By Charles Price
Acts 20:22-25; 21:7-15
Now if you have your Bible with you, I am going to read from Acts Chapter 20.
(Please forgive the frog in my throat this morning - hopefully it will not jump out and I lose my voice altogether. I have to speak at a mini-mission fest in Hamilton tonight. So I value your prayers for the physical ability to do that.)
But Acts Chapter 20, and I am going to read first of all from Verse 22. The setting is that Paul is on his return leg to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey. And he calls in the port city of Miletus; that's where his boat docks. And he invites the leaders of the church in Ephesus, which he founded earlier, to come down and meet with him.
And he says some very straight things to them. But in Verse 22 where we come in midway through his speech to them, he says,
"And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.
"I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.
"However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace."
And then go to Chapter 21 and Verse 4. Paul then left Miletus. He moved on, docked at Cos and then at Rhodes and then at Patara, where he changed boats. Then he sailed past Cyprus, landed in Syria and went up to the city of Tyre. And here he is in Tyre and in Verse 4 of Chapter 21 it says,
"Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem."
You notice the contrast there. Earlier, "compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem." Now, "Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem."
Then down to Chapter 21 Verse 10 where he goes down the coast from Tyre to Caesarea, which is on the central Judean coast.
And in Verse 10:
"After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.
"Coming over to us, he took Paul's belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, 'The Holy Spirit says, 'In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.'
"When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.
"Then Paul answered, 'Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.'
"When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, "The Lord's will be done.'"
Now keep your Bible open at that passage.
We have been talking for a number of weeks about living in the will of God. I took a few weeks to look at the big picture with you as to what the will of God includes. And then the last couple of weeks we have been talking about the issues of personal guidance.
And what we have talked about I want to phrase as questions.
First question: what is my vision from God? And you may remember we based that on Paul's statement to King Agrippa in Acts 26 when he gave his story of meeting Jesus on the Damascus Road, how his life was changed; he was given insight into what his life would consist of. And he says to King Agrippa, "I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven."
We talked about having a vision from heaven. We looked at other folks in the Bible who similarly had a sense of direction given to them by God.
Last week we asked the question, what do the Scriptures say? We looked at David's statements in Psalm 119, "Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." He also wrote, "Direct my footsteps according to Your Word."
And we will never find the will of God outside of our regular reading of the Word of God because the Word of God is the primary means by which we understand the will of God.
And we live within the general will of God revealed in His Word if we are going to experience the specific will of God that He has for us personally and individually.
Now today I want to ask you another question: what do my circumstances say?
In other words, in discerning the will of God, what role do my circumstances have in helping to clarify and determine what it is that God's will and purpose for my life is?
And I have chosen to read this rather extraordinary story here in Acts Chapter 20 and Chapter 21 where Paul is on his way home from his third missionary journey. He calls into Miletus; he meets the Ephesian elders there and he tells them unambiguously, "Compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem."
This is not a whim or a fancy of his own. "This comes from the Spirit, it is compelling, I understand it, I know it, and I am going to Jerusalem for one reason: the Spirit of God is compelling me to do so."
Well that is in Chapter 20; that's all well and good. But coming into Chapter 21, he arrives at Tyre a little while later and there,
"Finding the disciples, we stayed with them seven days and through the Spirit, they urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem."
This also is not a whim of the believers in Tyre. This was not some protective instinct that is being drawn out where they say, "Paul, don't go to Jerusalem because you are going to face hardships there." It says specifically, "Through the Spirit, they urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem."
Now here is the dilemma: "Compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem."
"Through the Spirit they urge him not to go to Jerusalem." Paul is undeterred by that. He ignores the warning. He goes down the coast to Caesarea and it's in Caesarea that this prophet Agabus, who is a prophet who occurs earlier in the Book of Acts as well, comes to Paul in Caesarea. Taking Paul's belt, he tied his hands with it and his feet with it and said,
"The Holy Spirit says, 'In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.'"
And then Luke adds this little comment. (Luke writes the Book of Acts.) He says,
"When we heard this, we..."
(That is, the team travelling with Paul - that included Luke)
"...we and the people there..."
(That is, the Christian believers in Caesarea)
"...pleaded with Paul not to go to Jerusalem."
In other words, his whole team of friends and folks in Caesarea unite unanimously, "Paul, do not go to Jerusalem. You are going to get into trouble when you get there. You are going to be bound and imprisoned."
And Paul said, "I am not interested in your opposition to this. I am ready to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." And so he insisted on going and they came to an agreement they had together, and the agreement was simply this: the Lord's will be done.
"But Paul, you are stubborn. You think this is the will of God. We are protective of you. We discern that is the will of God. But whatever happens we are going to entrust you to the will of God."
Now here is a very interesting dilemma when it comes to guidance and knowing the will of God. And Paul went up to Jerusalem and he ran slap into trouble. He was arrested. The details we won't talk about all began with Christian believers in Jerusalem falsely circulating rumours about Paul.
He was detained in Jerusalem initially. Then he was taken down to Caesarea, which was the Roman capital of Judea. He was kept in prison for two years and at the end of two years he appealed to Caesar in Rome. Because he was a Roman citizen, he had the right to appeal to the highest court, which was Caesar himself.
He was shipped to Rome. He had to change boats several times. The boat sank once. He ended up spending the whole winter in Malta. So round figures - the best part of a year getting to Rome.
When he got to Rome, Caesar wasn't interested in talking to him. And the Book of Acts finishes very anticlimactically with Paul, the great hero of so many of the chapters, spending two years in prison in Rome. And it closes without any indication of what happened to him after that. Five years in round figures - two years in Caesarea, two years in Rome, best part of a year on the way to Rome. Five years of seeming wasted life.
He had a driving vision ("compelled by the Spirit I am going to Jerusalem"). To Paul it was consistent with the Word of God to take the gospel into the world as he had been told to do.
Then in Tyre, through the Spirit, equally godly men persuaded him not to go to Jerusalem. He does not receive their unanimous advice. He goes down to Caesarea. They equally unanimously tell him he should not go, but he does; runs into trouble.
There are some interesting dynamics here. And as you and I seek to discern the will of God, reading our circumstances can be one of the most difficult things in the world to do.
And I want to tell you honestly, and I will point this out at the end, that when I began preparing this message a few days ago, my expectation of where this message would go is actually almost the reverse of where it had to go as I studied what the Scripture says about this. And I'll show you why.
You see we need to learn to read our circumstances wisely. In Proverbs Chapter 3 Verse 5 and 6 it says this:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths."
The assumption there is this: that as you acknowledge Him in all your ways and God directs your paths, and you trust Him will all your heart, you are going to discover you are going to fly in the face again and again of your own understanding, your own human wisdom.
You see if people leaned on their own understanding, much of our Bible would have to be emptied of some of its key stories. Noah would never have built an ark if he leaned on his own understanding. Abraham would never have left Ur of the Chaldeans not knowing where he was going, not knowing why he was going, not knowing what he was going to do when he got there. He would never have left had he leant on his own understanding.
Moses would not have led Israel out of Egypt if he leant on his own understanding. He said to God, "Who am I that I should lead the people of Israel out of Egypt?" If he leant on his own understanding he would have never gone.
David would never have gone to fact Goliath if he leant on his own understanding. Everyone from the king down advised him he was being foolish.
Paul would have stayed in Tyre and not gone south if he had leaned on his own understanding.
You know sometimes - and I want to show you this morning - that as God leads us again and again, He doesn't lead us around obstacles; He leads us to obstacles. And in those obstacles we are tested; we are strengthened; we are tried. And I want to use Paul as an example of that.
We can be motivated by vision, we can live consistent with the Word of God and yet our circumstances fly in the face of that vision.
And then when that happens we have got some hard deciding to do - what am I going to do?
Ian Thomas said to me many years ago when I was a young man, something which I found tremendously helpful; he said, "Never ask as your first question about anything, 'Is it possible?' Ask as your first question, 'Is it right?'"
He said to me, "A thing doesn't have to be possible; it just has to be right."
Possible things are not always right; right things don't always seem possible. But if we live in the realm of the possible, we live in the realm everybody on the street lives. But the Christian is called to live in the realm of what is right. And sometimes what is right defies natural understanding.
Of course there are some ways in which we look at our circumstances and there is an obvious message to us. For instance if I suddenly had this fantastic desire to be an opera singer, there's nothing unbiblical about singing like that, so I am okay; that's my vision, the Bible's okay. But all I have to do to discover that that is not God's calling in my life is to stand up and sing, and I won't demonstrate what would happen if I did. Obviously there are some circumstances which say no, you yourself are not the right person for this because these are not your gifts, your abilities, your temperament, whatever is needed.
But what do you do when you have a vision that is compelling, you believe it is from God, you have consciously and conscientiously spent time in the Word of God, and the Spirit of God has confirmed this to you, and yet it flies in the face of reason and logic and even of possibility?
Well in that spirit of obedience to God and dependence on God - I am not talking about our own agendas now; I am talking about agendas that come from God - obedience to God and dependence on God. I want to suggest three key responses that I trust might be helpful to you and that we can learn from this story and other stories in the Bible.
First of all, I would say, be waiting; don't be in a hurry. Be watching - keep your eyes open. And be willing - let it go any way that it goes. Be waiting, be watching, be willing.
First of all, be waiting. You know sometimes we have a sense of direction from God and we don't know for sure. Then we wait. You know when Saul of Tarsus was converted on Damascus Road he was given this vision which he said to King Agrippa, he had not disobeyed, that he would preach to the Gentiles. It says that straightaway he began to speak in Damascus, so he began to act straightaway.
But then he went back home to Tarsus. Tarsus is up in today's Turkey; that's where he came from. And it's hard to reconstruct exactly how long he was there. He went down for about three years into Arabia first, by the way, spent time in the desert.
Then he went back up to Tarsus and he got a job as a tent maker. His training was as a Pharisee. He had trained in Jewish theology. Now he left that behind. He began to become a tent maker.
And it was at least 12 years later - it's difficult to be sure of the timing - but at least 12 years later Barnabas, who had met him when he was a new Christian and who liked him, was in Antioch leading the church there. He said, "I need somebody to help me. I will go to Tarsus and see if I can find Saul", which he did and brought him back to Antioch. And Saul worked with him for a year in Antioch.
Now he had to wait for 12 years and all he did was go back home and make tents, waiting. He knew what God had told him about the big picture ("you are going to preach to Gentiles, you are going to be imprisoned, you are going to face kings and governors") but he waited.
There is a great story in Jeremiah 32. Read it sometime later; I'll just tell you what it is. But it is a great story for this reason: Jeremiah says, "The Word of the Lord came to me saying, 'Your cousin Hanamel will come and ask you to buy a field at Anathoth.'"
Now the significance of that is that Jeremiah is telling everybody that Babylon is going to take us into captivity, part of the judgement of God on us as a nation. They were at this point already heading down towards Jerusalem and Judea. And everybody is now fearful of what may happen.
And the point is, "Your cousin is going to offer to sell you a field at Anathoth. Buy it." Of course you don't buy something that is going to become occupied territory a few weeks later because then it will be worthless. "Buy it; keep the deeds, and one day you will come back and own it. And you are sending a message out to the people that there is a future beyond the captivity in Babylon."
So Jeremiah said, "Okay." And then it says a little later in that chapter in Verse 8,
"Just as the LORD had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard and said, 'Buy my field at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. Since it is your right to redeem it and possess it, buy it for yourself.'"
In other words, the cousin came and said exactly what God had told Jeremiah he would say. And then it says intriguingly, Jeremiah says
"Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD."
Now the New International Version is the only translation as far as I can see that doesn't put the word 'then'. But every other translation rightly says, "Then I knew this was the word of the Lord."
So what did Jeremiah mean earlier when he said, "The word of the Lord came to me saying, 'your cousin Hanamel will come and ask you to buy a field at Anathoth?"
What he is saying is there is some instinct, there is some sense, there is some impression that is put onto him that this is what is going to happen. "And when it came to pass, then I knew this had been from God."
And sometimes there is a sense of direction, there is sometimes a pull and you are not 100% sure this is certain to be true in my life and then in the course of time, the circumstances fall into place and you say, "Aha, now I know that this was a word from God."
And there are many times when God speaks and you have to wait.
Abraham was told by God, "You are going to have a son. From this son will come a nation. This nation is going to be a source of blessing the world."
And he waited 25 years before that son was born. God told him this - he was already an older man - had to wait 25 years. In the meantime he did blow it because he couldn't wait any longer and he produced a son through the maid Hagar.
Moses, at the age of 40 we are told, knew that God would use him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. But nothing happened for another 40 years.
And sometimes there is a long wait. Paul waited at least 12 years before he began to take the gospel to the Gentile world as he had been told to do. And there is a saying some of you have heard before: "God's delays are not God's denials."
But allow God to delay because God is never in a hurry. We are in a hurry of course. We live in this urgent, instant age - everything is instant in our day. We want to get it all done now if not yesterday.
But actually God does not operate that way and sometimes we have to wait, and we wait until things begin to fall into place.
There is a verse I have quoted to you a number of times in Isaiah 5:19 where God speaks about "woe to those", and there is a whole list of "woes". And this one says,
"Woe to those who say, 'Let God hurry, let him hasten his work so we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come, so we may know it.'"
That's Isaiah 5:19. "Woe to those who say, 'Let God hurry. We want to see it."
No, God is never in a hurry. And I know in my own life there have been times when I have sensed that God has whispered something into my heart or a sense that has come to me clearly that something was right, and then nothing happens.
I remember for one thing, it was three years between the time God whispered something in my heart that I sensed was from God until it came to pass.
Another occasion, something that I felt and believed, I waited 11 years until some circumstances began to happen that made this come to fruition.
On another occasion, one that lasted 14 years from the time that God put something into my heart and you waited and waited and waited and there was nothing. That's okay. Just forget about it; get on with life. But 14 years later this thing came to pass and I knew it was right because of what had happened 14 years before.
And many of you will have experiences like that. I know God leads us differently but you will learn to recognize the pattern of God's leading in your own life. So when God leads you, wait. When you sense something and He speaks to you, wait.
Other times of course, you obey. In this case, when Paul is on his journey and they say - through the Spirit they tell him not to go to Jerusalem - well he can't just sit in Tyre and do nothing; he is already on the journey, so there is no time to wait; just keep going and you trust God for the consequences. He didn't have 14 years to hang around waiting to see. He needed to just keep going.
And sometimes of course you are already in a situation and you keep going within that.
But here's the first key word: be waiting; don't be in a hurry; give God time.
Second key word: be watching. Don't wait with your eyes shut. Keep your eyes open to see what is going on.
You see Paul had a clear plan as to what he would do after he got back to Jerusalem. On his journey back to Jerusalem he wrote his letter to the Romans, which is part of our New Testament. And amongst other things, he said to them that,
"There is now no more place for me to work in these regions..."
(This is in Romans 15:23 onwards.)
"...and since I have been longing for many years to see you,"
(That is, the Christians in Rome)
"...I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there."
"So here's my agenda," says Paul, " I am going to Jerusalem; I am going to be in service to the believers there. Then I am going to Spain; that is my next sphere of operation. I have been looking at a map. Halfway between here and Spain is Rome. I am going to call in, visit you; I have never been to Rome. I am going to spend some time with you and then I will move on to Spain."
That was his plan, but as far as we know he never got to Spain. Maybe later after the New Testament or the Acts closes he might have done it. But he got to Jerusalem and he is arrested, he is thrown into prison, he spends five years, and the story goes off the rails as far as Paul is concerned.
Not only that, but while he was imprisoned, I am sure that many of the Christians said, "We knew this would happen. We told him. He's so stubborn, you know, serves you right, Paul."
And when he wrote to the Philippians he said to them actually, "Most of the believers have stopped talking to me and communicating with me except you folks in Philippi. Most of them around the Mediterranean world said, "You know Paul, the fool, he went to Jerusalem; he was warned not to; he got arrested; he is in prison; forget about him."
But while he was in prison, of course, he wrote four letters - the letter to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians and the letter to Philemon. And it is interesting when you read those letters to pick out the references he makes to his prison experience.
And in Philippians Chapter 1 and Verse 12 he says,
"I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel."
Well, that isn't what they were expecting. They thought what happened to him has actually stopped the advance of the gospel through Paul because he has not fulfilled what he expected to do. So,
"...what has happened ...has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, is has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ."
He said, "You know, the amazing thing is I have been locked up in this prison in Rome for two years and chained," he says. And as a result, the whole palace guard has heard the gospel. You know, they probably chained him to a couple of soldiers, maybe on eight-hour shifts I don't know.
Now I can imagine when they chained him up, Paul would say, "Hi, what's your name? Have you ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth? You haven't? Haven't even heard of Nazareth? Okay. Hold on. Hey, what's your name? Mine's Paul. What's your name? Have you ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth? You haven't? How long are you guys chained to me? Eight hours? That's great! I have got a fantastic story. Just come as close as you can - I'll tell you."
At the end of eight hours they are unhooked. Next shift comes on. "Hi, what's your name? Have you ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth? You haven't? Hold on. What about you? Have you ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth? Well look, I've been talking for eight hours; I will sleep for the next four. Wake me up after four hours. I've got a fantastic story. You won't want to miss it. Four hours will be enough. Wake me up in four hours' time."
And these folks would go home and sit around the dinner table and the wife and the kids would say, "Well, how was your day in the prison today?"
"Well it was fantastic. I was chained to an interesting guy called Paul, Saul of Tarsus and he told me a fantastic story."
And the kids say, "What's the story Dad?"
"Well it's a story about a man who was born in a stable - can you believe it? But He became an incredible miracle worker in Judea."
"Wow, what did He do?"
"Well He turned water into wine. That's nothing though, I mean, He fed 5,000 people - five loaves, two fish. That's nothing! He healed people who had been sick all their lives! That's nothing. He raised the dead!"
The kids would say, "Wow, that's fantastic! What happened to Him?"
"Huh, that's the sad bit. They crucified Him."
"Yah, but that's not the end of the story. Three days later He was raised again from the dead. And you know what Paul told me? He's alive right now."
And the kids would say, "Wow, well how can we know more about this?"
And so Paul writes to the Philippians and says, "Hey, don't worry about me. Yah, I know my whole itinerary got thrown out of the window. I am not going to Spain. I am in Rome, but not meeting with the Christians like I thought. I am in prison."
Now he was for some of the time, under house arrest in Rome, where he did receive local people. But when he wrote this he was in prison. And he says, "But the whole palace guard know about the gospel."
Not only that, at the end of Philippians in Chapter 4:22 he says,
"All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar's household."
Caesar's household? Yah. How come there is a church in Caesar's household? Because Paul is in Caesar's prison, that's why. And Paul has been leading these people to Christ. And of all places in the world, in the hottest seat of authority anywhere in the world, Caesar's household in Rome, Paul says there's a church and they send you greetings.
You see Paul had a clear plan (I am going to go to Jerusalem. From there I am going to visit you in Rome. I am going to go on to Spain.)
But let me say this - and I want you to understand it with wisdom - just understand this wisely: never be committed to the plan; only be committed to God.
I could tell you stories from the Bible of people who committed themselves to the will of God but they detached it from God Himself. Abraham is one. God's will for him was he would have a son. After ten years there was no son and so he committed himself to the will of God, had a son through the maid Hagar who was fertile (his wife Sarah had not been).
And why did Abraham produce Ishmael? Was that out of rebellion? No. Abraham produced Ishmael out of a sincere attempt to do the will of God.
Don't commit yourself to the will of God; commit yourself to God and you see His will as the direction. But it's a compass, not a map. Move in this direction and as you do so, let God alter it, do what He wants to do, because what He is doing is probably quite different to what you expected He might do.
And again and again the plans go off track, but be waiting and be watching. Don't waste your time in prison getting bitter about the fact that you were imprisoned in the first place. Don't waste your time in prison becoming embittered by the fact that it was Christians in Jerusalem who started the rumours that led to Paul's arrest (that he was anti- Moses, which he wasn't).
You know sometimes things go wrong and we get hurt by the fact that things go wrong and we either respond humbly before God and say, "God, this was not in my schedule, it's not what I wanted, it's not what I planned, but I thank You. Nothing takes You by surprise. I trust You in this."
Or you can become angry, you can become bitter, and I know Christian people for whom in their hearts has come this bitter root because, when plans changed, when things went wrong, when the unexpected happened, instead of responding to it graciously and understanding God in His wonderful wisdom and sovereignty is working out some other purpose here, they respond with anger because of the frustration of it, because of the pain of it, and they become bitter. And I have seen it happen again and again. And it's a hard root, this root of bitterness, to deal with.
So be waiting - it's God's agenda. And God could entrust Paul with this because Paul was able to say, by the way, earlier in Chapter 20, he said in Verse 24,
"I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race."
In other words, says Paul, "My life means nothing to me. So if my life means nothing to me, it doesn't matter if I live or die, it doesn't matter if I am free or in prison. The only problem comes when your life does matter to you. And it's a liberating point to come to, to say, "Lord, I want no agenda but Yours in my life. And if I die this week, I did this week with a smile on my face. I am happy to die this week because that is under Your purposes okay.
If I am not where I wanted to be next week that's okay. If the role I play I play no longer, that's okay, because my security, my meaning, my purpose is not wrapped up in what I do, not wrapped up in where I am; it's wrapped up only in the purposes of God.
So my life means nothing to me. That's why it was no big issue when they said, "Paul, don't go to Jerusalem; you're going to get into trouble." No big issue to say, "No, no, we'll go because my life is worth nothing to me."
And later in Chapter 21 he says in Verse 13,
"Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus."
"Hey, don't worry about me being bound up in Jerusalem (which is what Agabus had told him). I am happy to die in Jerusalem if it's for the name of the Lord Jesus, for His purposes, for His plans."
You know it's a liberating, liberating way to live. And it's not pie in the sky. This is real Christian living.
So be waiting, be watching - keep your eyes open. Thirdly, be willing.
Be willing to allow God to put you in His place, at His time, however different that may be. It seems to me in Chapter 21 that when the believers in Tyre, through the Spirit, urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem, it seems to me the Spirit seems to be giving Paul an option.
Now you may have a different view of this, and that's okay. But trying to weigh up the various possible explanations for being compelled by the Spirit on the one hand and through the Spirit being told not to go to Jerusalem on the other hand, it seems that the Spirit of God is saying, "Yes, I want you to go to Jerusalem but Paul, I will never frog march you there. I am giving you an option, a way out."
You see the Holy Spirit is not schizophrenic; He's giving him an option. And that's when Paul's response is, "I am ready to die in Jerusalem - that is not the issue - for the name of our Lord Jesus."
You know it's very interesting when God leads us - and thinking this week in preparing this message, thinking back over the main areas of my own life where God has led me, that at the time of making the decision there was always a very good reason to do something else or to not make that decision.
When I was 18 and I left school - and I have referred to this many times in one way or another - I went to live in Africa for a couple of years to work there. And I did believe it was the right thing to do.
But as we got close to the time of going, I began to think, no, this is not the best thing to do. Along with a friend, we had started a youth club for young people in our village in England and some of them were coming to Christ. And we had other people helping us but I didn't want to leave them, I didn't want to leave the excitement of what was going on.
And I remember thinking if I go out to Africa, I might end up sitting in a wilderness, in a spiritual desert, and here some things are happening. And to some extent, I thought in my naivety (because I was one of the two guys who started this), "they need me here."
I remember facing, you know, maybe I should stay. And I think God always gives you a good alternative. But I sensed no; it was right to go.
Even when I proposed to Hilary, I proposed to her on a Friday night, and I won't tell you the circumstances why I said, "give me your answer on Monday." But I had three days then to stew and I began to think by Monday, "I hope she will say no." Because I could think of all the alternative possibilities if I don't marry Hilary - not other women - there was no other woman I wanted to marry. But I began to think if I marry Hilary, this is going to be the implications of it.
And so I began to think maybe it'll be better if she says no. And I remember when I did ask her and she said - I said, "I asked you a question the other day. Do you have an answer?" (I didn't say it as cold as that.)
She said, "My answer is yes."
And I said, "Oh no." (Which wasn't the most romantic way but at least she knew where I stood.)
I remember when we were to come here to Toronto. We sensed for a lot of reasons, this was the right thing to do. And yet when the time came, there were some compelling reasons why it might be wiser to stay in England. And we looked at those.
And then I realized this is a pattern that when God leads you, He always gives you a time of testing.
You know when Jesus called Peter and Andrew - they were two brothers; James and John - they were two brothers; the four of them worked together in a fishing business. And when Jesus had met with them several times, talked to them, even invited them several times to be His disciples. But Luke Chapter 5 it says He came by the Lake of Galilee and they were out there fishing. And He shouted to them, "Have you caught many fish?"
And they said, "No, there is nothing here tonight. It's been a bad night."
He said, "Cast your net over the other side."
And they did so, and when they did so, they caught so many fish they had difficulty putting their nets up into the boat. And when they eventually got it into the boat, the boat began to sink because there were so many fish. And they brought the boat ashore. It was the biggest catch of their lives.
And Jesus said, "Leave your boat and your fish and follow Me."
And they might have said, "But Jesus, hang on, you know, this is the biggest catch we've had. Let's at least spend the day at the market. We can live for the next month off the money on this boat. We'll see You at 6 o'clock tonight. Will that be good enough?"
No, He said, "Leave your boat, leave your fish and come follow Me."
And it was Jesus who gave them the big - why did He tease them like that? I mean wouldn't it be easier to say, "Okay, you caught nothing. Hey, well come be My disciples; you are hopeless at fishing anyway."
And they would say, "Oh yah, thanks, that's great. We really want something useful to do."
But He said, "Okay, throw it to the other side. Get the biggest fish of your career, biggest catch of your career (I'm guessing it was - it may not have been, but it was certainly a big catch that it sunk the boat, or it was ready to sink). "Now, with the biggest catch in front of you, follow Me; leave it."
And when God guides us and leads us, again and again you find that He gives us good reasons not to follow; He tests us.
When I began to prepare this, this last week, I thought it would be good to look at how circumstances are agents in guidance, and they are. My expectation was that I would conclude this message by showing you how that God causes good things that encourage us, that reaffirm, keep us on track.
But as I studied the Scriptures to prepare this message, I couldn't find those stories. I found stories where God would guide and bang, they would run into a wall. And God would seem to guide and they would hit something that was totally illogical, or all the advice would be no, don't do it.
I thought, isn't this an interesting pattern? Because again and again, just having all your circumstances fall into place is probably not a very reliable way to discern the will of God because the will of God is so significant and so important that again and again you will pay a price and it will toughen you, it will strengthen you.
That's why in the New Testament, suffering, opposition, persecution is again and again evidence of the will of God.
1 Peter 4:19, I think it is; let me just read it to you. It says,
"Those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good."
Those who are doing the will of God are going to face suffering, hardships. Philippians 1:29:
"It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have."
This is part of being in the will of God. In the will of God it is not that everything falls down in front of you and you can just walk on water all the time. No, being in the will of God means that you face obstacles and difficulties.
And sometimes God whispers something into your heart and it does not seem logical. And as you learn to discern the mind of God and the will of God, follow it through. If it is not right, He will stop it. But if it is right, He will take you through.
Joseph as a young man had a dream (you remember, we talked about him a few weeks ago) and he dreamed two dreams. And the message of those dreams was that his brothers all bowed down to him. He told his brothers; he believed those dreams. His brothers didn't like it. They got rid of him.
And instead of his brothers bowing down to him, they act arrogantly, wanted to kill him. Instead they sold him as a slave, made some money off of him. Went into Egypt, sold on the market - that's humiliating. Bought by Potiphar; his wife tried to seduce him. She made false accusations about him. He was thrown into prison. Everything for Joseph goes wrong.
But 22 years later, you remember, he is prime minister, preparing for the years of famine. And two years into the famine, his brothers came to buy food. They were brought to Joseph not knowing who he was. He didn't know who they were until they walked in and came down to ask him for food. He recognized them; they came down and they bowed down in front of him.
And Joseph knew this: 22 years ago I had this dream. Whatever is happening now is right on target, is exactly the will of God.
But he didn't know for 22 years. If you went to Joseph in prison and said, "Joseph, you know, God spoke to you as a young man and gave you a great vision."
"Yah, that wasn't a vision; that's a nightmare. That's never going to happen. My brothers treated me so badly."
But wait, watch, and just be willing.
I get invitations to speak in different parts of the world and I take some of them but most I am not able to take. One day I received an e-mail from Australia; somebody I had never met. He lived in a town about a two-hour flight from the city of Sydney on the edge of the outback area of Australia. He was a local physician, medical doctor in that particular small town.
He said, "I am writing to you because there are a number of us in this town who are concerned about the spiritual life of this town and the spiritual life of the churches. We would like to organize a weekend - we have a long weekend where Monday is a holiday - we would like to organize an event on Friday night, Saturday, Sunday and Monday where we invite people from different churches to come together and to study the Word of God.
"Would you be willing to come and speak? I have absolutely no idea how many people will come; probably not a lot; there are not a lot of us here in this town." But he said that someone had used some of our DVD'S in a Bible Study, but "we would like you to come if you could."
Well normally, a letter like that, I would say, "Thanks for the invitation but I am sorry I am not able to come." It's too far (I wouldn't say this but the reason is it's too far, it's a bit unpredictable, there are not a lot of people).
But as I read that letter, I thought I am not going to reply. So I stuck it away and waited. And then I got another letter from him saying, "Did you get my first e-mail? Would love a reply."
So I wrote back and I said, "You know, for a strange reason I think I should come. I don't know what the reason is, but I think I should come."
When I arrived there - it's about 3, 4 years ago - when I arrived there he met me off the plane and we went for lunch - he and his wife - we went for lunch. And he said, "You know, we have some difficulties. There has been some opposition to this event."
And he said that "the pastor of the biggest evangelical church heard a couple of weeks ago that you do not believe in the deity of Christ" (which of course is nonsense in case anybody is worried - of course I believe in the deity of Christ).
But he had heard a tape of a message I had given in Spain, of all places, on Philippians 2. And in Philippians 2 it talks about how that Jesus made Himself nothing, though He was co-equal with the Father, made Himself nothing. I talked about what that nothingness meant, how that Jesus said, "I Myself can do nothing." And then He said, "The Father in Me does the work." And that Jesus lived as a real human being in dependence on His Father and I likened that to what real humanity is.
So I was talking about the humanity of Christ, but of course I believe in the deity of Christ. I had stated in that message that Jesus was never less than God, but He lived on earth as though He was never more than a man.
Anyway, they said, "this has caused some controversy, and this man announced the last two Sundays to his people they should not participate in this event, and they would not advertise it." Though of course he was advertising by saying, "Don't come to it." In fact he made it interesting by saying, "Don't come to it." In fact people came because he said, "Don't come to it."
Anyway, the point is the first night there were not many - I can't remember - 50, 60. 70 people. Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, Sunday in a church; Sunday night we had a big crowd - several hundred. Monday we had less.
And from every human point of view you would say, "Well was that really a good investment of time?"
And on the Sunday night a man came to me and he said, "I understand you have a TV program from the Peoples Church."
I said, "Yes, we do."
He said, "I work for a television station and we are looking for good Christian material. Could you send me some samples?"
So I came home. I got the Living Truth folks to send some samples. And within three months we were on television nationwide, as we are twice a week in Australia. They then pass it over to New Zealand and now we are on three times a week all across New Zealand.
The point I am making is simply this: that the invitation was to go and speak to a handful of people in New South Wales. God's agenda was that we could teach the Word of God to thousands of Australians and New Zealanders every week. That's what came out of it.
I didn't know that of course, and I would have been embarrassed if somebody said to me the week before I went to Australia, "What are you going to do there?"
"Well I am going to speak in a little town."
"What kind of meetings are they?"
"Well, a local guy is planning them."
"How many are going to be there?"
"I don't know - 50, 60."
"You are going all the way to Australia for that?"
I would have been just a little bit embarrassed. And I couldn't convince you, yah, this is the will of God. I am never certain something is the will of God. I don't think any of us are certain until we're maybe 90% sure and step out and we look back - or 80%; you look back in retrospect; then you are sure and you step out in faith.
But you see, the will of God is not just everything opens up and falls into place and everything is hunky-dory and it's all nice and all the walls fall down as you get close to them and all the doors swing open. Sometimes you have got to bang on the doors.
I know there is a verse - I've said before - of an open door. That's a great verse; that's not the definitive verse on guidance. Sometimes you have to push.
And if you are looking for direction from God - and if you are a Christian, of course you are, because fundamental to being a Christian is your life is not your own anymore; it's over to Him to lead and guide, use you for His glory.
And if you are looking to God for direction, what is the vision that is in your heart? Are you spending time in the Word of God, which is a light to your feet, a lamp to your path? God guides us through His Word.
What do your circumstances say? And sometimes your circumstances say there are barriers that are humanly impossible. Unless God breaks down this barrier, we are going nowhere. That's a wonderful position to be in, wonderful position to be in, because when God breaks it down, there is that reassurance.
You know Paul told us in Romans 12:2 - and I finish with this - he talks about presenting your bodies a living sacrifice in Verse 1. And then he says in Verse 2,
"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will."
Now when I speak about that verse, I love the "good, pleasing and perfect will", but don't forget: "then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is."
You have to test it. And it will test you. You will be tested in your pursuit of the will of God. Not only is the devil out to outwit you and take you off track - of course he is - but the Lord Himself will give you that fantastic catch of fish at the worst time because now you think, "Oh boy, I should stay and look after the fish" and actually that's when you leave.
Well, we are going to pick this up next week and look at another issue that I think is a factor in God guiding us. You may be in a situation where circumstances are not working well, but deep in your heart you sense, "God is leading me in a certain direction, a certain way."
We walk by faith, not by sight. Sometimes we cannot see. But don't do anything foolish or rash. Wait, watch and be willing and He will guide you. He is committed to guiding you.
Let's pray together. Father, we thank You that as we look into Your Word we find consistency of truth, we find in peoples' live and experiences, although everybody is different and every story if different, there are issues that keep cropping up that teach us the patterns of Your ways and the patterns of Your workings. And I pray, Lord Jesus, for those who may be here this morning and You have tucked something into their heart. It's alive but doesn't look at all possible or even reasonable. If this is from You, Lord Jesus, make that flame in their heart burn more brightly, more strongly in conviction. But give them the patience to wait Your time, whether it is three years, twelve years, twenty-five years, whatever it may be. Thank You in Your own time You will bring to pass and we have the privilege of living in the center of Your will. We pray this in Jesus' Name, Amen.