“A Purposeful Life” – Acts 25 – 28
Epiphany 5 – February 4, 2018
Have you ever wondered what is the purpose of your life? Maybe it’s as a teenager, wondering what in the world you’re supposed to do with your life, and what does it all mean, and when is something going to click for you. Maybe it’s as a young mom, being challenged by the endless routine of wiping noses and bums, feeding and playing with those little ones, with little meaningful conversation with anyone over 10… besides your husband!! Maybe it’s as a working person stuck in a seemingly meaningless dead-end drudgery job, with no prospect of change or growth or a promotion. Maybe it’s as a new retiree with very little to do, twiddling your thumbs because you’re on permanent vacation. Or maybe it’s as a senior senior eeking out those long days in pain and loneliness, wishing that God would take you home to heaven. Determining your purpose in life can be elusive at any stage. God, why am I here, now? What do you want me to do?
Today, as we wrap up the New Testament book of Acts, we will explore the idea of a purposeful life as it relates to the apostle Paul.
- Paul… where we’ve been
Let’s review Paul’s story in Acts so far. We are introduced to Pharisee Paul in Acts 7. He was kind of like the coat-check guy at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As the participants picked up their stones, they laid their coats at Paul’s feet, and he approved of this extreme punishment for a guy who was leading the Jews astray from their religious heritage to a new belief and sect. A couple of chapters later, Paul is blinded by a vision of and conversation with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He was led by hand into the city, where he was instructed and baptized by Ananias. Although he was mistrusted at first, he spent some time with the disciples in Jerusalem before making his way to Antioch via Tarsus. He and his mission partner Barnabas taught in Antioch for a whole year before being sent off on a missionary journey that took them to the island of Cyprus and then to present-day Turkey. As we heard last Sunday, his second missionary journey took him back to Turkey and then to Greece for the first time. His third missionary journey took him back to many of the cities he had preached at – both in Turkey and in Greece – before returning to headquarters in Jerusalem with an offering from those various churches for the needy Christians in Jerusalem. It was back in Jerusalem that Paul got into trouble with the Jews for preaching Jesus and for “defiling” the temple area and the holy place with Gentile believers. He was arrested, questioned before the Jewish council of the Sanhedrin, and after a plot for his life was uncovered, he was taken to Caesarea by Roman soldiers under cover of darkness.
- Paul… the final chapter
As we pick up the story in Acts 24, Paul is being kept safe in jail in Caesarea… yes, safe, because there were still those who wanted to kill him. Charges were presented by the Jews before the Roman Governor, Felix, but he delayed his judgment for two years, sending for Paul frequently and listening to his teachings, but hoping for the offer of a bribe. Felix was succeeded by Festus, who traveled from Jerusalem to Caesarea, where he ordered that Paul’s case be brought before him. The serious charges made by the Jews could not be proven, and Paul maintained his innocence of any wrongs against Jewish laws. When asked if he would go to Jerusalem to face the charges, Paul used his status as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar, thus fulfilling God’s word spoken to him earlier: “As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” A few days later, King Agrippa – the Roman puppet king of Israel – arrived in Caesarea to pay respects to the newly appointed Festus. Festus discussed Paul’s case with Agrippa, who wanted to hear Paul out. The next day, Paul was brought before Agrippa, who gave him permission to speak freely. Paul spoke of his background as a Jewish Pharisee, and how he was convinced it was right to oppose this man, Jesus of Nazareth, who had a following among the Jews. Then Paul documented the story of his own conversion vision and experience, and how he was obedient to that heavenly vision. He told about his call for people to repent and turn to God, and his faithfulness to Moses and the prophets that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise again, and that that message of hope and light would be proclaimed first to the Jews but also to the Gentiles.
At this, Festus interrupted Paul’s defense, calling him mad, insane, out of his mind. Paul turned back to Agrippa, and reminded him that he was familiar with all those teachings of God’s Word and that they were true and reasonable. Then he asked Agrippa point-blank, “Do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
Agrippa’s response is priceless: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” In the King James Version, it’s a statement rather than a question: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
It’s like the story of the three friends – a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian – who decided to learn about each other’s religions. First, they went together to a synagogue. When it came time for the offering, the Jew faithfully put $100 into the offering plate. Then they went to the mosque, where the Muslim, likewise, put $100 into the offering basket. Finally, they went to the Christian’s church. As the offering plate passed by, the Jew noticed that his Christian friend put in only $20. He turned to him and said, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
In the end, Agrippa didn’t believe Paul had done anything deserving of death or even imprisonment, concluding that he could have been free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.
The last two chapters of Acts document Paul’s journey to Rome – including a storm, a shipwreck on the island of Malta, and then a final sailing to Rome, where he lived under house arrest for some time with the freedom to talk to people about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. It’s uncertain what eventually happened to Paul. Some details in his letters imply that he returned to the churches in Turkey and Greece, while tradition indicates that Paul went on to Spain. So, the Book of Acts conclude, well… inconclusively… leaving us hanging…
So, what does all this have to do with purpose?
- Paul and purpose
First, we learn that God had a purpose for Paul. Paul talks about, brags about his background in Philippians 3: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” He was prepared to do what he felt called to do – advance the Jewish religion. But God derailed Paul’s understanding with God’s own purpose. After that conversion experience on the road to Damascus, God announced His purpose for Paul to and through Ananias: “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” Paul was single-minded in his focus on God’s mission and purpose for him. In many cities in Turkey and Greece, he went into the synagogues to proclaim the name of Jesus to the Jews who lived there. But as he faced opposition, he was also anxious to take his faith to the non-Jews. His mission began in Antioch, took him on three separate journeys over land and across both the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, and featured him defending his faith in Jerusalem and Caesarea against fierce opposition. Today’s account sees Paul carrying the name of Jesus before two governors and one king, as God had said.
Second, Paul was not distracted from that purpose by anything that happened. There was opposition, persecution, danger and want. In many cities where he preached, Paul was opposed by the Jews who also stirred up Gentiles against him. As he was giving his speech to King Agrippa, he faced the verbal bullying of Festus: “You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane.” Many times the opposition mushroomed into full-blown persecution – with threats on his life, an ambush plotted against him, and expulsions from more than one city. Paul catalogs his dangers and needs in 2 Corinthians 11 – 39 lashes five times, beaten three times, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, in danger from rivers, bandits, his own countrymen, Gentiles, in the city, in the country and at sea, cold, naked, hungry, thirsty and sleepless.
That night-time word from God that he would testify even in Rome was not lost on Paul. During the storm and the pending shipwreck, Paul encouraged the fearful sailors and passengers that no lives would be lost for he was certain to stand trial before Caesar, as God had promised. And when a viper latched onto his hand on Malta, even though the locals believed that he was a murderer and he was getting his karma, Paul, himself, was undeterred… for His purpose, his focus, was clear. God wanted him in Rome.
Third, he trusted the power of God to help him. This was evident in the viper incident. It was also obvious as God protected him from the plots against his life. And during the shipwreck, twice Paul acknowledged God’s care. Once he said to the sailors, “God has graciously given the lives of all who sail with me. So keep up your courage.” Then, just before dawn, and before they ran the ship aground where it was broken apart by the pounding of the surf, Paul said, “I urge you to take some food. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” That’s a lot of trust when waves were threatening to break the ship apart at the seams.
So, Paul was single-minded in his God-given missionary purpose, he was not distracted by threats and dangers, and he trusted God’s power to help him.
- Your Purpose
How does this help you with your purpose? I’m sure every one of you would say, “I’m not a Paul, I’m not a missionary, and I don’t welcome dangers and threats on my life.” Paul’s story does seem out there and hard to connect with as we relate it to our local little lives. But, as usual, we can glean some principles from this story.
Three of our small groups are currently studying the book God at Work. The subtitle is Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. Vocation has to do with purpose, and how you are living out what God wants you to be and do right where you are and right now. The author identifies 4 different spheres of one’s life – what he classifies as callings: your calling as a worker, in the family, as a citizen, and in the church. In each of these spheres, you have a purpose – each one of them falling under the umbrella of how God is at work in you and through you to serve and to bless and to love others. Your purpose may not seem as high-profile as Paul’s was, but it is no less significant on an individual basis.
As a worker – no matter if you are flipping burgers at the fast-food joint or if you are the CEO of a company – you bless and serve others in your everyday roles.
In the family – husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister – your purpose is to love your family members like nobody ever has and like nobody ever will.
As a citizen (because I’m not sure that anyone here today holds a public office, and that would have a different slant, a different purpose)… as a citizen, our calling is to obey the laws of the land, to pay our taxes and to honour and pray for our governing officials. Our purpose as a citizen may include active involvement in society by such things as: voting, debating issues, grass-roots politics, civic activism, and challenging the evils of society.
In the church – and this has to do with Martin Luther’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers – every believer is gifted, and every believer is encouraged to use those God-given gifts to love and serve and bless others. It’s not just the pastor that has a vocation, even though that was the sense in Luther’s day. Luther sees God at work in the person who carefully and clearly reads the Bible lessons for the day, and in the teacher who guides the children as they learn about Jesus, and in the couple who cheerfully greets and welcomes every person that walks in the door, and in the person who plays an instrument to help us offer our praise, and in the widow who faithfully prays for every need.
What is your purpose in life? Well, it’s all there – as a worker, in your family, as a citizen, and in the church. It’s all there right now. Just remember that God works through you in each of those vocations of your life. Think of how you can be Christ to people, bless and serve people at your place of work, in your home, in your community, and here in the church. Consider your purpose in those spheres, don’t be distracted by externals, and trust God to help you. God at work in you.
- God’s purposes
I just want to wrap up with two quick things about God’s purposes in and for you. First, God’s Word has a purpose. When Paul wrote his second letter to Pastor Timothy, he said that the Holy Scriptures are able to make you wise for salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus. That’s their purpose. They might be useful for teaching us, correcting us, scolding us when we disobey God, but the ultimate purpose of the Bible is to point us to salvation in Jesus. And then through the prophet Isaiah God said that when He sends out His Word it does not return empty, but accomplishes the salvation purpose for which it is sent. That’s why it’s important to be daily in God’s Word. It is salvation-powerful.
Then consider Jesus – Jesus, who is God’s Word made flesh. He also had a purpose. He identified that purpose in various conversations. Have a look at them on the screen…
The bottom line… In Jesus, God loves you, God forgives you, God saves you. That was Paul’s message as he lived out his missionary purpose. That’s our clear understanding from Scripture. That’s our joy as we live out our vocations – serving and blessing others in the love and forgiveness we have received from God. Amen.
Matthew 5:17 (Sermon on the Mount)
Jesus said, “I have come to fulfill [the Law and the Prophets].”
John 18:37 (Trial before Pilate)
Jesus answered, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Luke 19:10 (to Zacchaeus)
Jesus said, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
1 Timothy 1:15 (Paul to Timothy)
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Mark 10:45 (to disciples)
Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
John 10:10 (to Jews)
Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
1 John 3:8 (John to readers)
“The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”