|All Things Worked for Good in Paulís Case
May 25, 1997 / Acts 27:1 ó 28:16
I have decided that the heroes of faith are distinguished from the rest of us by one principal trait.
That trait surely isnít knowledge or spiritual insight, for think about Joseph. He was just a boy of seventeen when his brothers turned on him, sold him into slavery, and consigned him to a terrible sequence of events. He lived in a land where his God was not honored. He had to endure lies, injustice, and forgetfulness. He must have asked "Why?" many, many times. And no answer came. Iím as smart as Joseph was at seventeen, but could I withstand all he did without losing heart? Probably not. So knowledge must not be the key.
The distinguishing trait of the great saints of God must not even be character, for think of Moses. Moses was an impatient and arrogant man. When he saw one of his fellow-Hebrews being mistreated by an Egyptian taskmaster, he lost his temper, attacked him, and murdered him. Some people think they can never do a great work for God ó some even think they cannot be saved! ó if they have committed a sin as horrible as murder. Moses spent the next forty years in Midian as a fugitive from Egyptian justice. And he must have asked "Why?" too. Flawless character is not the key to greatness in the kingdom of God.
Speaking of people who undoubtedly looked at their life situations and asked "Why?", think about our friend Paul. Here is his own list of some of the things he went through while attempting to serve the Lord: troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger (2 Cor. 6:4ff). Some of us quit teaching Sunday School because somebody got the better classroom or quit coming to church altogether because nobody paid us enough attention, but Paul stayed at the Lordís service through unimaginable hardships. Thus I would conclude that the distinguishing trait of faithís heroes isnít cushy experiences, attention, and appreciation.
What is it then? How did the "giants of faith" attain their reputation, if they were not fundamentally different from the rest of us? They trusted God to bring things to the goal he desired ó and neither thought they had to be in control of their circumstances nor believed they had to see how things could come round to a desirable outcome. That single trait enabled them to hold on to purity, obedience, and faithfulness in the midst of terrible circumstances that would discourage and defeat most of us.
The Perils and Shipwreck
The text for todayís lesson takes us through one of the most intense and perilous episodes of the life of Paul. On his way to Rome as a prisoner headed for trial, it looked as if he and the 275 other persons on board would die when a fierce Northeaster drove their ship for two weeks on the open sea and eventually broke it apart.
The section that begins at 27:13 is incredible for its graphic detail and accurate portrayal of ancient seafaring methodology. Luke, after all, is not writing this story from second-hand reports. This is one of the "we-sections" of Acts, and its tells of the most dangerous and thrilling event in Lukeís life.
The Northeaster was well-known and feared by sailors ancient and modern on the Mediterranean Sea. Huge waves tossed the ship like a cork. "Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis [off the coast of North Africa], they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the shipís tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved" (27:17b-20).
Prisoner Paul appears to have been the single exception to a general mood of resignation and despair. He practically took charge of the ship. "I urge you to keep up your courage," he shouted above the roar of the winds, "because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ĎDo not be afraid, Paul. you must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.í So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me" (27:22-25).
The presence and power of God were promised to Paul, and his faith in that promise allowed him to tower above all those with him. They would all reach land safely. Paul would travel on to Rome. And he would bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ in Caesarís court.
To Act Heroically
I believe it is the call of God on all of us to act heroically. What did Jesus require of those who follow him? "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it," he said. "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels" (Luke 9:23-26).
How do you hear those words? Are they spoken only to a select few who are holy ó those whom one writer called the "emaciated, irritated, and constipated"? Holiness is not the divine challenge to a few but to all who follow Christ. It is commitment that grows out of trusting God to bring things to his intended goal. It is faithfulness to him when we cannot see how things can come to a good end.
Let me see if I can translate this into language that sounds a bit less churchy, a bit more real-life. Maybe we should think in terms of things most of us consider more familiar to us than holiness or cross-bearing.
Suppose you want to be an Olympic skater. You must take up your cross every day ó skipping lots of TV and certain foods, committing yourself to an unyielding program of practice. Some will call you obsessed. If you want to be a physician, plan on taking up your cross every day ó classes, study, internship, residency. You wonít get where you want to be by approaching school and career choices the way most people do. If you want your marriage to be successful, you must take up your cross daily ó with disciplined actions of attentiveness, kindness, forgiveness, and unselfishness.
Taking up oneís cross is not some unrealistic goal for the "average Christian" that is reserved only for a holy few. It is the demand made of every one of us. It will not require that all of us be missionaries, look "emaciated, irritated, and constipated," or endure depressing hardship for the sake of the gospel. It will require confidence that God will keep all his promises when the going gets tough in relationships, at our jobs, or in stress. You continue to live out your commitment by doing what is right, and you wait for God to bring a joyous outcome.
When you follow Jesus, you act with integrity in your workplace no matter what others do with their responsibilities. You donít cut corners, misrepresent a product, or say whatever needs to be said to make a sale. You put ethics over promotions and truthfulness over profit. You pay the cost of your commitment to Christ. You take up your cross daily.
When you follow Jesus, you keep faith in your relationships. Before you are married to some man or woman, you honor that person and your Lord by maintaining sexual chastity. In a world that says gay is great, sexual experimentation is normal, and adultery is only minimally naughty, you take up your cross of purity each day. You refuse to forfeit your own purity or to compromise someone elseís because of your raging hormones or your cultureís deviancy. Then, after you are married, there is no other person in the world whose attention or affection you seek other than your mateís. You take up the daily cross of fidelity, and you have the courage to run from any situation where you sense seduction or in which you feel forbidden promptings in another personís direction. You have a commitment, and you live it every day.
But perhaps the emphasis here should be less on the weight of any cross you bear for Christ than on the glory you will eventually share with him. The dream of a gold medal keeps the skater working hard on the ice. The goal of a diploma and her own practice keeps the med student on course. The confidence of a crown of life keeps a Christian on the strait and narrow path. "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus," said Paul (Phil. 3:14). "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (1 John 3:2-3).
Todayís sacrifices that seem so much of a hardship will someday be seen in clearer perspective. "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18). How many married couples look back to those first few, struggling years when they had nothing ó nothing except each other and a dream ó and say, "Those were tough times, but we were so happy"?
An old sailor said, "In a fierce storm, we can do but one thing. There is only one way to survive. We put the ship in a certain position and keep her there." Commenting on this, Richard Fuller wrote: "This, Christian, is what you must do. Sometimes, like Paul, you can see neither sun nor stars, and no small tempiest lies on you. Reason cannot help you. Past experiences give you no light. Only a single course is left. You must put your soul in one position and keep it there. You must stay upon the Lord; and, come what may ó winds, waves, cross seas, thunder, lightning, frowning rocks, roaring breakers ó no matter what, you must lash yourself to the helm and hold fast your confidence in Godís faithfulness and his everlasting love in Christ Jesus."
On that ship being carried by such strong winds, Paul knew he really had nothing but the Lord. In his jail cell, before judges, his back exposed to the lash ó he had Jesus. Nothing else mattered. He trusted Godís promises and believed that the God in whom he had placed his trust would work everything that was happening in his life into something good.
That was the faith that empowered Paul, Moses, and Joseph to act heroically. And it will give you the same empowerment as well. No matter what storms are blowing in your life, know that Godís hand is sovereign in all things and that everything that is happening will be worked to your good in his scheme of things. That wasnít a special promise God made to Paul and not to you. It is yours to claim as well.
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