God Knows What's Next

Acts: The Final Chapter  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  32:28
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God knows what's next.

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If I had a crystal ball and could see into the future and tell you anything from it, what would you like to know? Pop out your phone and tell me on slido just now - I know, a church where you’re meant to look at your phone during the talk! What’s not to like!
What would you like to know from the future?
Who’s going to win the Tory leadership contest? Or the tennis or the golf? Will the stock market go up or down? Or how about something really important: Who’ll win Eurovision next year?
Will you get that grade ... that job ... that house ... that date?
… what would you like to know?.. live interaction
Who here wouldn’t like to know the future - at least something of it?
Now as Christians, we believe in a God who knows the future, a God who sometimes has shared some of that foreknowledge with us through what we call prophecy. And today and we continue to follow the story of the very first churches nearly two thousand years ago, prophecy comes into the foreground.
One of the things I love about our practice of walking through the bible in order bit by bit is that means the bible sets the agenda for what we talk about Sunday by Sunday not the person standing at the front. At least I like the idea of that - but sometimes it makes us talk about things we wouldn’t otherwise choose, things which are complex or difficult or divisive. Prophecy is definitely one of those things I wouldn’t otherwise choose to talk about! And I want you to know up front I’m going to take about 5 more minutes than usual this morning because there’s a lot to cover.
Let’s be frank: it’s a controversial topic - one where we’ll have a range of views as a church - and even if you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, there’s a whole range of views among your peers, too: some folk think this is ridiculous while others study horoscopes or have their fortunes read to try and get a glimpse.
We’re going to look together today at what the bible wants to teach us about prophecy. Paul, a key leader in the early church, is on his way to Jerusalem. So let’s hear the next chapter of our story. We’re in the book of Acts and we’re at chapter 21. So that’s page 1118 in these blue bibles - it’d be great to have you turn there and follow along as we dig in. Acts chapter 21 and page 1118. And Alex is going to read for us this morning.
Acts 21:1–16 NIV
After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Kos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home. We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. 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 Jewish leaders in 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.” After this, we started on our way up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples.
Ok, two weeks back, with Ian teaching us, we saw Paul, the guy at the centre of the story here, say he is “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem - Acts 20:22-23 - yet in every city the Spirit warns him that trouble awaits him there:
Acts 20:22–23 NIV
“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.
Here we get to see one of those warnings up close and personal where we’ve just had summary statements so far. But before we get into that I need to take a step back and talk about something that’s very precious to us as a church: keeping secondary issues secondary.
There are lots of things Christians, who accept the Bible as their authority, as their rule, have come to different views on - prophecy is one of them. We call things “secondary issues” when people who really want to understand what the bible teaches have reached different conclusions on what exactly it is that the bible teaches. We want to be a church where people with different views on secondary matters choose to practice generosity towards one another and so can come together around the things we agree are primary: around Jesus and the Gospel and God’s mission.
We want this because the bible itself teaches us to behave this way - and if you wanted to see that, Romans chapter 14 is where to look. It tells us how to work together around what it calls “disputable matters” or secondary issues. It tells us we’re not to quarrel about these things, not to treat others with contempt or to judge when there are different views. We are to be fully convinced in our own minds of our own views, yet to act in love towards others with different ones.
That’s what we want to do - that’s who we want to be as a church. Importantly, Romans 14 is a call to both sides to serve the other, to make space for them and their views rather than trampling on them. This means if you’re here this morning and you’re thinking “prophecy yeah!” then you need to act out love to those at the other end of the spectrum. And it means if you’re here thinking “prophecy noooo!” then you, too, need to act out love to those at the other end of the spectrum.
If that sounds easy in theory, in practice it’s tricky - and it’s something we’re still working out as a church. But it’s where who we want to be, where we want to go. So if you’re a follower of Jesus here today, whatever your view on prophecy know that you are welcome. I’m going to be sharing some of my own views this morning but you don’t have to agree with me to be at the heart of HopeCity.
We hope we can all listen together to what the Bible has to say and see what we can learn no matter what our views. And you’re going to need your thinking hats on today because this is not easy or straightforward. [back to text]
Acts 20:22–23 NIV
“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.
Ok. So the Holy Spirit has been warning Paul in every city that trouble’s ahead. We’re not told how that works - like some of the supernatural stuff we met a few chapters back, where the Spirit kept Paul and his team from going this way or that way on their journey. The bible doesn’t tell us everything we want to know - and the truth is the bible just doesn’t tell us that much about prophecy or how it works in the church - part of why Christians have come to different conclusions.
It doesn’t seem like Paul is going looking for this guidance in each city, it reads like he can’t avoid it, like it naturally comes up as a part of his time with the believers in each place. And perhaps that’s through prophecy - in one of the letters he writes to one of these churches, it sounds like prophecy is a normal part of church gatherings there, at least. 1 Cor 14:26
1 Corinthians 14:26 (NIV)
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
… so this section is talking about when they gather as a church - and it goes on to say...
1 Corinthians 14:29–31 NIV
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.
In that church, it sounds like there are lots of prophets and lots of prophecies flying around every week in a communal time together; that a prophesy can come to someone suddenly during a gathering so they might need to interrupt; and that their purpose is instruction and encouragement. Not clear that’s every church even back then, or that it should be today.
But perhaps this is how Paul’s been repeatedly warned “by the Holy Spirit” on his journey towards Jerusalem - and in today’s reading, as Paul and his group travel, they stop in with another church. In verse 4 it looks like the same thing happening again - only it’s a little different this time: Acts 21:4
Acts 21:4 NIV
We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
Not just a warning about what’s ahead, but what appears to be a direction: don’t go. We need to stop and think about this for a moment. How could the Spirit be compelling Paul to go to Jerusalem - Acts 20:22 - and also urging him not to go just a bit later?
Maybe we only get a compressed summary and the full story is a divine warning of what’s ahead: trouble - then a very human urging as a result: don’t go. That would be my human response! Certainly that’s exactly the pattern we see later in this same passage. That’s the explanation some commentators run with and the one I would lean towards.
But there’s another option we should consider: in that teaching we looked at about prophecy, notice with me there it said that prophecy should be “weighed” 1 Cor 14:29
1 Corinthians 14:29 NIV
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.
we don’t get any detail on what that means or how to do that but it seems like New Testament prophecies are not just meant to be swallowed whole right away. You read the same sort of direction in another of Paul’s letters to early churches: 1 Th 5:20-21
1 Thessalonians 5:20–21 NIV
Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good,
Why would you need to “weigh” or “test” prophecy? Perhaps because it’s easy to get get it wrong, to only get a part of the message or only get a hazy sense rather than see clearly - that’s the suggestion in 1 Cor 13:9-12
1 Corinthians 13:9–12 NIV
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
When it speaks about a “reflection in a mirror,” the mirrors of 2000 years ago were not nearly as good as ours today and wouldn’t give you a precise, clear image; that’s the distinction it’s making between seeing face-to-face, seeing directly and clearly vs. seeing a hazy, distorted reflection.
That’s the other explanation people put forwards for what we read here: this “don’t go” is a prophecy that should be weighed and found wanting, a prophecy that doesn’t pass this test we’re talking about.
So, two different ways of understanding that - but then this guy Agabus shows up and he’s got his theatrical belt prophecy for Paul - there are precedents for this kind of acted-out prophecy in the Old Testament, by the way, but this is the only time we get a dramatised prophecy in the New Testament. It doesn’t seem like it’s part of a regular church gathering - here it seems like Agabus has come specially with this message for Paul.
Now Agabus we’ve seen before, though only once and a long while back, so you might not remember it - he’s already foretold a famine which has then come to pass - Acts 11:28 - so he’s got track record, he’s got game. When he tells you something’s coming, you’d better prepare. And - if you’re into prophecy - this is a very significant moment because it’s one of the very few times in the new testament that we get to see the content, the actual words of a new testament prophecy to get a sense for what they might be like.
So let’s look at the detail of what he predicts. It’s future-telling like almost all prophecy we know the content of in the New Testament. It’s concrete and specific rather than mysterious and vague. And notice also that he’s not tentative about it - there’s no: “I feel like maybe God is saying” here.
But on first inspection it doesn’t seem to quite match what actually happens. Acts 21:11
Acts 21:11 NIV
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 Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ ”
The Jewish leaders will bind Paul and hand him over to the Romans, he foretells - but as we’ll see next week, it seems it’s the Romans who do the binding at the bidding of their commander: Acts 21:33
Acts 21:33 NIV
The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done.
And it doesn’t read as if the Jews handed Paul over to the Romans either: they were busy trying to kill him - and seem miffed when the Romans grab him Acts 21:35-36
Acts 21:35–36 NIV
When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Get rid of him!”
So maybe there’s another example here of that need to weigh or to test prophecy - certainly that’s what some commentators and theologians argue. But let me give you the other side to that, too: if this prophecy should have been weighed and rejected, or at least taken very tentatively as only “seeing in part”, there’s no suggestion that’s what happened here.
The crowd around Paul responds to Agabus’ prophetic act by pleading with Paul not to go - even weeping. They seem to take it as accurate - at least accurate enough to mean a change of direction is required. They certainly don’t reject it or shut it down as an error - their response would make no sense if that was their conclusion.
Maybe they just messed up their testing or forgot about it - but it’s not just them: even Paul tells them he is ready to be bound which suggests he, too, sees the prophecy as accurate, not failing the test, but foretelling his future - a future with trouble, but trouble he is ready to face.
So maybe this isn’t an example of a prophecy that “failed the test”. And those tensions between it’s details and the following narrative? Well, the first people to seize Paul in the narrative are the Jews, and although we’re not told that they bound him here, it is possible they did - later on when Paul re-tells the same story, he says he was arrested before being handed over to the Romans which would definitely suggest being restrained - so maybe we’re just getting a summary rather than every detail in what comes next: Acts 28:17
Acts 28:17 NIV
Three days later he called together the local Jewish leaders. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans.
Prophecy - not simple stuff. What do we want to do with this as a church? What should you do with this as an individual?
There are some here who would understand the bible to teach that prophecy has come to and end. For you, perhaps this is mostly academic - but it is good for you to understand and explore what others believe and why. I want to assure you that you are welcome here.
There are others here who would know what it’s like to receive a prophecy or perhaps even to deliver one. For you, I’d really encourage you
to think about what this testing or weighing is and how you can engage with it;
to consider the communal context prophecy seems to have here and most of the time in the New Testament: it’s something heard with others, weighed with others, it seems;
to see the consistency of how God speaks through prophecy - the same warning in every town; and
to recognise it’s tricky to respond to: Paul and his companions sharply disagree over the right response here.
But if you feel like God has given you a prophecy, I would encourage you to share it. If it’s for an individual, share it in the company of a few others you trust. If it’s for the church, share it with the elders. I want to assure you that you are welcome here.
But I suspect there are rather more of us in a third group here: open to this idea of prophecy in principle, but in practice, pretty confident “that ‘ain’t never gonna’ happen to me”. If that’s you, you’re welcome too! But I want to encourage you to try and keep the door open, not let it slip closed - because the bible tells us we are meant to eagerly desire this - yep, really. 1 Cor 14:1 . If you don’t hold the view that prophecy has come to an end, you are meant to eagerly desire it.
1 Corinthians 14:1 NIV
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.
How could you eagerly desire this? Perhaps by finding someone who has more direct experience here, and asking them about it, seeing if you can come alongside them in it. Or talking with one another about what this could look like if it were to happen, about hopes and fears around that, about barriers and risks. Or perhaps simply by believing God might have something to say to an individual or to the church through you - it’d take guts to dare to find out - but with the challenge to eagerly desire this, and the safeguard of testing or weighing, perhaps you are being called to step out in this among friends.
I want to challenge all of us to make room for one another’s views here - practice not being offended when someone does or says something you disagree with; practice being gentle with those who have different views if you’re going to step out. This is tricky but we can do it.
But we’re not done here. I want to come back to our passage again. Although we see prophecy here, and perhaps good examples of the need to test it, that’s really the not main point of this passage; there’s more to learn.
It’s not easy to know what to do with prophecy in general - but particularly with prophecy like this. Even if there is imprecision in these two examples, the general pattern is well established: in every city the Spirit warns Paul that there is trouble ahead. The big question is why.
Why warn someone? Why do we warn anyone about anything? Most of the time it’s for their safety, to stop them doing something we don’t want them to do - something that’s going to end badly. Like Peter’s tumble dryer book starting with all those warnings last week. Or warnings like this one
But that’s not God’s purpose in the warning here. The Spirit is not trying to turn Paul away from Jerusalem, to stop him going - even though that’s the way his companions understand the warning. The Spirit is compelling Paul to go to Jerusalem, not turning him away. So why warn him about what’s ahead?
I think the answer is so he can prepare. So when it comes, he knows, and they know, and we know, it’s the Lord’s will - even though it’s trouble, danger, suffering. Paul’s successful multi-year multi-continent missionary career will look like the train has suddenly come off the track, look like a total wreck, when we turn the page. But God knows what’s next. This is His plan.
It’s so easy to misread life being difficult as life gone wrong, as a mistake. Maybe you don’t have Paul’s prophetic warnings - but we have plenty of warnings from Jesus and the bible. Two weeks ago Ian was teaching us we have to recognise the route - that Jesus has not promised us “your best life now” God’s path is often hard. People will reject us, hate us even. We’ll be called to take up our cross and deny ourselves. Yeah and I don’t fancy that. And I bet neither do you. I would like an easy life, thanks.
I think that’s why God warns Paul here - so he knows he’s still on God’s path, following Jesus, living in God’s will, part of his plan - even in the middle of the mess. And the phrase Paul’s companions close with, “the Lord’s will be done”, is an echo, a connection, a pointer to what I think can help you and me as we face up to the warnings we’ve been given, to knowing we’re not in for an easy ride - even as we find ourselves in the middle of the mess if that’s where you are right now.
Jesus has walked this path before us. Warned of what’s ahead, foretold through the prophets, knowing it himself, nevertheless in the garden of Gethsemane, through the tears, Jesus was able to pray “your will be done.” Jesus chose to come meet us in our suffering, chose the path of obedience that led him to the cross, chose to walk it all the way down into death. There is no harder path - yet that was God’s path, not an accident or a mistake.
Because the path that led through the garden and the cross to the grave also led to a stone rolled away from an empty tomb and our resurrected Lord seated at the right hand of the father above. It led to the explosion of salvation and grace expanding from the epicentre at Pentecost reaching now to the farthest corners of the world. God’s path - hard, but ultimately wonderful.
Jesus knows what it is to walk a hard path. But more than that: Jesus walks God’s path for us, beside us - even when it’s hard. He said “I will never leave you nor forsake you” and he meant it. In just a few days’ time, Paul would know that to be true. Imprisoned and threatened, we read Act 23:11
Acts 23:11 (NIV)
the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage!”
Jesus walks God’s path for us, beside us. Ellyn’s going to sing for us a newer song called “abide with me”, a heart-cry to know that’s true. We’ll stay seated but why not join with her quietly or just in your heart wherever you are in your journey just now?
[abide with me]

NT Teaching On Prophecy

examples: foretelling Acts 11:28 directive Act 13:1-2 foretelling Acts 21:11 foretelling 1 Tim 1:18 giving gifts 1 Tim 4:14
purpose: to encourage and strengthen Act 15:32, 1 Cor 14:3-4 to instruct and encourage 1 Cor 14:31 to equip his people for works of service so the body may be built up Eph 4:12 for the common good 1 Cor 12:7 ; distinguished from teaching Rom 12:6-7 and 1 Cor 14:6
actors: males and females Acts 2:17 cf Lk 2:36 but not all are prophets 1 Cor 12:29
audience: for believers 1 Cor 14:22 but convicts of sin and “brings under judgement” unbelievers 1 Cor 14:24 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare
attitude: to be eagerly desired 1 Cor 14:1, 39 not treated with contempt 1 Th 5:20
practice: is controllable 1 Cor 14:32 and should be orderly 1 Cor 14:33, 40; to be weighed 1 Cor 14:29 / tested 1 Th 5:21
cautions: we prophesy in part 1 Cor 13:9, 12 and prophecy will cease 1 Cor 13:8, 10
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