The Gospel and God’s Will – Acts 21:1-17
One of the greatest inventions ever, in my humble opinion, is the GPS. This is because I am horrible with directions. I mean, horrible. I can get lost just going home from here to church, even after three years (and I live about 3.5 miles from here). So when my wife’s parents gave us a GPS once (they were probably worried for my wife’s safety), my wife was ecstatic. I think that GPS saved our marriage. It is a pretty amazing device (this is before you had navigation on your phone). You plug this box in you car and this lady tells you how to get to your destination (well, you can get a guy’s voice, but I have found the lady’s voice to be more nurturing).
Don’t you wish life was that easy? There was some box where God can just tells us exactly where to go, what to do, who to marry, where to live, etc.? And if we are considering a person to marry, let’s say, God immediately says, “Recalculating route. Execute a U-turn.” Unfortunately, life does not work that way and we often we feel paralyzed in our decision-making. How does God guide us? We know God is clear about what we call his moral or revealed will, that is, clear commands of Scripture. We don’t have to pray about whether or not we should kill a person. God’s Word forbids it. Some things are clearly God’s will:
- 1 Thessalonians 4:3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
- Ephesians 5:17–18 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…”
But what about the million other decisions that are not clear in Scripture? How does God guide us in those? And how does believing the Gospel affect all of this? Let me say at the outset that I will not be able to talk about everything. I do want to go to the table with you today. Secondly, my understanding of this topic is still in process. I have been influenced by a lot of people over the years on it from Piper, Keller, Macarthur, Macdonald, Friesen, Newton, Calvin, DeYoung, Waltke, on and on.
Let’s start with this:
I. The Complexities of Knowing God’s Will
The Apostle Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. In Acts 20:22-23, he says the Holy Spirit is compelling him to go there regardless of the danger. However, in our passage today, when he arrives at Tyre, the text in Acts 21:4 says that “through the Spirit” the believers tell Paul NOT to go to Jerusalem. Then he gets to Caesarea, a prophet named Agabus arrives, takes Paul’s belt and ties his own hands and feet and says, “This is what is going to happen to you in Jerusalem” (Acts 21:10-11). He says this is from the Holy Spirit. The believers there see that and again tell him not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:12). But Paul will not be swayed, rebukes them and finally says, “Let the will of the Lord be done” (v.14).
Finally, in Acts 21:15-17, Paul goes to Jerusalem. Did God want Paul to go to Jerusalem? Was he being disobedient by insisting on going? What was God’s will here? Does the Spirit do the same today when we have to make decisions? Let’s explore some of these things today. Obviously we cannot exhaust the topic completely, but hopefully share a few thoughts.
You can probably count up to 16 times in Acts where God gives supernatural guidance in the book of Acts whether through an angel, visions, prophecies, the Holy Spirit or the audible voice of Jesus. Earlier in Acts, when they had to pick a disciple to replace Judas, they cast lots to make that decision (Acts 1:26). Other than that, most of the other times when the Apostles are making decisions, there is no mention of supernatural guidance. They use logic or reason or counsel of friends or circumstances to decide.
This tells you that even in a transition book like Acts, believers did not always get a personal GPS from God to make every single decision. In fact when Paul leaves Ephesus he says he’ll come back “if God wills” (Acts 18:21). He had no idea. Sometimes the Spirit directly told him to do something or go someplace. Sometimes he didn’t know. As Bruce Waltke says, “Special revelation for guidance was not the normal apostolic experience. And at the time it was received (by Paul, by Philip, by Peter as he lay on his roof) it was not being sought. God intervened to change the course of their lives in a dramatic way, not simply to tell them to alter their plans a bit. Special revelation came at a time when God wanted to lead them apart from the normal ways in which His people make choices.”
Now people read Acts or even other parts of Scripture and get really confused at how to find God’s guidance for their lives. By the way, we will not tackle these special revelation things today, but consider the normal and regular ways God guides us. But first, let’s talk about some the unhealthy ways we picture God.
We think God is playing the “hot and cold” game with us. He’s hidden what He wants for us and he’s sitting in Heaven saying, “Warmer. Warmer! Or Cold. Definitely cold.” Or we think God’s like that ball and cup guessing game with a magician. There are three cups faced down on the table, with a ball in one of the cups and he moves the cups around telling you to find the ball and no matter how closely we feel we’re watching, we never pick the right cup. So people say, “I’m trying to find God’s will” and I want to be like, “I didn’t know it was lost.” What are some ways people try to find God’s will? I’ll list some:
- Bible roulette: losing our eyes and flipping to any Bible passage (or if you ever had that little cards that had God’s promises in a little box, you pray and pick one). “Should I marry this girl Lord?” And bam, John 13:27, “What you are about to do, do it quickly.” Thank you Lord!
- Interpretation by voting. I was 20 years old when I decided to get into a relationship. I just started shaving the week before and now I was mature enough to be in a relationship (not saying you can’t be mature at 20. I certainly wasn’t). So I find people who I know would agree with me because they too started shaving and had girlfriends too. They all said it was fine.
- Peace about it. I feel all tingly inside about this decision. I have the warm fuzzies. So it must be right. Or you say, “I don’t feel right about this.” Are you sure it wasn’t that burrito you had last night brother?
- Fleece. Gideon tested God by putting out a fleece and asking God to prove His will, though God already told him what to do (Judges 6:36-40). The whole fleece thing was a sign of unbelief. Today, people think, “If this is the girl I am supposed to marry, make her text me this week.” Or I slipped on a banana peel and landed on a map of South America. Is God calling me there?
There is partial truth in all these ways. God does guide us through Scripture, but it is meant to be our daily bread, not cake to eat on the special occasion to find out God’s will. He also does tell us that with a multitude of counselors there is much safety (Prov. 11:14). We shouldn’t completely ignore our feelings either and God also does in His providence, orchestrate events in our lives that we see as an “open door.” But when we limit it to a formula, we get confused because life does not work that way. It’s a lot more complex than that.
Then to make it more complex, people go from the extreme of “it’s all fate. It’s my destiny. It’s all set” to what the great theologian Doc Brown tells Marty McFly in Back to the Future 3, “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.” We’re determined or we’re free. And if you go totally to the determined side, you can get passive, bored with life, be cynical, be indifferent, because since there are no connections between my choices and my destiny, who cares! Or if you fall on the other side where it’s all up to you, you will face another problem because we are immature only in hindsight. At age 20, I thought I was smart, mature, gentle, loving guy ready for a relationship. If I could go back and speak to my 20-year-old self, I would say one thing to him, “You’re an idiot.” You have no idea what life is about, relationships, responsibility, etc. 15 years from now, I am sure my 50 year-old self would look back and say to me right now and say, “You’re an idiot. Less of an idiot than you were at 20, but still an idiot.”
And then you tell a person to follow their dreams and their heart and write your own future when we know so little about our hearts, our lives, people? The Bible, amazingly, refuses to put God and our lives into these two categories. The Bible does not say your choices have no connection to your destiny or that your choices determine your destiny. Look at these two verses:
Proverbs 21:5: The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty. The word diligent can also be translated strategic, thoughtful and reflective. It’s saying, “Instead of just letting life happen, if you act, if you plan ahead, if you’re strategic, life will go better. Making choices, making decisions, acting makes a difference.” But then in the same book, Proverbs 16:33: The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. Look what it’s saying. Every little detail, every coin toss comes down exactly the way God planned. Even the smallest things are fixed by God’s plan.
See, there is a paradox and complexity to it that our minds cannot really figure out. One more. Prov. 16:9: In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps. It says our plans are ours. My choices are mine. I am responsible for them. No one is forcing me. God is not forcing you in any direction on that. Do you see? It’s yours. If you do something stupid, if you do something wicked, if you do something selfish, if you do something cruel, there are going to be bad consequences, people are going to hold you accountable, and they should. God will hold you accountable, and he should.
Your plans are yours, but what actually happens as a result of those plans, what actually happens in history, those are absolutely controlled and totally fixed and set by God. Nothing happens that’s not according to his plan. We have every incentive to work with every fiber of your being to do well and to do right and to be wise, but on the other hand, since everything is under the control of God, who is working things together for good, you can relax and not freak out.
We do not know as human beings how to hold those together. Human categories of thought cannot hold those two things together. Not in the Bible. We’re told we are absolutely free and we’re absolutely determined at the same time. So if you are wondering about your future and how to go about seeking God’s will, be careful not to reduce it down to a neat formula you follow whether it’s the fleece method, the peace method, the roulette or voting method. Know it’s more complex than that and avoid both extremes of fate and free will. If it was just a formula you followed, then you wouldn’t need God. But here is what we do know about God’s will. You need to know:
II. The Cost of Committing to God’s Will
I don’t think Paul was disobedient in going to Jerusalem here. The believers correctly saw persecution coming through he Spirit and they interpreted that, in loving concern for Paul, he shouldn’t go. Even Agabus never said through the Spirit, “Don’t go.” He just said, “If you go, this is what you will face.” So it was not a prohibition but a warning. God was preparing Paul for persecution in Jerusalem. Look at Paul’s understanding of God’s will in vv.13-14. What is he saying? “Whatever you want Lord. Give me or withhold from me whatever you want.” As John Newton says, “What you will, when you will, how you will.” Paul signed his life away as a blank check (Acts 20:24).
Free advice from a friend we may take or leave. Advice from a consultant we have paid much for personally, we are more likely to accept, but it’s still our choice. We can take it or leave. The guidance of God is different. First of all, we do not come to God asking for advice but for God’s will, and that is not optional. God’s fee is the highest one of all. It costs everything. To ask for the guidance of God requires abandonment.
Look at Prov. 16:3: “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” The word commit is a word that literally means to roll over onto, to put all of your weight on. This is saying unconditionally trust God for all things that happen in your life. It is to say, “Lord, help me to obey you in your revealed will, the things I know your Word says, whether I like it or not. And help me to accept anything that comes from you, whether I understand it or not. Help me not to bail on you when things get rough.” The more you do that, the more wiser and wiser person you will be in making decisions. Wisdom is the ability to make the most God-honoring choices in every aspect of our lives. But that wisdom comes from fearing the Lord (the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). This doesn’t mean being afraid of Him, but from being in awe of Him, being overwhelmed in your heart by who He is and what He has done for you on the cross. This is the Gospel! You saturate your mind on it, preach it yourself and give yourself to Him.
Commit yourself to him utterly. That slowly turns you into a person of wisdom. Because of the humility you get, you turn to everybody else, and so you generate lots of options. You’re not a fool. You don’t think you know everything. Because of the love you feel from him, at the same time you’re bold, you’re diligent, you make plans, and that’s how God shows you what you should be doing.
God is far more interested in making you wise than giving you instant wisdom. He’s a Father who trains you in the arena of life, not a genie who grants wishes. God says, “Stop worrying about how to get guided and think more about how to be the kind of person who gets guided. Stop worrying about how to get wisdom and think more on how to become the kind of person who makes wise choices.”
Kevin DeYoung says, that sometimes we want to “know the will of God…because we are cowardly. It’s true. Sometimes when we pray to know the will of God, we are praying a coward’s prayer: “Lord, tell me what to do so nothing bad will happen to me and I won’t have to face danger or the unknown.” God wants to grow in courage and trust and giving us a nice neat blueprint to follow does not accomplish that. It takes more than that.
But there’s a cost to it. It will mean embracing the God who allows bad things to come into your life without any explanations. We took the girls to get their flu shot this week (administered by Jenny). It thought she would do better since it was Jenny but Annabelle was kicking and screaming and I had to literally hold her down. I wondered if she thought, “What kind of parent allows this to happen to his daughter?” After that, I thought she would hate us for being so forceful and allowing this to happen. But she stretched out her arms to both of us. Why? Because though what we allowed caused her so much pain, we were still the only ones that could comfort her.
The will of God often leads us to hard places and it will cost us a lot. Why can’t God just come to us and tell us what to do and we can be on our merry way? Because nobody learns their flaws from being told. We have to be shown. Remember at the end of Gen. 37? We have a father named Jacob whose favoritism poisons the family. We have murderous sons who hate their brother. We have a spoiled brat named Joseph. Joseph is in the back of a cart being shipped off. At that moment, God could have came down and rebuked all of them.
“Okay, I’m going to settle this right now. Stop it all of you!” And they cry and hug. Just like that. A half an hour maybe. No, that’s Hollywood. Let me tell you how it works in real life.
In reality you never, ever, ever become wise like that. Nobody has ever learned they were a sinner by being told. No one has ever learned about their flaws by being told. You have to be shown. Your parents may have been telling you about your flaws for years. You had to be shown. The only way you’ll see your flaws is in experience. Until you see your flaws, they’re going to control your life.
Secondly, no one ever learned God loved them by being told. I tell you every week practically. You go home and say, “Oh, the preacher told me God loves me. I believe that.” No, you don’t. You wouldn’t live the way you do if you believed that. Do you know what you need in order to really know? You have to be shown. Over and over and over as life goes on, you have to be in positions where you’re absolutely sure God has abandoned you and then find out later on you were wrong. That has to happen over and over and over.
As time goes on, you will find you are finally becoming wise. You are understanding for the first time your flaws. Therefore, your plans are more careful than they would be otherwise. Secondly, you’re learning God loves you. Therefore, your plans are bolder than they would be otherwise.
The problem is who rolls over their lives completely to God like that? Who trusts Him likes that? No one. “In that case, I guess we’re not eligible for his guidance.” No, yet it still comes to people because God Himself pays the ultimate cost.
Keller gives an excellent analogy. When Jesus Christ was in the boat asleep during the storm and his disciples were just flipping out, they were freaking out, why? Because here they are in a storm and their Navigator, the Lord, is sleeping. There’s no navigation, no guidance in the storm.
They’re freaking out, so they wake him up, and they say, “Lord, don’t you care that we’re dying?” When Jesus gets up, he’s actually pretty short with them. He says, “Where is your faith?” It’s almost like He’s saying, “My silence doesn’t mean my absence. You have no idea what I am really about to give up so you will have guidance and help in life.” When they said, “Master, don’t you care that we’re dying?” I think Jesus was saying back to them, “Don’t you care that I’m dying?” When they said, “Master, you’re not really navigating us through the storm,” here’s what Jesus is saying. “There is a real storm coming…a storm of God’s wrath, a storm of eternal justice, a storm of the justice we deserve for everything we’ve done as human beings.
He says, “I am going to bow my head before that storm, and I’m going to take it for you. I’m going to go through that storm without any navigation. The Father is going to abandon me. I will be the only righteous person in history who committed absolutely everything, rolled everything over onto the Father, and I’m going to sink. He’s going to abandon me.”
He says, “Don’t you see? I am going through the ultimate storm without navigation so you can be sure, in spite of the fact you don’t deserve it, you will always have me as the pilot of your ship of life. I’m going through the ultimate storm without navigation. I didn’t abandon you to that storm. Therefore, I will not abandon you in this storm. You know it now because I’m telling you.”
Look at Jesus. Look what he’s done. To the degree you know that, to that degree you will be able to commit everything to him and become the kind of person who makes wise decisions. No need to obsess over the future. No need to be cowardly and scared either. As DeYoung puts it, “God promises to be your sun and your shield and to carry you and protect with His strong right arm. So we can stop pleading with God to show us the future, and start living and obeying like we are confident that He holds the future.”
Koukl, G. “Divine Direction and Decision Making in the Book of Acts,” http://www.str.org/articles/divine-direction-decision-making-in-the-book-of-acts#.UnJ_SpGh5sl accessed 31 October 2013.
Waltke, B. Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Kindle Locations 166-169). Kindle Edition.
From Keller, T. “Your Plans: God’s Plan.” The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
DeYoung, Kevin (2009-04-01). Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will or How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random … Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. (p. 38). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
DeYoung, Kevin (2009-04-01). Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will…(p. 43). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.