|Even Jail Is an Opportunity for God
June 1, 1997 / Acts 28:17-31
What fun I have had revisiting Acts of the Apostles with you! It is an "old friend" to me that I have studied since childhood. I have taught the book in churches and Christian colleges. I have preached sermons on Acts ó including one series at Ashwood several years ago that went from start to finish. I must confess, however, that this most recent study and preaching of the book has been an absolutely fresh read of the material for me.
Perhaps part of the bookís "freshness" can be attributed to the fact that I am now "older and wiser" than before. I know more about the history, background, and content of the book. I know more about the language and larger culture in which the book was produced. And I know more about people and churches ó and how they respond when the gospel is preached. Maybe all that combines to account for this latest reading of Acts being the most rewarding ever for me. To be absolutely honest with you, though, I donít think so.
My honest, deep-down, heart-of-hearts belief is that there is quite another explanation. The Acts is exciting because it tells how the fresh wind of the Spirit of God blew over the Roman Empire in response to the resurrection of Jesus and the faithful preaching of the gospel. The book has become fresh to me by virtue of a new stirring of that same Holy Spirit to create life among Godís people in this time and place. I have read Acts as if for the first time because the invigorating Spirit of God is at work in this church in a powerful way.
I live among, watch, and participate in the life of a community of people that has fallen in love with Jesus. Because of your love for Jesus, I have watched God bind us together in the fellowship of a church that is alive with love for one another.
I am watching God move among you to touch other people with your integrity, compassion, and hunger for Jesus. And I am watching those people open their hearts to the gospel, accept Jesus as the Son of God, and be saved! Lives are being changed because the Spirit of God did not end his ministry with the completion of Acts or Revelation or the finalization of the New Testament canon.
Acts closes as an open-ended document, and I am watching the Lord write chapter 29 among the Family of God at Woodmont Hills. I have never been more excited or optimistic about the observable actions of God in the world I know. And, yes, I am fully aware that that means Satan is determined to trash either me or one of you in so violent and dramatic a fashion that it will hinder or halt what is going on here! So I am praying with greater joy and greater fear at one and the same time these days.
Let me show you where our study of Acts leaves us at the close of chapter 28.
What Acts Has Taught Us About Jails
The book ends with Paul under house arrest at Rome. He arrived there in the spring of A.D. 60 in the custody of a centurion named Julius who had accompanied the great apostle from Caesarea through an fateful sea voyage to the Imperial City. With the arrival at Rome, Christís agenda for the church in Acts had been completed: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1:8). The living word about the Living Word had indeed been preached in Jerusalem, Samaria, Antioch, and Rome.
There is, however, something bittersweet about this arrival and accomplishment. Paul was greeted by loving brothers 43 miles outside Rome at the Forum of Appius and ten miles closer in at the Three Taverns (28:15a). "At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and was encouraged," reports Luke (28:15b). In the city itself, Julius ó long ago convinced that Paul was a godly man unjustly accused ó did not have Paul locked in the public jail or put into solitary confinement. He allowed him to rent a place to stay and put him under house arrest ó with guards rotating around the clock to keep him safely in Romeís custody.
Paul was finally in Rome. He had survived the ordeal of shipwreck. He was living in a rented house. He was able to receive guests and write letters. But he was, after all, still a prisoner! He was not a free man able to leave his house, pursue further missionary travels, or otherwise have control of his own life. And that was his life situation for the next two years.
Within three days of his arrival, Paul summoned the leaders of the Jewish community at Rome. He wanted to know their disposition toward him ó and to preach to them. On that and another set day, he received Jewish delegations and shared his view of Jesus as the promised Messiah to the Hebrew people. A few converts were made, but the effort among the Jews of Rome was largely unsuccessful. With no anti-Semitic malice and as a statement of Godís purpose, Paul told them that the message he was preaching was for Gentiles as well as Jews.
So, during the next two years, Paul received interested Jews and seeking Gentiles. He taught them about Jesus. He also welcomed discouraged or confused believers and did what he could to counsel them to take heart in the Lord. He dealt with a runaway slave from the household of a Christian brother ó and sent him home with a letter inviting his master to set him free (Philemon). He wrote three other epistles that have been preserved for us ó Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.
Lukeís succinct account of all this is as follows: "Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ" (28:31). Under house arrest but preaching the kingdom of God "without hindrance"? Indeed!
If Acts has taught us anything, it has taught us that arrests and jails are no obstacle to the purposes of God. The apostles were arrested and beaten by the Sanhedrin within two years of the establishment of the church. Result? "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" (5:41). Punishment couldnít defeat their bold faith.
A dozen years later in A.D. 44, Peter was arrested, put in jail, and in danger of losing his life. Remember what happened? An angel appeared in his cell, woke him up (yep, he was sleeping!), told him to get dressed, and led him to freedom through gates that opened miraculously along their path (12:5ff).
And do you remember Philippi? Paul and Silas were arrested, flogged, put in jail, and fastened in stocks. At midnight, they were having a praise and worship service when an earthquake opened the doors of the prison and freed them (16:25ff). That was background for preaching the gospel to the jailer and his family ó who became believers that very night.
Jails canít stop the work of God! And sometimes they become the site of some of his best work ó like the jailerís conversion or the work of Eugenio Nij in Guatemala. (Queno, by the way, is still in jail, still preaching, still baptizing, still believing! Praise God for his faith and proclamation! Keep praying for Godís will to be done in that complex situation.)
People in Their Own Prisons
Prisons canít stop God, his angels, the life-transforming power of the gospel, or the power of faith in one of his people. One of the most significant long-term ministries of this church has been maintained through the leadership of Tim and Angie Partlow. The gospel has reached to many individuals and their families at N.C.S.C. through their faithfulness to that ministry. If you are mature enough in your faith and willing to work in a challenging situation, you should feel free to contact them about helping with it.
Yet there are other prisons that hold people captive, and we need to take the gospel to people fettered in them today. This city is populated with thousands and thousands of people who donít know Jesus. They need to know that the God of the Bible loves them enough to create a church environment where they will be welcomed, received, and offered the message of salvation. They donít need our judgments, sneers, or disrespect. They need hope ó hope that they can be set free from prison.
There are people in this city who are addicted to alcohol, cocaine, or some other drug. They are jailed by their own impulses and behaviors. They need to know that Jesus cares about the mess theyíve created and wants to save them. Yes, they need treatment, a good 12-step program, understanding about the disease aspect of their addiction. But they need Jesusí forgiveness ó his liberation from the guilt of their past and his hope for their future. They need Jesus to make their recovery both possible and complete.
There are people in this city who are addicted to immoral sexual behaviors. They donít need our contempt so much as they need our love ó maybe the first "love" theyíve ever experienced. Others are addicted to bitterness and hatred. Some to greed. All these are jails. They are prisons in which people are trapped. Those people would like nothing better than to know there is a power great enough to set them free from their jail-hell. We are Godís vehicle to take that message to them.
On the other hand, there are other people who are imprisoned by their religion and self-righteousness. They donít drink or snort, curse or cavort ó so they think theyíre all right. At least, they think theyíre better than those weak souls who have been so weak-willed as to fall into those traps. The issue here isnít strength or weakness of will. It is sin ó and the most despicable of all sins is smugness. That is the prison of church people like me! But I am no less a sinner ó hopeless and lost without Jesus Christ ó than the person who reeks of cheap whiskey or who is in jail because of her prostitution or his armed robbery.
When Paul was in jail, he preached the kingdom and taught about Jesus "boldly." For him, even jail was an opportunity. It was one more place where he could do what he did wherever he went. He would tell people what God had done to set him free from his religious legalism and blindness to Jesus. He would tell them of the power of the Holy Spirit to create life where there had been death, joy where there had been anger and emptiness. He would tell them of heaven and invite them into the hope he had.
Are you in a less-than-ideal situation? Working in a bad environment? Struggling with addiction to drugs or sex or religion? Waiting for a freedom message? Your need is Godís opportunity, and your openness to his power in that situation can become his means of reaching still others through you.
Let me close this sermon by telling you that Jesus Christ is hope for the hopeless, life for the dead, salvation for the damned. That is our message. Our reason for being. And if your heart resonates to that message today, we encourage you not to resist heavenís call to your heart. Let your faith become action as you go public with your confession of need and open your life to receive Godís power.
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