How God Usually Builds The Church
Passage: Acts 21:1–16
I want you to imagine something… let’s say you go to a networking event for your job and you start up a conversation with someone and you ask them this, “where do you think you see yourself in ten years?” Now imagine they respond and say, “I think I’d like to be right where I am right now…working hard and making a difference with what I have.”
If you work at a non profit and you’re networking with other non profit directors, maybe you’d find that to be a really nice answer… if you didn’t have a category for Christian thought and practice and this person was in corporate law or finance or tech, you’d probably end the conversation and be surprised that this person is wasting their time at a networking event.
We live in a culture that is fascinated with advancement, with climbing the next step on the ladder, at best, it’s building a bigger platform so that we can make the biggest difference, at worst, it’s pushing someone down so that we can lift ourselves higher.
We don’t see that issue with Paul throughout the Acts narrative. I don’t often find myself frustrated with pop arguments for why the Bible isn’t true, or why we might not trust the Apostle’s credibilities or things like that, but one thing that always frustrates me is the idea that Paul saw a way to make a name for himself in the grassroots of Christianity. The Jewish Pharisee, the up and coming leader-scholar, Saul, was already on the fast track to power and success before his conversion. For Paul, converting to Christianity was a step away from a position where he would push people down to elevate himself and a step into a way of life where he would regularly be pushed down and persecuted, for him it’s an active step down even.
We don’t see Paul using “The Way” as a means to elevate himself, but he is pointing others towards true life in Christ. Paul knows what he was called to and operated within that call. That’s why he goes to Jerusalem knowing that trouble awaits him there. What we don’t see in the Early Church are people who are making much of themselves, their gifts, or their personalities as means of building the Church. I’m thinking of the story of Simon the Magician, who was turned away by the Apostles because he saw their power in Christ, the signs that they were doing and he desired to be able to do that more than he desired to be with God. What we see in the Early Church is kind of the opposite, the people who are chosen to be the expanders of the Kingdom, used by God, are not usually the flashy people, they are just normal people willing to forsake their lives for the Kingdom of God because of what Christ has done for them.
What we see in this passage is that the way that God builds his Church is through normal and faithful people… usually… doing normal and ordinary things… usually. Here’s my hope today, that if you’re struggling with what God has for you or the things that God has you around, I hope that you are encouraged in in your status and worth before God in Christ and in the fact that God uses normal people doing normal things to build his Church…Usually :)
Now, let’s look at God using normal and faithful people in Acts 21 to build his Church.
As I thought about this text, I really struggled with it for a while. It just seemed like nothing was happening, except detail dumping! But there were also these really weird prophecies happening that Luke doesn’t seem to make the main point, but the travel log doesn’t seem to be what Luke is making the main point either. So what is going on here?
I think that I wanted to find something extraordinary, but it took me a while to think that what the Holy Spirit was showing in this passage was just that normal people and normal means is how the Lord builds his church… usually.
Something that helped me get there was getting back to the thesis of the book of Acts that we have been working with. Acts 1:8 says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” So Luke is writing Acts to tell Theophilus how the Gospel is going out and we are getting to the end of the earth.
We know from Paul’s letter to the Romans that he is heading to Jerusalem so that he can get to Rome so that he can get to Spain. Which for Paul and Luke was the ends of the Earth in their mind. This is why Paul is so certain that he must go to Jerusalem no matter what is waiting there.
So who are these people that Paul is spending time with on the way to Jerusalem? Well… we don’t really know. They're just normal people. Nameless followers of Jesus mostly. In Tyre, we get Paul seeking out the Disciples there and staying with them for 7 days while the ship was unloading!
These disciples graciously welcomed Paul, formed bonds with him, and when it came time for Paul and friends to leave, these families went with Paul out of the city. Husbands, wives and children. Nameless, but people in the Church who God used in this time.
Then we get to Ptolemais, and Paul again stays with “the brothers” for a night, before going to Caesarea and meeting up with one of the original seven deacons, Philip. So now we finally get to the named disciples who support Paul, but there’s not much mention of them, and they don’t do anything brilliant in nature… usually. :)
Leaving Caesarea, with some Caeserean disciples with them (which is WILD to me, since they knew what was coming, but more on that later) they go up to Jerusalem and stay with Mnason.
Here’s why this matters for me and you… most of us are totally normal people. And you know what that doesn’t make us? Second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. When we sit at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, you will sit at the same table that Mnason sits at, that Paul sits at, that these husbands, wives and children sit at.
The truth of the Gospel is that Christ takes normal people and gives them everything extraordinary that he has done. Psalm 147 says, “the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.”Are you feeling purposeless because you feel like what you do with your time isn’t enough? Are you anxious because you feel like you have made it and you aren’t sure what’s next but you’ve got a lot of life left in front of you?
The Lord is pleased, not in what others think of you, or the lofty expectations that you place on yourself, but the Lord is pleased in your fear of Him, the Lord is pleased in those who live a life of hope in his steadfast love. So don’t beat yourself up thinking about what comes tomorrow. Don’t be down because your kids have taken all your time. God is pleased I’m your fear of Him even if you’re not in the career that you once really loved. To those who hope in his steadfast love and fear Him–God is pleased in you.
Sure, God has his Pauls that he sends, God has his Agabuses that he uses, God has his people who we all know who have done awesome things for the Kingdom. I’ve loved that the past weeks we’ve had our Scripture reading done by one of our missionaries, seeing these normal people who are doing awesome things all around the world, playing their part in building the Church.
But most of us don’t move overseas and do ministry work! And at OGC, we are probably above average when it comes to how many of us have been missionaries, or work as ministers in some regard! It doesn’t matter if you’re just normal, it doesn’t matter if you consider yourself to have small reach, or you think the work you do is menial. Throughout church history, there have been way more Christians who have lived, been faithful to their call, died, but who God used to do great things for his Church whose names we will never know, than there have been Christians whose names we know.
Now, I’m not knocking these Christians whose names we do know, and I don’t want to say that there are some Christians who are better than others. Remember, there are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. My point is that God usually uses normal people to build his Church. Think of all the people in the Bible whose name is only mentioned one time. We don’t know these people, we don’t know what they did for the rest of their days, we don’t know much about these people who lived normal lives. We might not know them, but God knows them, and he used them to play their part in the story of redemption. It’s a beautiful thing. So let’s think about that one word… usually.
There is some stuff in this passage that seems pretty confusing and outside of the whole idea that I’m trying to show, that normal people and normal means are how God builds his Church. There’s two explicit situations of Disciples speaking in the Spirit and prophesying to Paul about what will be awaiting him when he arrives in Jerusalem. Sandwiched in between these two very clear scenes of prophecy about the dangers in Jerusalem is a mention of Philip’s unmarried daughters who prophecy. Now we don’t know what they are prophesying, and I don’t want to speculate about whether or not they prophesied to Paul or not, but they definitely prophesy and they are placed in between two prophecies to Paul about the danger that awaits him in Jerusalem.
So what I’m not going to focus on is the ambiguity and look more at the two situations that are clear. First, the disciples in Tyre and their speaking “through” the Spirit telling Paul to not go on to Jerusalem. Here’s what that sounds like, it sounds like the Spirit telling Paul to not go, but Paul going on anyways.
I asked one of my Professors what we have going on here, is Paul ignoring the will of the Holy Spirit because these people are telling him not to go “through the Holy Spirit.” My professor thinks that this isn’t the Holy Spirit telling Paul he isn’t allowed to go to Jerusalem, but rather the disciples in Tyre having a different interpretation of what the Spirit is saying than Paul has.
The Holy Spirit is saying what awaits Paul in Jerusalem is severe danger, what the Disciples are saying is that because of this he shouldn’t go. Yet Paul knows that even facing danger, going to Jerusalem is what is needed for the growth of the Church. Different interpretations of Scripture is a normal thing, but the stakes aren’t usually this high. Most of us don’t have to go into situations where we might be killed for our part in building the Church. Most of us don’t have people around us, friends and family, who feel called to go to a place where they could face serious danger for sharing their faith, for playing a role in building the Church.
But sometimes, we find ourselves in this hard situation where both of us know that this isn’t going to be easy, and it will be dangerous, but the Lord has laid this out for this person and we can support them in that and care for them through this. So I don’t think that Paul was disobeying the Spirit, and I think that the words that Paul received from the Christians in Tyre were rooted in their love for him.
The difference in the interpretation of the prophecy doesn’t move their relationship from unified to divorced, instead when it comes time for Paul to leave they go to the beach with him, they kneel together and pray. Brothers and sisters wishing the best for him knowing the danger that is coming for him.
Again, not a very normal way for the Church to be built. Most Christians will never go overseas to be a missionary. And, most overseas missionaries will not be in countries where they are in a dangerous situation, meaning their life is under threat of being ended. There are sometimes people who are the exception to the rule that God uses normal people doing normal things to build his Kingdom, and we, as Orlando Grace Church, have been given an abnormal amount of these exceptions to steward and we need to do that well in love and grace, and I think that we do a really good job of that as a church.
But even though we have many examples in our church of people doing exceptional things for the kingdom, it’s still pretty cool to realize that most of our missionaries started out as people working “secular jobs.” They might not have grown up wanting to be missionaries. But one day they realized the Spirit was calling them to do something exceptionally hard and they were obedient to that. Missionaries are people who God has called - whether they’ve wanted to be a missionary since they were 5 or whether they were a CPA 5 months ago. And when God calls for exceptionally difficult obedience, he still prefers to use normal people to do it - because he’s spreading his glory - not ours.
So, brothers and sisters praying together and showing hospitality to each other even though they know one of them is walking into intense persecution and maybe even death is one example of an abnormal thing happening in this passage, but then Agabus reappears to give us another prophecy about the danger that Paul is facing. Not only is Agabus one of the best names in the Bible, but he comes on the scene for the second time in the book of Acts and he reprises the Old Testament role of dramatic prophet which had previously been played by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. All three of them, at some point in their prophetic ministry, prophesied by acting something out in dramatic fashion.
Agabus takes Paul’s belt, ties his hands and feet together and says that the Jews in Jerusalem will bind Paul and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. And this causes Paul to become overcome with emotion, because he knows that he needs to go to Jerusalem and he says he is ready to be imprisoned and even be killed for the name of Jesus.
So I think a lot of us might see this and think, “Man, Paul’s about to go through a really hard thing. He’s expecting imprisonment and maybe even death. I sure would like to have an Agabus in my life so that I could know what I am walking into before I walk into it. That way even though it is hard, I’ll feel prepared and like I have a little control over it.” Here’s the deal, I think a lot of us would be debilitated if we knew that we were walking into something like Paul was walking into, it obviously is incredibly emotional for Paul. And on top of that, I think this desire reveals something about us as Bible readers.
We often see the extraordinary, and I mean that in the sense of “not the ordinary” and think, this is what life is supposed to be like and I need that. All the while we are underappreciating or straight up not recognizing the ordinary that God has already given us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “Man, I just wish Jesus would show up and talk to me.” Or maybe my High Schoolers here are thinking, “I just wish I could walk out of Church this morning and there would be a cloud formation to tell me which school I should go to.”
Here’s something I need to regularly remind myself of… that God has given ALL of us everything we need for life and godliness. Paul tells Timothy that “scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Prophecy and healings and miraculous things happen in Acts, but they still seem to be the extraordinary happening around the ordinary, or even as signs to confirm the teaching of the ordinary. Jim showed last week what the roles of Elders should be in the Church, we’ve talked a lot about the way that Paul would teach when he went into cities on these missionary journeys, I think these are the things that are normal in the church.
So we’ve talked about when God builds the Church he uses normal and faithful people, we’ve seen that that is his USUAL practice, let’s talk about the means in which God builds his Church. The means that God usually uses to build his Church are normal and faithful people doing normal and ordinary things.
This passage shows what these normal and faithful people were doing to play their part in the building of the Church. They were people who were marked by hospitality, fellowshipping, bearing burdens, praying and discussing the Word of God and sending missionaries.
In this passage we have a lot of details about what is going on throughout the travel narrative. At first they might seem inconsequential, or like they just don’t matter, but what Luke is doing is bolstering the account that he is giving. So remember, in his Gospel account Luke is writing about events that he has carefully investigated. In Acts, Theophilus is being told a mixture of things that Luke investigated, but he is also showing Theophilus things that he experienced as a traveling companion of Paul. And this is what we are seeing in this passage and we know that because Luke is writing using, “we.”
So we get the travel details because Luke is demonstrating that these things really did happen and you can believe them and count them to be true. So think about it like this… let’s say I’m in a conversation with you later and I tell you about a trip going to Jacksonville that I took a couple of months ago and I say, “Yeah, the drive was easy! Got on 95, kept the Atlantic to our left the whole way, no traffic and in about four and a half hours we were there!”
Now we know that this story wouldn’t be right. First, I’d need to keep the Atlantic to our right and it should have taken me about 2 hours to get there if there was no traffic. This is why Luke mentions that they keep Cyprus to their left while sailing, that’s why Luke shows they stay for 7 days while the ship unloads the cargo. These things are normal for the routes and sizes of ships of that time.
Now I’m making this point to show that if we can trust the travel narrative and the details related to that, then we can trust the other details that seem to be sprinkled in, like who the disciples were in the cities that Paul and his partners were going to, and what these normal and ordinary disciples were doing to assist Paul and the other missionaries as they all work together to build the church. I see three things that the Early Church was doing that just seem to be normal and we should ask ourselves if they are normal for us too.
First, the disciples in Tyre, Philip and his family, and Mnason all of these people showed hospitality and they fellowshipped with one another. While they are there, they obviously formed bonds that are deep and meaningful. I think we need to set out for this amongst our church, we should be marked by hospitality and the fellowship that we have with one another should be something that people in the church are encouraged through and something that those outside of the covenant community look at and long for.
Rosaria Butterfield has this awesome book called The Gospel Comes with a Housekey that I would recommend to all of you and she calls the Church to practice something that she calls Radically Ordinary Hospitality. Her experiencing Radically Ordinary Hospitality was the window into the Gospel that the Holy Spirit used to convict her of her sin and draw her to God. So I don’t think we should underestimate the power of hospitality for us today, and what it would have meant for Paul as he approached Jerusalem facing the emotional and physical hardship that he had awaiting him.
These disciples practiced hospitality and they discussed the Word of God and prayed with one another. When Paul is leaving Tyre, they travel with him out of the city, to the beach, and they pray with one another. When Paul is still convinced he must go to Jerusalem, Agabus and those with Paul’s responses are that they should all let the will or the Lord be done.
And they discussed the word of the Lord together from the prophecies that people offered to Paul throughout the first half of Acts 21. They came to different interpretations about these prophecies as well, but that doesn't mean that their fellowship was broken or they ran off angry at each other. So it’s normal that we disagree on things, but I think we should fight to keep the fellowship whole between people even if we disagree with them. And that’s easy to do when it comes to baptism and church government, but if people disagree with us about women’s roles in the church or Spiritual Gifts, it might not be as easy. Be encouraged that it can be done, and more than that I think this passage shows us that we will disagree but we must talk about the things of God, andwhat he has said even if we know we might disagree.
One thing I think we are seeing happen more is people rejecting being a part of the body, cutting themselves off from community, because they don’t view gathering with the body as something that is crucial for their spiritual formation. It’s hard to give up a Sunday morning, we have sports games, late night last night, we needed a little weekend getaway, we needed a slow sunday morning because this weekend was so crazy, we needed another weekend getaway … I understand sometimes needing to miss Church. I want you to hear that there is grace for it when it happens. But when we miss 2 or 3 weeks every month for the sake of convenience, we are missing out on the beautiful thing that is the regularly gathered body of believers, who are supposed to encourage and build one another up and that’s not something that I want any of us to miss out on. Church is supposed to be a part of your normal, not an exception to it.
Normal and faithful people also do normal and ordinary things like sending others out to build the Church. The last thing that I see this passage showing us about how God usually builds his church is by sending people out to places that need to hear the Gospel or be encouraged. This doesn’t have to be the Middle East, it doesn’t have to mean East Asia, it might be across town, or across the state. But even when these people disagree, even when their time together is coming to an end, they get to the point where they send some out even it means sending them into something unknown and scary.
At Orlando Grace Church, we exist to grow in Christ, bless our city, and send to the World. And I think we send to the world really well. I love going out into the wall in front of our offices and seeing all of the people around the World who OGC has supported and cared for. It’s been so great to see the missionaries that we love giving updates from where they are. It can be hard though, losing people to send them out as a gain for others. But Acts 21 gives us a great model for what we are to do when someone we love needs to go and be sent for the good of the Church. So I pray that our church is a church who is always marked by sending so that the Gospel can go out in our city, our state and nation and to the ends of the Earth.
Maybe you’re like me, and you want to see extraordinary and the flash, often times more than I realize how beautiful the normal is to be in. We often read our Bibles and think we need to see the flash! God is a God of miracles! But he is also a God of substance. And these two things can be true at the same time.
So don’t go through your life and long for the mountain tops that are less common and extraordinary, go through life and experience the goodness of God who is with you through every peak and valley of your life.
The greatest miracle that the world has ever seen has already been accomplished. The greatest miracle, one that will never be topped, is that God became like us so that we might become like Him, and he lived perfectly, died in our place, and resurrected all that we might be justified before him and adopted into his family. So look to Christ because knowing Him is the thing that makes the extraordinary so powerful and he is the one who makes the normal beautiful. And it’s just a matter of fact that we live in the normal far more than we experience the extraordinary.
We can live in the normal and be normal and be used mightily by God for his good purposes. Because Christ died for us. Because Christ is not afraid to call us brother and sister we have been given the ultimate purpose, the highest purpose in life, no matter how normal we might feel, to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Let’s pray.