Even to Die for the Name of Jesus
Topic: Persecution Passage: Acts 21:1–21:14
Prayer for the Persecuted
It’s the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Following the Lord’s Supper, we’ll pray together in clusters. But first let’s give ourselves to God’s word. His word equips us to pray for them and equips us to take similar risks with them. It’s the last leg of Paul’s third missionary journey, which you can see on the screen. According to Romans 15:25-33, he’s bringing aid to the saints in Jerusalem. At the same time, it’s going to be tough. He will suffer, and that becomes even more apparent in today’s passage. Verse 1…
1 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed 6 and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home. 7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. 8 On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “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.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”
"To suffer was expected..."
Recently, the family and I visited Richmond, Virginia. Rachel’s parents took us to visit the IMB headquarters and also ILC where our missionaries receive training. There’s a special wall in one building with names of those who died during their missionary service. One name was Karen Watson. The Lord saved Karen after severe grief as a teen. One book says, “Her fiancé, her father, and her grandmother all died within a two-year period, and her pain had driven her into the arms of Jesus.”[i] She was a detention officer and also took several short-term mission trips with her church.
These trips helped Karen discern that she wanted to be a missionary. Her heart for the nations and her training in security uniquely equipped her to help the IMB with relief efforts among refugees. She went first to Jordan, then was reassigned to Iraq. Get this: she left for Iraq in March 2003, the same month a US-led coalition invaded Iraq. You likely remember the awful reports and casualties. Yet Karen took the risk in this war-torn country and carried Jesus’ name to refugees.
Months later on March 15, 2004, Karen traveled to Mosul with a team to install a water purification system. But she never made it. Iraqi militants attacked the caravan and murdered her and several others. Karen knew the risk involved and still went to spread Jesus’ name among refugees. She knew the risk, because posted on the wall I mentioned earlier is a letter she left for her pastors to read in the event of her death.* I want to read you some of it…
Dear Pastor Phil & Pastor Roger,
You should only be opening this letter in the event of death.
When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the Nations. I wasn’t called to a place. I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward, His glory my reward.
…I thank you all so much for your prayers and support. Surely your reward in Heaven will be great. Thank you for investing in my life and spiritual well being. Keep sending missionaries out; keep raising up fine young pastors.
…The Missionary Heart:
Care more than some think is wise.
Risk more than some think is safe.
Dream more than some think is practical.
Expect more than some think is possible.
I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience.
…There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving Him. I love you two and my church family.
In His Care,
I read that letter for two reasons. One, it fits our emphasis today on praying for the persecuted. Two, it shows that the grace to obey Jesus in the face of suffering wasn’t limited to men like the apostle Paul. The grace needed to risk everything for Jesus’ name is sufficient for all of us. In our passage, Paul is ready to die in Jerusalem for Jesus’ name. He knows the risks beforehand. The Holy Spirit even confirms what will happen through prophecy. Still, he chooses to obey the Lord’s will. Later, I’ll focus on several truths that prepared Paul for this risky work; truths that also can prepare us to take similar risks. But before we get there, let’s walk through our passage.
The Church’s Affection for Paul
Notice first the church’s affection for Paul. In 20:37, they weep, embrace, and kiss Paul before he leaves. They won’t see him again. Then verse 1 says, “when we had parted from them,” which is an okay translation. But the NIV brings out the meaning more clearly: “when we had torn ourselves away from them.” It’s not an easy departure. It’s like tearing a wood joint apart that’s been glued; pieces from both sides come with it. They love Paul and care about him immensely. Also in verses 4 and 12, the affection appears again. They don’t want Paul going to Jerusalem. He’s going to suffer. So they weep over him and try persuading him otherwise.
The New Testament encourages us to love one another with brotherly affection. It’s good to cultivate affection for one another that runs deep. At the same time, we see here that affection alone isn’t the determining factor in whether someone stays put or avoids persecution. Other factors must be considered prayerfully about the mission. Our shared affection to see Jesus glorified among the nations will mean, at times, saying goodbye to those we’ve grown to love so dearly. But if it hurts to say goodbye, then we’re doing something right. We’re cultivating the right affections for one another.
The Unity Produced by the Gospel
Next, notice the remarkable unity produced by the gospel. Narrators often repeat things to give us little nods to go back and read what happened earlier. And when we do, we find so much more than if we hadn’t. Luke gives us a little nod in verse 8. He re-introduces Philip. He says, “[we] came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him.”
That agrees with 8:49, where Philip preaches the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. He’s still there apparently. But why point out that he’s one of the seven? We know that already. It helps us recall chapters 6-8 as a unit. Before he met Jesus, Paul oversaw the martyrdom of Stephen—who was with Philip among the seven (Acts 8:1). Then Paul ravaged the church, scattering Philip into Samaria (Acts 8:3-5).
In other words, at one time Paul helped murder one of Philip’s closest friends in ministry, and then he ran Philip out of town with violent opposition. Now he’s spending the night with Philip! How in the world does that happen? That’s like somebody from ISIS murdering your best friend, running you out of town, and then showing up years later for a sleepover—and now you’ve got four daughters.
Now after Paul was saved, he had visited Caesarea twice before (Acts 9:30; 18:22). It’s likely he gained Philip’s trust. But even then, the gospel makes those once enemies now one in Christ and one in heart to serve Christ. In his book Love in Hard Places, D. A. Carson says that
...ideally the church isn’t composed of natural ‘friends’ but rather ‘natural enemies.’ What binds us together isn’t common education…race…income levels…politics…nationality…accents…jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they’ve been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in light of the fact that they’ve all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says—and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’s sake.
Such a truth we find playing out here with Philip opening his house to Paul for many days, so that Paul and his team might be helped on their way. Let’s pray for the gospel to keep producing such unity among us. Let’s recognize that, apart from Christ, we too are a band of natural enemies. If we forget Christ in our relationships, we remain enemies. But the more we learn Christ, the more we recognize what we share in Christ—like at this Table today—the more we’ll choose to love one another for Jesus’ sake.
The Prophecy Spoken by the Spirit
Notice also the prophecy spoken by the Spirit. Implicitly, prophecy appears in verse 4: “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.” Explicitly, it appears in verse 9, “[Philip] had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.” Then again in verses 10-11 with Agabus: “A prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”’”
Now, there’s a few things we should say. To begin, prophecy shouldn’t surprise us. Acts 2:17 sets the trajectory for the book—and really for the entire age between Jesus’ first and second comings. “In these last days it shall be,” God declares, “that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters [think Philip’s daughters] shall prophesy…” That’s the promise. Then God actually pours out his Spirit as a result of Jesus’ resurrection and his people prophesy.
That doesn’t mean every Christian prophesies exactly like Philip’s daughters do and Agabus does—though Paul assumes some will in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. But in Acts we also see instruction,[ii] guidance,[iii] insight,[iv] wisdom to defend the gospel,[v] encouragement,[vi] spontaneous praise,[vii] preaching,[viii] teaching,[ix] evangelism.[x] The Spirit of prophecy produces other kinds of verbal ministries in the church, each having their own place and order for the good of the church and the mission.[xi]
Here the Spirit gives specific insight concerning Paul’s future. It’s a direct prophecy. It’s from a trustworthy prophet. As we observed in 11:28, his prophecy about the famine came true. The church has grounds to discern a true prophet from a false prophet. Moreover, when Paul recounts his trials in 28:17, he uses the same words Agabus uses here to describe what happened.[xii] That’s not as clear from chapter 21, and it leads some to say Agabus got it wrong. But a closer reading shows he gets it right. So we’re dealing with a trustworthy prophet.
Still, we encounter some difficulty, don’t we? Like whether the Spirit contradicts himself. In 20:22 Paul says, “I’m going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit” (cf. Acts 19:21) But verse 4 says, “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” Is the Spirit telling the church opposing things?
We can’t draw that conclusion without calling God a liar. Besides that, 20:23 and the account with Agabus clarify how to take verse 4. Look at 20:23, “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” That’s precisely what the Spirit does through Agabus in verse 11: “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
In other words, the Spirit’s testimony of Paul’s suffering remains consistent. What isn’t consistent is the inference the church draws from the prophecy. In verse 12, they urge Paul not to go, which is the same inference drawn in verse 4. So when it says in verse 4, they were telling Paul not to go through the Spirit, the Spirit himself wasn’t discouraging Paul from going. Rather, the church was discouraging Paul from going based on what the Spirit revealed about Paul suffering.
Let’s summarize a bit: the Holy Spirit always speaks the truth and never contradicts himself.[xiii] The church must discern true prophecy from false prophecy, and in this case we’re dealing with true prophecy from a trustworthy prophet.[xiv] Yet even where true prophecy exists, wrong inferences can be drawn as the church does here.
For Paul, suffering doesn’t mean he shouldn’t go. On one occasion that was the case shortly after Paul was converted, and Paul explains that in 22:18. But here the Spirit of Jesus constrains Paul to go with the awareness of suffering (Acts 20:22-23). Only then—after Paul’s persistence and them wrestling with the appropriate inference—only then do they agree on the right inference.[xv] Only then to they agree, this must be the Lord’s will. “Let the will of the Lord be done,” they say. You can hear the prayer of Jesus now being echoed in the church: “Father, if you’re willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
By making this decision in the Spirit in the face of suffering, Paul follows in Jesus’ footsteps laid out in the Gospels. Jesus was directed by the Holy Spirit.[xvi] Jesus set his face to Jerusalem.[xvii] Jesus was challenged by the disciples when he spoke of his sufferings.[xviii] Jesus, knowing those sufferings, still chose them to bless the people. Paul does likewise. He’s constrained by the Spirit. He sets his face to Jerusalem. When others learn about the risks involved, they discourage him from going. But Paul, like Jesus, stays the course through suffering to bless others.
That’s not to say that Paul’s sufferings are redemptive like Jesus’. But it is to say we can see Jesus in the way Paul chooses suffering when the path of obedience calls for it, which leads me to say one other thing about this passage.
Paul’s Readiness to Die for Jesus’ Name
Notice Paul’s readiness to die for Jesus’ name. Verse 13, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I’m ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” That’s how Karen Watson thought. She knew the risk beforehand and still chose it for Jesus’ sake. Remember her words? “To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected…” How does someone say this?
How does Paul say he’s ready even to die for Jesus’ name? Acts 21 doesn’t tell us. But Paul’s words elsewhere give numerous answers. Several great truths prepared Paul to die for Jesus’ name. They’re truths that can prepare us when called to suffer. These are truths we can also pray for the persecuted. Just briefly, here are seven…
Paul knows that Jesus and faithfulness to him is more precious than life in this world. Acts 20:24, “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.” Nothing compares to the worth of knowing Jesus. Paul can give his life, because Jesus is more precious to gain.
Also, Paul lives with the assurance that death won’t distance him from Christ. Rather, at death he gains even deeper fellowship with Christ. Philippians 1:21-23, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…I’m hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” “Far better,” he says. The Christian’s bond with Jesus is so strong, not even death can break it.[xix] Even more, death is gain. It’s also not the end end. But it’s still gain. We gain further intimacy with Jesus. So, he goes on to make the point that we honor Jesus in our bodies, when we use them in life to serve him and lay them down in death to gain more of him.
Another truth that enables Paul to die for Jesus’ name: death can’t separate us from God’s love. Romans 8:35-39, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God’s love for you is more powerful than anything else that would attempt to separate you from him. The separation can’t happen if God loves you.
A fourth one is the hope of resurrection. Philippians 3:10, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead…[verse 20] our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” If it’s called for, Paul is ready to die for Jesus’ name, because he’s confident that Jesus will give him a body like his glorious body.
Paul also knows God’s grace is sufficient in our weaknesses. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I’m content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” By weaknesses, Paul doesn’t mean sin or imperfections.
He means the circumstances that often expose us as weak people. Earlier in the chapter it was his thorn in the flesh. Here its insult, hardship, persecution, calamity—things happening to us outside our control in the path of obedience. He gladly boasts in these weaknesses, because they will showcase God’s grace and power. When we cling to Jesus through weakness, the world won’t say, “You’re so strong.” They can only say, “God’s grace is great. Look at her sing Jesus’ name through pain.”
Another truth: our afflictions fill up what’s lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what’s lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? If his death is truly a saving death—there’s nothing lacking in what it achieved for sinners—then what else does Paul mean? What’s lacking is the visible presentation of Christ’s afflictions to others. God intends for the visible presentation of Christ’s afflictions to be filled up through the afflictions of his own people. Paul can say Yes to Jerusalem, because he knows that if suffering and death comes, Jesus will be seen in him.
Last one: Paul knows that by giving himself over to death for Jesus’ sake, he will bring life to others. 2 Corinthians 4:10-12, “[We are] persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” It’s the gospel paradox. Jesus died in our place to bring us life with God. The same happens with Christ’s people.
It’s great truths like these that give Paul the willingness to die for Jesus’ name. At the same time, accepting a bare truth isn’t the same as living it. To live this truth, we need God’s help, and our persecuted brothers and sisters need God’s help. So let’s eat the Supper dwelling on these truths. And then let’s pray them for the persecuted.
[i]Rebecca St. James, Sister Freaks: Stories of Women Who Gave Up Everything for God (Nashville: Alive Communications, 2005), 1. See also chapter 7 in Jerry Rankin, Lives Given, Not Taken: 21st Century Southern Baptist Martyrs (Richmond: IMB, 2005).
[ii]Acts 11:28; 13:2.
[iii]Acts 8:29; 10:19; 20:22.
[iv]Acts 5:3; 13:9.
[v]Acts 6:10; 18:25.
[vii]Acts 2:4, 10; 10:46.
[viii]Acts 4:8, 31; 5:32; 9:17.
[ix]Acts 9:31; 13:52.
[xi]Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 43-44.
[xii]Agabus: “The Jews of Jerusalem will bind [desousin] and will hand him over [paradwsousin] to the Gentiles” (Acts 21:11). Paul: “…yet from Jerusalem I was handed over [paradothen] as a prisoner [desmios] into the hands of the Romans” (Act 28:17).
[xiii]Cf. John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6; 5:6 with Acts 19:21; 20:23; 21:4, 11; 23:11.
[xiv]1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-21; cf. Deut 18:21-22.
[xv]Through another word of prophecy in Acts 23:11, Jesus indicates that he wanted Paul to testify about him in Jerusalem before doing the same in Rome.
[xvi]Luke 4:1, 14, 18.
[xvii]Luke 9:51, 53.
[xviii]Cf. Luke 9:45; 18:34 with Mark 8:33; Luke 22:33-34.
[xix]P. T. O’Brien, Philippians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 130.