READ : Acts 24:22-27
Have you ever had important plans or dreams that were frustrated? Let me offer an insight that may help you overcome your own disappointment when unexpected obstacles appear in your life.
The apostle Paul had a plan. In a letter to the Christians living in Rome written during his third great missionary journey, Paul outlined his plans for the coming months. Foremost on his mind was his long-awaited visit to them. For years Paul had been hoping to travel to Rome, the capital of the great Empire. It was a place he had never seen. But he wasn’t interested in the Eternal City as a tourist destination. Paul had a missionary’s desire to visit Rome. It wasn’t the Coliseum, the Forum or the Roman Senate Paul was so eager to see. It was the Christians living there. “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong . . . I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome” (Romans 1:11,15).
Paul’s long-range plans called for him to travel beyond Rome to the very edge of the then-known world. He wanted to take the gospel all the way to Spain at the western end of the Roman Empire. The apostle hoped to enlist the support of the Roman church in this most ambitious of missionary undertakings. Paul was a frontier missionary. In his letter he explains to the Romans his commitment to sharing the good news about Jesus in places where no one else had yet gone with the gospel.
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, . . . . since I have been longing for many years to see you, 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.
Romans 15:20, 23-24
In this passage at the end of Romans Paul makes his plans clear. Apparently he did not intend a long ministry in Rome, but something more like a short, get-acquainted visit. And he plainly hopes (expects?) that they will contribute money to help him achieve his ultimate goal of evangelizing the people of Spain. As someone has commented, the book of Romans is actually the first missionary support letter. It’s not just a great theological treatise. It has a very practical, fund-raising side to it.
“WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO ME?”
But first, before he can go to Rome Paul has some unfinished business. He must return one last time to Jerusalem, as he goes on to explain:
I am now on my way to Jerusalem to deliver the money that the Lord’s followers in [Greece] collected for God’s needy people. . . . After I have safely delivered this money, I will visit you and then go on to Spain. And when I do arrive in Rome, I know it will be with the full blessings of Christ.
Romans 15:25-29, cev
That last sentence is especially poignant, in light of what actually befell Paul in Jerusalem. Yes, he would finally arrive in Rome, with the full blessings of Christ. But it would be many long years before he got there, and when he did Paul arrived not as a free man, but wearing the chains of a Roman prisoner.
In the final eight chapters of the book of Acts Luke describes the long and circuitous path by which God brought Paul to Rome, his ultimate destination. Paul’s fourth and final major journey was filled with frustration and delay, discomfort, and life-threatening danger. It took at least three years to complete, although for most of that time Paul languished in prison in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine. Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem, as Paul was visiting the temple with some other Jewish-Christian believers he was attacked and nearly killed by a mob of people who wrongly thought that he had desecrated the Jewish temple. Only the quick intervention of the local Roman commander saved Paul’s life. He was taken into protective custody until the Roman officials could determine whether he was guilty of any crime. Then, when this military officer became aware of a plot in the city of Jerusalem to murder Paul, he transferred him under heavy guard to Caesarea.
There Paul was first interrogated by Felix, the Roman governor. Paul made a full and clear explanation of his case and the circumstances that had caused his arrest. Even though it was obvious that Paul was not a criminal and was guilty of no wrong-doing, the governor would not release him. Unlike most of the Roman officials portrayed in the book of Acts, Felix was a corrupt politician who perverted justice when it served his own personal gain, or suited his political ends.
Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs.
. . . At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him.
When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.
Acts 24:22-27, niv
I wonder how I would have reacted if I had been in Paul’s place. Falsely accused, wrongfully imprisoned, held without proper trial at the whim of a crooked governor, with no hope of release in sight. And what of all his urgent and important plans to visit Rome and then evangelize Spain? I think I would have been terribly angry, nearly beside myself with rage and frustration. I’m sure I would have struggled with feelings of hatred towards those who had put me in such a place. I might have wondered where God was in all of this, and why he had allowed such things to happen to one of his most faithful and effective servants. I know that as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks to months, and the months to years while I sat in chains, I would have felt very, very discouraged.
How did Paul feel during his imprisonment? We don’t know whether he experienced any of those emotions I’ve just been describing, but we do know one definite reaction he felt during this period of his life. At some point during this whole ordeal, either while he was in prison in Caesarea or later when he was a prisoner in the city of Rome, Paul wrote a short letter to his Christian friends in Philippi. Philippians – that letter – is Paul’s warmest and most joy-filled epistle. In the opening verses he mentions his situation briefly.
My dear friends, I want you to know that what has happened to me has helped to spread the good news. The Roman guards and all the others know that I am here in jail because I serve Christ. Now most of the Lord’s followers have become brave and are fearlessly telling the message. . . . They love Christ and know that I am here to defend the good news about him. . . . All that matters is that people are telling about Christ . . . that is what makes me glad.
What was Paul’s attitude during all those years of imprisonment? It could be summed up in a single word: joy. “Christ is being preached more extensively than ever,” he wrote, “and because of that, I rejoice.” Paul says that, despite appearances, all that has happened to him has actually served to advance the cause of Christ, and that makes him glad. The great secret of Paul’s life, the thing that enabled him to endure all kinds of difficulty, hardship and pain and still be joyful, was that once upon a time he had made a simple trade. When the risen Christ appeared to Paul and made himself known to him, Paul exchanged lives with him. Paul surrendered his life to Christ, and accepted Christ’s life as his own. “I have been crucified with Christ,” he put it in one place, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Because this was a reality for Paul and not just talk, he could endure suffering with genuine joy as long as he knew that Christ was being honored through his life. If God allowed Paul to languish in prison, but as a result of that Christ was made known in places where he would not have been known otherwise, then Paul could rejoice. The truth was that he could accept personal setbacks for the sake of advancing the gospel because, to put it plainly, Paul cared more about Christ than he did about Paul.
PUT HERE FOR THE GOSPEL
His attitude is best explained by a comment he made from his prison cell in that letter to the Philippians: “I have been put here for the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:17). On one level, that’s a plain statement of the facts. Paul had indeed been arrested and imprisoned because of his active preaching of the gospel of Christ. But on a deeper level, this brief sentence is a window into the apostle’s understanding of the meaning of his entire life. “I have been put here [the word Paul uses actually means to be posted or stationed like a soldier] for the purpose of explaining, proclaiming and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Just what was it exactly that had brought Paul to that Roman prison? Was it bad luck? Tough circumstances? Who put him there and kept him there? Was it his enemies, the people who hated him and trumped up charges against him? Was it the Romans? Was it the devil? No. It was God who had put Paul in that prison. This place was his present God-appointed post, the place to which he had been sent by divine plan in order to share the love of Christ and the hope of his salvation. “Put here for the gospel.” That’s an attitude that can revolutionize your view of your own life’s circumstances as well.
Because Paul was being held by the Romans, Christ was being proclaimed in places and to people who never would have heard of him in ordinary circumstances. One such person was Governor Felix. During his time in Caesarea the apostle preached the gospel clearly to this Roman official and his wife, as Luke relates.
Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”
Felix’s reaction is intriguing. He obviously thought highly of Paul. He enjoyed listening to him talk about faith in Christ – up to a point. But when the subject shifted to personal behavior, righteousness and the coming judgment of God upon the sins of the human race, the governor had enough. He was alarmed, afraid. Felix may have been greedy, ambitious and cowardly, but he wasn’t a completely bad man. At least he still had a conscience. When he heard of the justice of the holy God and the coming wrath against all evil, Felix trembled for his sins. At that moment, he stood at a crossroads. Salvation lay just before him. The way of forgiveness and escape from judgment had been explained to him. All he had to do was trust in Christ.
But he didn’t. Instead of accepting Christ he rejected Christ’s messenger. “That’s enough, Paul. Get out! I’ll send for you again at a more convenient time.” But there is no more convenient time for responding to the Lord Jesus. We cannot deal with Christ at our own convenience. We can and must commit ourselves to him when he offers himself to us. Now is the time to accept the gospel, now, even as you are hearing it yourself, when the promise of forgiveness is being offered, when Christ himself is inviting you to come to him. With the gospel, the time to respond is always now, never later. There may not be a later.
With whom do you identify in this encounter? With the Roman governor, outwardly in control, inwardly shaken and unsure? Or with the Roman prisoner, powerless and in chains but assured of his place with God and his purpose in life? Both men – Felix and Paul – had been brought together by God in that moment of opportunity. Both had been put in the same place at the same time for the sake of the gospel, one man to preach it, the other to hear it. But only one of them was saved by the gospel. You see, just hearing about Jesus Christ isn’t enough. You have to believe him and obey him.