Constrained (Acts 20)
[Paul said:] "And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and affliction await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the Gospel of the grace of God." (Acts 20:22-24).
Jesus told Ananias, "Go, for [Saul] is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My name" (Acts 9:15-16). More than twenty years later, after three global missionary journeys, Paul is on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover (v16). He speaks to the elders from Ephesus, "And now ... I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there" (v22). Paul had been through so much in his ministry to this point. But there was still more to be done. More to be suffered. More to be done to proclaim Jesus' name.
All Christians are constrained by the Holy Spirit. He constrains you to fulfill your vocation. He constrains you to do your duty. Each Christian has his or her own particular duty. St. Paul's particular constraint was suffering for the Gospel. He was constrained by the Holy Spirit from before His conversion experience on the Damascus Road. Paul was a chosen instrument to suffer for the Gospel as he delivered it to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15-16). Paul was going to Jerusalem to be imprisoned and afflicted in ways he doesn't know yet (vv22-23). His constraint was to suffer.
Although each Christian's constraint is different, every Christian is constrained to suffer tribulation. This constraint was put upon you at your Baptism. When the water touched your skin, you were constrained to suffer tribulation when you renounced the devil, his works and all his ways. You repeated these same vows at your Confirmation. You also vowed, having been instructed in the Christian faith, "to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it" by God's grace. Through these vows, you accepted this constraint as a gift from the Holy Spirit. You accepted that you were a part of the Bride of Christ. That you are married to your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That you want to be as faithful in that marriage as you are in your marriage to your husband or wife (past, present or future). These vows are not made half-heartedly. These are vows to face the tribulation head-on. To die as a martyr instead of forsaking the faith. These vows constrain you.
You made these vows because the devil, whom you've renounced, is sending fierce wolves into the Lord's flock who will not spare it from being scattered and destroyed (v29). These wolves want to see the kingdom of God removed from the face of the earth. They want to see the Church wiped out. The great wolves of the devil, the world and our sinful flesh seek to dine upon the corpse of the Christian church. You go into the metropolitan areas of our country and you see this much more clearly than in our own rural setting. "The Church is dead," they will say. It's a dead institution that served its purpose when we were less sophisticated and more superstitious. Now that we've become more sophisticated and science has disproven the Bible's claims about just about everything it's no longer needed. It's been dying for years and those who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday are just trying to keep the Church's life going on life support. Unfortunately, that's the way many congregations view themselves. They're on life support until the world gets everything together and looks to God again. The wolves continue to scatter the flock so that none of the flock is spared.
But they aren't the worst threat. The Church's worst threat doesn't come from outside the Church. It comes from INSIDE the Church. Paul wrote letter after letter to congregations throughout Asia because people had come up from inside the Church in order to change what the Church believes, teaches and confesses. Luther commented on it this way (WLS #4547):
- This is the persecution within Christendom which was foretold to us throughout Scripture and which has been going on since the beginning of the world. ... There were so many who originally supported us and joined the cause of the Gospel against the pope that it might have seemed for a while that we were going to have the whole world on our side. Just when everything seemed to be in full swing, our own people went ahead to cause us more anguish than all the princes, kings, and emperors could have done. What shall we do about it? They do great harm to us. ... We have to put up with seeing the case of our enemy strengthened by this offense, and our own case weakened and slandered. Thus we are opposed both by our enemies and by our brethren. This is actually the greatest outward tribulation in Christendom that our teaching has to endure.
In the first century, it was ethnic Jews who wanted the Gentiles to become Jews BEFORE they could become Christians. In the sixteenth century, at the heart of the Reformation in Germany, it was the Roman Catholic Church who had taken control of the society. In many regions, the local bishops had financially bailed out the local magistrates and become the de facto government. The local bishop had both secular and spiritual authority over the people. The Church ran the State. In the late eighteenth century, the great divide between Church and State was established in America. America was the first nation in over a millenium established without an official state religion. The internal struggle in Christendom in the twenty-first century is the reversal of that problem our colonial forefathers created. With the separation of Church and State, the Church began to lose its influence on society. What had once been a great idea became a great nightmare for the Church. Many want that influence back. And they'll do anything to get it, including ignoring Christ's own words: "They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world" (John 17:16). They want to make Church relevant to the society. They make it just like the world that no one can tell the difference. That's why we have church bodies like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America turning the Bible around and saying that homosexuality is good and God-pleasing and should be embraced by all. And they aren't alone. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and United Methodist Church both narrowly defeated similar resolutions at their national conventions last summer. Next time they meet, they will most certainly accept this abomination. They're going so far as to allow the State to determine the Church's doctrine and practice.
So much for their vows accepting the Holy Spirit's constraint on their lives. The last thing they want is to allow tribulation into their lives. They want to be able to get along with their lives without their faith getting in the way. Isn't that what we say about all the people we elect into government? It doesn't matter what they believe as long as their beliefs don't get in the way of doing their jobs? They ignore the lives of faith that inspired Luther's verse: "And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, though these all be gone, our vict'ry has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth" (LSB #656.4). Though every material thing be taken away from us, we still have Jesus. Why? Because the Holy Spirit has constrained us through our Baptism.
This constraint removes all selfish value from our lives: "I do not account my life of any value or as precious to myself" (v24). Being constrained by the Spirit, we understand Isaiah's words that even our best works are filthy rags (64:6). We see that we live our whole lives in the valley of the shadow of death, but God is right there with us because of our Baptism. His rod and His staff comfort His sheep in the darkest moments of our life. Because of this comfort, we have the assurance of His goodness and mercy all the days of our lives (Psalm 23:4-6).
Through the Gospel of God's grace, Paul's testimony that he was constrained to give (v24), you receive your value. The Gospel comes to you in the Holy Spirit's Baptismal constraint. It says to you that Jesus Himself has given you His value. He has clothed you with Himself (Galatians 3:27). You have value because you are in Christ Jesus. He has made you a son and heir of God's grace. "How beautiful ... are the feet of him who brings good news ... who publishes salvation" (Isaiah 52:7). How beautiful are the feet who said, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16). The feet who proclaimed your salvation and constrained you so that you will praise the LORD as long as you live and sing praises while you have your being (Psalm 146:2). Your being--your value--comes because of the Gospel of God's grace. Your value comes from the Lord's invitation whereby you will "sit at the feast of salvation with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the blest" in Heaven (LSB #510.1). Those who understand the Psalmist's great joy: "The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous" (Psalm 146:7-8). God gives you value. He gives you His value.
Your value has been purchased by Jesus' blood (v28). The blood of the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for you, His sheep (John 10:11). As His sheep, you hear His voice and folllow after Him. You listen and receive eternal life through His Word. You find your security in His hands--the hands that were pierced with nails for your transgression (John 10:27-28). The hands that constrain you to live as He lived. To live as Paul directs us to imitate throughout his epistles. As he writes his last epistle, he says, "I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Jesus constrains you to show your value. Your value isn't what you can do for yourself. Your value is how you can share the Gospel of God's grace with others. You can pray, "'Lord, here am I:' Your fire impart to this poor cold self-centered soul; touch but my lips, my hands, my heart, and make a world for Christ my goal" (LSB #831.4). We are to share and spread God's grace "'to all the world,' to ev'ry place, neighbors and friends and far-off lands" (LSB #831.2). Notice the order. All the world means neighbors and friends THEN far-off lands. We're to model the Christian life before everyone we come into contact with. We don't send money so that someone else might model the Christian life before people in Zambia or Zimbabwe instead of us. We're constrained to model the Christian faith. We're constrained by the promise that we will overcome through Christ. St. John saw in Revelation those who had come out of the great tribulation. They had overcome and had washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb . They had overcome through the Holy Spirit's constraint to tribulation and been given the crown of righteousness for their faithfulness (Revelation 7:14-17; 2 Timothy 4:8).
"The LORD has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God" (Isaiah 52:10). Jesus says it this way, "The works that I do in My Father's name bear witness about Me" (John 10:25). Because you bear Christ's name, the works you do bear witness about Him. Your witness may be the only testimony about Christ that your neighbor receives. Therefore St. Paul declares to the Ephesian elders, "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock" (v28). While this was primarily spoken to the pastors of the congregations in Ephesus, it applies to all Christians. We're to look after ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our trust in Christ's love and grace shows through all that we do. We are constrained to show our faith in our lives.
No matter where the Holy Spirit constrains us to go, we know what lies ahead of us. We will face tribulation. But we know that God's grace constrains us to continue on that path until we have finished the race and receive the crown of righteousness awaiting all the saved. Continue in God's grace. Endure tribulation and receive Christ's reward. Amen.