The Unstoppable Gospel Mission – Acts 28:16-31
If you are familiar with the Mission: Impossible television show or the recent movies, you know they follow a pattern in each episode. A secret agent belonging to the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) would receive and play a tape recording. Then it would detail the sinister plan of some crazy enemy, be it an evil dictator or crime lord, who was plotting something against the world and demanded our immediate attention. The assignment would always be dangerous to the extreme. Failure would be disastrous, as the world will end if this mission was not accomplished. It would then say something like, “Your mission so-and-so if you choose to accept it is to do X, Y and Z…” Finally it would end with the fact that if any member of the IMF were caught or killed, “the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions” and then the infamous, “this tape will self-destruct in five seconds” and you see smoke coming up from it.
The agent always took on the mission and then through “intricate plots, dire situations, ingenious devices, split-second timing,” the impossible mission would be made possible, usually by the skin of their teeth. As hard as any mission was, we knew in 60 minutes they would figure it out.
When we started the book of Acts, it seemed like what God was asking His people to do was an impossible mission to bring the Gospel from their hometown to the ends of the earth. This was not a nicely polished television show. It couldn’t be done in 60 minutes and it would require all of their lives. As we journeyed through Acts, we saw intricate plots, martyrdom, persecutions of various kinds, riots, shipwrecks, misunderstandings, conflict within the church and without, assassination attempts, snake bites, etc. They had no gadgets, no clever ingenuity or any competence of an IMF agent. The disciples themselves in the Gospels had been self-destructing. These were the last people you would pick to do a mission. Lots of times we thought the mission would end.
Yet as we come to the end of Acts, we see that the mission of the Gospel is unstoppable. Despite the bumbling disciples, despite the nature of persecution, no matter what was thrown their way, look at Acts 28:31, the last verse of the book: “[Paul was] proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” The Gospel mission is unstoppable. Acts 1:8 has come true by the end of the book (Chapters 1–7 tell of its spread “in Jerusalem,” chapters 8–11 of the witness “in all Judea and Samaria,” and chapters 12–28 “to the ends of the earth” ) and the crazy thing is as I look out at Living Hope, the mission is still going after 2,000 years as we are living in Acts 29. What starts out in Acts as an impossible mission ends with an unstoppable mission!
How do we know for sure the Gospel mission will continue with us? How was Paul able to finish his role, his part in it well? Today in the final verses, I want to look at four seemingly impossible barriers to stop the gospel and one major reason the Gospel mission is unstoppable. First:
- I. Four seemingly impossible barriers to stop the Gospel mission (vv.16-29)
Let’s review Acts and the life of Paul in two minutes. The Church was established around 30 AD and around 32-35 AD, Paul is converted. His incredible ministry lasts the next 30 or so years. Like his Savior, he went to his people the Jews first and declared Jesus to be the Messiah. Though some Jewish people believed, usually they rejected Paul and he found Gentiles to be far more receptive.
In most cities, the Jews harassed Paul and finally in 57 AD, they attempted to take his life. He went to the Roman authorities and the Roman soldiers took him to Rome so that his case could be reviewed around 60 AD. It took about five years for this to happen—a very difficult process.
Paul is now under house arrest for about two years. He writes Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon during this time. Notice Luke at the end of Acts does not record Paul’s trial. We don’t know what happened exactly, but the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) supply evidence that he was released (his opponents never showed) and he resumed his travels for about two more years before being re-arrested and re-tried. A major period of persecution of Christians broke out under the Roman emperor, Nero, and it was under Nero that Paul was eventually put to death. He was condemned and beheaded around ad 64.
As we look at these final verses, we see four common seemingly impossible barriers that could stop the mission of the Gospel. First of all:
a) Persistent trials and inconveniences (v.16)
We saw last time that storms make us self-absorbed. Paul found power through the Gospel to be self-forgetful instead of being self-absorbed. Now he gets to Rome, which was a long prayer request that was answered, but a soldier is with him. It seems like the Romans are not really worried about him. He doesn’t seem like a dangerous criminal or flight risk and the Jews haven’t really proved a solid case. So he is allowed to rent a place, but they put a soldier with him. But he is in chains (Acts 28:20) and this soldier is not just his roommate. Paul is bound to this soldier by a chain attached to his wrist. The soldier would be relieved every four hours or so, but for Paul there was no comparable relief. If I were Paul, I would have felt so hindered, bothered, annoyed. I would probably just sleep all day, with this guy tied to me!
Paul can’t seem to catch a break. But look at Paul’s perspective at his situation in Phil. 1:12-14. Notice the word “advance.” It is a Greek military term referring to the army engineers who go before the troops to open the way into new territory. Instead of finding himself confined as a prisoner, Paul discovered that his circumstances really opened up new areas of ministry. Paul’s joy was not based on ideal circumstances, but on winning others to Christ.
A different soldier showing up every four hours meant six souls to win to Christ! Pastor Kent Hughes says, “Today in Rome you can see a square of plaster cut from the wall of the barracks in the Palace of the Caesars. On it is scratched a human figure with a donkey’s head. The figure is nailed to a cross, and a man is pictured kneeling before it. This artwork is an obvious insult to a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity, for the picture bears the inscription, “Anexamenos worships his God.” Some of Rome’s imperial elite came to know Christ! And that is not all—they led some of their privileged friends to Christ. In Philippians 4:22 Paul writes, “All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.”
So what’s our excuse for not advancing the gospel mission? Sometimes I think, “One day when the kids get older, I will be more of a man on mission.” Or “one day when we get more financially stable…” or “one day when our church gets bigger…” or “One day when I’m less busy…” We will always have trials and inconveniences, but really we are not on mission because we truly have experienced a God who went on mission for us. It is hard to be a tribal follower of a missional God.
We are far too busy, too self-absorbed and too lazy to care. What excuses have you been using in not being on mission this holiday season to your neighbors? Friends and relatives? When was the last time you invited someone to church or small group? How are you stewarding your time, to send an email? Call? Visit? Pastor Kevin DeYoung says, “Stewarding my time is not about selfishly pursuing only the things I like to do. It’s about effectively serving others in the ways I’m best able to serve and in the ways I am most uniquely called to serve.” Second barrier:
b) Personal betrayal (vv.17-20, 23)
Being unable to go visit the synagogues, Paul invites the synagogue leaders to come to him. One last time Paul declares his innocence. Notice he doesn’t mention any leaders’ names or attack anyone. These Jews were people who betrayed Paul and totally turned against him. He still deeply cares about the Jews calling them “Brothers,” and “our people” and “customs of our fathers” and “my nation.”
What an opportunity to name names, show bitterness and resentment and anger! Later during his second imprisonment, Paul says, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me” (2 Tim. 4:16). Paul felt abandoned towards the end of his life, even by other believers. The Jews betrayed him and then believers abandoned him. But look down at v.23. There is a lot of commotion and lots of Jews show up and what does he do? He preaches the Gospel despite the betrayal he’s felt from them. He never stops loving them. The content of his message is summarized in terms of the “kingdom of God” and “Jesus” (again in 28:31). The same two terms, “kingdom” and “Jesus,” summarize his preaching in v. 31. They are twin concepts: Jesus stands at the center of God’s sovereign rule; God’s people are gathered around him. He’s explaining, debating, urging, proclaiming, etc. He’s pouring his heart out to them!
Even when the believers abandoned him in 2 Tim. 4:16, he says, “May it not be charged against them!” What poise and peace like his Savior! His eyes are not on his wounds, but the kingdom and his King, even as he is about to die (2 Tim. 4:18).
Our wounds also make us self-absorbed. People who have hurt us and wounded us seem to have power over us, often paralyzing us for mission. We make vows like, “I will never again talk, care for, love, etc.” But the Gospel tells us look at the One who was ultimately betrayed by us and the wounds He carried for our salvation were far greater at more cost. Yet He continues to stay in a relationship with us.
This past week I heard a testimony from a young woman named Urvasi from India. She shared in tears how she was harassed and physically abused and even called a prostitute because of her faith in Christ. The hardest part was that the abuse came from her own father and brother. But through it all, her father and brother miraculously come to Christ. She says toward the end, “My father gave me a very tough time for believing in Christ. I paid a high price, but it can never be higher than the price Christ paid to save my life.”
Have we made vows about how we will not love certain people because we have been wounded or betrayed limiting God and the Gospel because of personal pain? Thirdly:
c) Popular opinion (vv.21-22)
Interestingly, the Jewish leaders in Rome have no real clue as to what is going on in vv.21-22. This is surprising since Jerusalem-Rome ties are pretty strong. They have not received a telegram, tweet, email, personal visit, etc. Nothing! Could it be that their letters got lost at sea during the shipwreck? However, we have been hearing a lot about this “sect,” meaning this new “party” or “school of thought.” It’s being spoken against everywhere.
As much as the Gospel exploded and was unstoppable, there was also strong hatred against it from the beginning. It is not different today. It’s not going to get easier. It will become more and more difficult to be a Christian in this culture. Dead fish swim with the stream. Living fish always swims against the stream.
Pastor Stephen Crosby says, “American cultural virtues of success are: “bigger is better” – more people, more money, more fame, more notoriety, more TV exposure, more books sold, etc. Jesus’s virtue of success is: faithfulness to assignment is better . . . period….God’s method of kingdom advance has never changed…Jesus’s kingdom advances based on the principle of death and resurrection, not “how to make your ministry a success” seminars. PERIOD. His kingdom advance and your personal greatness are NOT related. His increase could result in your decrease. If you are not yet willing to be insignificant, you are not yet trustworthy for “ministry.” Your “destiny” might be to give away all your life’s energy and virtue, and never see a drop of fruit until after you are dead and gone. It was that way for our Master, and we are not above Him. What may work on Madison Avenue and the board rooms of American industry, is not fit for the kingdom. The Scripture speaks of fruitfulness and faithfulness, not success.” The Lord’s not going to say, “Well done good and famous servant!”
Paul never let popular opinion sway him. The Jewish leaders tell him everywhere everyone is against Christianity and what does Paul do? Fold up and roll over? He still preaches the Gospel! Regardless of atheists putting up billboards downtown this Christmas or what the latest theory is of Christ, the Gospel is unstoppable. He’s continuing to save people despite the tide of popular opinion. One more seemingly impossible barrier:
d) Polarizing nature of the message (vv.23-28)
Persistent trials, personal betrayals, the tide of popular opinion all come up as barriers to stop the movement of the Gospel. And if we are taken up by those things more than the Gospel itself, we will find that our mission will stop, though God’s mission will always continue with or without us.
But worse than all those things is the barrier of the polarizing nature of the message of the Gospel. Paul confirms the inspiration of the OT by saying, “The Holy Spirit” said through Isaiah how people will refuse to hear to hear the Word and turn away. The same Gospel that is melting people’s hearts is hardening others to their judgment. The same fire that melts wax hardens clay. The Gospel is divisive. Either it is melting you or hardening you.
In v.27, he says that the Jews’ hearts had become dull, or as the Greek literally says, “fat.” Hughes adds, “To the Jew who daily dressed his own meat, the image was perfectly clear—a heart surrounded so closely with fatty tissue that it was constricted and thus prevented from functioning properly.”
What does this mean? God watches how you respond to His Word. This is a warning to unbelievers who keep refusing the Gospel, but it is also instructive to believers. Is our heart melting at the Gospel? Or do we continually hear it, keep it arms length, Gospel-proof and sermon-proof our heart from responding? Far more than fearing persistent trials, anxiety over the future, personal betrayals and the popular opinion against the Gospel, we should fear the hardness of our hearts. How are our hearts? Sluggish? Constricted? Thick with fat? God is always calling us back to the Gospel. That is His constant wake-up call. Do we keep hitting the snooze button? These are all strong barriers, but:
II. The Gospel mission is unstoppable because Jesus will ensure its success (vv.30-31; 2 Tim. 4:16-18)
Luke so abrupt here and does not tell us more about Paul here at the end of the book. There are lots of theories as to why this is. But it is not too surprising. He ended not on Paul but on the gospel, on the message of the kingdom, as he started (Acts 1:3). Acts is not about Peter or Paul, but about the progress of the Gospel. The Gospel has triumphed, though Paul has not. Paul was still in chains, still a prisoner. Throughout Acts the triumph was never with the bearers of the gospel. They were rejected, beaten, reviled, imprisoned, and killed for their witness. But the gospel was unfettered, triumphant.
Luke says, “Look at all the stuff thrown at us. They imprisoned us and killed us, but they cannot imprison or kill the Gospel. It is unstoppable! Paul says later, “But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:9). The book ends saying the door is wide open and the mission continues. That is all that matters. Jesus will ensure its success.
As we close, you might be feeling like, “Where do I get the power to not be so self-absorbed in our wounds and trials, look past personal betrayals and not fall to popular opinion and keep my heart soft towards the Gospel and continue the mission of God in my life to the end? What was Paul’s secret?
Look over at 2 Tim. 4. Paul knows he is about to die (2 Tim. 4:6). People have abandoned him. The secret is found in verses 16-17. No one came to stand by me, but the Lord stood by me and strengthened me.
The thing that Paul thinks about as he is about to die is not his missionary accomplishments or the number of churches planted or the number of people saved, but his fellowship and friendship with Jesus. It is His friendship that fuels the mission. Paul says that I felt His friendship there (not some generic “God is with me,” but a true experience). He was tenderly loving me and giving me strength.
Pastor Tim Keller says in his marriage book that there are two features of real friendship— constancy and transparency. Real friends always let you in, and they never let you down. Friends open their arms as well as their hearts. This was what Paul needed to finish well and accomplish the mission. And this is what we need. Do you have a sense of His presence like this? How do we get it? It is the Gospel.
This is like Paul’s Gethsamane or Calvary. He too is walking in his Savior’s footsteps, but there is a great difference. When everybody deserted Paul, at his lowest point, he turned to God and found the Lord standing there. When everybody deserted Jesus, at His lowest point, he turned to God and what did He get? Silence. Abandonment. Emptiness. My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me? All sin is betrayal. Judas betrayed Him, but in a sense we all betrayed him. He’s forsaken and abandoned with a far greater forsakenness and abandonment, as He was taking our place. We turned away from God and what do we deserve for that? We deserve God to turn away from us. Jesus was abandoned so we will never be abandoned. What are those wounds compared to mine?
Right before Jesus died, he looks at his disciples and says, “You are not my servants, but my friends. Greater love has no man than this, that he would lay down His life for His friends” (John 15:13-15). Jesus is our Ultimate Friend. A friend opens his arms, but this friend’s arms were stretched wide open, even nailed open for us. How much more vulnerable for us could you get than that on the cross? And He will never let us down.
Come to Him o sluggish heart. Come to the friend of sinners. And the closer, deeper and longer you gaze at His great love for you, you cannot help also be a friend to sinners in your own lives. The mission impossible becomes the mission unstoppable in our lives when we see that it is impossible that we should have God go on mission for us to bring us into friendship with Him. He was unstoppable with His love and grace to make us enemies into His friends, even children! How can we not freely give that love away that was freely given away to us? May the Spirit of God continue His mission with Living Hope in the days to come. May He pull us in deeper and deeper into His heart, to propel us and push us out to bring many, many people to be pulled in the same way. For His name’s sake.
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