Listening to the Spirit Acts 21 (Sermon)


Hi, I am pastor Rob, and it is great to worship with you today. 


I need two volunteers. Okay, please put on this brand new coat I got at the goodwill. Thanks. Now read this to yourselves, and act out what it says. Thanks. You can be seated. That was crazy. Why did I have ____, and ___ do that? It was basically what happened 3,000 years ago. They acted out the story of Ahijah. Have you ever heard of Ahijah? Not Elijah, Nehemiah, Hezekiah, or Obidiah, but Ahijah. Most people have never heard of him. Ahijah was a prophet. The Holy Spirit spoke through him in 1 Kings 11:29. Look at what the Bible says,  
"'29 About that time Jeroboam was going out of Jerusalem, and Ahijah the prophet of Shiloh met him on the way, wearing a new cloak. The two of them were alone out in the country, 30 and Ahijah took hold of the new cloak he was wearing and tore it into twelve pieces. 31 Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten pieces for yourself, for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes.'"
That really happened. That was a predictive prophecy. 


The reason I bring this up is a story 1,000 years later, in Acts chapter 21, with a guy named Agabus. Agabus was a prophet too. By the power of the Spirit, he predicted Paul would be arrested and bound and handed over to the Gentiles. This morning is the international day of prayer for the persecuted church. Agabus was telling Paul he would be persecuted for his faith when he got to Jerusalem. How do we deal with persecution and prophecy in the year 2020? How does God speak today? How do we handle when God’s will is not comfortable, pleasant, safe, or make sense? The text for us prompts some of those questions.  


We are in Acts 21, continuing our series, reading the first 15 verses. The words will be projected. We will be using the English Standard Version of the Bible. I have asked M.H. to read. Would you stand now, if you can, in honor of God’s Word? 

Acts 21:1-15

And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed 6 and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. 8 On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul's belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”15 After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem


Thank you. Let’s pray. Dear God. I am desperate for you. As John 15 says, I can do no good thing apart from you. Only by your power can I understand truth. In the same way, only by your strength and Spirit can we know you. Open our eyes to behold who you are, what you have done, and how we can love and glorify you today through the comprehension and application of your Word in our lives. AMEN. You may be seated. 


Let’s back up. What is the big idea of Acts? Remember? It is Acts 1:8, “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.” Jesus said this, predicting the apostles and disciples would share the good news of God’s love to the ends of the earth by the power of the Spirit. It is in this context that we see Paul traveling from modern-day Turkey to Lebanon then to Jerusalem. Why was he heading back to where it all began? He was taking a benevolent gift to help the poor, strengthening churches, giving a mission report, and sharing the good news about Jesus. With that as a backdrop, we hear the Holy Spirit inspire God’s people, and they tell Paul don’t go to Jerusalem. Look at verse 4 and see if for yourself. 
4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 
So what do you do when you hear the Spirit? You listen. That brings me to my first point. 


We Must Listen to the Spirit

I have four points this morning. This is the first; we must listen to the Spirit. What did Paul do? I think he listened. Look at the next verse. Luke says,  
5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, 
In verse 4, the church said to Paul through the Spirit, don’t go. Luke says in the very next verse, Paul “departed.” They heard this appeal through the Spirit and left. Was Paul listening to the Spirit? I still think he was. Track with me, and I will explain. 


Paul left and came to Caesarea. Agabus, the prophet, comes to Paul. When they meet, Agabus takes Paul’s belt, and wraps his own feet and hands and said, 
11 “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”


Side note- let’s not say, “Thus says the Holy Spirit” or “Thus says the Lord” unless we are quoting scripture. Agabus could say what he wants. I don’t think in our day phrasing a sense, impression, or word from God is like that helpful. 

Agabus predicted, in the name of the Spirit, Paul would be bound by the Jews and delivered over to the Gentiles. This object lesson, like Ahijah’s, was dramatic. However, it wasn’t problematic for Paul. You see, God had prepared Paul for a challenging mission he had ahead. This word from God fit. Paul reported that the Holy Spirit had already told him, 
 imprisonment and afflictions await me [in every city]. imprisonment and afflictions await me [in every city].

Let’s get back to Caesarea. Agabus was not crazy or a false prophet. The Bible never calls his character into question. That is not true about every prophet or leader or supernatural claim in Acts. You may remember Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8. Peter, the Apostle, denounced him for trying to use the power the Spirit for his gain. Agabus is a known prophet, who accurately predicted a famine that would sweep the land in chapter 11. He was a person to listen to. 

Now, how would you respond if someone were to show up at your door, ask you for your belt, wrap it around their feet, and say you are going to trip the next time you walk out to the car? I think the natural inclination would be to be suspicious and cautions. You might delay or even have someone else go to the vehicle if you heard this prophecy. How did they respond to Agabus’ prophecy? Agabus doesn’t give any direction after his prediction. He just states what he believes the Spirit was telling him. However, those hearing him took his warning as a prohibition. Look at verse 12.  
12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.
Who are the “we”? Luke was there for sure. What do we know about Luke? He wrote more of the Bible than Paul. I think we can trust Luke. Who else was there? Philip the Evangelist was there, we met him and his four daughters just before Agabus comes to town. What do we know about Philip? Luke described him in chapter 6 as full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit led him to bring the gospel to Africa in chapter 8. What do we know of his daughters? They are prophets. They all could have been part of this chorus of “we” in verse 12. 

How then does Paul react to this groundswell of counsel to not go forward to Jerusalem? I will get to that. 

Let’s first ask, “How does Paul understand prophecy?” Paul believed that God could speak and does. Not long before this, he wrote to the church in Corinth. 
1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. 
Paul taught prophecy existed to build up, encourage, and console the church. How then does Paul react to the overwhelming sense that the Spirit was urging him not to go? 

Jump to verse 13, 
13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Paul cared about his friends. His heart was breaking. He did not deny the idea that he would be arrested and bound. However, that was not going to stop him from going. He understood their concerns. He knew the risks. So, was Paul being foolish, arrogant, stubborn, sinning, or grieving the Holy Spirit? I don’t think so. Instead, I think he was submitting himself to the Spirit in both cases and denying that the Spirit was telling him not to go. Why do I say that? I say that because we know from the rest of Acts, God had revealed a clear specific call on his life that contradicts what people were saying God was speaking to him. 

Paul had a more apparent, more personal revelation from God. If you have read Acts 19, we heard the Spirit was moving Paul to Jerusalem. Luke wrote, 
Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.
Paul resolved in the Spirit that he should go to Macedonia, then Greece, back down to Jerusalem, then to Rome. Was that the Spirit? Was he listening? Or was it spiritualized language to do what he wanted? I think it was the Spirit. Why? In chapter 20, Paul shared his sense again before these prophetic encounters. He said,  
22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 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.
Who constrained Paul? The Spirit did. Therefore, Paul was not the origin of his calling; God was. God was compelling him to move forward regardless of risk. How then could the Spirit be saying to the others for Paul not to go? That is a great question. I don’t think they got the messages right. We know that God is perfect and does not lie. I think the problem was with the messengers confusing the message. He would be persecuted, but he must move forward. This brings me to my second and third points. Let me flesh one out at a time.   


My first point again is, 

Listen to the Spirit

God speaks today. My second point is like it, 

Listen to the Word

Not only should we listen to the Spirit, but we must also listen to the Word. Paul had a direct revelation from God that contrasted the word the church in Tyre gave him. How did he know what to believe? Paul gave guidance to the Corinthian church hearing prophecy during their services this, 
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (1 Cor. 14:29)

What did Paul mean? How do we weigh what is said? In a letter to the Thessalonians, Paul gave similar instructions, 
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thess. 5:19-21)
Test everything. Hold fast to what is good. Weigh what is said. How? How do we test, hold fast, and weigh? I think Paul wanted people to go back to their Bibles. Personal words can be very subjective. Some of you I know have heard powerfully to God about things you didn’t know that had happened or would happen. Others of you have been burned by people claiming to have a word from God. Regardless of your understanding of modern prophecy, we can agree God has ceased to write scripture. His word is sufficient and explicit, and the cannon of the Bible is complete. We must listen to the Word of God. Friends, that is what the Bereans did when Paul was teaching them in Acts chapter 17. They weighed it and tested it with the rest of scripture. 

Why do they go to the scriptures and not some other book? Because the Bible is categorically different, God inspired it. It is without error and clear. You can understand it without a Ph.D. Jesus himself described the nature of the Bible in prayer to God for His people this way.
17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
God’s word is the truth. Hebrews 4:12 states, 

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

So, when it comes to discerning the Spirit or God’s will, we must go back to the Bible. We must listen to the Spirit, and we listen to the Word of God. God’s direction in cases of morality is crystal clear. We may not like it, but the lines fall clearly. 

Paul echoes this clarity in his letter to the church in Rome, 
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
Friends, you can know what the Holy Spirit is saying to you today by merely reading, studying, memorizing His Word, the Bible. 

However, what about issues of preference, wisdom, or amoral decisions like going to Jerusalem? That brings me to my third point, which coincides with Paul’s ability to know how to obey the Spirit and Word. Listen to Conscience. 
If we were to take these points and make them into questions, I come up with three. 
  1. the first question we can ask is, “What is the Spirit saying?” 
  2. The second question we can ask is, “What does the Bible say?” 
  3. The third question we can ask is, “What is my conscience saying to me?” We must listen to conscience. 
This week we remember the reformation. One story we recall is Martin Luther on trial at the Diet of Worms. He is asked to recant or reject his writings. He responds according to legend, 
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen

Paul is right there with Luther. His conscience won’t let him change his direction or stop. He must go to Jerusalem. Listening to conscience is something Paul discusses to the church in Rome. He lays out a framework for discernment in chapter Romans writing; whatever does not proceed from faith is a sin.

Do I have faith that I can move forward without sinning? Do I have peace about moving forward? Do I trust God is leading me in this direction? Do I sense freedom? Our sense is not perfect, but it can lead us to pause, wait, and consider. In Paul’s case, he heard specific words from God to him about his future that prepared him to move forward in peace regardless of the cost personally or popularity. 

How did the church react? Look at verse 13?
And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” 
I love that. They were seeking to speak God’s will for Paul’s life. He disagreed. The church and Paul both were trusting God. They may not have agreed on how following God looked strategically, but verse 13 tells me both believed in God. “Let the will of the Lord be done.” God is in charge and will do what He pleases. 

What Paul did in Jerusalem instructs us further. When he arrived, he gave a missionary report (verse 21). Then the leaders of the church warned him that rumors surely would fly as people found that he was in town. They asked Paul to take several precautions. They had four men ready to take a vow of purification as well as a letter they sent to Antioch about how Gentiles were to respect Jewish law. They wanted Paul to pay for the purification rite of these four, take the letter with him, and join them as they went to the Temple for purification. This purification rite was a seven-day cleansing. Why? Why do that? Paul was coming from the barbarian cultures around, and some Jewish people thought to enter the Temple of Jerusalem.

A person needed to be cleansed. The Gentiles were unclean people, and the Temple was holy. Did Paul need to do that? No. The Bible says that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). That was true for Paul, that was true for the four, that is true for you, and that is true for me. No sacrifice, promise, or act other than Jesus dying on the cross can purify us, brothers, and sisters. God had torn the curtain in the Temple the day Jesus died, symbolizing the barrier that once separated God and Man is gone. Jesus gave us access to God through the death of His Son on our behalf. That is what we celebrate in our communion tradition. Paul knew that and taught that. However, he jumped through these hoops, bringing me to my last point. We must listen to godly counsel.  

  1. Listen to the Spirit 
  2. Listen to the Word
  3. Listen to Conscience
  4. Listen to Godly Counsel 

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing or following, but in Paul’s case, he did. I think 1 Corinthians 9:20 explains Paul’s motivation. It wasn’t for self-preservation or to make people happy. Paul wrote,  
20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.
Paul was not afraid of following the advice to bring people to Jesus, Paul listened to counsel, and we should listen too. Paul commanded believers to be, 
submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
Paul submitted himself to the elders of the church and took his own advice. We honor Christ in deferring to one another. Paul submitted himself to the church leadership when it didn’t violate his prior understanding of God’s will. 

The interesting thing about this counsel is that it didn’t turn out the way they expected. Following God meant trials and persecutions would continue. 

Paul went to the Temple. After seven days, things go sideways. Paul was used to that. He listed in a letter around this time his sufferings to express how much he was willing to give up to share this great good news that God forgives sins because of what Jesus did. He said he suffered 
far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. ...32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. (2 Cor. 11:23-33)

Paul’s life of faith was hard. That all happened before Acts 21. Acts 21 concluded with Paul slandered, kicked out of the Temple for good, beaten, nearly killed, handcuffed, and arrested by the Gentiles! Agabus was mostly right. 

How do we deal with the confusion of hearing from God in a broken world with so much noise? How do we listen? How do we follow the Spirit, especially if he takes us on a road of suffering? Paul didn’t assume he knew the future, but he was okay with what God would give. He said, 
7 ...we walk by faith, not by sight.

That sounds so trite. How do we do that? How do we have faith in difficult times? Some of you have walked through what feels like hell. How do we move forward? Why would anyone endure what Paul endured? We must remember what we are witnesses of and the power of the Spirit. God, who speaks today, gave us the ability to do what we cannot do, anchored in the communication of the reality that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, came in love to give his life for the forgiveness of sins and make us right with God forever. This is true. God has spoken to us in the Word. We know for a fact, Jesus conquered the grave and rose victorious 2000 years ago. We know that for a fact. He accomplished what we could not. This was and is a message worth dying for. This is the most important reality that we can comprehend and enjoy. God, who made all this loves you that much. For some who have never understood this, believe, and be forgiven. For others who struggle with perseverance, rest on the work, character, and promises of God. Listen to the Spirit and the Word. 

How? How do we listen and obey? We must see with new eyes. 

I don’t wear glasses, but some of our kids this year started wearing glasses so they can read better. If we want to see further, we have these (hold) binoculars. These bring what is far closer. I asked SM to bring his telescope. He has this amazing telescope that brings those things hundreds of thousands of miles away close. We have the ability through Spirit, God’s Word, and God’s people to know the mind of God in ways like telescope bring the gargantuan into focus. We can’t see it all. We see truth and God dimly. But God is good and can help us in hard times as well as good times. 

In John 16:33 Jesus gave his small band followers a final sermon. He looks into their future and says, In this world, you will have trouble. But Jesus didn’t end there. He looks forward beyond their trials and difficulties to give this hope, but take heart. He said I have overcome the world. 

The book of Acts propels the story of the spread of the gospel by the power of the Spirit in God’s people. In this story, we hear our own. We must trust God. He will do what He will do as he calls us all to be witnesses in a fallen and broken world. 


Let’s pray. Dear God, we need you, oh, we need you. We desperately need you. Our brothers and sisters around the world need you. As we cling to you ... “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to ...[you] and not to us. [some of us know more than others]8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. [some of the brothers and sisters around the world ]11 ... are ….being given over to death [right now] for [your] sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in …[their] mortal flesh.” God as we face our mortality, pain, ...suffering, [and persecution.] Thank you for giving us a vision of heaven that destroys death and banishes sorrow and offers us life forever with you the only good and wise and loving and merciful and gracious and kind God. AMEN

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