Abraham. Jews didn’t cancel the food laws given to Jews in Leviticus 11 – for they were restrictions God placed specifically on the children of Israel for signs of a special covenant relationship. The symbols didn’t justify them – that came from the payment of Messiah on Calvary. At the same time, Messiah didn’t cancel them or the men would have been embarrassed admitting these men were both believers in Jesus and active in keeping the Law.

Don’t forget that Paul didn’t CORRECT them for having Jews that followed the Law –he went out of his way to make sure those very believers DIDN’T believe that he was saying that at all. Bible teachers that make this seem like “he was just being a Jew to Jews, but didn’t think Jews needed to keep the Law given them” make Paul into the worst kind of pandering politician in my view. The record seems clear. The elders were thankful the Jewish believers kept the Law, and Paul didn’t want them to believe he wasn’t one of them. Either that was genuine, or it was pandering to the polls.

Note the assurance of the record: “…all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you.” It seems clear enough from the Scriptures that integrity of the leaders would demand they not be putting a false front on Paul’s beliefs – they didn’t think he was teaching Jews to stop keeping the Law – and they reiterated the fact that although there was but ONE WAY to be declared righteous by God (the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary), there were two distinct paths of sanctification – the walk of obedience of one who knows and follows God. Verse twenty-five reiterated the four standards for Gentiles passed by the Jerusalem Council years before – i.e. “meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” – as a clearly different occurrence than what was happening in Jerusalem among Jewish believers.

Paul wanted to clear the air, not to protect himself, but because what was being said was confusing to the Gospel. God didn’t tell Jews to accept Jesus and stop being distinctly Jewish in lifestyle. God didn’t “kosher” the hams. At the same time, God wasn’t interested in Gentiles trying to replace the Jewish people by acting like them. God created one new man – Jew and Gentile, bond and free, male and female. All entered justification the same way. Each had a separate path for sanctification – because God wanted to do different things by different people. Paul wanted that message clear. He wasn’t doing things to defend his reputation – but for the clarity of the Gospel.

People don’t have to like us as God’s servants, but we have a sacred responsibility to make sure the message we were given is communicated lovingly, but carefully. We must not adjust the message, nor hinder people by giving it in a way that is distracting from the message.

Because I have God’s call – I must expect the opposition of the Deceiver and his planted forces (Acts 21:26-28).

The clarity of the message wasn’t Paul’s only problem. He also had a problem that was caused directly by the interruption of the father of lies and those who promoted darkness. Luke told the story…

Acts 21:26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them. 27 When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, [began] to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”

He went to take a vow, though he knew he had a score of enemies in that place. Men openly lied about the things that happened and acted as if they were defending the purity of God’s holy place. They were doing nothing of the kind. Paul knew their type. He spent many years surrounded by arrogant men who pretended to have more concern about God’s reputation than was real.

Paul lived day to day following God guiding hand. He never expected that to mean that things would “always go well” for him. In 2 Cor. 11:24-25, Paul told the church that:

• Five times he was beaten with 39 stripes of Jews (Dt. 25:1-3 says 40 stripes, one less was offered so the punishment was not overdone).
• Three times he was beaten with rods (at least one was recorded in Philippi in Acts 16:22).
• He was once stoned and left for dead at Lystra (Acts 14:19)
• He had three times been shipwrecked (with one day and one night in “the deep”).

We can now add to that list a number of things that happened after 2 Corinthians was written:

• Paul escaped a plot against him in Corinth (Acts. 20:3).
• This scene of his arrest in Jerusalem was anything but “just” (Acts 21:32).
• Another (fourth) shipwreck in Acts 27 was in his future here.
• A lengthy imprisonment in Caesarea and later Rome awaited him (28:30).
• After a second arrest, and eventual execution brought his service to an end.

All of that, and he served with a “thorn in the flesh” of some kind, which was apparently an eye problem. (2 Corinthians 12:5-10; Gal. 4:12-15). What is the point? Paul FOLLOWED God and SERVED God – and that kept him in trouble – not in constant peaceful circumstances. He learned contentment amid trouble, not blessing amid ease.

Because I have God’s call – I should anticipate hatred and unfair treatment that is not rational (Acts 21:29-31).

On the contrary to learning in ease, Paul anticipated unfair treatment, and recognized that was part of following Christ. Listen to what Luke recorded during the scene of his tumultuous arrest…

Acts 21:29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. 30 Then all the city was provoked, and the people rushed together, and taking hold of Paul they dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. 31 While they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the [Roman] cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion.

They dragged him. They wanted him dead. A lynch mob didn’t seek proof he did anything wrong – after all, in the keeping of the purity of God, too bad if he wasn’t actually, you know… guilty. They wanted to keep God’s reputation, so they skipped past all the parts of the Law that cautioned against injustice to get to the parts where they could just kill the one the mob said was guilty!

If you have ever been ganged up on in a class because you had the audacity to stand up and say you believed that God actually created the world, or that God had standards for things like human sexuality – you know what I mean by the fear and adrenaline push that can easily take over under attack. People in packs are incredibly brave. Without their buddies, they would whimper if they were attacked – but together they are strong and have no problem attacking you. Anyone who believes that followers of Jesus aren’t actually HATED today, hasn’t been in a chat room or on a thread in social media. Our Savior is STILL hated. Our message is STILL despised. We should not be surprised. Following God doesn’t exempt us from feeling the hatred of God’s enemy and his followers. They did not spare our Savior – and they will do all they can to eliminate us. Maybe it won’t be killing, but it will be marginalizing and muscling us to the corner of the society. We should expect it, and we should challenge it while we can – but that won’t go on forever.

Because I have God’s call – I should anticipate even physical opposition and pain (Acts 21:32).

Luke included the note that:

Acts 21:32 At once he took along [some] soldiers and centurions and ran down to them; and when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.

The people were beating Paul. He wasn’t tried by a court, he was beaten by a mob. They didn’t SEE him do something wrong, they HEARD that he might have committed a crime. He was guilty because he associated with Gentiles, and that was enough for people to lash out. Here is a special word for our time…

Be especially careful about “piling on” on the web. When someone makes a “report” about something, check sources carefully. Believers are being duped into passing false reports on many things, and it is bringing the cause of Christ into derision. What is more, some believers will argue and fight on the web with the worst of tempers – sounding like those in the world. Remember this: you can say the right thing the wrong way – and it is worse than if you never said anything. Don’t feel pressure to defend God’s reputation and pile on unless the nudge is from God – and not your ego or angry streak. In the end, I am certain some well-meaning people were throwing punches at Paul because they thought he did something, but they weren’t sure of the fact. Don’t join into the chorus of protest unless you are sure of the facts and the sources of those facts.

Because I have God’s call – I should look for any opportunity to share Jesus with people (Acts 21:33-40).

The remarkable this about Paul was that in the tumult, he had the presence of mind to try to move the scene to a presentation of Jesus. The text recorded:

Acts 21:33 Then the commander came up and took hold of him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; and he [began] asking who he was and what he had done. 34 But among the crowd some were shouting one thing [and] some another, and when he could not find out the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 When he got to the stairs, he was carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob; 36 for the multitude of the people kept following them, shouting, “Away with him!” 37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 “Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 But Paul said, “I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.” 40 When he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying..”

Where many would see only a need to defend and struggle, Paul was looking carefully for an opportunity to share the truth of Christ. Where many would focus on pressing for their rights, Paul felt his responsibility to the Gospel. I love that level of composure! Remaining composed in the face of trouble likely occurred because Paul knew his call to ministry…

I don’t know if you know the preacher from Texas named Tony Evans. If you do, the story is only better… Tony hates elevators, and is always afraid they will break while he is inside them. A few years ago, the elevator of a high rise met his expectations and stopped half way up to its destination, many floors above the lobby of a large building. Tony tells the story well, and I won’t do it justice – but he talked about how some people began screaming, hoping loud noise would be noticed. Others pounded on the doors and walls, hoping that would get the attention of the world outside. Tony looked in dismay as the small gathering unraveled, but as he scanned the area next to the door, he saw a little door with the symbol of a phone on it. He moved across the elevator, and picked up the small handset, and called the front desk of the building – the phone got an immediate response. All the shouting and pounding looked more effective, but a quiet phone call got them help… because a man had composure in a tight place.

Composure helps us serve with a view toward our real goal – to honor the Lord in each circumstance. That is just another way that God’s call in my life should show in the choices of my life. God will lodge in your heart a burden – perhaps not unique to others, but deeply resonant within you. It is your opportunity to serve Him!

Your call from God is not a PROJECT; it is the means through which God will show you the PRIZE of your life!

There is an old story about a large boulder that blocked the normal passageway of the roadway along a pass outside of a village, half way to the neighboring township. Traveler after traveler used the road, and found it difficult to pass the boulder, because it forced them to stop and carefully move their carts around to the edges of the road, veering off the main ruts to get around this inconvenient obstruction. People passed, day after day muttering, “Can you believe that? Someone should get that big thing out of the way. What an inconvenience!” One day a man came by and saw the blocking boulder, took a branch from a tree and used a small rock as a fulcrum, dislodging the boulder and pushing it from the roadway – clearing the path. Directly beneath the rock, he noticed a small bag and a handwritten note. Curious, the man snatched the note and read it. Scribbled on it were these words: “Thank you for being a true servant of our kingdom. You did more than recognize the work that needed to be done; you took the time to actually do it. Many have complained; you have acted on the problem. Please accept this bag of gold that traveler after traveler passed by simply because they didn’t act to serve everyone else.”