Change and Wait: Our Sovereign God
As we are nearing the end of our Acts series, this is a great passage to remind of us of so much that we have seen so far. This is the Acts of God through his people. God is the one working out faith and salvation through his Holy Spirit at work in his people. We have seen God do this from his work in Peter at Pentecost, through many of his disciples, to Paul and his amazing ministry to the Gentiles, and even to individuals like Apollos, Priscilla & Aquilla, and the Ephesians. God is working! We continue to see this morning in Acts 24 and 25 just how much this is all about the work of God, not of just human endeavor and desires.
We have mentioned before that when you are reading narrative and the pace of time changes, pay attention. Whether it is in the Gospels or Acts or the Old Testament narratives, when time slows down or speeds up we are meant to notice that change. In Acts chapters 15 through chapters 21 Luke recounts Paul’s second and third missionary journeys. This covers the years of 51AD through about 58AD over the course of about seven chapters. There are many places in these chapters where the scene narrows for a moment and we see Paul or specific scenes of their ministry, but the timeline keeps moving. Our passage this morning is part of chapters 21 through 26, which cover just a couple of weeks of events with one long gap (we will talk about that later).
Much of Acts is showing us the God who has a plan and is in control. We have noted previously how we are not always aware of what he is doing. This morning, Paul’s life confronts us with two areas of our lack of control that probably frustrates most of us. The first is change—change we did not know was coming and maybe did not want. The second is waiting—waiting for God to do what we think he has said he will do. This puts us face-to-face with the sovereignty of God. He is utterly in control of our lives.
Some of us may say we like change. My grandfather was over last night and we were talking about the amazing change that has happened in just his lifetime. He grew up in Saint James, Minnesota on a farm. When he was born in 1930 they had no electricity, an outhouse, the Model A was the big deal, and airplanes were a side-show attraction at fairs where you could pay for a quick ride around the field. Compared to today there have been some amazing, and frankly comforting, changes. But I am certain I could find some area of your life that we could change in a way you would not like. Be it your health, your appearance, your job, your friends…there are many areas of change that even the most flexible person would not enjoy.
I consider myself a very flexible person (not physically, not at 41), yet I have found the flexibility necessary to church plant trying even for me. You don’t know from day-to-day what your personal schedule is going to be, systems you put in place to help you manage 50 people don’t work with 150 people, and ideas you had when you were dreaming about how everything would go meet the reality of everyday church life and burst into glorious flames and must be reborn like a Phoenix from the ashes.
This morning we come to Paul as he is in the midst of great change. He had come back from his third missionary journey and had been recounting God’s blessings and all that God had been doing amongst the Gentiles to the Jewish church (Acts 21:17). The Christians in Jerusalem are so encouraged by this they tell Paul they have four men, under a vow of service to the church, that they want Paul to take and go on another missionary journey (21:23–26). They are giving Paul a team to go do ministry. What a great joy that must have been to Paul! Where he had previously traveled with a small cohort, the Jerusalem church was sending out a team with Paul to multiply his efforts and to help reach the Gentiles with the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Yet even as Paul begins to prepare for this trip (he consecrates these men in observance with God’s law), his plans are radically altered. Jews bring unjust charges against him in the temple grounds. They begin to beat him and luckily a Roman Tribune and soldiers rescue him by arresting him to hear his case (21:33). This begins a long journey for Paul away from his original plans.
This is how change abruptly effects each of us. I personally don’t care too much which way the branches on my tree grow and where it sprouts new ones because I don’t have much of a plan for it. I’m sure an ardent arborist may care, but I haven’t. Yet I have fertilized, weeded, and worked with my family on my front yard all summer, and it still looks horrible. And every clover or crabgrass sprout that comes up is extremely frustrating. Take that surface example and multiply it many times over for every hope you had for your life direction, your job ambitions, your hopes and dreams in marriage and family, knowing they all change in ways you never imagined they would have years before. What do we do when this happens to us?
It is knowing God that begins to answer how we deal with change. As we read scripture, we see an amazing picture of this sovereign—all powerful and all knowing—God. One of the first joys we need see is that God knows you even better than you know yourself:
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. (Psalms 139:4–6 ESV)
I don’t even know what I will end up doing this afternoon, yet God knows every word before it comes to my tongue. The God who came to the Garden of Eden and called for Adam and Eve wasn’t playing hide-and-seek. He knew where they were and what they had done. As the Psalmist says, this is knowledge that is too wonderful, a thing we can’t even comprehend. But it is a great reassurance to us. Because the God who knows us this good only has good intentions for us.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Psalms 23:1–3 ESV)
God is caring for you and me for our good and our righteousness. It is always a good plan. And it is definitely a plan.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:11–13 ESV)
For God, it is all about drawing us to himself and saving us. He wants us to seek and know him. Because, amazingly, since God is the most glorious, loving, and caring—in fact he defines all those categories—he is the only one who is not incredibly narcissistic by calling us to himself. It is the most loving thing he could ever do for us.
We don’t always know this plan, but God promises it is there. Paul was lucky to know what God was beginning to do in this change. In Acts 23:11 Jesus himself tells Paul, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
That brings us to our second topic of the ways God’s sovereignty often confronts us: waiting. For Paul, this begins back in Acts 22. He gives an appeal to the Jews while he is at the barracks of the tribune and the soldiers. The tribune finds out through that discussion that Paul is a Roman citizen, which immediately keeps him from danger with the Jews, but it begins a long, twisted process. Paul is under arrest, the high priest and the Jews come to lay out their case against Paul. When Paul finds out they plan to kill him, he has his nephew notify the Tribunal, who sends 200 soldiers, 70 horsemen, and 200 spearmen to save Paul and bring him to Felix, the governor of the region.
And where Paul’s Roman citizenry saves him from the Jews, it creates a problem for him with Felix. Felix sees an opportunity for bribery. Where most of the events of chapters 21 through 26 take place over the course of days and weeks, there are two verses in our section this morning that reveal the extent of Paul’s waiting. Look at Acts 24:26–27:
At the same time he [Felix] hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him. When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison. (Acts 24:26–27 ESV)
Two years of Paul’s life is summed up in one phrase—“so he sent for him often and conversed with him.” Maybe you feel like that is exactly how some of the great waiting in your life has worked:
“She applied again for a job within her field of study and desire.”
“He worked another day in the same cubicle.”
“They tried again for a baby.”
“Another date, and I still haven’t found the right one.”
For me and Katie, one of the places we saw this most clearly was our desire to move into full-time ministry. It was in college that God took a desire to serve in the church in peripheral ways and changed and confirmed it as a desire to serve full time. We thought it would be easy. Get married, honeymoon, we had part time jobs lined up, Katie would finish out her BSU study, and then we would take off for seminary and right into full-time ministry. Then there was an answering machine with 17 voicemails the day we arrived back from our honeymoon (or 7, I can’t remember…I’m old...the story sounds cooler with 17). A job teaching, a tricky God who had me work at my family’s business, starting our own business. 13 years of change and waiting.
It is interesting how often change and wait go together in life. Just look at Scripture:
Abraham and Sara are encouraged to leave Ur and head to a new land that God promises to give to him and his descendants (Genesis 12). Great change with great hope! And yet, they wait—years—for that descendent to come. Change and wait.
Jacob works for Laban for seven years, only to find out that he tricks him and gives him Leah for his wife and serves another seven years to have Rachel as his wife. Change and wait. (Genesis 29)
Joseph thinks life is going well. Yet his brothers throw him in a well and sell him into slavery. He works in Pharaohs household only to be thrown in prison again. Change and wait, change and wait. (Genesis 37–50)
From the beginning of time there was one big change: man and women sinned and were no longer with God as they were meant to be, but he promised he would bring them back into right relationship through the seed of the woman. Change and wait.
In the midst of change and waiting there are still two main choices you and I always have. The first is how are we going to think about this change and waiting. On the one hand, this is easy because I can simply point you to Scripture and tell you the glorious truths it says.
Wait, Be Courageous, and Trust in the Never-Changing God
First, just wait on God!
Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27:14 ESV)
“It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” (Lamentations 3:26)
“For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.” (Psalm 62:5 ESV)
In our waiting, we are to be strong and courageous in the path God has put before you:
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9 ESV)
And why would it be encouraging to know that God is with us wherever we go? Why should that help us to have courage? Because he never changes despite what we are seeing all around us in our life.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17 ESV)
This is why we can turn to God. We can wait, be courageous, and cast our cares on him because he, himself, is never changing. That means we can actually trust him!
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Proverbs 3:5–8 ESV)
But, as I said, that is easy to say, not often easy to do. I can tell you just wait on God, be courageous, and to know and trust God. But what do we actually do if we don’t feel this way? What if it feels difficult to wait, to know, and to trust God?
Many of know we should pray and ask God for help when it seems difficult:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and thanksgiving make your requests be known to God. (Phil 4:6)
But do you do when even that seems hard? I think it is interesting to look at Paul and see what he does consistently throughout this season, and then notice how it is the same thing he does throughout his entire ministry. Right here in our passage it says of Paul:
And…he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment (Acts 24:25)
All throughout this section of Acts, while Paul’s plans are being changed, he speaks about one thing again and again: God’s amazing grace that he has seen in his life and the grace he has seen from the beginning of time through Scripture.
To the Jerusalem elders he “related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God.” (Acts 19b—20a).
To the Jews who condemned him he told about his miraculous conversion and God’s gracious call for him to go to the Gentiles. (Acts 22:3–21)
In front of the Tribune, he speaks about the joy of the hope of his resurrection and the resurrection of Jesus. (Acts 23:6)
Before the governor, Felix, Paul shares about everything God has done through the law and the joy of the Jews to look toward a righteous resurrection. (Acts 24:10–21)
Again and again Paul recounts the things he knows about God. Both what has happened in his life and what he has known through his study of Scripture. In recounting the glory of God and what he has done, both in Paul’s life and in the great story of history, Paul is teaching and encouraging himself and others to know and trust God better. God has been so good! He has done so much! Listen to how the Psalmist, likely David here, talks about how he encourages himself and others in Psalm 71:
But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more. My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge. With the mighty deeds of the Lord GOD I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.
Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again.
I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed. And my tongue will talk of your righteous help all the day long, for they have been put to shame and disappointed who sought to do me hurt.(Psalms 71:14–24 ESV)
Paul eventually made it to Rome in 61AD and again waits. It is likely during this wait that he writes and encourages the Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon and those letters are a part of our Bible today.
Friends, I can’t guarantee much about your life. But I think I can safely guarantee you will see change, and you will have to wait. Change and wait brings us face-to-face with a sovereign God who is in control of our lives in ways we don’t always understand. We should take courage that God cares so much about us that he has a plan for each one of us. He knows us so well that he knows what we will do even before we do it and what would be the best path to encourage us to know him and to walk in righteousness.
But when we struggle to believe that, to see that, to accept it, our best choice is to remind ourselves and others—in the midst change and in the waiting—of what God has done. We do that through Scripture. Do you memorize Scripture so you can remind yourself of it when times are difficult? We remind ourselves by recounting what God has done in our lives and what he has done in the lives of others. Do you take time to simply talk to Christian friends when things are difficult and have them remind you of God’s grace in both their life and your life? In these ways we remind ourselves and others of the great grace of God in being sovereign over our lives.