Balancing the Will of God and the Will of Man
Text: Acts 21
Proposition: Balancing the will of God and the will of man is what the Holy Spirit enables us to do through the Word, the church and our faith.
Introduction: Today we’re going to look at the conclusion of Paul’s third missionary journey. It had taken him three years, almost two and a half of which were spent in Ephesus the remaining time being used to travel all the way to Corinth, gathering a collection from all the churches for the drought relief at the Jerusalem. But this trip ends in a different way from the other two. As Paul gets closer and closer to Jerusalem he is warned repeatedly that arrest and trial awaited him there. So we see this tension start to build between what God is directing Paul to do and what people are directing Paul to do. It comes right down to balancing the will of God and the will of man, to listen to the good counsel of people about you but at the same time to be seeking and obeying the will of God. Have a look at what I’m referring to as we pick up the account of Paul’s return at a stop over in Caesarea, the last stop before getting to Jerusalem. It’s in Acts 21: 8-14.
I. Is it Possible to Know What the Will of God Is and If So, How? It’s kind of like the way it was when you were a kid in your parent’s home. They had a will for you that you just knew. Be home for supper, do your home work, brush your teeth, make your bed, don’t mouth off to your mother and so on. Those rules or will of your parents for you were given clearly and repeatedly and you just knew them to be the will of your mom and dad for you. But then there were the other times when the will of your parents was more precise, a unique ‘one time’ kind of expression. It would be like when they gave you five dollars to go to the store for some milk and eggs and then to bring them right back because your mother was about to do some baking. These were specific instructions as to their will for you as opposed to the general will that was more every day. The will of God is like that, sometimes it refers to the general everyday desires of God for you. Think of verses like 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” Or 1 Peter 2:15, “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.” Or even Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” So it is possible to know the will of God in a general sense for your life and the way that I can know that is through His repeated instruction to me through the Word of God. Okay, that’s easy enough, but what about that specific will of God for those unique times of direction in my life, is it possible to know the will of God in that way? Again the word of God calls us to see the answer. Think of verses like Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Or Isaiah 30:21, “And your ears will hear a word behind you, "This is the way, walk in it," whenever you turn to the right or to the left.” This is more difficult to discern, it comes at unique times and sometimes against the advice of the people around you. That was exactly the case with Paul in Acts 21. At almost every port along the way people were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem. They said the Spirit of God was telling them he would be imprisoned and chained.(Acts 20:23). Yet despite this Paul continues towards Jerusalem. He comes first to Caesarea where we see yet another warning, Agabus the prophet graphically binds his own hands and feet foretelling what will happen in Jerusalem. The will of God was repeatedly confirmed to Paul through the people around him. Though they responded to it with warnings to Paul not to proceed, he received it as words of preparation, confirming the direction, strengthening him. The direction to go to Jerusalem for the sake of the gospel, for the uniting of the Gentile and Jewish church and even for the bringing of a relief offering to the Christians there was a strong part of what Paul knew the will of God for him to be but there was also a specific instruction given to him when he first became a Christian. Jesus had told Paul in Damascus at the very start, that it was not going to be easy to carry His name to the places he would be sent, that he would suffer many things.
So how can you know the unique will of God for your life? Sometimes God’s will for your life will come to you through repeated affirmations from the people about you. The Spirit of God that speaks to your heart, He will direct you to the left or the right. Proverbs 3:5, 6 right? He will use the people of God around you, He will use the word of God in front of you but mostly He will use your heart within you. So guard your heart, don’t let it become hard with cynicism or cold with a lack of love or blind with unbelief.
As Paul’s friends plead with him not to continue on to Jerusalem it begins to tear him apart. Look at his response in verse 13, “…What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” What none of them could know was what God was about to do with Paul in Jerusalem. They couldn’t have known that though he would be imprisoned he would also be returned under Roman protection to Caesarea, right where he was now, and would be there for almost two years. When we yield our lives to God, even to the point of saying that He is the only essential in my life, then God’s will finds motive, opportunity and cause in you.
II. How Can We Know When To Resist the Will of Man and When to Yield?
From verse 17 to 40 we see Paul eventually coming to Jerusalem and things seem to go well. He meets with the leadership of the church and fills them in on three years of the ministry to the Gentiles and Jews in Ephesus and beyond. When he was finished the leaders glorified God, amazed at the effect of His grace. Then they say this to Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law…”. What they mean is that many Jews from all over are now here in Jerusalem for Pentecost, believers in Christ and yet they are still very much invested in Jewish tradition especially as it regards the law of Moses. So they are concerned that these many new believers have misunderstood Paul as they think he has completely abandoned his Jewish heritage, that he speaks against circumcision, Temple sacrifices and observance of the Law. So they want Paul to demonstrate to the crowd that he is still an observant Jew by paying the costs of some men who had taken a Nazirite vow. According to Numbers 6:13 when a man or woman completed their Nazirite vow they had to come to the Temple with a male and female lamb, a ram and some unleavened bread all to be offered as a sacrifice for them. Paul would have had to be ceremonially cleansed with Atonement water on the third and seventh days and then come with these 4 men to pay for the sacrifices and be present as they shaved their heads finishing these vows of consecration to God. You see the problem, Paul has preached the gospel of salvation by the blood of Christ and now here, at the request of the elders of the Jerusalem church, he is involved in animal sacrifice as an attempt to calm the Jews zealous for the Law. Has Paul compromised his faith, has he contradicted the gospel? Why has he listened to the will of men on this? To sift through this we need to recognize a few things that may also apply to our lives.
1. This was only something that the Jews were to do, not the Gentiles. To the Jewish Christian who had the completion of this Nazirite vow on their conscience as an act of obedience to God, it was permitted. It was not placed upon Gentiles.
2. Paul moves in obedience to the wisdom of the leadership and is in accord with them because he loves the people of Israel. See 1 Cor. 9:20-22 which begins, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.” These actions Paul regarded as empty tradition yet by them he would reach his Jewish brothers.
3. God used it to proclaim the Gospel. It was because Paul had done these rituals with these four men at the Temple that the Jews became particularly agitated. They thought Paul had brought the Gentile Trophimus into the inner court, an offense punishable by the death. The very thing the Elders had hoped would tie things together God used to create the cause of taking the gospel to Rome by Paul’s imprisonment. He uses all things to work together for good… even this act of Paul yielding to the will of men. It is not easy to balance the will of God, especially the unique will of God for you with the will of men yet it is possible. Listen to the counsel of the godly, know and pray over the counsel of God’s word, listen for and be ready for the Spirit of God who will speak to your conscience and heart for the glory of God. The chapter closes as Paul stands on the steps of the Temple, in chains but also very much in the Spirit as he quiets the people to preach.