Debtors to the Gospel – Acts 21:18-36
Growing up in an immigrant Indian house, my brothers and I were always subject to being compared to other kids and families: Why can’t you be more like so and so? We absolutely hated it when our parents did that, especially because they didn’t really know the truth about the kids they were comparing us to! My parents had no idea what these kids were really doing that their parents and other adults didn’t know about and it would infuriate us because we knew what they were really like!
I don’t think anyone of us would want to be asked to be like someone who we didn’t respect or that wasn’t a faithful follower of Jesus. But what about those biblical heroes who we’ve looked up to for so many years? I remember once in college when someone called me a “Barnabas” because they received encouragement from me. Being the prideful person I am, I did not care to be called Barnabas because I would rather be called Paul! Paul, the famous apostle, the theologian, the missionary, the church planter, the great leader! Up until a few months ago, I certainly would’ve loved to be compared to Paul or to be asked to be like Paul.
After going through Acts and learning more about Paul, I don’t even want to hang out with this guy, let alone be like him! Hanging out with him is dangerous – he’s always getting beat up or ran out of town! I don’t need any of that! Honestly speaking, I don’t want to be like any of the heroes in the Bible because a lot of them got killed! I want to follow Jesus and live for the Gospel, but I still don’t think I’m at a point where I will follow Jesus to my death and die for the Gospel I want to have the faith to do this but my pride gets in my way
I know I don’t help in recognizing that pride plagues me, but God has been teaching me what that pride means to me. My pride tells me that I am entitled to a good and comfortable life, that God should take care of me for all I have done for the Gospel. I don’t want to be like Paul who suffered till the end of his life for the Gospel. I want to pay my dues and retire with the good life when its all said and done.
We can’t be a church on mission if we feel God owes us. Entitlement translates to “I did this”, but if we believe the Gospel then we can only say “God did this!” If God did this, then the fact is that He owes me nothing and I owe him everything! – I am a debtor to the Gospel!
From the moment Paul declared his life verse in Acts 20:24 – “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” – its as though Paul is having to live out those words no matter the cost. In Acts 20, we learned about the qualities of a life well spent, one of them being persevering through adversity, where we walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and we see Paul doing this. Last week in the first half of Acts 21, we learned about God’s will, something that is both complex and costly. Paul knew was he signed up for, that he signed his life away to God for the Gospel. In the 2nd half of Acts 21, we see more of the same for Paul – dealing with adversity and persevering in the Gospel. I believe that Paul believed more and more that he was a debtor to the Gospel and it allowed him to finish his course and ministry, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
You may be wondering why I mean by saying we are debtors to the Gospel – Let me explain by way of what it doesn’t mean, and then what it does mean: This does not mean that we in any way are trying to earn or work towards our salvation – Jesus saves, that’s it, no questions asked; This does not mean that we in any way are trying to repay God because He paid a debt He didn’t owe for a debt I couldn’t pay; This does mean that we are slaves to God – Romans 6:18 – “Having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness.” So what does it mean? This does mean we are to become more like Christ – 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”; This does mean we are obligated to preach the Gospel to all people – Romans 1:14 – “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish”; This does mean we are debtors to the Holy Spirit – Romans 8:12-13 – “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” What is a debtor? Someone who doesn’t live after the flesh, but lives according to the Spirit of God, someone who motivated, energized and moved by the Spirit of God.
If we want to be followers of Jesus and a church on mission that perseveres in the Gospel, I believe we need to be reminded of the cost of our salvation in order for our perspective to change from entitlement to indebtedness.
How does the Gospel do this? Here’s our first point – it’s from the Humility that comes from the Gospel (vv.18-26). Paul’s friends in Caesarea begged him not to go to Jerusalem, but they resolved to “let will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14) and they left for Jerusalem. In verse 18 we see that Paul and his companions go to visit James – Paul tells them one by one, specifically, what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. The Christians rejoiced over the success of his Gentile mission but expressed concern over rumors that he was teaching Jews to abandon their ancestral laws and customs, namely circumcision, the badge of God’s covenant with the Jews.
The elders tell Paul to listen what they tell him – purify yourself along with these men who have undertaken a Nazirite vow and pay their expenses. Those under a Nazirite vow would abstain from wine, strong drink, grape juice, grapes, or raisins; would avoid any contact that would defile them (such as contact with a dead body); and would not cut their hair (cf. Num. 6:1–21). When the time of the vow was over (often 30 days), they would cut their hair and present an offering in the temple. If Paul went with them and personally paid for the cost of their offering, it would show that he did not object to Jewish converts following OT customs voluntarily.
If I were Paul, I would’ve busted out a C’Mon Man! – After all I’ve done and been through, do you really think I would burn my bridges with my Jewish brethren by teaching these things? C’Mon Man! And you won’t even take my word for it, but I have to purify myself and pay for the other dudes’ haircuts and baths? C’Mon Man! It’s a good thing I’m not Paul because my stubbornness and pride would’ve burned my bridges with the zealous Jews lose my ministry to them! Paul responds in humility – He voluntarily went along with the suggestion from James and the elders and purifies himself and covers the expenses for the men. Paul’s willingness to join with the four men under a Nazirite vow is an example of his willingness to become “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22, cf. vv. 19–23) for the sake of advancing the gospel.
Luke writes that there were Jewish believers who were zealous for the law and heard the rumors of what was Paul was teaching. Zeal, or a very eager enthusiasm or determination, is not in itself bad, but when it is misguided and takes precedent over the Gospel, it actually gets in the way of the work of God – Matthew 16:23 – Jesus and Peter. Remember, Peter was a zealous Jew at one point also, but he was humbled by Jesus and became a slave to God. For years and years, the Church has divided itself, been slowed down, and even lost its Mission because Christians have decided to be zealous rather than be Christ-like. Zeal is not always bad, but humility is always better!
So ask yourself some questions: Are there things about the Christian faith that you are very passionate about? What are some aspects of your personal convictions that can potentially be stumbling blocks to the Gospel? Can we recognize when something is simply our preference?
Friends, let’s be characterized by humility because we’ve had a deep experience of the Gospel of grace. Hear what Charles Spurgeon said about the amazing power of grace: “My friends, there is a cementing power in the grace of God which can scarcely be over estimated. It resets the dislocated bones of society, rivets the bonds of friendship, and welds the broken metal of manhood into one united mass. It makes all brethren who feel its power. Grace links mankind in a common brotherhood; grace makes the great man give his hand to the poor, and confess a heavenly relationship; grace constrains the intellectual, the learned, the polite, to stoop from their dignity to take hold of the ignorant and unlettered, and call them friends; grace weaves the threads of our separate individualities into one undivided unity. Let the gospel be really felt in the mind and it will toll the knell of selfishness, it will bring down the proud from their elevated solitude, and it will restore the down-trodden to the rights of our common manhood.”
Living Hope, as we grow in faith and dig deeper into the Word of God and continue to formulate opinions and positions, I pray we would also grow more in humility and grace, even in our disagreements and when things change or when there are things we may not like, remembering that we are all indebted to the Gospel.
How else does the Gospel remind us we are debtors so we can persevere? Here’s our second and last point – it’s from the Peace that comes from the Gospel (vv.27-36). Paul knew his life was leading up to an impending doom – Acts 21:13 – “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus”- but I wonder if Paul even expected the mob to attack him! I have to admit that I feel for Paul – he just can’t catch a break! Even after humbly going along with the suggestion of James and the elders and publically embracing his Jewish heritage and customs, Paul still is wrongly accused and dragged out of the temple to be killed. But God still showed him grace by having the Romans intervene and rescue Paul from the mob. The text doesn’t tell us how Paul reacted to all of this, but I imagine he had a sense of calm in the midst of this chaos – he was at peace with God and he was ready to be with the Lord. Remember his words from Philippians 1:21 – “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Paul would eventually state his case before the Jews, share his testimony, and even preach the Gospel to them, but I think this would be my last straw – however, Paul was already sold out for the Gospel. After meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was sent out on one sole mission – to live for Christ and testify to the Gospel of grace. This is what allowed Paul to press on towards the goal, to keep on going after so many difficulties and challenges, because he knew that he fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. How does this happen? How does someone endure through so much and continue to give and give and give? It comes from experiencing amazing grace; it comes from accepting that you are truly forgiven; it comes from understanding the depth of your sin and the price that was paid to purchase your pardon
Living Hope, when you have peace with God you can be at peace with others, even those who are your enemies, and the Gospel becomes your highest prize and calling. This peace is what allowed Paul to give his whole life for the Gospel, not expecting anything in return, till his very last breath
Dear friends, how does Jesus’ work on the Cross for you allow you to take up your cross and follow hard after God? Remember Jesus, his love and humility, his love for his disciples, and how he was abandoned by his friends and by his own Father, so that you and I would never be abandoned and left alone. When we embrace this Gospel truth, we can gladly be debtors to the Gospel and persevere in mission.
Listen to what Dr. Wayne Barber says about being a debtor to God: “A debtor is not everybody you meet. You will know the debtors. They are the ones who don’t complain. They are the ones who don’t gripe and grumble. They are the ones who only want to be usable until the Lord comes back in getting the good news of His grace to others. It is in the present tense. You are always, at all times, paying a debt. We need to be either speaking it or living it out by letting that grace affect our lives so that others might see and hear the good news of Jesus Christ.” When we adopt this perspective that we are debtors to God, it is actually freeing! It allows us to give without remembering and to receive without forgetting.
The Gospel humbles us and gives us peace so we can endure adversity and persevere in the Church’s Mission to preach to Gospel to all people at all times and in all seasons, till Christ returns or calls us home.
Let’s pray: Our Heavenly Father, show us once again who you are and what you have done for sinners such as us. Help us surrender our pride and our sense of entitlement so we may embrace Jesus, our Lord and Savior, who invited to come to him for rest, for his yoke and his burden is light. Remind us that we debtors to the Gospel and slaves to righteousness so that we may humbly persevere in mission for the Gospel, overcome by Your peace that passes all understanding. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.